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Flying with VanFlying with Van

Just another pilot at the airportJust another pilot at the airport

The sun is barely up, and I’m helping pull a Van’s RV–10 out of a hangar on a small grass strip west of Portland, Oregon. The RV–10 is the largest in a long line of aircraft from Van’s Aircraft, the company that has more homebuilt aircraft flying than any other in history.

The sun is barely up, and I’m helping pull a Van’s RV–10 out of a hangar on a small grass strip west of Portland, Oregon. The RV–10 is the largest in a long line of aircraft from Van’s Aircraft, the company that has more homebuilt aircraft flying than any other in history. And the hangar isn’t just any hangar. Under a layer of dust sits the original Van’s RV–8, a tandem two-place known for its fighter plane flying qualities. There are some other airplane parts in the corners and behind the RV-8 is a door to a workshop with odds and ends indicating the presence of an aircraft designer.

The hangar belongs to Dick Van Grunsven, who built his first aircraft nearly 40 years ago. And as we push the RV–10 onto the grass runway, it’s apparent that he has no intentions of slowing down any time soon. Van, as he’s known to many, lives next door to the hangar and is eager to get in the air before some clouds and rain blow in.

There’s a definite efficiency to Van’s process as the airplane is pushed out and onto the runway, which starts at his hangar door. It’s with good reason; he flies to work most mornings, a short hop of about 10 minutes to the company’s headquarters at the Aurora State Airport south of Portland.

A modest man, it is very unlikely you will hear Van brag about any of his accomplishments in the aviation world. Despite designing and performing first flights on the most popular line of homebuilt aircraft in the world, he says all of the attention he receives can make him uncomfortable. Van is most comfortable just talking about airplanes as if he were another pilot at the airport. And despite four decades of high-performance powered flight, I would also learn his favorite kind of aviation involves flying with no engine at all.

After packing a small amount of personal gear, Van gets in the left seat. Rian, one of his young engineers, sits in the right seat, and soon we’re accelerating down the runway, departing eastbound for Oshkosh on a route he has flown many, many times before.

When Van made his first trip to Oshkosh in an airplane entirely of his own design, he flew alone. The RV–3 is a single-place sport airplane Van developed in the early 1970s. It was with this airplane he developed his total performance mantra that he has kept right through to the RV–10.

As we cross over the jagged mountains of southern Idaho, Van talks about the history behind the RVs that have preceded the –10 we’re flying in now. It’s apparent that Van thinks like most pilots. And like many pilots, Van has long wanted an airplane that could do it all. Something that was fast, fun, efficient, and able to operate away from paved airports.

It might seem unusual for a man whose airplanes are best known for their sporty flying characteristics and high speeds, but being able to operate out of a variety of landing strips has been important since the beginning. “I wanted to be able to land at any strip where the other airplanes were capable of flying in and out,” he says, talking about the numerous small grass strips scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest. Actually this requirement was part of the birth of Van’s Aircraft.

After graduating from college with a degree in engineering, Van bought a Stits Playboy. It was a fun airplane to fly, but there was a problem. The grass strip on his father’s farm was only 800 feet long, and the Stits landed at 65 mph, a bit fast for short-field work. So Van set about to design a set of wings that would slow down his approach speed. The new cantilever wings included flaps and the modified Stits could make it in and out of the small strip. The wing improved the cruise speed of the Playboy and increased the airplane’s agility as well. He would later call his hybrid the RV–1.

A few years later Van had sold his RV–1 and began designing an airplane from scratch. He wanted an airplane that satisfied his desire for a single design that could do it all. And he wanted it to be simple and affordable to build.

The RV–3 flew in 1971, and after that first trip to Oshkosh, demand grew as other pilots wanted the same kind of all-around capabilities Van enjoyed in his little single-seater. By 1973 Van had started Van’s Aircraft and was selling partial kits to homebuilders who wanted their own RV–3. Van flew his airplane around to airshows and fly-ins performing aerobatic routines and demonstrating the wide range of performance his design provided, as well as the simplicity of design and construction.

Eventually demand grew for a two-place version and along came the tandem RV–4. “The first two planes weren’t so good for first dates,” Van says, so he developed the side-by-side RV–6. Over the past several years these models have been upgraded to the roomier RV–7 (side by side) and the RV–8 (tandem).

Up to this point, all of Van’s designs were fully aerobatic and could get off the ground in less than 700 feet at gross weight. With some pilots adding 200-horsepower engines, speeds well over 200 mph were commonplace and climb rates topped 2,000 fpm. The Van’s faithful, or “Van’s Air Force” as they are known, truly enjoyed an airplane with the total performance Van had set out to achieve with his first design.

But realizing many pilots didn’t necessarily need every part of the total performance package, the RV–9 was developed as an economical alternative for those pilots not looking for 200-mph cruise or aerobatic capabilities. But there was one lingering question still being asked by many of the “repeat offenders,” as Van refers to the loyal customers who have built more than one of his designs. Any chance we could get a four-place? Eventually Van relented and developed the RV–10. The airplane retains almost all of the characteristics that have made Van’s designs popular over the years.

Leaving the Rockies behind and flying over the flatlands of Montana we’re flying past long lines of cumulus clouds stretching across the horizon. Talking with Van alternates between explaining his favorite varieties of strawberries (his snack of choice for flying) and his passion for sailplanes. “I really enjoy the mental challenge soaring presents,” he says of the countless hours he spends searching for invisible lift.

Much of Van’s time behind a stick these days is in his self-launch glider, which allows him to get to thermaling altitudes without a towplane. He practices soaring and competes regularly in sailplane competitions throughout the West.

Eventually we continue the discussion about the RV–10 and the considerations that went into his first four-place design during the two-year development period. Like the original RV–3, the RV–10 provides a nice compromise of high cruise speed and good low-speed handling/short-field capabilities. Unlike most of his designs, the RV–10 is not aerobatic. It wasn’t designed for aileron rolls and hammerhead turns, but the airplane is still fun to fly.

“It has good Sunday flying qualities,” Van says, simplifying the description. The total performance is still there, if skewed a bit toward the cross-country and carrying side of the package.

But it’s apparent that after more than 35 years of flying his own airplanes to Oshkosh, and his mind on the soaring competitions as much as anything these days, Van is very happy with his four-place airplane. The spacious comfort in the cabin and the ability to haul four people and cargo make the airplane attractive to an audience far beyond the initial Van’s Air Force customer base.

Jason Paur is a freelance writer and pilot living in Seattle.

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