Text and Photography by Budd Davisson

Air Progress, November, 1973

At the Beginning: The Legend of Van's

A note from the New Millenium:
Try to imagine a homebuilt world without Van's series of RV's. Difficult, isn't it? I wrote the following pilot report in 1973, thirty years ago, which is amazing for a number of reasons, besides the fact that I must have been a kid at the time. It’s amazing to think that the then-new RV-3 and its progeny should still be with us and have matured to form a major portion of the homebuilt market. What I say in the following paragraphs about this, the very first RV prototype at Oshkosh ’73 still holds true today, which is why Van’s designs have been so successful. Bad products don’t have such success. The market place has said, in no uncertain terms, that his designs are easy to fly, good handling and his factory support is superb. The following is where the RV legend began. Read on but take note that the airplane only has 125hp, which makes you wonder why we are so horsepower-crazy today:

August, 1973, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Climbing out of the Van Grunsven RV-3 after my first flight, it struck me how incredibly far the art of homebuilding has progressed. There was a time, not long ago, when the term homebullt meant an airplane that could go like blazes, but came down final with all the grace and docility of a torpedo. Or, if it were a slow, easy-to-land airplane, it couldn't outrun an asthmatic hummingbird. It was axiomatic that a homebullt airplane usually (note, I said usually) couldn't handle both ends of the speed or talent spectrum. It was either a fast, raunchy-handling dude, or a slow, rather matronly machine. But the times are changing.

In the past few years, several designs have popped up that turned out to be a little faster than it seemed they ought to be, but were still fairly easy to fly. They didn't represent any quantum jump in either direction, though. Then the RV-3 came along, and the old saying about "airplanes fly like they look" was twisted into scrabble. Everything that gut-engineering says about the RV-3 is wrong. A little old-time homebuilt savvy applied to the RV-3 says it's going to be fairly fast for its horsepower, 150 mph maybe, but it also looks as if it'll need around 90 mph on final and will skip and skitter on the runway after touching down at 65 to 70 mph. Wrong in every department. It's far faster than it looks, and its low-speed envelope belongs to a fabric-covered putt-putt, rather than an all-metal, barn yard bullet. The RV-3 may just be the best of the new breed of homebullts. (Note from 2003: Man! Am I prophetic or what?)

In some ways, Richard Van Grunsven himself represents a new breed of homebuilder: the professional homebullder. A trained mechanical engineer, he bailed out of the job market and decided to do what he liked best—design and build airplanes. Now he's one of dozens of guys around the nation who design and build, draw up plans, tool up for producing parts and cast their bread upon the waters of sport aviation.

In the midst of the current hoopla as various promoters try to corner their share of the homebuilding buck, Van Grunsven comes on like a monk. He's one of the most understated salesmen in the business. He's so quiet and soft-spoken that he sounds almost apologetic for building such a pretty little high-performance airplane. The only time he gets an edge in his voice is when he tries to impress his listeners with the honesty and accuracy of his claims. He's terrified he'll be lumped in with the designers who make claims of fighter performance when their airplanes are run-of-the-mill pattern ponies. It anybody wonders how he arrived at a particular performance number, he'll eagerly search through the reams of notes he made while conducting hundreds of tests, measuring takeoff distances, calibrating airspeeds and verifying numbers.

His concern about people doubting his performance specs should have disappeared when he not only won, but set an all-time record for the Pazmany Efficiency Contest this year at Oshkosh. His top speed in a level run was over 207 mph, measured from the ground, and his slow speed was 53.8 mph! How's that for a performance envelope? His score was 11.77 with the closest competitor at 10.45, and the average around 6.8. His efficiency index is the highest recorded since the contest was begun several years ago. That means he is not only squeezing those 125 ponies to make them run, but has a way of keeping the airplane flying at a ridiculously low speed.

This year was the second showing of the RV-3 at Oshkosh, and even though it's an incredibly pretty machine, it didn't attract nearly the audience it should have. Because it doesn't have the exotic appeal of a negative staggered triplane, or a one-eighth-scale B-36, it's easily overlooked. It has conventional sheet metal construction with tapered steel Wittman-type landing gear and a 125-hp Lycoming ground power unit (Again from 2003: notice the engine, you horsepower freaks and it still really performs).

