Van's Aircraft and Those Amazing RVs | Flying Magazine

Van's Aircraft and Those Amazing RVs

Forty years later, Van’s Aircraft is still master of the homebuilt universe.

Van's Aircraft

Van's Aircraft

Van's Aircraft RV-3

__It's not often that an amateur aeronautical tinkerer will hit upon a business idea so perfectly suited for the times that it advances, almost overnight, to become a runaway success story. Such was the case in 1971, when a young engineer from Oregon named Richard VanGrunsven tried, in his own words, to “build a better mousetrap” and in the process unwittingly laid the foundation for what would become Van's Aircraft, the most successful aircraft kit-manufacturing company in aviation history.

By VanGrunsven’s own recollection, he wasn’t trying to spark a kit-building revolution when, in the mid-1960s, he got the idea to modify a Stits SA-3A Playboy — a stubby and underperforming single-seater designed in 1953 by Ray Stits, considered by many as the father of the homebuilding movement — with a cantilevered aluminum wing, bubble canopy and 125-horsepower Lycoming engine that replaced the Playboy’s original 85-horsepower Continental.

The extra power allowed the modified Stits to leap off the ground, and the redesigned wing with hinged flaps improved its handling qualities while also taming the Playboy’s high sink rate and fast landing speed. VanGrunsven started selling the plans to kit builders of the day, of which there weren’t many, as the RV-1, a designation culled from his initials and the fact that this was his first airplane design. But, of course, it wouldn’t be his last.

After flying the modified Playboy for a few years and about 600 hours in the late 1960s, VanGrunsven began to consider the design’s shortcomings. For him, the RV-1 represented an aggregation of compromises that didn’t quite meet his lofty expectations of what the perfect — or nearly perfect — airplane could or ought to be. He set about working on the RV-2, a machine totally of his own design, but it turned out his first try as an aircraft designer was a flop. He never finished the project.

What VanGrunsven yearned for was an airplane imbued with the best possible blend of speed, aerobatic ability and short-field performance, wrapped into a kit design that he hoped he could sell. He went back to the drawing board with a renewed sense of purpose, and after months of careful thought and diligent work, he emerged with the RV-3, a single-seat taildragger that could cruise at more than 200 mph on only 150 hp and which, to his sheer delight, proved to be an improvement in every way over the original RV-1.

VanGrunsven brought the airplane to the 1973 Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where it was an instant hit based on its sleek looks and promised performance. He set up shop in his garage in Reedville, Oregon, and his newly formed company, Van’s Aircraft, began taking orders. Not a single RV-1 would ever be built by a customer, but sales of the RV-3 took off. After the first handful of Van’s builders completed their airplanes and reported back to the kit-building community at large how pleasurable the little single-seater was to fly, interest in the design exploded.

It wasn’t long before prospective RV builders were practically begging VanGrunsven to offer a two-seat version of the RV-3. While he liked the idea of expanding the product line, he was reluctant to add a second seat for fear that a heavier airplane would lack the fun flying characteristics that had made the RV-3 a success. But the company was growing and demand for a new airplane only strengthened, and so finally, in the summer of 1979, VanGrunsven introduced the RV-4, a tandem-seat taildragger that was 10 knots slower than the RV-3, yet, to its designer’s deep satisfaction, retained the exceptional handling traits and aerobatic capabilities of the predecessor.

Adapting to an Evolving Market
By the start of the 1980s, kit building had truly come into its own as dozens of small companies sprang up to serve a burgeoning market. What the homebuilding masses clamored for now was a Van’s RV with side-by-side seating. To the performance-minded VanGrunsven, this was almost too much to take. Did people want to fly their airplanes, he wondered, or were they more interested in chatting with passengers?

“It was a changing market at that time,” VanGrunsven recalls. “Rather than the homebuilt airplane being seen as a sport plane, which is how I saw it, people were starting to view it as a transportation airplane equivalent to factory models like the Piper Cherokee or Cessna Skyhawk.”

VanGrunsven once again acquiesced to the demands of buyers, and for a second time he was surprised — again, pleasantly so — by the results. Thanks to refinements and improvements he was able to incorporate into the RV-6, this model turned out to be his best airplane yet, with heart-pounding power and handling that fully retained the lineage’s aerobatic underpinnings while introducing the added comfort ideal for making long cross-country trips. With the introduction of this newest RV coinciding with the product-liability-driven collapse of the piston-powered general aviation market in the mid-1980s, VanGrunsven was handsomely rewarded: The RV-6 and follow-on RV-6A model (the A in all Van’s models except the RV-3A denotes tricycle landing gear) became the most successful kit airplanes in history, cementing the company’s legendary status and laying the path for several follow-on models.

