In 1967, Piper Aircraft began marketing a six- to eight-seat cabin-class twin known as the PA-31 Navajo. Several variants were produced, including a T1000 series aimed at the commuter airline marketplace.
Production of the Navajo ended in 1984 with 3,942 built. Piper had—and still has—the Seneca and Seminole light twins in the lineup, but its cabin-class aircraft offerings thereafter have been limited to single engine models.
The Chieftain version of the Navajo proved popular with regional airlines, tour and sightseeing operations, plus some corporations—but most independent businessmen and small companies purchased a smaller version of the Navajo, or a variant called the Navajo C/R which had safety enhancing counter-rotating props that eliminated the critical engine problem present with most cabin-class twins.
Colemill Panther conversion
After Piper's departure from the piston engine cabin-class twin market, a Nashville, Tenn. company by the name of Colemill Enterprises began marketing an upgraded version of the Navajo.
The Colemill conversion came with 350 hp engines, four-blade Q-Tip propellers, winglets, and redesigned nosebowl cowlings. The Panther conversion established Colemill Enterprises as the source for an improved and very capable Navajo until several unfortunate events, including a flood, combined to drive the company out of business.
With Colemill's exit, access to the Panther conversion STC vanished as well and other than a new coat of paint and spiffy interior, there was little to do with a Navajo other than fix and fly it.
Lock & Key Navajo
At the start of the millennium, Mike Jones was flying turboprops for a small regional airline. After spending a long time in corporate aviation, Jones had heard the siren song of the airlines, got his ATP rating—and soon found himself hand-flying the formidable Jetstream airliner for hours and hours each day. (Back then, shoestring operations like the one that employed Jones figured that they had to have two pilots sitting up front anyway, so why spend the stockholders' money for autopilots?)
Relatively quickly, Jones rose through the ranks to the point where he could bid and hold a two-and-a-half day line between trips, and that situation gave him time to do what many airline pilots do: start a sideline business.
Jones started selling General Aviation airplanes on the side, and once that business was established, he decided that he could take a Colemill Panther conversion aircraft to the next level.
He created what became known as the "Lock & Key Navajo," a total renovation of the Piper Navajo from nosecone to tailcone—and including the Panther modification. It's an airplane that's aimed squarely at the successful businessman who wants the best cabin-class piston twin available.
Jones bought a used Navajo, sunk $350,000 into refurbishing it (including the Panther conversion), and sold it for $675,000 back in 2003. At that time, there was not another Navajo listed with an asking price of more than $350,000. Jones' airplane became the prototype for those that followed.
Providence then took control and forced Jones into a new path. His employer went broke and Jones found himself running a small business as his only source of income.
From Jones' vantage point, he had been given an opportunity. When Colemill Enterprises went out of business soon after the 2010 Tennessee flood, Jones came up with the money to buy the rights to its STCs.
Today, Mike Jones Aircraft Sales, Inc. has become a one-stop shop for renovated Navajos. CEO, CFO, Plant Manager, Advertising Manager, Demo Pilot, Test Pilot, Sales Manager, Supervisor of 15-plus technicians, and Chief Cook & Bottle Washer, Jones has his hands full—but maintains he can best supervise each and every conversion and ensure that the finished product meets his standards only if he oversees everything.
Considering the quality of each Lock & Key Navajo, it would be hard to argue the point.
What's in a name?
To sell a used airplane, dealers and brokers know they need to give it the illusion of youth. Fresh paint; a new interior; avionics that are still factory-supported; no accident history; mid-time or better engines; no fluid leaks; and no corrosion—these items are key to getting the highest price for a used airplane. If an airplane has these attributes and has relatively low time on the airframe, its condition can truthfully be called "above average" in advertisements.
Vref and Bluebook publish price guidance for "below average," "average" and "above average" examples of the various makes and models, but they have a special category for Lock & Key Navajos.
In recognition of the extra steps taken during renovation and the high quality work done by Jones' company, his aircraft have a separate listing that's higher than "above average." Consequently, they bring a premium price—plus, these aircraft appraise, finance and insure in a much different category than regular Navajos.
Jones starts with a good pedigree aircraft with complete logbooks, an accident-free history and an airframe with less than 7,500 hours total time. Over the next six months, zero-time SMOH engines are installed (factory overhauled or brand-new engines are options). Zero-time SPOH four-blade Q-Tip props are coupled to the engines, and around $90,000 is spent for much-above-average paint and interior work. A new avionics package is also included.
Lock & Key Navajo does everything in-house with the exception of painting the airframe. They refurbish all interior parts, including new instrument panels and new overhead switch panels with etched identification labels. Even the throttle Go Around labels are etched into the handles.
To illustrate the attention to detail, the engine firewalls are removed and the surfaces are polished to a high gloss. They are then re-riveted and placed back in the nacelle.
New seals and windlace are installed on all doors. The wing lockers are carpeted to match the interior and resealed as well. All bright work throughout the airplane (interior and exterior) is polished to a high gloss and clear coated to protect it from the elements.
All hoses and belts are replaced; all wear-prone items like the airstair door are renovated and strengthened where necessary. Known problem areas, like the gear doors, are restored to factory-new specifications and the landing gear itself is restored to factory-specification cycle times. Everything is meticulously reviewed during the Lock & Key Navajo restoration process.
Jones then operates the airplane for 15 to 20 hours after the technicians release it. He takes it on cross-country flights to replicate the environment it will be in when turned over to the owner, and checks every system and every component's operation himself. Everything—down to the smallest light bulb—has to work to factory specifications or better, or Jones will not deliver the airplane to the buyer.
The airplane comes with a fresh annual and warranties; plus, Jones promises in writing that his shop will do the first annual after the owner takes delivery and it will cost no more than $5,000.
Is there no downside?
Well, yes, there is. Mike Jones himself admits that the cost of a Lock & Key Navajo is out of reach for many people. At $795,000 for the standard Lock & Key Navajo package, a potential customer will likely end up paying about what a new Seneca would cost once some of the popular options are added. Jones says he has sold as many as three Lock & Key Navajos in one year, but typically sells one a year.
Jones believes in the uniqueness and quality of his product, but don't just take his word for it. Owners of Lock & Key Navajos give the product glowing reviews, calling their aircraft "a fantastic traveling machine" and saying, "We could not have made a better purchase even if we bought a brand-new airplane," and "The plane is superb!"
If you're in the market for a cabin-class twin, you should check out the Lock & Key Navajo. Mike Jones and his customers have dubbed it "The Best Navajo Money Can Buy."
John Loughmiller is a 4,700-hour commercial pilot and CFII MEI-A. He lives in Kentucky with Donna, his wife of 40 years, and often commits random acts of aviation. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.
Lock & Key Navajo Renovation Program