Buying Used: Van’s RV-6

What to look for when shopping for the world’s most popular Experimental.

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Van's RV-6The success of Van’s Aircraft in general‭, ‬and the RV-6‭ ‬and‭ -‬6A in particular‭, ‬are legendary‭. ‬More than 2600‭ ‬of these kits have been built since debuting 30‭ ‬years ago‭. ‬As in the first article in this series we will take a look at the major‭ ‬points of interest to a prospective buyer of a used RV-6‭, ‬including its history‭, ‬an overview of the design‭, ‬what to look for‭, ‬engine options‭, ‬typical avionics‭, ‬common‭ ‬modifications‭, ‬performance and owner‭ ‬support‮—‬both factory and user groups‭.‬

Just for those who may not be familiar with Van’s model designations‭, ‬a model number ending in a number has conventional‭ (‬taildragger‭) ‬gear‭. ‬If the model‭ ‬number ends with an‭ ‬“A‭,‬”‭ ‬the airplane has tricycle gear‭.‬

History

The RV-6‭ ‬first flew on May 31‭, ‬1986‭, ‬with tail kits becoming available that‭ ‬same year‭. ‬Kit production ran from‭ ‬then until 2001‭, ‬when it was replaced by the slightly larger RV-7‭. ‬As of late 2019‭, ‬some 2670‭ ‬RV-6‭ ‬and 6A kits have been‭ ‬completed‭. ‬That makes the RV-6‭ ‬in both‭ ‬its versions the most popular Experimental/Amateur-Built airplane ever‭ ‬made‭. ‬The pace of RV-6‭ ‬completions‭ ‬has slowed considerably since its heyday‭, ‬but even 18‭ ‬years after production ended there are still kits being completed‭.‬

Van's RV-6
While the RV-6 started life as a taildragger—traditionally Richard VanGrunsven’s go-to configuration…

The RV-6‭ ‬came out to meet the‭ ‬demand for a side-by-side alternative to‭ ‬the very successful RV-4‭, ‬which came‭ ‬with tandem seating and conventional gear only‭. ‬The RV-6‭ ‬made dual instruction much easier and provided an environment that was more conducive to‭ ‬pilot/copilot interaction‮—‬and more familiar to those coming from conventional production aircraft‭. ‬These‭ ‬changes produced a design roughly twice as popular as the RV-4‭. ‬So‭, ‬just from those numbers‭, ‬if you are looking for a used Experimental it is likely that you are at least considering an RV-6‭ ‬or 6A‭.‬

Van's RV-6
…it soon became available in a tri-gear version, which proved immediately and enduringly successful.

The first RV-6‭ ‬kits were available as‭ ‬taildraggers‭, ‬with the tricycle version‭ ‬‭(‬RV-6A‭) ‬coming along in 1988‭. ‬Van’s still has the original RV-6A prototype‭, ‬but it no longer flies‭. ‬Early kits did not‭ ‬have pre-punched skins‭, ‬so builders‭ ‬had to do their own rivet layout‭, ‬just as they did with the RV-4‭. ‬Prepunched skins didn’t become available until the mid-1990s‭. ‬This is not the same as the match-hole kits now available for the‭ ‬RV-12‭ ‬and RV-14‭, ‬but it was a great improvement over the undrilled kits‭, ‬and it marked the beginning of the process of the factory doing more fabrication for the builder‭. ‬The first canopies‭ ‬were hinged at the front with sliding‭ ‬canopies coming later as an option‭. ‬There are many planes in both versions on the used market‭. ‬Many people like the sliding canopy for its better ventilation during‭ ‬ground operations‭.‬

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A larger vertical stabilizer and rudder became standard in late 1999‭, ‬with all RV-6‭ ‬kits being sold this way until the‭ ‬RV-7‭ ‬came out in 2001‭. ‬About half of‭ ‬all RV-6‭ ‬kits were built as trikes‭.‬

Designed by Experience

Remembering that the RV-6‭ ‬descended from the very sporty RV-4‭, ‬it is no surprise that the RV-6‭ ‬shared many of the‭ ‬basic design elements of that earlier‭ ‬plane‭. ‬Handling is crisp and light making the plane definitely fun to fly‭.‬