Since the beginnings in 1973, RV builders have completed more than 7,400 Van’s kits, spanning the line from the original RV-3/A, of which around 600 were built, to the current crop of aircraft including the RV-7, RV-9, RV-10, RV-12 and even a reborn model, the RV-3B, featuring a new wing spar design and QuickBuild wings similar to those of the RV-8. (Early problems with the RV-3’s wing have also been remedied, with retrofitted RV-3s now referred to as RV-3As.) So endeared to the Van’s aircraft family have RV builders and owners become that the term “RV grin” has arisen to describe what it’s like to settle in behind the controls of one in flight.

The common denominator among all of his creations, VanGrunsven says, was a “careful optimization” of the designs, what he came to refer to as “total performance.” It’s a tagline that has stuck with the company to this day. From the outset, VanGrunsven’s design philosophy centered on creating airplanes that could be used for light aerobatics, offered plenty of speed and could operate out of small farm fields. Friends accuse VanGrunsven (whom they call simply “Van” or Dick) of being too cheap to pay for the cost of a hangar, hence the requirement to be able to fly out of his own farm field. VanGrunsven doesn’t argue with that characterization, but in conversation he always returns to the delicate equation of trade-offs that enabled him to strike a palatable balance in each of his airplane designs.

“All aircraft are compromises,” he says, “but the RVs get more out of the deal than most, I think. I was always willing to make compromises, but I was also careful not to make a major compromise in any one parameter.”

As a result, each succeeding model has built upon what made the predecessor work. Almost everything Van’s Aircraft produced up through the RV-9, in fact, was an obvious progression of the lineage, featuring the same basic fuselage or wing, for example.

But with the RV-10, introduced in 2003, VanGrunsven was forced to start from scratch, since almost nothing from the earlier RV designs could be carried over to the new airplane, a four-seater intended for comfortable long-haul cruising. Still, despite the fact that VanGrunsven probably never dreamed he’d be building a four-place model, the RV-10 manages to retain the light control feel and sporting nature of its forebears.

“Even though we really started with a fresh design,” VanGrunsven says, “the RV-10 has the same philosophical fingerprints. The design is a clean sheet, but that sheet has lots of fingerprints on it.”

The same can be said of the diminutive RV-12, introduced to satisfy market demand for a light-sport aircraft. The challenge lay in designing an LSA that still handled like an RV. Those who have flown one know that Van’s largely achieved that goal, even though its top speed is limited by LSA rules.

Safety Under the Microscope
More attention has been focused recently on the safety records of homebuilt aircraft after the NTSB in July launched a study aimed at determining why the accident rate for this category of aircraft is so much higher than for certificated airplanes. The RV line generally fares better than most other kit-builts — by VanGrunsven’s own analysis, the accident rate is half that of competing homebuilts — but that being said, its rate is still far higher than that of certificated light general aviation airplanes.

RVs, VanGrunsven says, aren’t difficult airplanes to fly, but they are more challenging to fly well. As a result, the same handling characteristics that make an RV fun to fly can also get a pilot into trouble.

“An RV will allow you to fly it like any other airplane, but it’s going to be a little more demanding, to the point where the limiting factor is going to be the pilot rather than the airplane,” he says.

As RV pilots know, and appreciate, these are airplanes eager to go where you point them, with very little control input required.

“You really want to fly an RV with a light touch, not your fist wrapped around the stick,” VanGrunsven says. “It becomes almost an extension of the pilot’s thought process. You think about where you want the airplane to go and it practically does it on its own.”

In a nod to the fact that flying an RV is “different” from the experience in some other single-engine airplanes, Van’s Aircraft is now supporting a transition-training program to prepare pilots coming from production airplanes for the unique handling traits of the line.

The Van’s “Air Force”
Van’s Aircraft’s customers are almost cultish in their devotion to the RV product family and, as a result, have developed close bonds and a camaraderie rarely seen among other airplane owners. This perhaps helps explain the rise of various builder groups around the world that serve as social networks as well as vast repositories of knowledge for would-be RV builders.

Doug Reeves is an enthusiastic RV supporter and the founder of vansairforce.net, the largest online community for devotees of all things Van’s. A former IT professional who used to work in a cramped office cubicle, Reeves built his website on a whim in 1997 and ran it as a side business to subsidize the cost of building his RV-6, nicknamed Flash. Over the course of the next decade, the site enjoyed exponential growth as tens of thousands of RV builders and dreamers alike made the site their favorite online destination for swapping ideas and researching building tips and tricks. The site became so popular that Reeves quit his day job to run it full time.

