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.