With 90 square feet of wing area (nearly the same as a two-place Thorp T-18), it's slightly larger than most homebuilts, but even so it doesn't stand out at a crowded air show. It's only when you take it away from the crowd that the true beauty of the airplane shows up.

Aesthetically, it might look better with tapered wings, since its Hershey-bar planform looks a little out of place with the, sleek racer-type fuselage, however, the square wing means only one size rib and one formblock per side. Part of Van Grunsven s business (Van's Aircraft, Forest Grove, Oregon) is manufacturing fiberglass aircraft parts, so it's only natural that the wheelpants, Hoerner type wingtips and shark-nosed cowling are also available.

The thought and planning that shows on the outside extends to the cockpit as well. Although spartan in appearance, there is plenty of room for comfort, but not enough to slow the airplane down. As I strapped it on, I was surprised to find it much roomier than I had imagined. I even needed an inch of folded sectionals behind the seat cushions to get close enough to the rudder pedals. There was also more than enough headroom with the canopy closed.

The layout of the cockpit itself is 100 percent conventional. Everything is where you'd expect to find it in any airplane, positioned so they're easy to find. My only minor complaint with the control layout was that the carburetor heat was on the right side of the cockpit, requiring me to cross over with my left hand, or change hands on the stick to get it.

One rather unusual aspect of the control system, however, was a set of springs attached to the base of the stick, on either side, that served to keep it centered. Van Grunsven explained that this was because he'd gone slightly overboard in balancing the ailerons, so there was no feeling of neutral aileron in flight. And for the first few degrees of stick movement, the overbalanced condition felt like power steering. He's corrected this in his plans.

About 70 percent of the homebuilts around have at least one or two strange ground handling characteristics built in by the owners. Not so with the RV-3. Everything is so well set up that anybody, tailwheel pilot or not, could herd it around the runways. It's not often that I have confidence in an airplane before takeoff, but I felt that the easy ground handling of the RV-3 was a good Omen.

The takeoff was something else. It's not the acceleration that's surprising, it's the way it gets off the ground before you finish putting the throttle in. It was fairly late in the evening when I took off, so there was no wind to help me off. Even so, I barely had the throttle all the way in and was just beginning to raise the tail when it lifted off three-point The The RV-3 needed only 200 feet to get up enough lift to go flying. If that isn't ST0L, I don't know what is.

It's one thing to get off short, but it's something else entirely to get over an obstacle. Nevertheless, the RV-3 shines there, too—If you take off in a three-point attitude, you have to pull the nose up even further to keep the speed down. I timed the climb at something over 1,800 fpm with an angle of around 20 to 30 degrees.

The ailerons aren't light, they're super lightl Because of the overbalanced control surfaces, there Is practically no feel at all to the stick. It would move by itself if the centering springs weren't at work. But don't get the idea that the ailerons make the airplane tough to fly. They may be light, but stick travel is falrly long, so there's no tendency to over control. The control ratios are so well worked out, and the airplane so stable that I didn't even notice the super light ailerons until I started to turn out of the pattern. (BD 2003 note: the fix resulted in almost perfect aileron feel. RV’s have very, very nice ailerons.)

The first thing I did when I got outside the pattern was set up a level cruise and start zipping across the parallel section lines below while watching the sweep second hand on my Micky Mouse special. I was going to find out for myself whether Van’s claims wore true. At different power settings, all of them between 2100 and 2500 rpm, I got speeds between 155 mph and 175, mph. At about 75% power he claimed 170 mph and 9 to 10 gallons/hour and I was doing better than that.

One thing is for sure. the RV-3 will climb like crazy. As I finished the last high-speed run, I tweaked the stick back and rammed the power in, dissipating speed in a zooming climb. the altimeter hand started wrapping around, and by the time the IAS was down around climb speed, 90 mph, I'd picked up over 1,500 feet. At that rate, it took only a couple of minutes to get enough space between me and Wisconsin to keep me comfortable during the upcoming test session.

What would a test flight be without some stalls? I was in a hurry to get on to the juicier maneuvers, so I chopped power and got carb heat, holding the nose up all the while. Then I waited, and waited. It took forever to get down under 50 mph, where it shuddered once, ever so slightly, and dropped its nose hard, as if trying to live up to the reputation many feel the NACA 21012 airfoil deserves. It broke sharply, but rather than recovering, I held the stick back, curious to see what would happen. The nose fell a few feet, the airplane picked up speed and started flying again then porpoised up into another stall. I was losing very little altitude as I seesawed up and down from stall to stall, keeping the wings level with both aileron and rudder. The stall was sharp and with little warning, but recovery was instantaneous and the airplane didn't try to do anything weird like tucking a wing.

