By Todd DeVito
This story originally appeared in our sister title, KITPLANES.
We have all heard the comment that we must be crazy to fly an aircraft we built in our garage. Does it make me even crazier to fly an aircraft someone I never met built in their garage? Continue on to discover how a mild-mannered Beechcraft pilot was seduced into the seamy world of Experimental aircraft.
I suppose the seed was planted back in 2009 or 2010 when I was just a pilot in training. My prime aviation enabler mentioned that for higher performance and lower cost, Experimental was the way to go. At the time, I was still trying to figure out how to get my trainer to fly straight, so I didn’t pay much attention, but the statement always stuck with me.
The aviation bug bit me hard, and before I got my license, I purchased a Beech Musketeer to complete my training. I thought the big roomy interior would be great to haul the family or vacation gear in, and it was to a point. With the rear seat removed, I was able to fit in two mountain bikes and enough gear for a weeklong vacation to Sedona, Arizona. However, it didn’t escape my notice that I was barely outpacing traffic as I flew over the highways, and the Musketeer had almost no climb performance in the desert heat.
A few years went by and I started thinking about something with a bit more performance. Then I fell in love. Her name was Bonanza, and she was beautiful. Sure, she was a bit older than I was, and definitely more experienced, but this was love. I had mentioned Bonanzas to my instructor during my initial flight training years before, and he told me that any Bonanza I could afford, I didn’t want. He had to be wrong, didn’t he? Well, I had to find out. She was at a dealership, so I arranged a trade for the Musketeer and the Bonanza was mine.
A few more years went by and I was still in love, but I was finding out that love had a high price. My Bonanza was a dream to fly, but when things went wrong, they were expensive to repair. Things go wrong at an alarming frequency on an almost-60-year-old aircraft. Then practicalities started to get in the way like other bills and kids going to college. Love or not, it was time to start thinking about moving on.
I wondered what to move on to. All of the certified aircraft I considered had the same age and cost issues as my Bonanza. Maybe it was time to consider Experimental aircraft—but first, like the magazine articles say, I had to define my mission. That was easy: I mostly joyride, but occasionally take a longer trip. Of course, I needed four seats in case I wanted to carry people or gear. I also wanted performance equal to or better than my Bonanza, and the long-term costs would have to be better than the Bonanza. Since Experimentals in my price range were likely to be less complex than my Bonanza, I reasoned that failures were likely to be less frequent. I also knew I would be allowed to do my own repair work and call in an A&P for condition inspections and repairs that were too big for me to handle.
There was also the question of if I wanted to build my own airplane. The idea of building is very cool, but would the reality be as cool? I am fairly handy, but have no aircraft-related skills and even less artistic or craftsmanship abilities. Also, where would I find the time? Finally, if I sunk my money into a kit, I wouldn’t be flying until the kit was complete. That could be many years without flying.
With all of these questions swirling around my head, I decided to virtually visit the 800-pound gorilla of Experimental aviation: I went to the Van’s website. It had a very convenient page titled “Which RV is Right for Me?” On the question of needing four seats, it says, “Really? Note the question is ‘need,’ not ‘want,’ or ‘would be kind of nice.'” I thought they were talking directly to me. In my six years of flying, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I put the back seats to use. Starting to learn the difference between needs and wants, I changed my mission definition to a two-seat requirement. The reduction to two seats brought up the question of side-by-side or tandem. For this decision, I brought in my special advisor to the project, my honey. She said she would prefer to sit next to me, so we decided on side-by-side seating.
Further research on the website made me decide that an RV-9A was the best fit for me. I used the handy cost estimator and learned that building an RV-9A would probably cost me in the neighborhood of $70,000 plus my time investment. That was not even in the realm of possibility for my budget.
My next step was to check out the Barnstormers and Trade-A-Plane websites to see what was available. RV-9s were in the $70,000 and up price range, so they were still out of the question, but some RV-6s could be found in the $40,000 range. This was still out of my league, but was starting to get close to an area I could consider. Sprinkled through the RV ads was the occasional Mustang II or Thorp T-18, and they were almost always priced lower than the RVs. A little more research showed that they were comparable to RVs, so I added them to my watch list.
In the meantime, I had my Bonanza advertised on Barnstormers as well. It was just one old Bonanza in a sea of old Bonanzas. The only calls I got were from people who wanted to trade for planes I wasn’t interested in.
Then it struck me: There didn’t seem to be much new money entering the market. If I wanted to move forward, I would have to start calling on planes I was interested in to see if they wanted to trade, so that’s what I did.
