Rebirth of the Pioneer RV

Dick VanGrunsven's first airplane returns to the skies

April 1, 2012

Photography by the author

If you saw a yellow flash in the Texas skies that looked a little bit like a Van’s RV–3 kitplane—and yet didn’t look at all like an RV–3—well, your eyes weren’t deceiving you. Richard “Dick” VanGrunsven’s very first airplane, modified from a 65-horsepower Stits Playboy homebuilt that he purchased, has been restored by a new organization, the Friends of the RV–1.

VanGrunsven had rebuilt the Playboy in phases, adding a 125-hp Lycoming engine, bubble canopy, and Hoerner-style wing tips; new cantilever aluminum wings, with flaps, replaced the strut-braced, wood-and-fabric originals. He flew the RV–1—the designation comes from his initials—from 1965 through 1968, when he sold it.

The designer was pleased to learn that it had been found. “Over the years the airplane has taken on more historic value, I guess,” he said modestly. “If the airplane in its own right was valuable, it wouldn’t be moldering away in a hangar.”

RV1 restoration group Jay Pratt, Paul Dye, Louise Hose, Ernie Butcher, Bruce Bohannon, Carl Martin, Stan Price, and Will Carlton pause for a group photo during an unofficial Friends of the RV–1 work session.

The airplane is significant because it launched the Van’s Aircraft line of all-aluminum aircraft kits, which marks its fortieth anniversary in 2012. Today the company estimates that more than 7,600 of its airplanes are flying. “I figured I’d taken [the RV–1] as far as I realistically could go. [Selling it] allowed me the opportunity to start again from scratch, which I did with the RV–3,” VanGrunsven said. The RV–3, also a single-seat design, first flew in August 1971. (The RV–2 was a glider that he never finished.) Requests for a two-place RV led to the tandem RV–4, followed by the side-by-side RV–6 and the tricycle-gear RV-6A. Next came tailwheel and tricycle versions of the RV–7, –8, and –9; the four-place RV–10; and most recently the RV-12, which meets Light Sport requirements (see “Something to Savor,” October 2010 AOPA Pilot).

At the time, VanGrunsven never imagined the success his designs would find. “It wasn’t that I went into it with a business plan that was realized year by year, it just happened,” he recalled. “It was pretty hard to imagine at that time—there wasn’t a precedent for it. The homebuilt industry was really in its infancy, and nobody knew where it would go.”

He had looked up the RV–1 occasionally in the FAA aircraft registry, but it was Paul Dye of Friendswood, Texas, an EAA technical counselor, who found it during a visit to Dunham Field, a private airport east of Houston. “I looked at the cowling—it said, ‘RV–1.’ It turns out it was owned by a fellow who had done a ground loop; they were doing some repairs.”

It took three years from that discovery to obtain the airplane. “For a long time, we didn’t know who owned it,” Dye recalled. “To me, it’s an awfully significant airplane.” Dye had built an RV–8; his wife bought an RV–6; and together they just completed an RV–3.

In mid-January there was a flurry of activity around the RV–1, tucked in a corner of RV Central, Jay Pratt’s business at Hicks Field northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. Several RV aircraft kits are being completed in the tidy facility, their smooth metal reflecting lights or adjacent aircraft. The solitary RV–1 airframe almost seemed out of place, but it was lavished with attention; weekend work sessions drew as many as 20 people, from as far away as Alabama and California.

Restoration of the RV–1 has become a community effort. “We’ve had some real talent work on this airplane—the best of the best,” said Bruce Bohannon. “Some have flown in and camped for the weekend. I don’t know how many hands have touched this airplane.”

RV1 fuselage work Paul Dye and Will Carlton discuss repairs to the lower fuselage.

Bohannon, of Angleton, Texas, has a long history with RV aircraft. “The first time I flew one, I fell in love with it. That airplane is quite possibly the best airplane I’ve flown in my life,” he said. The only problem? That RV–3, like the RV–1, had only one seat. Bohannon built an RV–4, then he built the Flyin’ Tiger—primarily from RV kit components—in which he went on to set 30 world altitude and time-to-climb records, and an unofficial altitude record of 47,530 feet during his quest to reach 50,000 feet.

