The cabin is worthy of note because it is the rare piston-powered bird with an aisle, a feature that’s typically reserved for much larger airplanes. It’s true that there’s a single seat on either side of the aisle, but the arrangement allows folks, including the pilots, to get around in the airplane very easily. Try that in a 206. There’s also a blower on the ceiling that works surprisingly well to keep some air flowing. The removable seats are a big deal in a couple of ways. The way they come out and go back in is simple. They just snap into place and lock right down. Getting them out is just as easy, though it’s impossible to do it by accident. The ease of reconfiguration means that an operator’s Airvan can be configured one way for one kind of mission, perhaps with the rear two seats removed to allow a smaller load of people and a bunch of boxes in the back on one trip, and in a totally different way for the next mission, perhaps with all the seats installed for a commuter hop between one remote mountain hamlet and another.
Up front the Airvan has more big-airplane features, the most noteworthy again being a floor-mounted control column reminiscent of one you’d find on a Boeing. The power quadrant too has a very heavy iron feel to it, with oversize levers splayed across the outsize console, a huge elevator trim wheel (big for the mechanical advantage it gives you in adjusting the trim on the trimmable stabilizer) and big bulbous knobs. There’s even an overhead panel for the electrical system’s various switches and circuit breakers, though its placement just behind the pilot’s head will challenge those of us who wear bifocals to read the text.
A Remarkable Flight
It was a pleasant early spring day when I flew the GA8 Airvan from my home airport, Austin Executive (KEDC). GippsAero co-founder George Morgan was in the right seat, and GippsAero North America marketing director Randy Juen rode in back, along with a collection of gear, mountain bikes and backpacks that seemed like window dressing for the Airvan’s North America tour but that in actuality was George and Randy’s gear for the cross-continental trek.
If the airframe of the GA8 is a collection of seemingly disparate design elements, flying it offers more of the same. It was, I have to admit, a little confusing. On the one hand, from the taxi on out, the Airvan feels like a typical light airplane, on the order of a Cessna 182, and on the other hand, you’ve got an industrial-size control column and 737-scale engine controls at your command. I don’t know how GippsAero arrived at its design approach, which I’d describe as LSA meets Boeing, but it works somehow.
It’s easy to get into the front seats, and they’re comfortable to boot. The visibility is quite good — which is opposite of what I’d have guessed checking out the Airvan from the ramp. The windscreen does have a sharp bend to it as it wraps around, which produces some optical distortion. The controls fall easily to reach, though it does feel a bit odd to have to reach that far across to grab the mixture.
Taxiing the Airvan, as I suggested, is purely conventional, with a steerable nosewheel and pleasant responsiveness. One reason the surfaces are so high, including the tall tail, is to allow it to clear cattle fences as it’s heading out to the rough strip to start its flying day.
We were light that day, with just under half tanks and only three of us aboard.
I turned onto the smooth surface of Exec’s Runway 13, advanced the throttle without holding much brake and watched the Airvan accelerate. It was one of those takeoffs with a light load and lots of lifting power so that the airplane seemed to rise off the ground rather than rotate. We were airborne in what seemed like less than a thousand feet — it was really hard to tell exactly when we lifted off — and climbing at around 850 fpm and 100 knots. We could have been a lot slower and climbed faster (900 fpm at around 70 knots), but I always like the better visibility a slightly shallower climb affords. It was cool, but we still cracked the cowl flaps for the climb. In my book, they’re a nice feature to have.
As I mentioned, the GA8 is not a fast airplane. It’s a 130- to 135-knot cruiser. This means that long-haul flights take a long time to complete. While it has limited range, around 550 nm with its 87.7-gallon tanks, the Airvan is really made for shorter hops with large payloads of people and/or cargo. Leave off some fuel and you can load the seats and still fly 300 miles and land at the other end of the trip on a 1,200-foot-long gravel strip on the side of a mountain. Which is the mission the Airvan was designed to perform.