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Van's Aircraft founder established successful safety program

VanGrunsven: 'No shortcuts' to developing fundamental skills

Van's Aircraft Founder Richard VanGrunsven credits professional transition training for a dramatic improvement in the safety record for the RV series of kit aircraft in the last decade, ­and he said similar safety benefits are available to the broader general aviation community.

GA Safety Award winner and Van's Aircraft founder Dick VanGrunsven accepts the inaugural award presented by the AOPA Air Safety Institute during the third annual R.A. 'Bob' Hoover Trophy reception in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2018. Photo by David Tulis.

The number of RVs has doubled since 2008 while the total number of fatal accidents has been cut in half. Over 10,000 RVs ranging from single-seat RV-3s to four-seat RV-10s have been registered and flown, far more than any other kit airplane.

“Transition training has made a big difference,” said VanGrunsven, 78, who founded Van’s Aircraft in his native Oregon in 1973. “There’s broad acceptance of transition training embedded in the RV community, and people recognize that when they’re well prepared, they’re better, more confident pilots, and they enjoy flying more. But that didn’t happen overnight.”

VanGrunsven said he regarded his fixed-gear, straight-wing, all-metal designs as “easy to fly” when they were originally introduced, and he didn’t see a need for type-specific training. But pilots mishandling the controls led to needless accidents and convinced him that the company could do more to improve safety.

VanGrunsven and others convinced the FAA to grant waivers to some highly qualified flight instructors that allow them to get paid for teaching in experimental airplanes. (The experimental category prohibits “commercial” aircraft use, including flight instruction.)

Van’s Aircraft set up a network of flight instructors around the country, and they have provided many thousands of hours of dual instruction in RVs.

“The instructors found that a lot of pilots are lacking basic stick-and-rudder skills,” VanGrunsven said. “The transition training they offer accomplishes two purposes: It sharpens their basic skills. And it gets them acquainted with the flying qualities and characteristics of RVs.”

VanGrunsven credits experienced RV builders and pilots for using “peer influence” to convince other builders and RV buyers to seek out professional training.

“That’s now embedded in our community,” he said. “It takes time, but it’s something we can carry through all of general aviation.”

VanGrunsven said he would like to expand the flight training network for experimental airplanes beyond type-specific training. A side-by-side RV-6 or RV-7, for example, could serve as a tailwheel trainer, and they can help prepare pilots to fly similar—but not identical—aircraft models.

“We can expand the infrastructure that’s already in place,” he said. “There’s no reason flight schools couldn’t operate (experimental) aircraft.”

VanGrunsven, a longtime CFI, said there are no shortcuts, or high-tech substitutes, to developing fundamental pilot skills. He emphasizes slow flight, rudder acuity, and a deep understanding of the total drag curve. He also looks at National Transportation Safety Board general aviation accident reports for RV mishaps.

“I look at accidents almost daily to see if any of our boys made the list,” he said. “I ask myself whether those accidents could have been avoided with better stick-and-rudder skills. It’s an area I know can be improved.”

Dave Hirschman
Dave Hirschman
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.
Topics: Experimental, Aviation Industry, Training and Safety

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