There are certain ungainly looking airplanes whose great utility and flying manners bring with them a kind of charm that belies their looks. The GippsAero GA8 Airvan might just be this kind of airplane. With its squared-off features and asymmetrical shape, it is kind of an odd duck, the kind that no pilot walks by on the ramp, stops dead in his tracks and whistles at. Indeed, most pilots would assume that an airplane that looks as clunky as the Airvan must be as dull in the air as it is on the ramp. That, I admit, is what I assumed.
After getting the chance to fly it, I admit, I was flat-out wrong.
Niche of Its Own
Back in the early 1990s, Aussies George Morgan and Peter Furlong designed a crop-duster, the GA200, which did exactly what the partners wanted it to do: not cost a lot but still make money for its owners. Sensing it was good to diversify from the mercuric agricultural market, Furlong and Morgan soon began working on another kind of workhorse, one to fill a perceived niche between a pair of legendary and still-in-production single-engine Cessnas, the piston-powered 206 Stationair and the turboprop-powered model 208 Caravan. As we all know, these airplanes are used for everything from floatplane air taxi to skydiver hauling, from air medical transport to cargo work, and from executive transport to sightseeing, and Morgan and Furlong thought there might be room for a model in between the two.
The airplane they proposed would be an uncompromising attempt to appeal to the utility market. With more wing, more power, more passenger room and more cargo capacity, the new model would be more airplane in a number of ways than the 206 (though, admittedly, it is around 20 knots slower than the Stationair).
At the same time the GA8 is substantially less airplane than the Caravan, both in the sense that it costs less to buy and to operate and in the fact that it’s 50 knots slower and not in the same league as the Caravan as a cargo or people hauler.
This is, remember, exactly where Furlong and Morgan wanted their airplane to be.
GippsAero started the ball rolling with the GA8 in early 1993 and got approval for the design in 2000 (and then again in 2003 to the most current certification standards). The process, Morgan told me, was instructive. The airplane that they wound up with was better in nearly every way than the one they began the program with. In 2010 the company added a turbocharged model, dubbed the GA8 TC, which is the airplane I flew for this evaluation. GippsAero has sold around 200 Airvans in this time, with airplanes in service on six continents doing every kind of work the company had hoped it would be asked to do.
Beyond the Box
If you’re looking for the single word that people have used to describe the Airvan, it’s boxy. It’s an understandable descriptor though not entirely fair. The bottom of the airplane, Morgan pointed out to me, is a lifting body. How much lifting it actually does, I wouldn’t venture to say, but the belly is the least of its aesthetic flaws.
If the tail looks a bit out of place, and I’d argue that it does, that’s not a bad thing. The tail is, in fact, the component that symbolizes the evolution of the design from a “keep it simple, stupid” box to one that has become a surprisingly sophisticated response to the fiendishly demanding strictures of the latest revisions of Part 23. Designed using the latest computerized tools and tested and tweaked in consultation with the National Test Pilot School, the tail is big — to stop a spin in its tracks — strong and, to tell the truth, kind of pretty. Its dramatic sweep and additional side area were both features intended to give the Airvan the most docile stalling tendencies imaginable in such a big single. While the conventional tail looks oversize on the longish body of the somewhat awkwardly proportioned Airvan, it suits the airplane’s aerodynamic needs to a T, so to speak. Still, the result is an airplane that appears to have been designed by committee, each member putting forth his own agenda, the fruits of that motivation being the oddly assembled shapes and sizes of the various Airvan components.
In terms of materials, the GA8 is basic. It’s a sheet-metal airplane, which seems appropriate given its niche between two other sheet-metal airplanes. Beyond the convention, there’s good sense to the choice. Aluminum is light, strong and easy to repair in the field, and the GA8 is most often operated in areas of the world where sheet metal is ubiquitous and a carbon fiber repair shop can be hard or impossible to find.
The engines of choice for the GA8 are the Lycoming IO-540 and TSIO-540, putting out 300 and 320 horsepower, respectively. The Lycomings are a great choice. They’re strong, reliable and easy to get parts for. The downside to them is, obviously, that they both use avgas, which is more expensive in many places than jet fuel and difficult or impossible to find in other places. Still, the GA8 wouldn’t be the only piston utility airplane operating in remote regions of the world, just the most recently certified.