With an original design gross weight of 1600‭ ‬pounds‭, ‬the RV-6‭ ‬was meant to be kept light for optimum performance‭. ‬Engines such as the Lycoming O-320‭ ‬and O-360‭ ‬were ideal for this plane‭, ‬but the heavier 200-hp angle-valve 360‭ ‬engines were too heavy to work well in the RV-6‭. ‬It is important to find a plane that has‭ ‬not been built too heavy if any useful load is to be retained‭. ‬Many builders have dealt with this problem by taking it upon themselves to increase the‭ ‬gross weight to match the 1800‭ ‬pounds of the RV-7‭, ‬but Van’s strongly objects‭ ‬to this‭. ‬It is not like there are lots of‭ ‬RV-6s falling out of the sky because they are overloaded‭, ‬but a buyer should not expect to meet the factory performance numbers‭ ‬with a plane that has its gross weight increased by 200‭ ‬pounds over the factory recommendation‭. ‬The airplane was never intended‭ ‬to be a heavy hauler‭, ‬so if you really need more of a utility airplane‭, ‬you should probably be looking at something other than an RV-6‭. ‬This is‭ ‬not a criticism of the design‭.‬

Van's RV-6
The Van’s Aircraft RV-6 prototype before paint. N66RV flew in 1985 and weighed only 960 pounds, with a wood prop and 150-hp O-320. Kits went on sale in the fall of 1986. Note the innovative under-spinner intake scheme.

The relatively short wingspan and‭ ‬deep chord make for a snappy roll rate‭, ‬but owners complain about the poor‭ ‬ride this wing produces in turbulence‮—‬it’s a matter of both wing loading and lack of mass near the wing tips‭. ‬The verdict is mixed on small tail versus large tail‭ (‬only‭ ‬available the last two years of production‭). ‬There does not seem to be‭ ‬any agreement about whether or not it improves handling or dramatically‭ ‬changes the nature of the RV’s stability‭, ‬which is actually very good‭.‬

The conventional all-metal design‭ ‬makes it fairly easy to find people who‭ ‬are equipped to handle repairs and maintenance when needed‭, ‬and the near ubiquity of RV models‮—‬more‭ ‬than 10,000‭ ‬built‭, ‬remember‮—‬means‭ ‬that expertise is seldom far away‭. ‬Its‭ ‬construction also makes the RV-6‭ ‬easier to inspect for build quality‭, ‬certainly‭ ‬much simpler than an all-composite‭ ‬design would be‭.‬

Van's RV-6
When the RV-6 was developed, simplicity and light weight were key. This French-registered RV-6 is just about as austere (and light) as they come.

Different Configurations

Like the GlaStar we previously reviewed‭, ‬the RV-6‭ ‬can be built as a trike or a taildragger‭. ‬Unlike the GlaStar‭, ‬though‭, ‬switching from one gear configuration to the other is not really something you can do‭. ‬You make your choice up front and live with it‭. ‬As with the GlaStar‭, ‬flying characteristics of the two configurations once airborne are virtually identical until it comes time to land again‭. ‬There is always a debate‭ ‬over whether the trike or the taildragger is faster‮—‬Van’s gives a two-knot speed‭ ‬advantage to the taildragger‮—‬but‭ ‬actually realizing that speed difference can be elusive‭.‬

Do not seek out a taildragger because you think it will be faster‭; ‬look for such a plane because you need the better prop‭ ‬clearance that the design provides‭. ‬This makes it better suited for operating off of unpaved strips‭. ‬Typically‭, ‬though‭, ‬insurance rates favor the trike‭, ‬especially for pilots with little to no taildragger time‭. ‬

