“We set out to create a rugged, utilitarian flying Jeep,” said Ken Kruger, design engineer at Vashon Aircraft, who designed and flight tested the Ranger, the company’s debut aircraft. “It’s meant to fly to out-of-the-way places where people can camp and interact with nature. It’s also economical to operate and sturdy enough to stand up to the demands of flight training.”
Vashon Aircraft, in the Seattle suburbs, quite literally grew out of Dynon Avionics. Vashon’s 20,000-square-foot factory is physically attached to Dynon headquarters in Woodinville. Both firms were founded and are owned by pilot and entrepreneur John Torode, although they operate independently.
The Ranger is a two-seat Special Light Sport aircraft (SLSA) with a 100-horsepower Continental O-200D engine and fixed-pitch Catto propeller. Predictably, it comes with a Dynon glass panel (including autopilot), and it seems well suited to its muddy birthplace in the Pacific Northwest with large 6.00 by 6-inch tires.
Secrets are hard to keep in the close-knit and gossipy aviation community—yet somehow Vashon Aircraft has stayed silent about itself, and its airplane, for the past five years. That’s particularly remarkable since the Ranger has been flying at Paine Field (PAE) in Everett, Washington—Boeing’s airliner epicenter—for more than two years, and it’s logged hundreds of takeoffs and landings there.
Unlike other firms that announce new airplanes years before they are ready to fly, Vashon has quietly designed, built, and tested multiple aircraft and obtained ASTM approval for the SLSA designation. The company also has performed drop tests and spin tests that go far beyond regulatory requirements.
“We set out to create a rugged, utilitarian flying Jeep.” —Ken Kruger, Vashon Aircraft design engineer“I don’t think any other SLSA has been tested as extensively as the Ranger,” said Kruger, who previously served as chief engineer at Van’s Aircraft and played a central role in designing that company’s RV–12 LSA. “The Ranger is a highly refined airplane.”
The similarities between the Ranger and RV–12 are hard to miss. They’re both metal, tricycle-gear airplanes that use pull rivets and pushrod controls, with mass-balanced ailerons, composite cowls, and floor-mounted control sticks—and they have similar wing airfoils.
But it would be wrong to think of the Ranger as a high-wing RV–12. The Ranger has a different engine (Continental, not Rotax), wing design (one-piece with flaps, not individually removable with flaperons), and tail (elevator, not stabilator).
Also, Vashon won’t sell the Ranger as a kit. It’s only available as a finished airplane from the factory. That seems surprising since Dynon is a leader in LSA and Experimental avionics, and both Kruger and Vashon General Manager Scott Taylor have many years of experience at kit firms Van’s Aircraft and Glasair, respectively. But Kruger said the Ranger has no real price advantage for homebuilders.
“An RV–12 kit [including engine and avionics] costs about $80,000 before you build it,” he said. “The Ranger is $99,500 complete, so there’s no real economic incentive for building it yourself.”
The Ranger is far bigger, taller, and roomier than it looks in photos, and the baggage area—for an LSA—is cavernous. The nosewheel casting is big and beefy, and the airplane stands high on its big tires. There’s no wing strut to step around or flap hinges to knock your noggin. Even the curved pitot tube (a tribute to unicorns? Or the A–6 Intruder?) is placed high above the wing in preparation for a future floatplane version.
The tail is conventional except for an antiservo tab at the base of the rudder (which requires greater force to move). The ailerons, like those on the RV series, deflect upward twice as much as downward to reduce adverse yaw.
The engine and installation are standard, and there are no cowl flaps. The aircraft doors are enormous, and there are no stops so they can fold all the way forward. Rudder pedals are adjustable, but you’ve got to set them before climbing in.
Stepping into the cockpit is a two-step process that involves grabbing one of the V-braces and sliding into the seat, then moving one leg over and beyond the control stick.
The cockpit (46 inches wide) is incredibly roomy, and Kruger (6 feet 3 inches tall) has plenty of head, leg, and shoulder room. Visibility is exceptional.