While the Airvan looks a bit squat, it’s not really. There’s plenty of clearance between the prop and the ground, and the gear feels exceptionally solid. One design approach that operators love is the straight spring steel gear, with no oleo struts used. A cargo pod is an option, and a popular one at that. Like many airplanes with limited weight-carrying ability, the trick is to carry a lot of light stuff in it, because there’s so much room in the Airvan that it would be very easy to overload if care weren’t taken.
One design feature that was a must was a big door for loading and unloading both people and cargo, and the designers didn’t disappoint. The rear portal on the Airvan is huge, at around 42 inches high and wide. It slides forward on a top-and-bottom track on rails with a handy, sturdy and simple fold-down step. The door latches in the open position — one of the GA8’s biggest uses is as a jump plane.
Speaking of which, the Airvan boasts pilot and copilot doors, which are handy in any kind of airplane but especially one that will be operated commercially and often with a paying passenger in the right seat. The doors themselves are very light and close with a mechanically dirt-simple, bent metal-rod handle, which seems to do the job quite nicely, even if you’d never mistake it for the door handle on a Lexus.
The rest of the interior gives you more of the same. It is about as basic as basic can be, all in the name of ruggedness, light weight and cost. The seats are serviceable but a far cry from what you’ll find in a Gulfstream. Even the carpet, which is secured to the floor with loop and hook strips with cutouts for adding and removing seats, is purely utilitarian. It’s there for a tiny bit of comfort while not fooling anyone about the mission of this airplane: raw utility. There are other touches of civility, such as auto-style over-the-shoulder seat belts, attractive molded-plastic interior panels and big, nicely situated windows.
The cabin is worthy of note because it is the rare piston-powered bird with an aisle, a feature that’s typically reserved for much larger airplanes. It’s true that there’s a single seat on either side of the aisle, but the arrangement allows folks, including the pilots, to get around in the airplane very easily. Try that in a 206. There’s also a blower on the ceiling that works surprisingly well to keep some air flowing. The removable seats are a big deal in a couple of ways. The way they come out and go back in is simple. They just snap into place and lock right down. Getting them out is just as easy, though it’s impossible to do it by accident. The ease of reconfiguration means that an operator’s Airvan can be configured one way for one kind of mission, perhaps with the rear two seats removed to allow a smaller load of people and a bunch of boxes in the back on one trip, and in a totally different way for the next mission, perhaps with all the seats installed for a commuter hop between one remote mountain hamlet and another.
Up front the Airvan has more big-airplane features, the most noteworthy again being a floor-mounted control column reminiscent of one you’d find on a Boeing. The power quadrant too has a very heavy iron feel to it, with oversize levers splayed across the outsize console, a huge elevator trim wheel (big for the mechanical advantage it gives you in adjusting the trim on the trimmable stabilizer) and big bulbous knobs. There’s even an overhead panel for the electrical system’s various switches and circuit breakers, though its placement just behind the pilot’s head will challenge those of us who wear bifocals to read the text.
A Remarkable Flight
It was a pleasant early spring day when I flew the GA8 Airvan from my home airport, Austin Executive (KEDC). GippsAero co-founder George Morgan was in the right seat, and GippsAero North America marketing director Randy Juen rode in back, along with a collection of gear, mountain bikes and backpacks that seemed like window dressing for the Airvan’s North America tour but that in actuality was George and Randy’s gear for the cross-continental trek.
If the airframe of the GA8 is a collection of seemingly disparate design elements, flying it offers more of the same. It was, I have to admit, a little confusing. On the one hand, from the taxi on out, the Airvan feels like a typical light airplane, on the order of a Cessna 182, and on the other hand, you’ve got an industrial-size control column and 737-scale engine controls at your command. I don’t know how GippsAero arrived at its design approach, which I’d describe as LSA meets Boeing, but it works somehow.
It’s easy to get into the front seats, and they’re comfortable to boot. The visibility is quite good — which is opposite of what I’d have guessed checking out the Airvan from the ramp. The windscreen does have a sharp bend to it as it wraps around, which produces some optical distortion. The controls fall easily to reach, though it does feel a bit odd to have to reach that far across to grab the mixture.
Taxiing the Airvan, as I suggested, is purely conventional, with a steerable nosewheel and pleasant responsiveness. One reason the surfaces are so high, including the tall tail, is to allow it to clear cattle fences as it’s heading out to the rough strip to start its flying day.
