Buying a Van’s RV-4 Is an Experimental Adventure

Your first airplane brings a unique experience, especially when stepping out of the certified world.

For Tyler Gibbs, 27, who flies out of California’s Corona Municipal Airport (KAJO), buying a Van’s RV-4 from his older brother was a decision that just made sense. [Jim Barrett]

As pilots, almost all of us regularly trust our lives to an aircraft someone else has built. We do not pull each rivet, run the wiring, or bolt in the engine before hopping into the cockpit. It is part of what makes getting into an airplane an act of trust.

In many cases, that trust is bought with the standardization, quality control, and testing that goes into type and production certification. However, that has its limits, not the least of which are the oft-disparaged cost of certified models and a certain inability for significant customization. As Henry Ford said of the Model T: “You can have it in any color you want, as long as it is black.”

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When looking for a less expensive, more flexible option, would you buy and fly an airplane your hangar neighbor built?

Most of us can probably agree that it depends pretty much entirely on the neighbor in question. For Tyler Gibbs, 27, who flies out of California’s Corona Municipal Airport (KAJO), it was a decision that just made sense.

Family History

About a year and a half ago, Gibbs purchased a Van’s Aircraft RV-4, a two-seat experimental/amateur-built (E/A-B) airplane, from his older brother. It’s his first aircraft, though he says it won’t be his last. While he trained in certified models, he had some exposure to the world of experimentals through his brother, opening the door to the possibility when it came time to find his own airplane.

Flying runs in the Gibbs family: His father, brother, and sister-in-law are all pilots. Even so, it took a bit for Gibbs to take the controls himself. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the early exposure to aviation, he had graduated from college and was working at the family trailer sales business before the flying bug finally bit.

Once it had, he didn’t look back. He earned his private pilot certificate, followed promptly by his multiengine and instrument ratings and commercial pilot certificate. With those in hand, he began to work as a pilot for hire, picking up gigs flying skydive jump planes and towing gliders. With two and a half years of aviation experience, Tyler is pursuing his glider rating and beginning to look toward earning his CFI.

About a year after getting his private certificate, Gibbs decided it was time to purchase his own airplane. Aircraft ownership was not a new concept in the Gibbs family either. The family has owned a number of airplanes over the years, including a Cessna 172 and 210. But, like flying, aircraft ownership wasn’t something Gibbs had really considered for himself.

Once he decided it was something he wanted, he didn’t have to look far to find the one that suited him best. His brother had an RV-4 (N527CG) he was willing to pass along.

N527CG had several owners before coming to Gibbs, having been built by Luther Arthur and flown for the first time in 1991. Gibbs’ brother bought it from a friend years later. He and his wife flew it for almost four years before selling it to Tyler.

There’s a lot to be said for buying a known aircraft from a trusted source, especially when taking the step from certified models to experimentals. For those not familiar with the segment, E/A-B aircraft aren’t subject to the same construction and maintenance rules as their certified counterparts—though the RV-4 is made from extremely conventional materials wielded in very conventional fashion, and all experimentals are required to have annual inspections. They can be built and worked on by pretty much anyone and modified to suit the builder. It’s also safe to assume that no two builds—even if the same plans or kit components were used in construction—will be exactly alike. That’s an adventure for a first-time E/A-B buyer, for sure.

With N527CG, Gibbs had the advantage of direct knowledge of the aircraft’s maintenance and operational history. Prior to coming to the Gibbs family, the aircraft was repainted with its current World War II U.S. Army Air Corps-inspired livery.

When Tyler’s brother owned the airplane, the engine was rebuilt after it developed an oil leak. During the overhaul, the Lycoming O-320 received some new additions, including electronic ignition and a conversion to fuel injection.

