14401 NE Keil Road
Total Performance, a term coined to describe the RVs, refers to their wide performance envelope and sporty handling qualities. While the RVs are excellent cross-country airplanes, they are not simply "go-fast" machines. They are also aerobatic (except RV-9A) and have outstanding low speed characteristics and short-field capabilities; a rare combination. First and foremost, though, they are fun to fly. Their controls are light, responsive, and beautifully harmonized. Chances are that you have never flown an airplane that offers anything approaching the exhilarating sensation of an RV.
Van's Aircraft, Inc. is the world's largest producer of kitplanes. The company ships the equivalent of 650 full kits a year for completion by home builders. The company has developed a half-dozen new models in addition to the original RV-3, including a four-place version.
More than 3,800 RV kits have been assembled since the company began offering them in 1973 (even more have been delivered but not yet completed).
Flying magazine reports that kits for two-place RV models average around 1,600 hours to build and require an average investment between $50,000 and $60,000. The time spent building the kits can be nearly halved by paying an extra $8,000 for a partially completed QuickBuild kit.
Van's is based at Aurora Municipal Airport in Oregon, where it operates a 63,000-square-foot factory. Founder Dick VanGrunsven commutes there from his fly-in community and pilots the first prototype of each new model.
Exports account for around 15 percent of sales, reports the Oregonian. The kits have been shipped to more than 40 countries around the world; Nigeria formed a local enterprise to assemble them as primary trainers for its air force. Another company, in Malaysia, partially assembles QuickBuild kits for sale throughout the world.
At the age of 16, Richard E. VanGrunsven learned to fly on his family's farm near Cornelius, Oregon. While a teen, VanGrunsven visited experimental aviation pioneers George Bogardus and Hobie Sorrell via their private landing strips.
He joined the Air Force in 1961 after earning an engineering degree from the University of Portland. VanGrunsven aimed to become a fighter pilot but a vision test led instead to a three-year stint as a communications officer.
Upon returning to civilian life, VanGrunsven worked as a designer for Hyster, an Oregon manufacturer of lift trucks. He acquired a kit aircraft--the diminutive, aerobatic Stits Playboy--and began making his own performance-enhancing modifications. He replaced the original wood and fabric wings with aluminum ones of his own design. The result, dubbed the RV-1 after VanGrunsven's initials, was completed in 1965. This plane was sold three years and 550 flight hours later.
A subsequent model, the RV-3, first flew in August 1971. The next year, VanGrunsven flew the prototype to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where its high performance generated interest from pilots who wanted a hot rod of their own.
With a narrow fuselage and bubble canopy, visibility was excellent. The low wing, aluminum skin, and taildragger configuration were reminiscent of World War II fighter aircraft.
Kits for Sale in 1973
The first kits were made available to the public in 1973. The company's first product was the single place RV-3. It was a sport airplane designed to fly mostly in good weather. It could pull 6 Gs, compared to the standard Cessna 150's 3.8 Gs, and was capable of some basic aerobatic maneuvers.
According to Oregon Business, the enterprise grossed about $72,000 in the first year, when the company sold 35 kits. Van's was originally based in the garage at VanGrunsven's home in Forest Grove, Oregon, and moved to the Aurora Airport in 1990.
Michigan builder Art Chard became the first to complete an RV-3 in 1975. (A later model of Chard's own design would provide some ideas for the subsequent RV-6.) VanGrunsven's next kit, first flown in August 1979, was the RV-4, which added a second seat behind the lead pilot.
While they required hundreds of hours of assembly before they could be flown, kitplanes became popular due to their low cost and high performance. While other kit makers embraced composite materials, however, Van's Aircraft's planes retained many similarities to conventionally produced aircraft. They were largely constructed of aluminum, and the panels were riveted on.