Feeling as if I had discharged my duty as a flight evaluator, I did a screaming 360-degree turn, clearing for traffic, and pulled the nose up. I twitched the stick to one side and the small town on the distant horizon obediently curved up and over the nose. The rolls were indecently easy, so I started doing four points, then eight points, and finally a 15 point (I never could keep track in those things). The plane would jerk to a halt so cleanly that I could almost hear each point squeak. The rate of roll was so high, and the speed bleed-off in verticals so low, that I soon found myself doing loops with slow rolls on the top, Immelmanns and Cuban eights with double and triple rolls on the recovery requiring nothing more than putting the stick to one side at the appropriate time.

Richard Van Grunsven had warned me that it didn't snap roll very well, and I proved him right, again and again. It would start around like a good little airplane, but then the wing would start flying again and swoop out of the last 90 degrees or so. For an airplane to snap roll well, it has to be high-speed stalled by jerking the slick back and then kicked into a horizontal spin with full rudder in the direction of the roll. The RV-3 has a wing that almost refuses to stall quickly, probably because of the planform and light wing loading. Elevator effectiveness might have something to do with it, too, but I was getting as much as 4.5Gs trying to snap at 90 mph, so it seemed to have enough elevator. It would probably take nothing more than a couple of stall strips taped to the leading edges to make it a snap-rolling fool. It does everything else so nicely, it would be worth the experimentation to make it snap roll equally well. Even in its present form, it would make d good competitive mount for anyone wanting to play In Sportsman or Intermediate category aerobatics (2003 note: forget about intermediate category today. It has gotten far too demanding for the RV.)

The spins also were strange, primarily because I couldn't hold the RV-3 in one. It would do about one turn and then fly out into a spiral like a Cherokee. I finally got it to spin a little longer by using some power. Van Grunsven says it'll do a dandy flat spin with power and crossed controls, and stop exactly when you want it to. I didn't know that at the time, which was just as well because I've always put flat spins in the same category as alligators when thing when it comes to fun.

Somehow, as I turned into the pattern, I knew the landing was going to be no sweat. The hardest part was to force myself to approach at only 70 mph indicated. Van Grunsven said even 60 to 65 mph was okay, but 70 mph made me feel as if I were crawling—it was unnatural. I kept moving my patterns out until I could make a comfortable power-off 180° approach, using flaps to get rid of altitude when I wanted.
I made the first landing a wheelie, just to see what would happen—it was beautiful. I held it off and let it settle on main gear first, feeding just a little forward stick in to keep it planted when the tires touched. That springy Wittman-type gear took up any bounce and let me motor straight ahead with no effort. The next couple were three-pointers, and were noteworthy for only two reasons. During the flare, the airplane slows to a porcupine pace, and my mother could control the rollout.

Everything about the way the airplane flies is slightly out of character with Its appearance, but its landings are too good to be true. In a three-point, you don't roll more than 200 to 300 feet, and you could be manicuring your toenails through the whole thing. It ranks with a Fly Baby or a Citabria for docility, but is actually easier to land than either, especially when you consider that you were blasting along at 170 mph only moments before. Fantastic', If you can fly any taildragger, you've got the RV -3 knocked.

I don't remember when I've had more fun in an airplane. Everything about it is pure pleasure. You can be screaming along, nudging 200 mph, then slow down to 110 mph and slide the canopy hark to suck in the fresh air and play airmail pilot. You can spend the afternoon rehearsing your Gene Soucy imitation and then spiral down to land on a 600-foot strip, turn off at midpoint, and climb out feeling like a missionary pilot in Patagonia. It handles so well in so many different regimes that it borders on the unbelievable, and if I weren't the one writing this, I wouldn't believe it.

The old axiom about all airplanes being compromises wilts a little when the RV-3 Is studied closely. Van Grunsven uses the term total performance to describe it. Until I flew the airplane, I didn't honestly believe him. Now, I do. It really is an everything airplane for the anything pilot.