There are certain ungainly looking airplanes whose great utility and flying manners bring with them a kind of charm that belies their looks. The GippsAero GA8 Airvan might just be this kind of airplane. With its squared-off features and asymmetrical shape, it is kind of an odd duck, the kind that no pilot walks by on the ramp, stops dead in his tracks and whistles at. Indeed, most pilots would assume that an airplane that looks as clunky as the Airvan must be as dull in the air as it is on the ramp. That, I admit, is what I assumed.
After getting the chance to fly it, I admit, I was flat-out wrong.
Niche of Its Own
Back in the early 1990s, Aussies George Morgan and Peter Furlong designed a crop-duster, the GA200, which did exactly what the partners wanted it to do: not cost a lot but still make money for its owners. Sensing it was good to diversify from the mercuric agricultural market, Furlong and Morgan soon began working on another kind of workhorse, one to fill a perceived niche between a pair of legendary and still-in-production single-engine Cessnas, the piston-powered 206 Stationair and the turboprop-powered model 208 Caravan. As we all know, these airplanes are used for everything from floatplane air taxi to skydiver hauling, from air medical transport to cargo work, and from executive transport to sightseeing, and Morgan and Furlong thought there might be room for a model in between the two.
The airplane they proposed would be an uncompromising attempt to appeal to the utility market. With more wing, more power, more passenger room and more cargo capacity, the new model would be more airplane in a number of ways than the 206 (though, admittedly, it is around 20 knots slower than the Stationair).
At the same time the GA8 is substantially less airplane than the Caravan, both in the sense that it costs less to buy and to operate and in the fact that it’s 50 knots slower and not in the same league as the Caravan as a cargo or people hauler.
This is, remember, exactly where Furlong and Morgan wanted their airplane to be.
GippsAero started the ball rolling with the GA8 in early 1993 and got approval for the design in 2000 (and then again in 2003 to the most current certification standards). The process, Morgan told me, was instructive. The airplane that they wound up with was better in nearly every way than the one they began the program with. In 2010 the company added a turbocharged model, dubbed the GA8 TC, which is the airplane I flew for this evaluation. GippsAero has sold around 200 Airvans in this time, with airplanes in service on six continents doing every kind of work the company had hoped it would be asked to do.
Beyond the Box
If you’re looking for the single word that people have used to describe the Airvan, it’s boxy. It’s an understandable descriptor though not entirely fair. The bottom of the airplane, Morgan pointed out to me, is a lifting body. How much lifting it actually does, I wouldn’t venture to say, but the belly is the least of its aesthetic flaws.