An all-metal, low-wing monoplane, the RV-4 is the first Van’s RV model to seat two. [Jim Barrett]

Assessing a Homebuilt

As Gibbs’ story might suggest, there are a few things to consider when buying a used E/A-B that might not come up when purchasing a certified aircraft. To start, a potential buyer will need to study up on the model they intend to purchase. The goal is to develop a solid idea of what a well-built example should look like, what types of problems are most common to the design, and what kinds of modifications are likely to crop up. If possible, a look at the plans for the kit can help provide a better sense of how everything should fit together. Buyers looking at Van’s designs have another tool in the drawer: Because of the popularity of all of its airplanes, it’s easy to find “comparable” examples, and several shops have popped up around the country that specialize in RV maintenance and prepurchase inspections.

In Gibbs’ case, he had a source on hand who knew the aircraft nearly as well as the original builder. Not to mention, the RV-4 wasn’t his brother’s first experimental— and Gibbs had experience helping him work on several of those. That familiarity made it a comfortable, reliable purchase, and a solid choice for a first aircraft.

When examining a potential E/A-B buy, the first thing to look at is the overall quality of the build. It’s usually safe to assume that an aircraft with significant problems on the surface (i.e. wavy fiberglass or deformed rivets) is likely to have other, not-so-visible issues underneath. A clean, tidy build with no obvious faults is a good place to start when considering a used experimental.

N527CG is a beautifully built and maintained aircraft with a long and well-documented history. Having been in the family for four years—with significant engine work done during that time—it doesn’t have many surprises left. While Gibbs’ particular situation might be hard to come by for another first-time E/A-B buyer, it does bring up the importance of taking the time to talk with people who know and have worked on the airplane. If a builder isn’t excited to talk about the trials and triumphs of making an aircraft, it’s probably time to look for a different one to buy.

Another aspect to pay close attention to with an experimental is how the builder might have modified the design from the original plans or kit components. Mods are common in this segment and can significantly affect the performance and handling characteristics of the model. While this provides a lot of room to adapt a design for its intended mission, it is a potential trouble spot for a buyer who will be tasked with figuring out exactly how, where, and why the aircraft differs from factory specifications and to understand if the nature of the modification is common (therefore vetted by the fleet, or at least some of it) or an outlier. In general, the fewer mods the better when it comes to buying a used E/A-B.

As previously discussed, N527CG received its biggest mod while in family hands and was then flown for a meaningful period of time. Post-modification performance reports were likely to be accurate. Even so, Gibbs says his first flight in N527CG was a memorable experience. He’d completed his tailwheel training in a Cessna 140 and flew with a friend to get in some dual in a different RV-4 before heading out in his own airplane. Gibbs was smart to do so, but even better are full transition courses available for most RVs that have proven to reduce risk for pilots new to the type. With the engine modifications giving it more power (and being solo in the cockpit), it took off like a rocket. As it should: The RV-4’s maximum gross weight is 1,000 pounds less than a Cessna 172’s of similar horsepower.

While it seems obvious, it is important to take the time to check which equipment has been installed before buying an aircraft. Returning to the flexibility aspect, the options can vary far more widely in an E/A-B than in a certified model. An airplane outfitted with old, unsupported avionics isn’t a great place to start unless the buyer is planning to overhaul it themselves. Especially for a first-time E/A-B owner, it is worth looking for an aircraft with an updated panel.

The panel in Gibbs’ RV-4 is set up with a Dynon FlightDEK-D180, Garmin GTR 200 radio, and BendixKing KT-71 transponder. While the current avionics aren’t exactly getting any younger, he has plans to update them in the near future. Since he is already aiming to do the work necessary to make the aircraft IFR-capable, what it came with is of less interest than it might be to a buyer who doesn’t want to perform any panel work any time soon.

When it comes to assessing a used homebuilt, another thing to look at is which engine and propeller the builder chose to install. A good prospect will have an engine and prop specifically listed by the kit manufacturer. When it comes to reliability, accident records, and resale value, alternative options—those not named by the manufacturer—generally don’t hold up as well.

