Is the RV7 VanGrunsven’s best all-rounder?
When Richard (Dick) Vangrunsven brought his RV1 to life in 1965 he would have never imagined the impact that his designs would bring to General Aviation over the coming years.
Fast forward nearly 55 years later to December 2017 and Vans was celebrating a flying fleet of 10,000 aircraft around the world; a feat driven by the enthusiasm for the aircraft designs that make RV’s both a true pilot’s aircraft and a joy to build.
We take a look at his most popular model; the RV7 and RV7A and take a flight to see why it’s said to give pilots the widest ‘RV grin’.
Before we do, we should be mindful that sugar coating the brand too much tends to lead some to rightly point out the problems that Vans Aircraft has encountered along the way and further point to other manufacturers who have been less commercially successful, but still churn out fabulous aircraft. All are valid points.
Over time, like all commercial aircraft manufacturers, Dick’s designs were imperfect, and still are; with a number of (mainly minor) flaws, ranging from the need for structural reinforcements on landing gear bracing, to advising builders/pilots to check items like canopy latches and engine mount rivets for known wear and tear over time. Mainly though, these flaws simply exacerbate the effects of fundamentally sloppy building or piloting and aren’t usually serious in design. Essentially though, flying an RV that's properly built means having faith in the airworthiness of the machine.
As with each of Van's designs, the RV7 learned a few lessons from its predecessor, the RV-6, namely increased wingspan and wing area, and the acceptance of a larger engine up to 200hp. Most come with a Lycoming IO-360 and builders have the option of a constant speed or fixed pitch propeller. It was also where Vans used computer-assisted design techniques that enabled accurate pre-punched holes and a reduced total estimated build time of 1500 hours.
There's a 7A version (which we test here) and that gives the pilot a nose wheel rather than the traditional tailwheel (which many find too bothersome to handle on the takeoff roll in particular). While the RV7A is easier to fly, the RV7 does have a reputation for being the 'real deal'; the former said to be just a commercially viable version to appeal to the masses. I'll stay out of that debate now, and forever. I won't win, because it's like arguing over religion and politics. Everyone is right.
The RV7, while keeping the puritans happy, is also renowned for keeping low-time tail-wheel pilots on their toes, with a noticeable left yaw tendency on power application which gets the odd one unstuck. Ground loops are not that uncommon, so many elect to build the nosewheel-castering tricycle gear RV7A instead, especially if the aircraft is being used by others with less experience on type.
I had the fortune of flying an almost new RV7, built by the previous owner. As with many RV7's they come fairly basic when they're first built. And this is easy to explain. By the time a builder forks out for all the sub kits, pays the GST and freight, spends ridiculous amounts of time in a freezing cold (then only months later, extremely hot) hangar, sacrifices (literally pools of) blood, sweat and (often many) tears on the project, the bank manager is walking down the driveway and any semblance of one's previously strong relationships with the spouse, close family and non-aviation-obsessed friends is hanging by the proverbial thread.
The previous owner obviously sold within a relatively short time after completion and the current one has gone to the trouble of installing a couple of 7" Dynon screens for Engine Management and flight instrumentation, on top of the standard 'steam' gauges. The result on this test aircraft - along with the plush faux-leather interior, a nice AvMap display and backup iPad mounted on the right side of the cockpit - is an extremely comfortable well-equiped aircraft.
The walk-around is easy. Checking the obvious things; the oil level is easily accessed through a flap in the cowl, fuel and drain is standard, then there's flight surfaces, flaps, prop and undercarriage. And there's the obligatory check that there's still an axe in the flight bag, and that the bag is secured down. That's right, an axe. This axe is to break the canopy if it doesn't open prior to evacuation. It's a good idea, and hopefully will never be required for anyone, ever.
The canopy itself is very securely fastened above and behind the pilot with a large handle that nestles tightly under the roll bar, and a latch/lock mechanism on the pilot's side. To forget to latch a canopy on an RV7 can have significantly hazardous consequences as drag and lift moments shift suddenly if the latch comes loose in flight. Suffice to say, it's a checklist item before takeoff that cannot be missed, especially on a hot day where pilots do need adequate ventilation during taxi. And where, by design, the cockpit becomes a greenhouse/sauna very, very fast.
