Gippsland's Airvan: What "Nice Flying" Really Means
Because readers are interested in new airplanes and because most new airplanes are LSAs, I tend to fly a lot of those. I'm not complaining. They're fun, sip gas and I see pockets of innovation thanks to the streamlined standards under ASTM. All good. On the other hand, if you fly nothing but new LSAs, you tend to forget what a good airplane flies like.
George Morgan and Randy Juen stopped by last weekend to demonstrate this in the form of the Gippsland GA8 Airvan. They're touring the country in a new version of this Australian export called the GA8TC. It has a turbocharged Lycoming IO-540 and a bunch of other features that make it suitable for hauling people and cargo out of the outback, and not just in Australia, but all over the world.
The GA8 is a FAR 23 airplane taken to its most recent iteration, and it shows. FAR 23 has all sorts of requirements related to crashworthiness and aircraft stability designed to avoid a crash in the first place. Gippsland worked with the National Test Pilot School in Mojave to tweak the GA8's airframe and, as a result, it's one of the most superb handling airplanes I've flown in a long time.
What makes it so? Predictable pitch forces, docile slow flight and stall characteristics and the trim stability of a concrete block. The Airvan is so confidence inspiring that on a trial flight around Venice, I did something I would normally not think of doing: stalls and slow flight with five people in the airplane and a moderately hefty load of cargo. I also took it into a 2000-foot grass strip with obstructions, another thing I wouldn't necessarily do with my first flight in a 4000-pound airplane. The Airvan shrugged off this stuff without mussing its hair and made me look more skilled than in fact I am.
Most certified airplanes, when trimmed to an airspeed, will hunt around that airspeed as you change the power. But with the Airvan, if you trim for 60 knots indicated, the throttle becomes an elevator button. Changing power causes hardly any pitch disturbance so to stuff it into a short field, you just have to get the glidepath picture right with power. The airplane does the rest by hewing to the trimmed airspeed like paint sticks to a wall.
Rare is the LSA that can do this, even on a calm day where gusts don't disturb it. LSAs are supposed to have the same general stability characteristics as certified airplanes. Some do, some sorta do and others flat out don't. I've flown a couple that are neutrally stable. If you excite a phugoid, they'll happily hold the commanded pitch into a stall or a redline dive without damping. This presents on final approach as pitch changes with power and the need to constantly retrim to get the desired speed and descent rate. They're flyable enough, but not necessarily pleasant or easy to manage. Low wing loading doesn't help, of course, but that's only part of the equation.
Of course, an airplane like the Airvan is both heavier and more expensively tended to in development. (At $800,000, you'd expect nothing less.) Experienced airplane people often say that FAR 23 is a good guideline for making a safe, flyable airplane. I'd say the Airvan is living proof of that. Setting aside the cost, I'm quite confident I could solo a student in it in under 10 hours, if not less. With its boxy shape and slab sides, the Airvan isn't much to look at, but when the aerodynamics are as right as they are in this airplane, who cares?