Any pilot familiar with Van’s Aircraft probably could have guessed that when the company decided to build a light sport aircraft, it would deliver a lot of smiles for not much money. The kitplane company has for 40 years offered a long line of airplanes that offer impressive all-around performance on a relatively small budget. But there’s always been a catch.
You have to build the airplane yourself.
Van’s latest design is the RV-12, a two-seater with a 100-horsepower engine. It was designed to fit the Federal Aviation Administration’s light sport aircraft category, which limits aircraft to two seats, less than 1, 320 pounds, a top speed of less than 120 knots (138 mph) indicated airspeed and fixed landing gear. Specifically the RV-12 is an E-LSA, where the “E” means experimental because it is an amateur or homebuilt aircraft.
The RV-12 has proven quite popular since its introduction a few years ago, with more than 150 flying already. It’s easy to see why. A complete kit costs less than $64, 000 and includes everything you need to go flying except for gas, oil and about 800 hours of your time.
We recently paid a visit to the Van’s Aircraft factory in Aurora, Ore., and took an RV-12 demonstrator up for a flight. Ken Scott, Van’s technical-support guru and demo pilot, joined me. He’s built an RV-12 and hardly contains his excitement about the relatively simple airplane’s performance.
“My lawn tractor is way more complicated than my airplane, ” he says, noting that his RV-12 lacks a suspension, steering mechanism or grass cutter. “And yesterday I was doing 126 knots straight and level on 100 horsepower!”
The RV-12 is a simple aircraft, essentially an aluminum frame with a few moving parts and an engine. And despite the experimental moniker, an E-LSA is not an experiment, but a safe and proven airplane approved by the FAA.
It should be noted that Scott was referring to the airplane’s true airspeed, while the 120 knot limit governing light sport aircraft refers to indicated airspeed. Indicated airspeed is what the airplane “feels” as the air hits the airframe. True airspeed corrects for altitude and temperature allowing the pilot to know how fast an airplane is moving over the ground, assuming no wind. At 10, 000 feet and an air temperature of 65 degrees, the indicated airspeed may only be 100 knots, while the true airspeed would be 130.
Scott says he can climb at 1, 400 feet per minute in his plane. This is impressive performance that makes reaching higher altitudes practical to chase higher true airspeeds.
We were flying somewhere over the Willamette Valley near the factory when it hit me. The RV-12 exceeds the kind of performance many pilots are familiar with flying stalwarts like the Cessna 172 or a Piper Cherokee. And while it’s true that, for most pilots, just about any airplane is fun to fly, the RV-12’s light and well-balanced controls elicit a smile far more easily than those classic aircraft.
As an LSA, the RV-12 was designed from the outset to be relatively simple and easy to fly. But that makes it sound a bit like a bike with training wheels. The RV-12 is a real airplane.
You can easily make turns and maneuver with just your fingertips on the control stick. Just a small amount of wrist motion puts you in a turn and brings out yet another grin. The airplane’s long flaperons on the wing make it much more maneuverable than I anticipated. It’s no high-performance aerobatic airplane, but flying through various basic maneuvers makes you want to do them over and over again just because it’s such fun.
Many pilots wouldn’t expect pushing the throttle forward would do much, given that the RV-12 has just a 100-horsepower Rotax 912 four-cylinder engine. The kind of power won’t bring whiplash-inducing acceleration, but the plane accelerates briskly and both the climb and cruise performance justify Scott’s enthusiastic descriptions of the airplane.
At the other end of the airspeed indicator, a fairly slow stall speed of just 40 knots (47 mph) means the RV-12 can comfortably get in and out of airstrips less than 800 feet long. The airplane can carry 20 gallons of fuel, and the Rotax burns around five to five and a half gallons per hour during cruise.
Van’s Aircraft founder Richard VanGrunsven sees the RV-12 as a very practical airplane that serves the needs of many recreational pilots.
“Planes like the RV-12 are really more practical than most people realize, ” he says. “The majority of the flying people do over the course of a year is local flying over a relatively short distance.”
VanGrunsven knows what he’s talking about. He has for many years commuted to work by air on most days, flying the 30 miles or so from his home to the Van’s Aircraft factory. He can choose from any of the company’s airplanes, including high-performance aircraft capable of more than 200 mph, but more often than not chooses the RV-12.
“It’s just my preferred airplane for 95 percent of my flying now.”
Like all RV-12 owners — well, except those who might have bought their Van’s second-hand — VanGrunsven built his own. Although he has a lot more experience with this than most folks (Even if he is quick to note that many people have built more RV-series airplane than he has.), the airplane does not require any prior experience to build.
Scott is the guy who answers the phone when builders call with technical questions, so he knows about the building community. Van’s Aircraft has over the years made its airplanes ever easier to build, but the RV-12 takes it to a new level of simplicity.
“We’ve expanded the market to a person that may not have even built a birdhouse but they want to build this airplane, ” he says.
Scott points out his first homebuilt airplane offered just 44 drawings to follow from beginning to end, and he was expected to know how to install the engine. The RV-12, on the other hand, offers almost 500 drawings outlining every step and detail needed to complete the airplane.
“When you turn to the last page and follow the last instruction, you will have a blank table in front of you, ” Scott says. “When you look over your shoulder, you will have an airplane ready to fly.”
Van’s estimates about 700-900 hours of time is needed to build an RV-12. Unlike other experimental aircraft, you can’t make any changes or modifications if you want to fly it as an E-LSA. This keeps build times fairly consistent, although a few details such as paint and interior can add some time to the process.
Some builders opt to break the project down into smaller pieces, starting first with the tail kit. That allows would-be builders to minimize startup costs and get a chance to test their skills — and commitment — before dedicating themselves to building an entire airplane. The tail kit will run you $2, 230. With the holidays just around the corner, it might just be the perfect thing to add to the list. Assuming you’ve been good this year.