We were light that day, with just under half tanks and only three of us aboard.
I turned onto the smooth surface of Exec’s Runway 13, advanced the throttle without holding much brake and watched the Airvan accelerate. It was one of those takeoffs with a light load and lots of lifting power so that the airplane seemed to rise off the ground rather than rotate. We were airborne in what seemed like less than a thousand feet — it was really hard to tell exactly when we lifted off — and climbing at around 850 fpm and 100 knots. We could have been a lot slower and climbed faster (900 fpm at around 70 knots), but I always like the better visibility a slightly shallower climb affords. It was cool, but we still cracked the cowl flaps for the climb. In my book, they’re a nice feature to have.
As I mentioned, the GA8 is not a fast airplane. It’s a 130- to 135-knot cruiser. This means that long-haul flights take a long time to complete. While it has limited range, around 550 nm with its 87.7-gallon tanks, the Airvan is really made for shorter hops with large payloads of people and/or cargo. Leave off some fuel and you can load the seats and still fly 300 miles and land at the other end of the trip on a 1,200-foot-long gravel strip on the side of a mountain. Which is the mission the Airvan was designed to perform.
The control feel of the airplane was pleasing, with enough force required for an airplane of its size and light enough to afford easy control. I loved the Ferris-size trim wheel, and the elevator was strong and smooth. If the GA8 is a bit of an ugly duckling on the ramp, it is an exceptionally pleasing airplane to fly.
This is even truer when you slow it down. If the Airvan isn’t the best slow-flying airplane I’ve ever flown, it has to be right up there. And it flies very slowly. It’s a 4,200-pound airplane that stalls at 57 knots. We slowed it down with and without power, did good-rate turns in both directions and stalled it power on and power off. It maintained excellent control feel throughout the stall and recovery, to the point where I would have felt comfortable flying it on approach slightly on the backside of the power curve.
At one point on the flight I had just gotten done doing some decent steep turns when George asked for the airplane, saying, “Let me show what it can do.” He proceeded to demonstrate what I can only describe not as turns around a point but as turns on a point, perhaps a pinpoint. It felt as though we were riding a wildly spinning top (no, not that kind of “spinning”) rather than an airplane. George was clearly proud of the airplane he’d dreamed up.
Pattern work was, as you might imagine at this point, extremely unremarkable, and I got the distinct impression that, by the time a pilot had gotten used to Airvan flying, maneuvering tight approaches in mountainous terrain wouldn’t just be doable but an absolute pleasure.
As I mentioned, by the point where we were ready to head back to the airport, I was so comfortable with the Airvan that I felt as though a single landing would likely suffice. Using the big Johnson bar lever to select a handful of straight flaps, I adjusted the power on the big Lycoming to give us between 65 and 70 knots over the fence, enjoying the excellent forward visibility with the nose lowered. I flared over the displaced threshold, hoping to touch wheels down just beyond the line, but still, much to my surprise, floated around 150 feet. Once the wheels were down, I retracted the flaps to put the weight on the wheels and put the effective brakes to good use. We were stopped in right around 900 feet on my first try. No doubt, a pilot experienced in the airplane could cut that figure by a lot.
I’ve flown a few airplanes over the years, but I’ve never been more surprised by the excellent flying manners and capabilities of an airplane as I was with the Airvan. Looking at it on the ramp tells one story. Flying it tells quite another. I look forward to flying it again, maybe on a gravel strip somewhere far from cities and highways (though not too far from 100LL).
The company’s fortunes are looking good. It recently delivered its 200th Airvan, and its parent company, the Indian firm Mahindra Aerospace, is solidly behind the product, which GippsAero has already begun to market in India, where it sees a bright future for the Airvan and derivatives.
Mahindra’s might has allowed Gipps-Aero entry into the South Asian market as well, a key component to GippsAero’s long-term growth, Morgan pointed out.
GippsAero hopes for success in North America too, where the company knows it has to improve its marketing presence, sales and support tremendously. The good news is that it is working to start that process, having recently added dealerships and service centers in several new U.S. locations. A commitment to support is critical, since the track record of offshore companies that have failed to offer sufficient support for their products in North America is perfect; there’s never been a successful one.
Getting the word out can only help too, though it’s probably even more important to get people into and flying the GA8, since it’s not at all obvious looking at it from the ground that this would be a great flying airplane. From behind the control wheel, however, there’s simply no denying it.