Building, testing and operating an experimental aircraft

Van's Aircraft Tour

28 Oct 2009

Dad and I flew to PDX yesterday to take a tour of the Van’s Aircraft factory in Aurora, Oregon. Thanks a bunch to Joe Blank, our fearless guide and RV tech support guru, for an exciting and informative morning.

Dad at Headquarters Dad at Headquarters

Dad and I arrived at Van’s airport headquarters about twenty minutes early for the 9 a.m. tour, and spent that time browsing the little gift shop, skimming some avionics product manuals, and chatting with the two other tour group members, a father-son duo much like ourselves. Right on schedule, Van’s builder support rep Joe Blank emerged from the back room to guide us through the facility.

Joe Blank, Our Guide Joe Blank, Our Guide

We began by exploring the parts inventory, with row after row of sturdy steel shelves neatly stacked with Van’s familiar blue-clad aluminum components, all carefully labeled with their part number.

Airplane Parts Airplane Parts

Then we moved on to the crating area, where these same components were being meticulously picked and packed into bug-free pine crates for shipping to customers all over the world. Nearby was an array of other neat odds and ends: steel gear legs, wheels, tires, plexiglass canopies, stacks of pink composite cowlings and spinners, and rows of powder-coated control assemblies.

Cowlings Cowlings

From there we passed through an archway into another warehouse, this one lined with shelves of quickbuild assemblies: a forest of flawless, shiny fuselages propped upright with tails reaching for the rafters, shelves of completed aluminum wings, held on-edge by steel cradles and stacked four rows high to the ceiling, and a wall of crated Lycoming and Rotax engines, each one begging to be ripped open, installed, and zapped to life.

Quickbuild Fuselages Quickbuild Fuselages

Quickbuild Fuselages Quickbuild Wings

Powerplants Powerplants

Joe then led us through a closed door and onto the factory floor, the highlight of which was the Trumatic 200 CNC machines. I was mesmerized watching these deafening robot dinosaurs slide, whirr, chop, and punch the raw aluminum sheets into rows of identical parts.

Factory Floor Factory Floor

CNC Punch Press CNC Punch Press

Finally Joe pulled us through another door and into the prototype hangar, the area we had almost forgotten we had come so far to see. Inside were Van’s own RV-7A, RV-8A, RV-9A, and RV-10, all waiting patiently to be unleashed and flown. We took turns trying on the cockpits of the -7 and -8, giddy as teenage girls in a shopping mall. We slammed the control sticks left and right. We wiggled the rudders. We closed the canopies, hunkered down and made buzzing noises when we thought no one was listening.

Prototype RV-7A Prototype RV-7A

Prototype RV-8A Prototype RV-8A

Dad in the RV-7A Dad in the RV-7A

RV-8 Hero Shot RV Hero Shot

Then Joe cracked the hangar door, sniffed the cool morning air, squinted at the hazy sky, and made the call: we were going flying.

Since the side-by-side seating offers an equal experience for both pilot and passenger, we chose the -7A for the demo ride. Three of us gazed from the nearby Aurora Jet Center while Joe flew the forth. We took bets on the nimble RV’s rotation point – we all guessed too long.

Dad at the Aurora Jet Center Dad at the Aurora Jet Center

Strapping it On Strapping it On

When my turn came, Joe let me taxi a bit, and I was surprised how easily the plane would turn with rudder and power alone; very little differential braking was required. Joe took over and did a quick runup and another impossibly short takeoff, then handed me the stick on the climbout from runway 35. At pattern altitude, we began a gentle turn to the southeast for some maneuvers. Joe had me leave the power set to 24 squared and we leveled off at 2500 feet. The airspeed needle quickly climbed to the 180-mph mark as I struggled to keep up with the trim switch.

As I got comfortable with the light control forces, I made some easy turns, gradually steepening the bank and loading up the G-meter. Visibility from the bubble canopy was unreal; it was easy to forget you were in an airplane at all – the sensation was closer to a magic carpet than a machine made by man. Joe demanded that I keep my feet on the floor rather than on the pedals during all this maneuvering, the better to demonstrate the RV’s magnificent control harmony. I don’t think the slip-skid ball moved more than a hair’s breadth throughout the whole regime.

Next we reduced the power for some slow flight and stalls. Slow flight was a non-event, with the large control surfaces offering plenty of authority at any speed. Both of the power-off stalls were benign, with a slight warning buffet and a gentle wing-drop to the right. Recovery was affected by simply relaxing the back pressure on the stick; the airplane was flying again and totally controllable before I even touched the power lever.

After the airwork I gave the stick back to Joe, took a few photos, and then begged him to show me something from his bag of RV tricks. He happily obliged with a few graceful wingovers which filled the canopy with more earth than sky, and as we turned back toward the field I was already grinning ear-to-ear.

RV Grins RV Grins

All in all it was an excellent introduction to the RV universe, and I certainly appreciated Joe taking the time to show us around. We all agreed that the Van’s Aircraft product and facilities are head-and-shoulders above what we expected from a kitplane manufacturer, especially in an industry where more companies fail than succeed. It really is a testament to this great company that they’ve survived and thrived in this fickle business for nearly 40 years.

Back to the Barn Back to the Barn

Dad and I returned to the parking lot with a bag full of brochures, catalogs, stickers and other souvenirs from our little morning adventure. Stuffed somewhere in that bag was an RV-8 order form. I have a feeling Van’s will be hearing from us again soon.

Learn more about the factory tour and demo flight at the Van's Aircraft website.

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