So why an RV?

We'll eventually get to the part where I actually tell you why I think RVs are so cool, but before that you'll have to suffer through a bunch of ramblings explaining how I actually got to that decision, unless you just want to scroll to the bottom of the page.

The first time I had actually heard of building an airplane was when I was still in college, and I stumbled somehow on the website of Quicksilver Aircraft. Even obvious to the most casual observer is that these are ultralights, and not what are called "real" airplanes by people who call themselves "real" pilots. No pilot training is required to operate one of these contraptions, but I knew there was no way I was getting away with that unless I wanted my parents to disown me, if only to keep me from buzzing the house.

In any case, I never really considered building one of these, but the discovery of these things (if only on the web) was the first step into a larger world. In any case, Quicksilver's Sprint 2S is pictured below. This picture reminds me of the well-known ultralight joke - in case you haven't heard it, it goes as follows:

Q: Do you know how you can tell a happy ultralight pilot?
A: By the bugstains on his teeth!

photo courtesy Quicksilver Aircraft

In any case, one day when I was looking for more information on Quicksilvers, I ran across another type of airplane called the Challenger II. It also had two seats (which was an important thing, as far as I was concerned), but it had them seated tandem instead of side-to-side. This airplane is built by a company called Quad City Challenger and there were several interesting things that I learned about it. First of all, the kits for the Quad City airplanes seemed to be only slightly more expensive than the kits for a Quicksilver, and they seemed to be more like a real airplane in terms of cruise speed, control panel space, ability to put doors on it and fly it in the cold, and just in the way it looked. Secondly, I found that Challengers were one of the few ultralight-ish airplanes that is smiled on by people who fly Cessnas, for example. This respect, as I came to learn in the following months, is more rare than I first realized.

Well, I liked these better than the Quicksilvers, and what with all the advantages, I actually thought I was going to build one of these -- I ordered the plans, got a ride in one (it really is a fantastic airplane) and was actively trying to convince my parents to let me borrow their garage. They were less than completely thrilled.

photo courtesy National Ultralight, Inc.

In the meantime, I was coming to the conclusion because the Challenger was a bit more airplane than the Quicksilver, it would require a bit more money (gotta put that instrument panel to good use, after all) and probably lots more time, even though the actual kit prices (sans engines, instruments, etc.) are pretty close to the same price. Well as long as I'm spending this much money on an airplane, I mind as well look for something that's an airplane that's better suited for actually going places and carrying things with rather than just bouncing around the pattern on non-windy days. At this point, I thought, the possibility that I may want to go somewhere and do something is likely, and I would feel silly owning an airplane and still having to rent a 172 anytime I wanted to go somewhere.

Enter the Titan Tornado, made by Titan Aircraft. (These guys also make the T-51 Mustang, a scale model of the P-51. Cool!) The Tornado looks like a Challenger with a pointy nose, but in keeping with the trend, it costs a bit more money and would take a bit more time. The main difference is that you can put a 4-cycle engine in this guy instead of a 2-cycle Rotax screamer, and the aircraft is all metal. Clearly, the 4-cycle engine is an advantage over the Challenger in terms of engine reliability, and the metal construction is an advantage over the Challenger in terms of maintenance. The cruise speed is higher and the aircraft generally seems more robust -- something you could take somewhere without having the travel part of the trip be the actual goal of the trip.

photo courtesy Titan Aircraft

Well, the Titan seems like a good little airplane, but I'm not real crazy about the way it looks. Also there aren't any in the area that I'm able to track down, and I don't really want to be the first person in the area to try something new. Also by this point I'm in a trend of investigating more airplanes that are just a little more expensive and a little more involved. Sure, the Titan's a great plane, but I don't really want to build a pusher. They just don't look like real airplanes! Besides, I can build a Kitfox for about the same price! I mean, they look cooler, right? Well, I thought (and still think) they look neater. They've also got the advantage of being a design that has been around for quite a while. Unfortunately, though, we're back to tube-and-fabric construction (alas!), and the performance isn't really any better than a Tornado. It may be worse, at least as far as top speed. I'm not really sure anymore and I'm honestly not internested enough to go try and find out.

