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Great experimentGreat experiment

AOPA prepares its first amateur-built sweepstakes airplane

The Canadian prairie is a harsh place in winter. Whipping, sub-zero winds roar down from the arctic, and nothing in the flat, featureless terrain even slows them down. But it’s here, at an oil-patch town in Saskatchewan, that AOPA found its 2020 Sweepstakes RV–10—a diamond in the rough that will undergo a transformation—giving AOPA members new insights into the performance, technology, and value that can be found in Experimental/amateur-built aircraft.
Great Experiment
Photography by Chris Rose

“This airplane was built in 2007 and it’s been flown regularly and well maintained during the time I’ve owned it,” said Rod Benning, a Canadian trucking company operator, who owned the Van’s RV–10 for more than six years before selling it to AOPA in early 2019. “But as you can see from the chips in the paint [where gravel hit the leading edges], the airplane hasn’t been babied. I learned to fly in it, and so did my partner, so it’s done more than its share of takeoffs and landings—and not all of them were things of beauty, if you know what I mean.”

Benning, 55, is stocky and gruff, has a thick beard, drives a Ford F-250 pickup, and seems impervious to cold. He wears a short-sleeve Harley-Davidson shirt and no jacket on a 20-degree Fahrenheit day and calls the weather “mild, bordering on a heat wave.”

Benning is quick to laugh, particularly at his own foibles; seems to know just about everyone in Estevan, his hometown of 10,000 people a few miles north of the North Dakota border; and his accent could have made him a character in the movie Fargo.

He breezed through flight training, then used the RV–10 primarily for cross-country trips to visit a daughter in Edmonton, about 600 miles away. But when his daughter and her family moved closer to home, Benning’s rationale for owning an airplane disappeared.

“I’ve got to have a purpose to fly, and that purpose went away,” he said. “I know that if I kept the airplane it would end up sitting in a hangar, and that’s no good. Better to let it go where it will keep flying.”

Benning bought the airplane with a partner who also received dual instruction in the airplane and soloed in it. But his partner never followed up with the knowledge test or checkride and didn’t become a private pilot.

“He was the perfect partner in a lot of ways because he paid half the costs and hardly ever flew,” Benning said. “But I would have felt better if he would have taken the checkride and completed the process. He was just too busy with work and family life, I guess.”

Let’s Fly

My first impression of the RV–10 is that it sure is yellow—but not just one yellow.

Even under the fluorescent lights in the dim T-hangar, it’s obvious the wing tips and fuselage are different shades. The tips are banana, the fuselage is mustard. Black and green accent marks on the fuselage are vinyl, so I disregard them since they’re sure to be peeled off early in the restoration process.

More than 33,000. Number of amateur-built aircraft certified by the FAA.
10,467. The number of RV aircraft completed and flown, as of May 9.
51 percent.  Portion of the aircraft that an individual must build for the aircraft to be registered in the amateur-built category.
The airplane’s metal work appears excellent, the fiberglass fit and finish is very good, and the plexiglass is free of crazing. The airframe seems almost perfectly straight and well rigged, and the fixed trim tab on the rudder is barely deflected.

The 260-horsepower Lycoming IO-540 from Aero Sport Power in British Columbia was installed new when the airplane was built, and it has flown about 620 hours since then. It also had a top overhaul with six new Lycoming cylinders about 250 flight hours ago when some of the exhaust valves showed unusual wear. The three-blade MT propeller appeared normal, other than the fact that it, too, was painted yellow.

Great Experiment
AOPA updated the panel with three big, bright screens by Advanced Flight Systems that provide graphical information about the airplane and its surroundings, including flight instruments, engine health, weather, traffic, terrain, and navigational information. An Avidyne IFD 550 supplies the avionics suite’s brain power—and it can also show GPS-based synthetic vision on its own touch screen. Pilots can customize the screens.