The need builders have for assistance, even if it’s merely online help, is understandable. No question, building an RV is challenging, with most builders needing years to finish their airplanes and too many never finishing the job. The RV-12 is the easiest to build (a group of 12 teenagers, assisted by a group of mentors, recently built one in a year and a half) but it takes time, and lots of it — around 800 hours on average for an RV-12, according to the company, versus the 1,600 hours or so for some other RV models.

Price for the RV-12, the most complete kit Van’s Aircraft sells, currently runs about $63,000 and includes everything from the airframe and wings to instruments and engine. The RV-10, meanwhile, carries a price that starts out at around $42,000, but because engine, avionics and interior are extra, there is no end to the customization that is possible. For that reason, the price for a finished RV-10 can easily rise to $250,000 or higher — but “it will outrun a Bonanza,” VanGrunsven says. (Importantly, he doesn’t say how old or weathered a Bonanza he’s talking about. When equipped with the recommended top-of-the-line 260 hp Lycoming engine and Hartzell constant-speed prop, the RV-10 has a top speed of 211 mph.)

Van’s Aircraft offers RVs in standard form or QuickBuild kit. Either includes all the parts needed to build a complete airframe, with the builder left to provide the engine, propeller, instruments, avionics and upholstery — again, except in the case of the LSA RV-12. All RV kits have been reviewed by the FAA for licensing in the “Experimental amateur built” category. This means the fabrication work Van’s does on the kit parts is less than 50 percent of the total required to complete the aircraft, and that at least 51 percent of the work remains for the kit builder.

While it’s true that Van’s Aircraft sells a ton of RV kits, potential builders often ask how many wind up as completed airplanes and not 75-percent-finished husks gathering dust in dark garages or hangars.

“The answer is unknowable,” VanGrunsven says half-jokingly, “because time is infinite. A few years ago, serial number 18, an RV-3, was finished — 27 years after we sold the kit. Given enough time, maybe all of them will be built.”

The RV Family TreeNaming of the RV lineup is sequential for the most part, but you’ll notice some numbers are missing along the way. We already know about the RV-2, which was never finished, and then there was the RV-5, a one-off design that never made it into production. Another MIA model is the RV-11, a single-seat motorglider designed as a proof of concept, which today serves more as a personal pet project under the control of VanGrunsven, who is also an avid sailplane pilot.Today, Van’s most popular kit is the RV-7. It’s a slightly larger replacement for the RV-6 that provides ample room for a pair of 6-footers and bigger fuel tanks. Interestingly, the RV-7 came after the RV-8, which VanGrunsven introduced back in 1995 as a rebirth of sorts for the RV-4 tandem-seat sport airplane. The budget-minded RV-9, meanwhile, introduced a new, longer and narrower wing that allows it to climb briskly with less power and glide farther than previous RVs. A Texas group called “Friends of the RV-1,” meanwhile, is restoring the original RV and will donate it next summer to the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.The unlucky sounding RV-13 would be next in the line, but VanGrunsven jokes that the model designator is reserved as a “stealth project being produced for the Triskaidekaphobian Air Force.” More seriously, he thinks there probably won’t be an RV-13: “It’s not that we’re superstitious, but it’s just not worth going there.” So that leaves the RV-14 as the next in the line’s succession, but even that model remains cloaked in mystery.“We don’t have any future plans for a new airplane,” he insists. “I’ll have to talk to the chief engineer to see what he has in mind.”The mere fact that no new model appears imminent is a testament, perhaps, to the fact that the current RV family covers all the bases VanGrunsven could have conceivably hoped he would when he started out in the business almost 40 years ago, and then some. (There’s even a float-equipped RV-6F flying in British Columbia.)So which of his creations is VanGrunsven most proud of?“That’s like asking which of your children do you love the most,” he says with a sheepish grin. “I can’t say I have an absolute favorite; it depends on the type of flying I want to do. For a long cross-country it would be the RV-10. If I’m just going up for a hop around the patch, it’s probably the RV-12.”Those are somewhat surprising choices considering that what has sold Van’s airplanes for the last 40 years is the way they fly, and the RV-10 and RV-12 are set at the far ends of the spectrum of what that experience is supposed to be. Still, the RV-12 “flies a lot more like an RV-6 than it does a Cherokee,” VanGrunsven insists. “It’s a fun little airplane.”

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