Most of the RV-6s available will have fixed propellers‭. ‬There are some available with constant-speed props‭, ‬but the‭ ‬extra weight‭, ‬especially when paired‭ ‬with the heavier 180-hp engine‭, ‬presents challenges with excess empty weight and forward center of gravity‭. ‬These problems can now be mitigated somewhat‭ ‬with new composite props but at added cost‭. ‬Most RV-6s were constructed in an era of cost-conscious builders‭, ‬so unless‭ ‬modified later‭, ‬most RV-6s are going‭ ‬to be simple machines without a lot of more expensive options‭.‬

What to Look For

As with any airplane‭, ‬maintenance‭ ‬records are important‭. ‬Add to this service bulletin compliance‭. ‬The RV-6‭ ‬is not a troublesome plane‭, ‬but overly enthusiastic aviators have found ways to stress the airframe to its limits‭. ‬Look‭ ‬for compliance with Service Bulletin‭ ‬16-03-28‭ ‬that deals with possible cracks in the aft wing spar at the inner aileron hinge point‭. ‬This is a routine inspection item in most cases‭. ‬

Service Bulletin 14-02-05‭ ‬deals with possible cracking in the elevator spar web at the points where it attaches to the horizontal stabilizer‭. ‬It is a simple fix if cracks are found‭. ‬Otherwise‭, ‬it is just a yearly inspection item‭. ‬Also‭, ‬Service Bulletin 14-01-31‭ ‬calls for looking for cracks in the horizontal stabilizer front spar at its inboard end‭. ‬Again‭, ‬it is just a yearly inspection item unless cracks are found‭.‬

Van's RV-6
Early RV-6 tails were the so-called “small” versions. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the RV-6 kit included some pre-punched skins. Earlier kits put the builder’s metalworking skill on full display.

There are two service bulletins that‭ ‬deal with the nose gear on RV-6As‭ ‬only‭. ‬SB 07-11-09‭ ‬requires upgrading of the nose gear leg and nosewheel fork on all RV-6A kits shipped before February 2005‭. ‬Everyone should have long-since complied with this service bulletin‭, ‬but you should check to make sure if you‭ ‬are purchasing a plane built from an‭ ‬older kit‭. ‬There is also a service bulletin to check for the proper orientation of‭ ‬the nosewheel stop flange‮—‬SB 14-12-22‭. ‬This is normally a no-cost item that simply required a one-time inspection and correcting if required‭.‬

A big item of concern‭, ‬and one that is usually quite obvious‭, ‬is fuel tank leakage‭. ‬The RV-6‭ ‬uses a wet-wing design‭, ‬as do all of the RV models‭. ‬This means that there are no separate fuel tanks or bladders inside the wings‭. ‬Thus‭, ‬the wing‭ ‬parts must be properly sealed as the‭ ‬wings are assembled‭. ‬Leaks can occur at rivets that are not properly installed‭. ‬Be sure to have the tanks full when you do your‭ ‬prebuy inspection and carefully check for any signs of leaking‭.‬

Sometimes it is fairly easy to fix this problem‭, ‬but sometimes it isn’t‭. ‬Some‭ ‬owners have employed a technique‭ ‬called sloshing to coat the entire inside of the wing tanks with sealant to stop leaks‭. ‬Van’s has discouraged this since the early 1990s‭, ‬but that doesn’t mean‭ ‬that it hasn’t happened‭. ‬Service Bulletin 11-9-13‭ ‬talks about the problems that can result from sloshing that fails to hold‭. ‬In the worst cases sloshing can come loose and plug up the fuel system resulting in engine failure‭.‬

There are other service bulletins‭, ‬but these are the main ones‭. ‬Be sure to review all of the service bulletin information available at Van’s website and‭ ‬look for a record of compliance during‭ ‬your prebuy inspection‭. ‬Lastly‭, ‬take a‭ ‬good look under the panel and around the rudder pedals and brakes for leakage‭ ‬or other problems‭. ‬It is not that problems there are common‭, ‬but it is uncomfortable to do repairs in those areas‭.‬