The left primary flight display shows flight information (with synthetic vision), the center display is a moving map, and the right primary flight display acts as an engine monitor.Inside, the bare-bones interior was functional with comfortable, cloth-covered memory foam seats. The instrument panel was state of the art at the time it was built, with three 7-inch GRT screens and a Garmin 496 portable GPS. But the pace of improvement in avionics is so rapid that the panel seemed quite dated. AOPA has since upgraded to a digital panel by Advanced Flight Systems with instrument flight rules capability, and will complete a full refurbishment of the aircraft before giving it away in 2020.

Outside the heated hangar, the morning sun had climbed well above the horizon.

“Let’s push it out and fly before the wind comes up,” Benning suggested. “We’ve got a nice day to fly, and that’s kind of rare this time of year.”

Winning the Lottery

I buckle into the four-point harness in the right seat while Benning uses a tow bar on the free-castering nosewheel to pull the airplane outside over the crunchy, dry snow. He opens the gull door on the left side and climbs into the roomy cockpit. Even with his broad shoulders, the 48-inch-wide cockpit is roomy enough to keep us from bumping.

We taxi to Runway 26 at the nontowered airfield and “backtrack,” as the Canadians say, to use the full length. Despite the airfield elevation of 2,000 feet msl, the cold, dry air lowers the density altitude to a negative number: minus 1,300 feet.

Benning gingerly adds full power and the RV–10 carrying two people and a full 60 gallons of avgas smoothly accelerates to its 65-knot rotation speed. With light back-pressure on the floor-mounted control stick, we’re airborne and climbing at 110 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS).

The ceiling and visibility are limitless, so the razor-sharp delineation between blue sky and white ground is remarkable in all directions.

Benning hands over the controls and I go through the usual get-acquainted maneuvers: slow flight, stalls, steep turns, and the full range of flap settings. The RV–10’s thick wing is incredibly benign with a gentle, power-off stall break and slight left wing drop at just 48 KIAS. Normal cruise at 75 percent power was 172 knots true airspeed (KTAS) at 5,500 feet with fuel consumption of 11.5 gallons per hour. Economy cruise at 65 percent power was 165 KTAS at 9.2 gph. Normal approach speed at full gross weight is 75 KIAS.

The engine/prop combination is exceptionally smooth.

I brought an electrically heated jacket for what I expected to be a cold and drafty cockpit but, perhaps not surprisingly, this Canadian airplane was fitted with a highly effective heater. In fact, I started to regret wearing a jacket at all.

After a few takeoffs and landings, there seemed no doubt that this RV–10 was an excellent example of the versatile line of Van’s Aircraft designs that dominates the Experimental/amateur-built market with more than 10,000 registered and flying. That initial impression was confirmed the next day when Benning and I made a short hop to Minot, North Dakota, to clear U.S. Customs. Then we flew 1,350 wind-aided nautical miles to Maryland in two legs that totaled seven flight hours.

Tucked away in a hangar at AOPA’s home base in Frederick, Maryland, Benning patted the RV–10 on the cowl and silently thanked it for helping him become a pilot, and carrying him, his family, and friends on hundreds of hours of memorable flights throughout their rugged homeland.

“I feel like the airplane just won the lottery,” he said. “It’s a good airplane now. It’ll be a great airplane when you’re done with it.”

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Great Experiment
Detritus from the old instrument panel is heaped in a corner of the hangar during the avionics upgrade. All of the AOPS Sweepstakes RV–10’s original wiring was replaced during the new panel installation. It was a big, complicated job that was streamlined by the “Advanced Control Module” (ACM), a comprehensive and unique power distribution system that consolidates the entire aircraft electrical system in a single location. Flaps, trim, autopilot, avionics, lights, and other electronics are connected to the ACM with pre-fabricated and tested harnesses which eliminate hundreds of failure-prone solder connections. The result is a lighter, simpler to operate, and self-diagnosing electrical system that’s far less time-consuming to install.
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.

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