Gippsland's Airvan: What "Nice Flying" Really Means

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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.

Gipps GA8 Airvan
click for a (much) larger version

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?

Comments (21)

Paul - thanx for posting this. Having never seen one (or so I thought), I googled the plane and realized that I saw the CAP variant of this plane just last weekend at KPYM. We were trying to figure out what sort of tricked out Caravan it was.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | February 3, 2012 3:44 PM    Report this comment

It's a heavy high-wing; stability is virtually guaranteed.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 6, 2012 8:31 AM    Report this comment

There were a lot of issues with the door parts, and other irritating maintenance issues with Gipps when they first came out. The CAP pilots I talked to hated the plane. Any word on quality improvements?

Posted by: Eric Warren | February 6, 2012 10:14 AM    Report this comment

We haven't heard any complaints from the CAP people, Eric. What specific issues?

In general, the airplane seems well made where it needs to be, light where it can be. Lots of nice maintenance touches to make it easy to maintain.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 6, 2012 11:46 AM    Report this comment

Someone's going to make this trite remark, so it may as well be me! "For $800K it BETTER fly nicely." And yeah, you already sort of said yourself.

I thought the Gobosh I learned in (a comparative steal at ~$120K--not) handled just great, but I've been told by Cessna pilots that it's a difficult little blighter. I will say, it sure doesn't like Colorado bumps.

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | February 6, 2012 1:14 PM    Report this comment

Next time you're flying an LSA--or anything--try this experiment. Turn it on final trimmed for whatever airspeed you like, then change the power a little or a lot. Most LSAs will react pretty quickly with a pitch change requiring re-trim or a long glide to get back to the trimmed airspeed.

Some will never get back to it and you have reset both power and trim to get back to the original value or pick something else. Other heavy singles do the same. Try it in a Saratoga. Or a 210. It has to do with how much the airplane reacts to the thrust change.

The Airvan reacts, but very minimally. Set the trim once and forget it. Also, even some Part 23 airplanes, like the Cirrus SR22, run out of elevator in the end-stage flare, requiring good timing and a lot of control force. The tailfeathers and elevators on the Airvan are so large and intended to accommodate a giant CG range (almost a foot) that it has powerful pitch bite and light to moderate control forces. Very pleasant to fly.

If it weren't for the expense, I'd train students in it in a minute. I'm not suggesting that one should compare LSAs with the Airvan, merely that LSAs are generally not "nice flying." They're just ok.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 6, 2012 3:14 PM    Report this comment

Paul, The complaint I heard from one crew was that the large doors sagged, had malfunctions, and became a frustration to close and a source of drag and noise. They said it was common. This was years ago when the plane was first sold here. they had enough other minor complaints that it av the impression of poor durability. I was hoping Gipps had improved because I like to see new models do well.

Posted by: Eric Warren | February 6, 2012 3:40 PM    Report this comment

The door issue was addressed as a production change in 2005 and (Mandatory)SB-GA8-2005-23 was issued for all previous airframes for the fitment of the modified closing mechanism. Problem solved!

Posted by: Leigh Cusack | February 6, 2012 4:44 PM    Report this comment

Good to hear

Posted by: Eric Warren | February 6, 2012 4:49 PM    Report this comment

Not as pilot, but spent a few hours in one around the top end of W. Australia in the early 2000's. Yep, they had a few small early issues, but really impressed me. "Rudder? That's to rest the feet!" Hang just off the runway, full load, horn blaring, nose up, and gracefully settle. Easy.

Posted by: Ronald Fahlbusch | February 6, 2012 7:47 PM    Report this comment

Do they still only run on Avgas? I remember at one point they were pushing the idea of Mogas as a selling point for remote areas?

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | February 7, 2012 4:58 AM    Report this comment

Wow... a review of a 4,000 lb, 8-seat airborne SUV - and all anyone wants to talk about is LSA!

I know what psychologists would say about this!

