AOPA Members DO more LEARN more SAVE more - Get MORE out of being a pilot - CLICK HERE

The year everything changed

Not long ago, news of a kit manufacturer flying a prototype airplane would have been a minor footnote at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

  • EAA AirVenture Oshkosh attendees are reflected in the fuselage of the Van’s Aircraft RV–15 prototype July 25. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A variety of Van's Aircraft models are on static display at Boeing Plaza to help honor the manufacturer's fiftieth anniversary during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Clouds frame the control tower at Wittman Regional Airport July 25. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Volunteers build a Sonex airplane during the One Week Wonder program at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. The program includes an open invitation to anyone who cares to buck a rivet to join the build. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The North 40 is packed with aircraft and camping gear. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Pilots and aviation enthusiasts attend one of the many AOPA seminars offered during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA Legal Services Plan attorney Ian Arendt greets a member during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin July 29. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Mindy Lindheim and AOPA Aviation Events Manager Kim Trischman pose for a photo before their flight a North American B–25J Mitchell bomber. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Clouds frame a Grumman F7F-3P TigerCat and a pair of North American P-51 Mustangs during a formation flight courtesy of Lewis Air Legends and Breitling. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Experimental Aircraft Association Chairman Jack Pelton addresses what he believed was the largest group of female aviators to gather on Boeing Plaza for the annual group photo, part of the EAA WomenVenture activities. Boeing's ecoDemonstrator, a jet powered by sustainable fuel with other environment-friendly technology, provided the background. Photo by David Tulis.
  • WomenVenture group photo participants divided their attention between cameras on the ground and interesting airplanes overhead. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Van's Aircraft was not the only airplane maker breaking its low-wing mold: Sling Aircraft flew three examples of its first high-wing variant to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh from South Africa. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Attendees gather at the AOPA 39 Lounge during the night airshow July 27. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Short takeoff and landing spectators attend the evening STOL demonstration. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Short takeoff and landing pilot Warren Grobbelaar performs in a Cessna 180 during an evening demonstration at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh July 28. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Fireworks illuminate the AOPA Sweepstakes Cessna 170B during the night airshow at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin, July 27. Photo by David Tulis.

Even though the world’s largest airshow is ostensibly about “experimental” aviation, the real action has long been in the FAA-certified market where manufacturers as large as Airbus and Boeing show off their wares.

In 2022, however, the arrival of the first Van’s Aircraft RV–15 was a seismic event. The airplane was mobbed as soon as it appeared on the flight line, and the grass around it was quickly trampled in the outline of the single-engine, high-wing, backcountry airplane that created such excitement and anticipation.

It shows how much times have changed that an experimental/amateur-built (E/AB) kit airplane creates far more buzz than any action by a major general aviation manufacturer. Perhaps it’s an indication of how little is happening in the FAA-certified market for single-engine, piston airplanes that a new E/AB model gets a greeting like the Beatles.

Sure, this is the EAA convention, so you’d expect the tribe of aircraft home builders to get fired up about a new model. But the level of interest in the RV–15 reaches way beyond rivet bangers.

Pilots who have no intention of building an RV–15 welcome its arrival because they can see themselves buying one, eventually, on the used market. They’re interested in the details of the airplane’s design and testing because it’s just plain interesting—and it involves dedicated and determined people making progress toward a worthwhile new airplane. It also spurs their imagination about the dynamic and challenging brand of adventure flying the RV–15 is made for.

The RV–15 is the first high-wing aircraft Van’s Aircraft has designed during its 50 years of existence—but the new model brings more than stylistic differences. More than 11,000 Van’s Aircraft RVs have been completed and flown over the years, and most are highly efficient, versatile designs built and flown by pilots who share an affinity for sporty handling and control harmony as well as speed and range.

The RV–15, by contrast, is a rough and rugged all-terrain vehicle at heart. And just like other ATVs, it’ll attract an adventurous clientele that values extreme performance. Big tires, vortex generators, high-lift devices, and boosted engines are coming, along with under-wing hammocks, camping mods, gun doors, and long-range fuel tanks.

“The RV–15 is going to attract builders who never would have considered building a low-wing RV,” said Doug Reeves, founder of Van’s Air Force, a website dedicated to the Van’s Aircraft pilot and builder community. “I don’t think the company realizes how much its culture is about to change.”

Reeves has long advocated a high-wing RV, and he said he won’t be surprised if Van’s Aircraft sells 1,000 kits the first day the RV–15 goes on the market. He said he’s certain the RV–15 will become the most popular model in the RV series, even though the company won’t begin selling kits until 2023 at the earliest, and it hasn’t set a price for them.

With so much focus on the RV–15, it was easy to overlook the arrival of another high-wing kit airplane, the four-seat Sling. A group of three of the Rotax-powered aircraft arrived during AirVenture after completing a marathon series of flights from South Africa. The trio crossed the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Wisconsin, a testament to the company’s faith in its product.

As in previous years, there was a great deal of talk about electric airplanes, urban air mobility concepts, and investment in this area—but little of that’s tangible, yet.

I frequently get the unsettling sense that great tectonic shifts are taking place just under aviation’s surface, and they’re soon to burst forth with exciting new products that will change the way we live and fly: electric engines with enough battery power to fly fast and far; tiny, fuel-efficient turboprops that can replace piston engines throughout the legacy fleet; artificial intelligence and automation that go far beyond Garmin’s Autoland system to cover every phase of flight from takeoff to shutdown.

Even though the grounds and displays at AirVenture look the same, the arrival of the RV–15 shows the aviation world has changed. These emerging technologies are a sign that a revolution is coming.

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.

Related Articles