For months, I scoured Barnstormers and Trade-A-Plane, calling on every RV-6, T-18 and Mustang II that fell near my price range. I had some near misses, but nothing panned out. Then I made calls for more months, and then more months after that. And Bonanza bills kept rolling in.
Finally, at the end of 2015, I got a call from a friend who had his Mooney up for sale. He was discussing a trade with an RV-4 owner who needed a plane with four seats for his growing family. My friend decided he didn’t want an RV-4, but he put me in touch with its owner. The first thing I did was brought in my special project consultant to see if tandem seating would be OK with her. My honey agreed to the change in requirements, and we were on our way. I traded my Bonanza for the RV-4 on Valentine’s Day 2016. How does it look? Well, I can tell you that it isn’t a show plane. In fact, it looks best from far away.
My next hurdle was learning how to fly it. I had no tailwheel experience and had read that pilots often have problems transitioning to smaller aircraft because of the lighter weight and lighter control forces. Did any of this bother me? Of course not! I had a level of overconfidence that could only be born of ignorance.
My first stop was back to the Van’s website to check for qualified instructors. As it turned out, Mike Seager, the most senior of the Van’s instructors, lives in Oregon, an easy ten-hour drive from my house, so I gave him a call and got on his schedule.
Training with Mike
When I got to Oregon, one of the first things Mike asked me was how much tailwheel experience I had. I told him that I had none, and he said I was going to have a steep learning curve. Chinks were beginning to appear in my armor of overconfidence, but it would still be a few minutes before my overconfidence was entirely shattered. We got into the air and I had a death grip on the stick. I was jerking it left and right, and the plane jumped all over the sky like we were dodging flak. My dance on the rudder pedals during ground operations was like a drunken bear doing a polka in combat boots. Sometimes I would catch the brake along with the rudder, which would add an extra exciting swerve to my runway polka.
Through this all, Mike was calm and collected, making suggestions and giving encouragement on those rare occasions where I did something right. One of the suggestions he offered to avoid overcontrolling the plane was to use two fingers on the stick. This helped, but I noticed after the training session that I must have had a two-finger death grip on the stick because my fingers were cramping.
We went through two training sessions a day for three days. Between sessions, I would furiously jot down notes and questions to ask Mike before my next session. I would then try to memorize the different power, rpm, airspeed, trim, and flap settings for each leg of the pattern. In the evenings, I would read and reread the flight manual he loaned me. After three days, I wasn’t ready to fly on my own, so we set up another three-day session at the end of the month.
During the second three-day session, we focused on air work in addition to takeoffs and landings. The air work went fine, but I was still struggling with landings. I would flare high and almost drop us in or flare low and almost drive us into the runway until Mike called a go-around. At one point, Mike told me I couldn’t fly the RV like a Bonanza. A Bonanza has big wings and will just float its way down to a soft landing on the runway. An RV needs to be flown to within a foot above the runway at the correct speed and then eased into a three-point attitude to get a smooth landing. Until that point, I had no idea that the Bonanza was allowing me to fly that sloppily or that the RV required that kind of precision.
Fatigue and frustration began to build up, and after a particularly dismal third day of landings, we agreed that I would have to come back for a third session. When I left, I had no idea how I was going to figure out how to judge where one foot above the runway was.
On my drive home that night, as road hypnosis started to kick in, I had an idea. The white line running down the middle of the highway looked a lot like the white line on the runway, and my height off of the road appeared to be similar to the RV’s height off of the runway. If I could just concentrate on that sight picture and lock it into my head, I would have a pretty good approximation of the sight picture I would need when landing the RV. For the next month, whenever I drove on the highway, I tried to concentrate on the sight picture of my car in relation to the road.
I went back to Oregon hoping the third time would be the charm. Since all of my other flying tasks had been completed, we spent the entire time practicing takeoffs and landings, and I finally started to get the hang of it. I was still fatigued by the end of the third day, but was flying well enough to earn my tailwheel endorsement.
The last thing Mike told me before I left was to find a calm day and get the feel of my RV-4 before I tried to fly in any difficult conditions. I planned to get started on that immediately, but Mother Nature had other plans.
My first flight was delayed, first due to high winds and then due to a failed mag check. I would have taken a certified aircraft to the shop, but with my new Experimental mentality, I decided to troubleshoot the problem myself. I traced it to a fouled spark plug, cleaned out the lead blob, and was back on my way. No big deal.