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | February 7, 2012 6:48 AM    Report this comment

Hey, just having a little fun. But yeah, there's some envy there. What's wrong with that? :)

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | February 7, 2012 1:12 PM    Report this comment

Paul, during the five year period when I ws employed by Gippsland Aeronautics, one of my jobs was to conduct the final production flight test on new IFR equipped airvans. Due to production schedules and customer wants it was not uncommon to carry out these flight tests in real IMC conditions, always without an autopilot, and I can verify your comments as to the ease of flying this aircraft. It is probably as nice and stable an IFR platform as you could hope to find, it just goes where you put it. If you want to impress the examiner on your next IFR check flight, go do it in an Airvan. PS, they do now offer an autopilot. Regarding the earlier comment on the rear door, there have been significant improvements on the door mounting and sealing since the early aircraft supplied to CAP. Regards,

Posted by: James Hammond | February 8, 2012 6:13 AM    Report this comment

Interesting. Regarding the pitch stability with respect to power, could it be that the high placement of the horiz stab on the fuselage hides it a bit from the throttle-dependent propwash?

Posted by: A Richie | February 9, 2012 1:07 PM    Report this comment

I have seen the Gippsland Airvan at Oshkosh and had the opportunity to sit in it and talk to the representatives. I've also read most of the articles about it. I have been extremely impressed! Though the Kodiak and the short-fueslage version of the Cessna Caravan are impressive, the Airvan is even more of what they emphasize: the aerial SUV. Cheaper than either one, a more personal size, able to land at the biggest airports or the shortest turf runways (with a large family or several friends) -THIS is the plane that I would buy if I hit the lottery!

Posted by: Michael Nutt | February 9, 2012 3:37 PM    Report this comment

"Regarding the pitch stability with respect to power, could it be that the high placement of the horiz stab on the fuselage hides it a bit from the throttle-dependent propwash?"

Could be, I guess. But I also think a lot of it is the placement of the wing's center of lift relative to the CG and the horizontal stab, which George Morgan and I discussed at length.

If you consider a T-tail Lance or Arrow, for instance, the stab is out of the wash or more out of it. But the Airvan is much solider and more pleasant to fly. I didn't get into any turbulence with it, so I don't know it has any yaw uncoupling. I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 9, 2012 4:40 PM    Report this comment

Great to see these rigs from my neck of the woods selling well and they sound like the perfect aerial SUV but the sticker shock is extreme. $800K? Just silly money.

Posted by: john hogan | February 10, 2012 10:37 PM    Report this comment

Paul -- your comments on the flying qualities of the lightweight and questionably designed LSA is exactly why they aren't selling in large numbers, as hoped. Along with flying qualities, insufficient MGTOW limitations make designing crashworthiness into them near impossible. Maybe thats why so many employ BRS systems? Finally, toss in a ridiculous price for what you get and the handwriting is on the wall. How the FAA thinks that ab initio or low time pilots can handle them safely without regularly pronging one is beyond me. It was refreshing to read your article about a "real" airplane I would definitely love to own if I could afford it. I always slobber on them at Sun-N-Fun and Oshkosh. The GA8 is the epitomy of utility. A mini Caravan to say the least. Thats likely why the CAP chose them. Now then, off to my psychologist, Tom.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 14, 2012 10:00 AM    Report this comment

I took an air tour in one of these in Hawaii. Being the fat guy in the crowd, w/b dictated that I had to sit right seat where I could watch our pilot, Harry, tool us around in slow flight with the stall horn chirping so we could take nice pictures. Even in the rather nasty turbulence along the Kauai coast and in the canyons, it was about as stable and smooth as a nice limo, only one lady in the back got airsick, and she didn't pipe up until we were maybe 3 miles out from PLIH on the return leg. If I had a business hauling people or cargo, these would be at the top of my list.

Posted by: Mark Consigny | February 14, 2012 11:25 AM    Report this comment

Considering the parts of the world where these planes will be deployed, I'd think a diesel would be a great option. Now that Cessna is going this route with the 182 NXT, maybe we'll see more avdiesel options.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | August 16, 2012 8:50 AM    Report this comment

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