Van's RV-14

Why the RV-14 is merely the latest chapter in Van’s Aircraft’s remarkable kitbuilt story.

Van's RV-14

Van's RV-14

Van's RV-14

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.

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.

You’ll notice that the RV-14 has a tilt-up canopy, something I like a lot, as it does away with a lot of the structure of a sliding canopy to enhance the already-spectacular view outside. It also allows easy access to the back of the radio stack, something that is of great interest to amateur homebuilders and their lower backs, as most of these homebuilders sidelight as avionics techs in their spare time.

One thing you’ll notice with the RV-14 is its low-aspect-ratio (a nice way of saying “stubby”) wings. They are shorter than those on the RV-10, and they’re stronger, too. Like many, though not all, RVs, the ’14 is designed for recreational aerobatics, positive-G stuff, according to Van’s, which says the airplane meets the G-load requirements of the aerobatic category. For the record, I didn’t wring out the RV-14 when I flew it, though I have done plenty of loops and rolls in different RVs in the past. It’s fun to have that capability, though, even if you’re not going to chute up on a regular basis.

The seats in the RV-14 are comfy, and there’s an obscene amount of space between them. Ken is a fairly tall guy, yet I think that three of him could have fit side-by-side-by-side up front. Like every RV (there are probably some one-off exceptions), the ’14 is controlled by sticks. The glass surrounds the pilots, affording excellent visibility all around — and, yes, even down, to a great degree. The side of the canopy on the new two-seater is much lower than on previous-generation RVs — just one more improvement Van’s has made to the lineup.

The panel in the demonstrator is an impressive one, as is the case with so many amateur-built airplanes these days, thanks to some wildly capable, non-certified avionics systems. In this case it was the Dynon SkyView flat-panel system, which features synthetic vision, vertical tapes and customized voice annunciations, such as the one that reminded me that I hadn’t gotten the flaps completely up after takeoff.

In back of the seats is a big baggage area where you could put a few huge duffels or, possibly, a mini-bike, a big dog or two medium-sized dogs. This feature should not go unremarked-upon, as many runabouts have far too little room for bags — and what fun is getting somewhere cool and getting there fast if you don’t have enough room to bring along a couple of changes of clothes?

One really great change to the RV lineup is the use of improved landing gear on the new models. The old gear works fine in most ways, but if you bounced the landing, it could amplify the effect. With the new gear, the balance between cushioning and support is spot-on.

You taxi the RV-14 like any nosewheel RV, with differential braking at slow speeds and with rudder once you get some air flowing over that surface. We had a fairly stiff crosswind at Aurora State that day in Oregon, and it took an occasional jab of brake to keep things straight.

As we rolled out onto the runway, I smoothly applied full throttle while asking Ken about what speed to rotate. He offered, like any good pilot who flies a large number of different models, that he wasn’t quite sure, but to apply a little back pressure and we’d be flying already. Which I did, and we were. The ’14 doesn’t need much runway, and, once we were off, we climbed smartly, at almost 1,000 fpm at 90 knots, through the early-afternoon bumps.

There aren’t many folks who’ve flown an RV-14, and I count myself lucky to be one of them. It was a joy to fly, with the roll response being precisely how it must feel, to steal a line from Baxter, when you go flying in heaven. The pitch feel, on the other hand, is a little light for my taste, which probably just means I need a lighter touch. I flew it slow, did some steep turns, and some power-on and power-off stalls. The airplane remained nicely responsive even at very slow speeds, thanks in part to the slotted flaps, which were inspired by those on the RV-10.

As I’d guessed, the RV-14 is plenty fast. At 4,500 feet we were indicating about 155 knots and truing 165 knots, or Mach .25. This was with a fuel burn of right about 11 gph. With 50 gallons of usable fuel, that equates to about 750 nautical miles of range with VFR reserves. Pulling the power back, you can easily push that past 800 nautical miles if need be.

Heading back to Aurora State, we did a couple of touch-and-goes, and a full stop to end it. The key, as with any airplane, is to control your speed. Hit your numbers, and the RV-14 will use precious little runway. Smooth touchdowns, thanks to the leaf-spring gear and the great visibility, are shamefully easy to pull off. Don’t tell your passengers.

The RV-14 probably won’t be the best-selling RV ever, but those many customers who do buy it will be thrilled with the choice — and why not? The RV-14 takes all of the great qualities of the Van’s lineup and melds them into an economical and easier-than-ever-to-build two-seat touring airplane that is plenty fast, a joy to fly and sporty to beat the band. Surprise, surprise: another winner from Van’s.