Gaining Acceptance in the 1980s and 1990s
As product liability lawsuits grounded virtually all conventional aircraft manufacturers in the United States in the 1980s, kitplane makers swept in to fill the void. With kits, builders assumed legal responsibility as manufacturers. (There have always been home builders in the aircraft industry; before the availability of kits they drew up planes themselves or purchased them from others.)
In the mid-1980s Van's introduced the RV-6, a two-seater with a side-by-side configuration. Though designed for touring rather than performance, it was only fractionally slower than the RV-4, whose wing design it shared. All of Van's Aircraft's planes to this point were taildraggers, with two main landing gear under the wings and a small tailwheel. The RV-6A derivative offered tricycle gear instead (incorporating a steerable nosewheel rather than a tailwheel). The RV-6/A series would become Van's Aircraft's best-selling model. Incorporating years of refinements, the tandem seat RV-8 began testing in 1995. It offered a wider cockpit and more luggage room.
The total kitplane market was estimated at $200 million in the early 1990s, noted the Oregonian. Van's employed 31 people and had sold an estimated 3,500 kits by then.
Van's began introducing partially completed quick-build kits, which cut construction time by a third or half (anything more than 49 percent completed would not be considered an amateur experimental aircraft). In late 1995, Tong Kooi Ong, CEO of Malaysia's Phileo Allied Group, established PhileoAviation Sdn Bhd to assemble RV-6A QuickBuild kits for sale in the United States, Malaysia, and around the world. (Tong, a "brash" and "impish" young entrepreneur, was one of Malaysia's fastest rising elites, according to the Asian Wall Street Journal.) The first of these kits, priced at $11,000 (MYR 27,940), were delivered in November 1996. Separately, Nigeria ordered 60 RV-6As as primary trainers for its air force, and a local company was established there to assemble them.
Van's began testing the RV-9A in 1997 and offered the first kits for sale about two years later. The entry-level RV-9A, which had side-by-side seats and tricycle landing gear, was designed to use lower-powered engines. The controls were also more forgiving.
Van's passed several milestones in the 1990s. It delivered more than 550 kits in 1994. By 1995, more than 1,000 RVs had been completed and were flying in 20 countries. Annual sales reached $25 million by the late 1990s. Van's was believed to have sold more aircraft kits than any other company.
Around this time, reported Fortune Small Business, Van's embraced computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM). The company began offering pre-drilled panels, or matched hole construction, making placement of each plane's 14,000 rivets much simpler.
Flying High Beyond 2000
The two-seat, side-by-side RV-7 and RV-7As became available in the spring of 2001. These newly designed aircraft boasted more legroom and headroom and more fuel capacity.
A profile of Van's in the May 2002 Oregon Business included a survey of the kitplane industry. The number of manufacturers had grown from one to 210 in the nearly 30 years Van's had been in business. Van's Aircraft's closest competitor, geographically at least, was Lancair, based in Redmond, Oregon (though Lancair had begun to build fully completed aircraft as well).
More than 3,100 RV kits had been completed by the end of 2002. Oregon Business reported revenues were about $20 million at the time, when the company employed 60 people.
While Van's had no competition among conventional aircraft makers for its two-place aircraft, a number of them had continued to make larger, four-place aircraft. As the values for these planes went up, Van's entered the four-place market in 2003 with the RV-10, priced at $35,000 for the kit alone.
In 2004, Fortune Small Business reported Van's had annual sales of $30 million. The best-selling RV-7 was priced at $17,000 (the engine and other parts cost another $40,000). According to the Oregonian, exports accounted for about 15 percent of sales.
The EAA awarded VanGrunsven its Freedom of Flight award in June 2004. By this time, more than 3,600 of his kitplanes had been completed and flown. VanGrunsven told Flying magazine that the key to his success was the attention given to the RVs' control systems: "Flying an RV is more an extension of the pilot's thought process, instead of manhandling a machine through the air." Flying praised the stable handling characteristics on even the fastest planes in the series.
Principal Competitors: Cirrus Design Corp.; Lancair International Inc.