In the case of N527CG, the engine selected when it was built makes the list. However, the modifications make it a little less of a slam-dunk for a buyer looking for the perfect homebuilt prospect. A stock O-320 produces 150 to 160 hp. Gibbs reports that post-rebuild, the modifications to N527CG’s engine have boosted power above the stock 160 hp. While he had insider intel on the work done and how the aircraft performed afterward, a buyer less familiar would need to put in extra effort to ensure they knew what they were getting.

As a final note on purchasing considerations, when buying a used experimental aircraft (any aircraft, really), a thorough prebuy inspection conducted by someone familiar with the specific model being considered—or at least who knows homebuilts—is highly recommended. The upfront cost of an inspection can keep a “great deal” from turning into a money-guzzling, unflyable, uninsurable headache in the long run.

Owning an RV-4

N527CG has been Gibbs’ for a year and a half. During that time, he has flown it all over the West Coast, building tailwheel time, commuting to work, and mostly just having a great time. These days, the aircraft is based at KAJO, where he is also a member of the California Flyers Club.

In terms of reliability, the airplane hasn’t needed much of anything beyond regular upkeep. In Gibbs’ words, it’s a simple airplane with simple maintenance needs—just a really good aircraft. It has also proven to be a good example of what’s available beyond the occasionally narrow world of certified airplanes.

Flight Future

When asked about his aviation goals, Gibbs says he is thinking hard about getting into aerial firefighting. He’s also very interested in teaching and believes he will always want to spend at least some of his time with students after earning his CFI. When it comes to aircraft ownership, he has no plans on stopping with the RV-4. He is thinking about adding an airplane more suited to traveling cross-country with a family—something like a Cessna 310.

Also on his bucket list, proving that it can be hard to walk away from experimentals once you’ve had a taste, is building an RV-8.

E/A-B vs. Certified

There are always a great many things to consider when buying an airplane. Not only is it a significant investment, it is one in which we trust our lives—and those of our family and friends. With that in mind, it might be easy to assume that flying anything not built in a factory, even ages ago, increases the risk. Rather, like the rest of aviation, it usually comes down to making good, well-reasoned choices.

A certified model with a murky maintenance history and more stop-drilled cracks than solid surface should raise flags with a buyer in much the same way as weirdly rippled sheet metal on a homebuilt.

On the other hand, a good example of each airplane is a ticket to adventures defined by arguing pattern etiquette, grumbling about fuel prices, and knowing that no one else is doing it right, for the love of Orville and Wilbur.

Also, there’s that feeling when the wheels leave the pavement and the sky opens up in front of you. You know the one.

Tyler Gibbs says his first flight in N527CG was a memorable experience. [Jim Barrett]

A Brief Look at the Van’s RV-4

Manufactured by Van’s Aircraft, the RV-4 kit is a clean-sheet design and the first two-seat model in the company’s extraordinarily popular RV line.

It logged its first flight in August 1979, and kits are still available for sale, though now in limited production. To date, there are well more than 1,400 kits on record as having completed their first flights.

The RV-4 is an all-metal, low-wing monoplane that seats two in a tandem configuration. Van’s lists the model as having a top speed of 213 mph (185 knots) with a 180 hp engine, typical empty weight of between 903 and 913 pounds and gross weight of 1,500 pounds. It will carry 32 gallons of fuel and 50 pounds of baggage.

Manufacturer-listed engine options for the RV-4 include the Lycoming O-320-D1A/D2G, IO-320-D1A, and O-360-A1A. Van’s notes that the model was designed for engines between 150 and 160 hp, but engines between 125 and 180 hp are commonly installed and work well.

According to estimates collected by the company, building time for an RV-4 averages between 2,000 and 2,200 “person hours,” with the caveat that many builders don’t log every minute they spend in the shop.

Kit price for the RV-4 is listed at $32,365.

Just add an engine, prop, interior, paint, avionics—and your time.

This column first appeared in the November 2023/Issue 943 of FLYING’s print edition.

Kate O’Connor is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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