Startup and taxi are normal, and the free-castering nosewheel requires some differential braking. Taxiing to Runway 34L at Paine Field felt like stepping onto the set of Land of the Giants as we navigated acres of widebody Boeing jets. Once cleared for takeoff, we got off the 9,010-foot runway after a ground run of about 400 feet. At maximum gross weight (1,320 pounds), cruise climb at 85 KIAS netted a 900 fpm rate of climb.
The combination of the expansive view; smooth power from the Continental engine/Catto prop; and crisp, beautifully harmonized controls—along with a gloriously clear winter day over the Puget Sound—made for a thoroughly positive Ranger introduction. We met up with the photo airplane and flew together by snowy Mount Baker, then turned west to the San Juan Islands.
Eventually, we broke away for single-ship maneuvers and explored the corners of the flight envelope. With engine power at idle and flaps up, the wing doesn’t stall in a traditional sense. Full back stick results in mild buffeting and a mushy nose bob at 45 knots, then the airplane settles into a gently porpoising descent at about 50 KIAS.
“We don’t have an airframe parachute,” Kruger said. “But the wing acts a lot like one.”
Stalls at half flaps (20 degrees) and full flaps (40 degrees) are much the same, but the nose-bob takes place at 43 and 42 knots respectively.
High cruise (2,700 rpm) at 3,500 feet nets 117 KTAS (115 KIAS) at 5.5 gph. With wheel fairings or other aerodynamic cleanups, the Ranger could easily reach the 120 KCAS limit for the LSA category.
Steep turns at 60 degrees of bank are a playful matter of putting the Skyview HDX velocity vector on the horizon and pulling hard enough to keep it there. Full aileron deflection results in a lively roll rate of about 100 degrees per second.
We dropped into Roche Harbor Airport for a series of takeoffs and landings on Runway 7, and the 30-foot-wide pavement seemed rightly proportioned for the Ranger, rather than the ocean of rubber-stained concrete at Paine Field.
Full-flap landings with a final approach speed of 55 KIAS consistently resulted in ground rolls of about 600 feet with light to moderate braking. Takeoffs at a variety of flap settings were about 200 feet shorter.
The Ranger was delightfully obedient and confidence-inspiring throughout a full day of flying—but there were a few objectionable noises. A metal panel on the fuselage would “oil can” with a bang whenever we accelerated through 80 knots, and when approaching the critical angle of attack, roiling air made it sound like someone was shaking the lid on a metal trash can. I’m sure these sounds can be suppressed with a few strategically placed stiffeners.
The more we flew, the less I found myself thinking about the airplane itself. Instead of demanding attention, the Ranger recedes into a sublime platform for aerial viewing. And it goes where you point it effortlessly.
“The airplane’s visibility encourages you to keep your eyes looking outside,” Kruger said. “Its responsive handling qualities buttress safety, too.”
The Ranger is an economical trainer, a capable adventure machine—and a compelling value. That’s an especially rare thing to say about a new airplane because so few brand-new models can truly justify their price premiums over used ones. The Ranger doesn’t suffer by comparison because there are no other backcountry/trainer/SLSAs with similar speed, range, or internal volume. The CubCrafters Carbon Cub, consistently the top-selling U.S. SLSA, is a better backcountry airplane—but it’s not a primary trainer, and its price point is far higher.
The Ranger reminds me of a Honda Element, a cleverly designed vehicle that appeals to outdoor enthusiasts. Both can carry mountain bikes and bulky gear, and their seats fold flat so you can camp in them.
Best of all, this is only the beginning for Vashon Aircraft. The young company makes no secret of its desire to make the Ranger a foundation for future designs including, perhaps, FAR Part 23 models.
Part of Dynon’s success is that it takes the risk—and absorbs the cost—of building avionics in advance and stocking them so that they’re ready to ship on the day they’re ordered. By starting Ranger production before the airplane is even revealed, Vashon Aircraft is taking a similar approach.
Vashon will fly multiple Rangers to EAA AirVenture in 2018 for their debut at the world’s biggest airshow. My chief concern about the Ranger is whether Vashon Aircraft will be able to keep up with demand once this unique airplane’s capabilities are widely known.
The Ranger isn’t just an airplane that individuals, flight schools, and clubs are going to want to have. It’s an airplane they’ll feel they really need—and they’ll be right.AOPA
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