The Willamette Valley in western Oregon stretched below us, green vineyards hugging the curves of the river, squared-off farmers’ fields, some browner this year than most, a patchwork of life all fringed by the hills that contain and define this timeless place. On days such as the one we were enjoying, the valley was the perfect place to fly: wide and smooth, gateway to the coastal range and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Portland and its urban allure to the north, the Cascades to the east and, for many aviators, the valley itself. Ken Scott, a 24-year employee of Van’s Aircraft and my excellent companion for a remarkable day of flying, commented that when the weather in the Willamette is nice, it’s a great place to fly airplanes. When it’s not, he said, it’s a great place to build them.
Which is, of course, exactly what Ken’s boss, Dick Van Grunsven, has been doing in this valley for 40 years now, creating a legacy of remarkable airplanes that only keep getting better as time moves along. The first airplanes, the RV-1 and RV-2, were tentative forays into the burgeoning world of kitplanes, but, with the RV-3, the company had established itself as a major player.
It did it in an unlikely way, too. During much of the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s, the kit world was a booming place. Dozens of kit manufacturers did what Van’s did, building kits for amateur homebuilders to take home to the newly commandeered two-car garages and make them into airplanes. As the industry matured, a number of kit makers, most notably composite pioneers Glasair and Lancair, turned to composites in their kits, creating slippery speedsters renowned more for their top end than for their flyability. Van Grunsven’s birds, on the other hand, seemed in some ways an anachronism.
His models were simple sheet-metal designs, ones that could be built by a single person with hand tools and, in a reasonable amount of construction time, turned into a solidly built, great-flying airplane with impressive performance. Indeed, these were the principles that Van’s hung its hat on. As the company introduced new models, each one was built to be light, simple to construct, fast and pleasing to fly. In many cases, the differences between models have been slight. The RV-6 and RV-6A, for example, are taildragger and nose-gear versions, respectively, of the same airplane. There are two-seat models that differ primarily by the arrangement of the seats, one being a tandem configuration and the other a side-by-side design.
For those of you unfamiliar with the FAA’s amateur-built rules, the essence of the rule that allows regular Joes to build their own airplanes consists of two main conceptual underpinnings. One, we’re supposed to do it for the edification inherent in the process, and, two, we’re supposed to do the majority of the work ourselves. This do-it-yourself responsibility has come down in practical terms to mean 51 percent of the work; the amateur-built rule often is referred to as the “51 Percent Rule,” though exactly how the builder arrived at that figure was never clear — was building a rib one procedure or 50 smaller ones? There also was much dispute over whether the rule was even smart, the argument being that it was safer for the kit manufacturer to do more of the work than the homebuilder. Moreover, it was hard to determine how to do the accounting for the percentage of work completed. To simplify the process, the FAA broke the process down into procedures several years ago. If the builder did more than half of the procedures, he or she was the official builder.
This had little effect on Van’s regular kits — unlike kits for all-composite airplanes, RV kits are largely composed of individual parts that get attached to other parts. Van’s has always created quality components, and as its capabilities improved over time, with new machines and techniques, it delivered parts that required less work and assembled with other parts and components more easily. Years ago, Van’s started supplying kits with pre-punched parts, which eliminated the need for builders to construct jigs while eliminating hundreds of hours that builders previously would have spent drilling. A number of tricky tasks, such as landing gear alignment, are now done at the factory, and the manuals for later models are, in Ken Scott’s words, “vastly improved.” The overall result is that Van’s kits are easier than ever for even first-timers to build.
Around 20 years ago, Van’s added a QuickBuild option, which, for a bit of an investment, gave the buyer a kit with many of the components already built, cutting hundreds of hours of labor out of the building process. The pre-assembly work is contracted to a company in the Philippines, which has been producing the QuickBuild components for Van’s for years. We can only imagine how heartening it must be for builders to open that crate, revealing a structure with months of work already completed on it.