Other areas to consider‭. ‬According to‭ ‬Vic Syracuse‭, ‬who has seen the insides‭ ‬of many RV-6s‭, ‬there are some common gotchas‭. ‬“RV-6s should be checked very carefully for cracked landing gear‭ ‬mounts‭. ‬Some will have cracks right‭ ‬along the weld joint‭.‬”‭ ‬Another area he‭ ‬notes‭, ‬and this is partly the result of the 6‭ ‬being an early kit‭, ‬“On all RV-6s‭, ‬the most common problem is a lack of good‭ ‬edge distance on the horizontal stabilizer mount to the fuselage‭. ‬The early‭ ‬6s were not prepunched‭, ‬so there is a lot‭ ‬of room for error in this area‭.‬”‭ ‬Obviously‭, ‬the more recent prepunched kits don’t have this problem because the factory took care of the edge distance for‭ ‬the builder‭. ‬Finally‭, ‬says Vic‭, ‬“Another‭ ‬area is to make sure the modification has been done to the forward fuel tank‭ ‬attach point‭. ‬It should be slotted and‭ ‬then attached with a drilled-head bolt‭, ‬nut plate and safety wire‭. ‬This is to allow the fuel tank to pull away from the fuselage‭ ‬without breaching the fuel tank in‭ ‬the event of an accident‭.‬”‭ ‬Van's RV-6

Engine Options

Most RV-6s have either a Lycoming‭ ‬O-320‭ ‬or an O-360‭. ‬Lycoming clones‭ ‬by Superior or ECI‭ (‬now Continental‭) ‬were not popular when most RV-6s‭ ‬were built but you may run into them as replacement engines‭. ‬Some early RV-6s‭ ‬may have the older Lycoming O-290‭ ‬engine‭. ‬Lycoming does not support‭ ‬these engines anymore‭, ‬so parts can be hard to come by‭. ‬The 290‭ ‬also produces only 135‭ ‬hp‭, ‬making planes so equipped‭ ‬poorer performers compared to their‭ ‬higher-powered peers‭. ‬The decreased‭ ‬performance as well as potential parts‭ ‬issues should be reflected in the price of a plane with one of these engines‭.‬

Subaru auto conversion engines were‭ ‬popular with RV builders for a while‭, ‬but most have not withstood the test‭ ‬of time­‮—‬they depress the value of any RV-6‭ ‬compared to one with a more conventional engine‭. ‬

Many RV-6s will come with fixed‭-‬pitch metal props by Sensenich‭, ‬but there are some with constant-speed‭ ‬props or other types of fixed or ground-adjustable props‭. ‬Economy and forward CG issues drove most RV builders to‭ ‬the simple fixed-pitched solution‭. ‬A‭ ‬Hartzell constant-speed prop will add‭ ‬15‭ ‬to 17‭ ‬pounds to the nose compared to‭ ‬a fixed-pitch Sensenich metal prop‭. ‬

Typical Avionics

Most RV-6s were built with VFR avionics at a time when GPS was still a new thing‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬do not expect to find many with IFR‭ ‬approach-approved GPS‭ ‬navigation capability‭. ‬Many owners‭ ‬have added handheld units‭, ‬some even‭ ‬panel mounted‭, ‬but a Garmin GNS‭ ‬430W would not be a common thing to find in an RV-6‭. ‬These planes were built in an era when economy was the overriding concern‭, ‬so most panels are going to be wired by the original builder and feature a mix of lower-priced avionics‭. ‬This is not where you are going to find a‭ $‬40,000‭ ‬panel by SteinAir or Aerotronics‭. ‬That said‭, ‬you will see planes that are IFR-legal but rely on VOR navigation to achieve such status‭. ‬

Van's RV-6
This is a typical VFR panel in an RV-6. This will often be supplemented by a handheld Garmin such as a 296. IFR panels, while not unheard-of, are much less common in RV-6s.

Someone who wanted a good piece‭ ‬of transportation at a good price could consider upgrading an RV-6‭ ‬panel with either a used GNS 430W‭, ‬a new Garmin GNC 355‭ ‬GPS/com‭, ‬or a new GPS 175‭ ‬navigator while retaining the existing com radio‭. ‬Add a means of ADS-B Out and you have a capable IFR panel for years to come for somewhere in the range of‭ $‬6-10,000‭. ‬That is a substantial‭ ‬investment‭, ‬but one that should retain‭ ‬most of its value at resale time‭.‬

Anti Splat mods for the RV-6A include the Nose Job gear leg stiffener and the Lip Skid—meant to make the nose gear of the RV-6A more robust when operating from rough fields.