VanGrunsven is very modest about his design, Bohannon noted. “The airfoil on that airplane really surprised everybody. I think I could do a four-point roll at 40,000 feet, it flew that well up there. When you tell Van what a fantastic wing it is, he just says, ‘Aw, it’s just an old [NACA] 2300 series I picked from a book.’”

“This has been a really fun project because everybody wants to contribute,” Dye said. “There’s such a depth of RV people in this area, and Jay’s been so generous in donating the use of his shop.”

Louise Hose, Dye’s wife, said the RV–1 project attracts her for two reasons. “We’ve been building on the [RV–] 3 and I’ve picked up a lot of skills. I’ve never built [an airplane] before, and I found that I really enjoy it,” she said. “And this is a really great group—it’s a fun group to be around.”

Stan Price of Grapevine, Texas, shares Hose’s sentiments. “I’ve got a bunch of friends who are RV guys—I’m not—and I really like being around them,” he said. “The craftsmanship of some of these people is amazing.” Price owns a 1946 Swift and is involved with the Swift community.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for everybody concerned,” said R.E. “Ernie” Butcher of League City, Texas, who purchased the aircraft and has by and large orchestrated the project. A relatively new pilot who owned a Taylorcraft F22A then built an RV–8, he’s mustered volunteers and vendors alike to keep the project on track. “We’re trying to put it back as closely as we can to its original configuration, and make it airworthy for its summer tour.” An electrical system is being added—and a starter; the pilot will use a handheld radio, and a remote transponder will help to keep the panel original.

RV-1 engine Stan Price (below, seated) Dye, and Jack Pratt gather around the original Lycoming O-290-D2 engine, generously inspected, tested, and delivered by Aero Sport Power of Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. Next: installing the new exhaust system.

The RV–1’s canopy was cracked, and VanGrunsven noted that it didn’t look like the original; Butcher said it had been replaced with a stock RV–3 canopy. Aero-Plastics molded a new canopy for the airplane.

VanGrunsven himself built new wheel pants and a new lower cowl for the RV–1, Butcher added. “The wheel fairings had been lost. At some point somebody replaced the wheels with a different size, and never put fairings on it,” VanGrunsven said. “Fortunately I still had some molds sitting around that I had used more than 40 years ago, and I made some new ones.”

The RV–1’s first test flight was Sunday, February 19, when Dye logged 20 minutes in the airplane. “It flew just as honest as an airplane could fly—and it flew just like an RV,” Butcher said. “We had hoped to get the flight in earlier but the weather didn’t cooperate.” Not a single squawk resulted from the first flight. “That is a testament to the community that did the work. We had some of the best of the best working on the airplane. And the test flight just brought it all together.”

After some minor touch-up paint, the airplane is ready for its public debut at Sun ’n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, March 27 to April 1.

After Sun ’n Fun the airplane will make a series of appearances, visiting Savannah, Georgia; the Virginia Regional Festival of Flight; Maryland Regional Festival of Flight; Stratford, Ontario, Canada; California for the Golden West Regional Fly-In; and then head north for the Arlington (Washington) Fly-In before setting course for Oshkosh. Butcher said additional stops will be added to the tour; check the website (http://rv-1.org).

Plans are for VanGrunsven to fly the airplane into Oshkosh on the opening day of AirVenture. “I’m up for that,” VanGrunsven said. “The cockpit in that airplane is a little short. And I was a little thinner at the time, so I don’t think I’m going to fit it as well as I did then. If that’s much of a factor I’m not going to want to fly it that far,” he laughed.

The RV–1 will be displayed in Conoco-Phillips Square and eventually moved into the AirVenture Museum for permanent display.

The work of the Friends of the RV–1 is not finished, however. The group has adopted the Eagles Nest project, a high-school-based teen build/fly initiative based on the Van’s RV–12. “By the time the RV–1 is in the museum, we’ll have two or three of these projects going,” Butcher said. “That’s where we’re going, continuing the community aspect we began with the RV–1 project.”

Email the author at mike.collins@aopa.org.

RV-1

Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.