Getting in with a friend is easy, but 'never together' is the rule (in the RV7A). The result is a sudden aft shift in COG and this will quickly push the tail down and cause it to strike the ground. Before start. Just outside the hangar. In full view of the clubhouse members drinking on the balcony, just waiting for a faux pas (or bad landing). Not good for self esteem or that bank balance.
Climbing in from the rear is easier with the flaps down so they don't get in the way, and once up on the wing, you're best to stand on the seat and lower yourself in. I tried it every other which way, and it's not worth the trouble. I should have listened the first time.
Once in, the cockpit is surprisingly roomy (as compared with the RV6) and is comparable to a Cessna 172 or Warrior. Vans will claim it's a bit wider, but you do have to factor in that the round bubble on top of you that means you have less overall space than the squared-off cabins of the 1960's. Having said that, I'm 6'1" and with headsets on, the canopy sits around 2" above my head.
The control stick sits comfortably between one's legs, but for larger passengers and pilots, the stick movement is restricted by thicker legs or bigger-than-standard bellies. I'll leave that to your imagination; it's a bit cramped even for an average-weighted body in my opinion. If the stick (which is also a touch too long) was positioned a bit further forward I think comfort and controllability would be improved. Then, it could be argued, it would be awkward to reach. It's a matter of opinion.
The top fuselage sidewall brace (the one above the arm rest) does tend to rub hard up against the outer upper-forearm of both occupants, and this takes some getting used to, but this is simply a comfort thing and it needs to be there so I got over that fairly quickly after settling into my right seat position for the review flight.
Startup and taxi
Startup is like any normally aspirated Lycoming. In this aircraft the Dynon EMS was easy to read and warns you if anything is out of range, with a highlighted 'yellow' around the number/parameter or a 'red' with an audible 'squeal' which is sufficiently annoying not to ignore. I know this because one EGT probe was clearly a little confused and told us it was glowing 'hot' just seconds after start. A new one is on order.
With a fully castering nose-wheel the 7A is controlled on the ground with differential braking and the rudder authority at higher speeds and power settings. It's clumsy for the uninitiated but you soon learn to be positive in your rudder / brake inputs especially when taxying in a cross wind. Using power around corners helps as well.
Pre-takeoff, the trim tab is only visible from the left side through the rear window so you need to be able to turn to look at it, and a 'full free' control movement is achievable but again, my point about control stick movement is relevant here; you need to explain to any overweight passenger that full back stick may be required and, if it is, you're going to use it come hell or high-water. Again, not really a safety thing, but a passenger comfort one.
Flaps are electric, but the right flap is not visible to the pilot with a passenger in the right seat, so asking them for help here is a good idea, just to ensure symmetrical tracking. The flap motor runs after full flap is achieved if the switch is depressed and I would have liked to see this stop with the flaps once they achieve full throw. I'm being pedantic, but it bugged me a bit, in this aircraft. We selected zero flap for takeoff and taxied to the runway with the canopy latch unlocked and slightly ajar.
As we taxied, I thought whether - under stress, distracted, perhaps a little fatigued - all pilots will remember to lock the canopy. As we lined up I queried in my mind whether it would be a good idea for all hinged canopy Vans designs to at very least incorporate an audible / visual warning system. There are some available for different Van's models and I would like to see one on the RV7/A as standard. It's just too much at stake if you remember too late, like on-climb, or half way to your destination. And that's because you often can't lock it once you have the speed up. If we can have electronic EMS's then surely we can put a little switch on the locking mechanism that screams at you if you apply power and the latch is open. I'm open to comments from more experience Van's builders and pilots here, but my opinion is that these should be mandatory.
Takeoff & climb
Takeoff roll in the 7A is uneventful, and rudder authority quickly comes to life through around 30 knots, with some right rudder required as normally would be the case during higher power settings. Keeping the nose-wheel light on the roll is important because some have been known to fold up, but this is more likely on rough surfaces and where pot holes exist. It's good practice in any event and this one was fitted with a nose-strut reinforcement kit in lieu of the history.