A few days later, after the plane was back together and another windstorm had passed, I went back to the airport with a sense of fear and excitement. The plane was running fine, and I got into the air. I went for a short flight and came back for some pattern work. I flew the appropriate speeds and went through the correct steps for each leg of the pattern, but badly bounced on the landing. On successive landings, I put on quite a ground-o-batics show with floating, balloons, bounces, swerves, and the beginning of a pilot induced oscillation, until I hit the gas and got into the air again. When I got back to the hangar, I was spent and confused, wondering how I could have flown so badly. In discussions with my ground observers, I heard a valuable piece of information. It was mentioned that I was really moving fast when I entered the pattern.
Now the pieces were starting to fall together. All of these bad landings could be attributed to excessive speed. I started to wonder if my airspeed indicator was reading correctly. My ground observers and I developed a plan.
I came back the next morning with my portable GPS and a paper containing a list of speeds from 140 knots down to 40 knots. When I hit each speed on my flight, I checked my GPS and wrote down the groundspeed. On my flight out, my groundspeeds were 14 to 17 knots higher than my indicated air speed. This seemed excessive, so I turned around and did the same tests on the way back, in case a tailwind impacted my findings. Surprisingly, my return trip showed even higher GPS groundspeeds. They were 17 to 19 knots higher than my indicated airspeed. I did some quick math, adjusted my pattern speeds down by 17 knots, and landed without incident. Instead of looking at the airspeed indicator issue as a problem, I looked at it as a new opportunity for troubleshooting and as a chance to get to know my RV better.
One of the things I heard during my RV training and in a forum at Oshkosh last year was that we need to become one with our aircraft. For me, this means learning everything I can about it, learning to fly it competently so I am confident in all situations, and participating in its mechanical troubleshooting and maintenance. Obviously, homebuilders can completely immerse themselves in this experience, but Experimental aviation allows even those of us without the time, skills, or inclination for that kind of commitment to become one with our aircraft in a way that just isn’t possible with certified aircraft. Experimental aircraft also tend to perform better and have a lower price. For me, those were reasons enough to make the switch to fly Experimental. These benefits can also be used to convince others who think aviation is out of their reach to join in the fun.
For those of you who are new to Experimental aviation or somewhat out of touch, Van’s Aircraft is the largest kit aircraft manufacturer, with over 9650 RVs completed. Van’s offers eight different models, many with a choice of tailwheel or nosewheel configuration. Van’s spans the market with single-seat, two-seat tandem, two-seat side-by-side, and four-seat models. The RV-4 is Van’s second commercially available model; its first flight was made in 1979. It is a fixed-gear, tandem-seat, taildragger, designed for engines of 150 to 180 hp. It can cruise at nearly 200 mph, climb at 1500 fpm, and has a maximum range of nearly 800 miles.
With reasonably comfortable seating arrangements, the RV-4 can be used for anything from aerobatics to cross-country flights. In the right hands, its short takeoff and landing capabilities even allow it to be used for some backcountry access. Being one of Van’s older kit designs, the RV-4 is more difficult to build than newer kits because it does not incorporate manufacturing advances like pre-punched parts. My RV-4 is a pretty basic example of the breed. It was completed in 1988, runs a 150-hp Lycoming O-320 engine, has a basic VFR panel, and a rather spartan interior. It is also a lightweight version of the breed. I haven’t had a chance to do a full-performance test on it yet, but just tooling around, I easily hit 170 mph using partial throttle at 8000 feet and achieve climbs of over 1000 fpm in 90 F heat from my 5000-foot-elevation airport. I look forward to spending time investigating more of my RV-4’s capabilities. —T.D.
RV Transition Training
I am a strong proponent of transition training. The few planes I have flown have had different enough characteristics that I have always found a benefit in having an instructor who knows what they are doing flying next to me for the first several hours. It wouldn’t have mattered if I wasn’t a believer because my insurance company required it. Van’s has several instructors on their transition training team who fly out of several different states. Each instructor teaches the Van’s syllabus in different models of Van’s aircraft, so check the Van’s website to find what works best for your training needs. As you’d expect, the training covers the types of things you would be doing in a thorough flight review or to pass the Private Pilot flying exam. You can expect to taxi, do takeoffs and landings, slow flight, stalls, 30- and 45-degree turns, and anything else you can remember from your flight training days. The instructors will customize the training to focus on improving your weak points as was done with my need for work on landings. I found the Van’s training to be even more beneficial than I thought it would be. Lightweight aircraft are so much different than the Beechcraft planes I had been flying that I had to significantly change my flying technique. I can confidently say that it would have been a very bad idea for me to try to fly my RV-4 without specific RV training. The consequences likely would have been a damaged aircraft or worse. —T.D.