To the surprise of many, the result of Van’s approach was nothing short of market domination. There were, for a time anyway, other good-selling, two-seat kitplanes, but none of them came close to approaching Van’s numbers or the loyalty of the company’s legions of builders.
What was the secret to Van’s’ success? As usual, in retrospect it appears that there were no secrets. There’s no doubt that the kits themselves have been central to their success. Did the riveted sheet metal design resonate with Van’s demographic? No doubt. That said, the fact that RVs don’t require much use of composites, and no wet layup, is a big factor too. The value of the kits — you get a lot for the money — is a crucial factor as well. And let’s not forget about the community element of the Van’s experience. It’s like joining a big club of people who are guaranteed to be supportive as you’re building and impressed with what you’ve pulled off when you’re done.
Speaking of community, Van’s builders and pilots can boast the most vibrant and engaged online community arguably in all of aviation. The website, vansairforce.net, is a mega-popular online gathering place for builders and flyers of RV nation, where hangar flying goes virtual and all the old arguments politely rage on — taildragger versus tricycle gear, tip-up canopy versus slider, constant-speed versus fixed-pitch — and get discussed in great detail by a group of experienced RV builders and pilots.
Over time, the company’s market share grew and grew. As other kit makers faded into lesser roles (some of them into oblivion), Van’s Aircraft just kept getting stronger. Van Grunsven doesn’t brag about his company’s success, but he’s clearly proud of it. Today, Van’s Aircraft believes that more than 20,000 people have started their kits, with nearly 8,000 having completed them and made their first flights. Van’s RVs are the hottest-selling airplanes on the planet, and they have been for some time.
Flying the RV-14
The latest model is the RV-14, a two-seat (side-by-side) tricycle gear model that Van’s launched at Oshkosh.
Runabouts or sport touring airplanes, as two-place, side-by-side traveling airplanes are often referred to, hold a soft spot in the hearts of many pilots, and the RV-14 is without question one of the most impressive examples ever. The appeal to the type is easy to grasp. You get a right-sized airplane with plenty of room for two people and their bags; you add a decent dose of speed, a great view outside and reasonably good (or better) fuel economy; and you have a recipe for a fun traveling machine. (One might argue, by the way, that many older four-seat, short-body Mooney models are runabouts in disguise.)
When Van’s showed up at Oshkosh AirVenture with the RV-14, many folks mistakenly assumed it was a two-seat version of the company’s four-seat RV-10. It does, we admit, bear a strong resemblance to Van’s pretty, four-place speedster, but it is a different airplane in a few important regards. The wing shares the same constant chord airfoil but is shorter, the fuselage is new, and the engine is different too. I’d call that a new airplane, but one that is inspired by both the RV-10 and RV-9 models.
The RV-14 does, in all fairness, share many of Van’s philosophical approaches to consumer airplanes, many of which were pioneered in the RV-10.
The most important one of these is the wing, which is very forgiving while still performing quite nicely in terms of speed and responsiveness. While I was chatting with Van Grunsven on the ramp, I mentioned that the ’14 flies very nicely, smooth, solid at slow speeds and very predictably. I then said I’d have no qualms about hopping in it right then and flying it back to Texas. He smiled and thanked me. That was, he said, exactly the effect they were looking to achieve with the airplane.
Indeed, the RV-14 represents a huge departure from the days when fast homebuilts achieved their numbers with short, thin wings and tiny tails. Many of them flew more like jets than like piston singles (which is a bad deal if that single engine goes out). The RV-14 flies like a Cherokee optimized for speed and for fun.
Even the engine is next-gen stuff as far as piston aircraft engines go. The Lycoming IO-390 is essentially a bigger-bore version of the IO-360 but with electronic ignition and tuned induction. The engine puts out 210 horsepower, which for a light airplane such as the RV-14 should mean excellent climb performance — and, I was hoping, a nice top end too.
On the ramp, the RV-14 looks great, and as is the case with many of Van’s factory demonstrators, this one is nice but is nowhere near as elaborately finished out as some customers’ versions will be. Still, the scale of the ship is just right. It’s short in length but not stubby, and its shortish wingspan and wide chord accentuate the airplane’s role. If one were to judge an airplane’s flying manners by how nicely it looks — something Marcel Dassault, the originator of the Falcon line of bizjets, said was the only way to do it — one would conclude conclusively that this is a great-flying airplane. But I decided to go flying in it anyway, just to test Monsieur Dassault’s theory.