photo courtesy Skystar

In any case, at this point I thought that an RV would be too expensive, so I didn't even bother looking at them. Instead, I started looking at Velocities. (Any reasons for the amazing absense of logical thought demonstrated in this situation elude me to this day.) The Velocity, for those not in the know, is a beautiful fiberglass 4-seat canard made by Velocity Aircraft in Sebastian, FL. I was only dissuaded from building this aircraft after getting the video from the company in the mail and discovering that I didn't really want to work with fiberglass. After further contemplation, I found other reasons for why this wasn't a terrific airplane for me: It's a pretty big airplane, and therefore it has a larger engine (and therefore burns more gas) than any of the two-place airplane I was thinking about. There's also not much of a community that centners around fiberglass airplane building (or, for that matter, canard building) in this particular area. In addition, this isn't such a great airplane for aerobatics (it's so stable!) and apparently it doesn't handle grass strips as well, due to the high speed landings that are necessary with this a pusher configuration.

photo courtesy Velocity Aircraft

After that I settled on an RV. We'll detail this decision more after we all contemplate the beauty of the below picture, because frankly I need a break after writing all that crap. You just plowed through reading it so you might want a break too. In any case, the picture:

photo courtesy Ed Hicks/VAFWWW

Hmmmmmmmm . . . . Very nice. Now the reasons:

  • Community - there are more RVs flying than any other type of kitbuilt aircraft, and where I live is a hotbed of RV construction activity. As a result of as many RV folks there are all over the country, there are large RV clubs and builder's groups that serve to give you advice, write web pages, and swap great airplane stories (which may or may not be true), and generally convice themselves that adventures that they have flying to breakfast are are valuable contributions to the expanding knowledge base of pilots worldwide. These sort of groups -- a builders group specific to the type of aircraft that you are building -- pop up much more frequently in RV circles than any other type of kitplane. Obviously, how much of an advantage this is depends on how well you get along with these sort of people. Personally, though, I've found RVators to be great people that are more than willing to dispense airplane building advice, give rides, and generally just be fun people to hang around with. By and large, if someone is the personality type to build their own airplane in a garage somewhere, there's a pretty good probability that I'll get along with them. If this is your personality, you'll probably fit in too, regardless of what kind of airplane you pick. You'll just have more in common with the folks that are building RVs.

  • Mission profile - for each of the airplanes that are listed here, it's important to note that there isn't a "better" airplane from an objective point of view. What there is, though, is a better airplane depending on what function it will serve after you've finished building it. The Challenger, for example, is a great airplane if you want to put it on floats and go chase speedboats around, though I'm not recommending that you do this. However, it doesn't really work for cross-country crusing. A Pitts Special is one of the best airplanes for aerobatics (if you ask Budd Davisson it's the best airplane ever), but like the Challenger (in this respect, anyway), it doesn't excel at cross-country crusing either. The Velocity, on the other hand, excels at cross-country crusing with one or two passengers in the back, but it's not an airplane that excels at aerobatics, STOL, or having floats stuck to the bottom.

    The great thing about RVs is what Van's Aircraft calls "Total Performance" -- that is, they don't do any one thing best - there are faster airplanes, there are airplanes with more STOL ability, and better aerobatic airplanes. What there aren't are any other airplanes that can do so many things pretty well like an RV can. It's not the best at anything, but it's really darn good at more things that most airplanes can do at all. t's a great plane for just bopping around in (smallish engine and two seats make for sportyness and general economy to operate), it's fast enough that it can do cross-country, those up for a challenge have flown them IFR, but they can still do some aerobatics. Short field operations and grass field operations are also impressive. Some Canadian guy even crazier than I am has put an RV-6 on floats, and Jon Johnson has flown his RV-4 around the world, twice.

  • Aluminum construction - composite airplanes, for reasons that I have been unable to determine completely, are not as popular in this area of the country as they are in some other places. Canards, for example, seem to live mainly on the West Coast. I think some of it has to do with the fact working with fiberglass requires a specific range of temperatures and humidity. Most people in the south don't have a climate-controlled shop, and given the creative weather in this area of the country, fiberglass construction a bit more exciting than is ideal. California, on the other hand, seems to be pretty well climate controlled even if you're outside. Humidity and temperature are less of a deal when working with aluminium.

    After looking at videos of people building composite airplanes and aluminum airplanes, I decided that aluminum would be better for me. Although this is the subject of spirited debates in kitplane circles, it seems that aluminum is somewhat easier to work with. However, the main advantage (over composite construction) is that it seems easier to detect and repair minor damage to the aircraft.

  • Price/Performance - the RV does a lot for the price it is. It's not a cheap airplane (primarily because there is no such thing) but the ratio of what it does to what it costs is darn impressive. It's not unusual for an RV to be able to outrun certified aircraft that cost 2 or 3 times what the RV costs. Some of this is just the way the kitbuilding world is -- there is more of an impressive price/performance ratio -- but even in the kitbuilding world, the RV is impressive.

  • Just go get a ride in one. Then you'll figure out what we're all talking about.

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