Airborne, the climb performance is quickly apparent; it's truly superb, even with the fixed pitch prop and IO-360. While I won't quote exact numbers here (I'll get them wrong), let's say that with 3/4 tanks and two people we were at circuit height during early crosswind and we had 1500ft/min most of the way. It's remarkable by any standard.
Controls are light and responsive. If it was a car, it would be an M3 BMW; plenty of power to get you out of trouble and you can feel the road through the steering. But if you turn the wheel, it goes where you tell it to go. You fly this aircraft with two or three fingers and simply let it ride out the bumps. It's very swift in roll, not too pitchy and the rudder required is standard form for a two-seat light aircraft.
Steep turns, descents and climbs are very intuitive; only that the aircraft is quite 'slippery' so you can easily let the speed build on a steep descending turn and if you drop the nose you'll take it into a fast spiral dive. But everything is so easily controllable; any sign of trouble and it responds quickly to a recovery or adjustment.
The stall is fairly non-eventful, with or without flap or power. There is a tendency for a fairly swift wing drop at the stall if the aircraft is prompted, but this is easily kept in check with rudder. Do it with aileron and it will 'snap' fairly quickly, as if to warn you that if you do that again, its response will be predictably the same. So either way there's no excuses because it won't do anything you're not ready for. All-in-all, a relatively docile stall and easily recovered if things go astray.
The RV7 ride is a little bumpy in turbulence; it appears to twitch about a bit, and the pilot who replies with control inputs here will simply make matters worse in terms of ride comfort. The aircraft is quite stable in pitch, roll and yaw so riding out the bumps is the best option, with minor inputs to keep it going the way you need it to. Nothing more needed here. The best thing to do in turbulence is to sit back and enjoy the view; which incidentally is remarkable with the top canopy blind fully open and the sun beating down into the glasshouse... err...cockpit.
Its aerobatic capabilities are well-documented, tried and tested. And the reviews are excellent. It's a capable performer, particularly with a constant speed prop and all the standard manoeuvres are made easy by the responsiveness of the controls and 'giddy-up' of the power plant. You'll need to make sure weight is less than about 1600 pounds (725kg), depending on the individual aircraft, so full fuel and two people is a clear 'no-no'. And you might want to check where the bag with the canopy 'axe' is lurking as well. Just to be sure.
Approach and landing
Approaching the airport, you'll be doing at least 135knots IAS, so planning the descent - so as to bleed off some speed -should be in the back of your mind somewhere. It's certainly not the same priority as it would be in a Cirrus or a Glassair, but it's important to slow the RV7 down if you're joining the pattern on base or an oblique/late downwind. The problem is that flap extension speed for 20 degrees flap is 95 knots, so you'll have to lose 40knots while going downhill; oftentimes easier said than done.
The flaps aren't very 'draggy' either, so it feels like 30 degrees might be a better option if you want to slow down and increase the descent profile, but you'll need to be below 87 knots IAS for that. Keeping the aircraft in the mid-70's with full flap on final is a matter of maintaining a fairly low RPM otherwise you will outrun 87 knots and the end of the flap arc in a matter of a few seconds.
Good speed control with the RV7 is imperative on short final and into the flare. Too fast and you'll balloon 'or have too much runway behind the tail very quickly. Too slow and it will 'fall out of the sky' or make you consider a go around. It's less forgiving than a trainer but it feels very good when you get it right and pin the speed at about 65 knots over the 'piano keys', which is where I found I needed to be.
A lack of directional control came into play late in the landing roll which means that you need to remember to use differential braking (or alternatively more rudder if it's a touch and go) to stay in the middle of the runway. And in a crosswind, this is obviously more pronounced. Again, just a nuance particular to the fully-castering nose wheel, rather than any particular problem.
So... is it the best RV?
I understand that builders love to build them and Van's makes it easier with accurate, pre-punched kits and good builder support. But this aircraft belongs to the pilot. It's a beautifully controllable aircraft; nimble, fast, responsive and polite rather than unforgiving. You can take it away to a winery for the weekend, do aeros, or fly slowly along the coast.
You only need to have flown it once to understand how it's genuine all-rounder quality mean it's going to be VanGrunsven’s most popular model for a few years to come.