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.