Common Modifications

The most common modifications to the original RV-6‭ ‬design came from the factory‭, ‬namely the larger tail and the sliding canopy‭. ‬However‭, ‬retrofitting either of these would not be something that‭ ‬many people would consider‭. ‬Electric flaps and trim are common modifications that can be added later‭.‬

Anti Splat Aero has a host of minor modifications available‭, ‬such as nose gear reinforcement‭ (‬Nose Job‭), ‬vertical‭ ‬stabilizer reinforcement‭, ‬cup holders‭ ‬and more‭. ‬These are what you would‭ ‬call bolt-on modifications that are easily installed and easily removed‮—‬and‭ ‬popular enough to be widely found‭.‬

Performance and Flying Qualities

In general‭, ‬the RV airplanes have been known for good cruise speed and sporty handling‭. ‬They also exhibit decent slow speed handling‭, ‬allowing them to handle fairly short fields‭. ‬The RV-6‭ ‬and 6A certainly embrace those desirable traits‭.‬

An RV-6‭ ‬with a 150-hp engine can‭ ‬cruise at just over 160‭ ‬knots at 75%‭ ‬power‭. ‬With a larger 180-hp engine‭, ‬that goes up to 173‭ ‬knots‭. ‬Knock off about 2‭ ‬knots for the trike version‭. ‬Stall speed for both versions is listed as 48‭ ‬knots‭. ‬A‭ ‬moderate wing loading of 14.5‭ ‬pounds per square foot and a friendly‭ ‬airfoil design produce stalls that are‭ ‬generally devoid of drama‭. ‬This makes for a plane that can easily be operated out of a 2000-foot strip at sea level‭, ‬with even better performance available to the experienced pilot‭.‬

A fuel capacity of 38‭ ‬gallons gives‭ ‬about 3‭ ‬hours of endurance with‭ ‬reserves‭, ‬making it not particularly‭ ‬long-legged‭, ‬but a range of 600‭ ‬to 650‭ ‬nautical miles is readily achievable with a little care‭. ‬And‭, ‬really‭, ‬that’s about‭  ‬the‭ ‬most people can comfortably endure‭ ‬anyway‭. ‬It just calls for some careful planning if your destination does not‭ ‬have fuel available‭.‬

Any buyer should take a test flight before laying down hard cash‭, ‬but a loose approximation of the RV-6‭ ‬handling can be experienced in a Grumman Tiger or similar model‭. ‬If you are‭ ‬coming out of a Piper‭ ‬Cherokee‭, ‬the‭ ‬RV-6‭ ‬will seem like a sports car‭, ‬but it doesn’t take most people long to get used to it‭. ‬The greater problem is that after you have been flying the RV-6‭ ‬for a while‭, ‬you will‭ ‬never be happy flying a Cherokee again‭. ‬The only complaint I have ever heard about RV-6‭ ‬handling is that its ride in turbulence‭ ‬is harsh by Cherokee standards‭.‬

Resources

By far the largest and most active user group in Experimental aviation is Van’s Air Force‭‭. ‬It is a tremendous source of information‭ ‬about all things Van’s and RV airplanes‭. ‬There is even a section devoted exclusively to the RV-6‭ ‬and 6A‭. ‬What’s more‭, ‬the Van’s factory does a great job‭ ‬of making service information and‭ ‬parts available on its website‭, ‬which is often utilized by non-RV builders such‭ ‬as myself‭. ‬Van’s also has live technical support by phone during limited hours‭, ‬but many builder problems can be solved on the forum or by a search‭ ‬of its archives‭. ‬The RV-6‭ ‬kit has not been sold for many years‭, ‬so factory‭ ‬support is limited to parts‭, ‬but ample information and assistance is available for those who need them‮—‬by now‭, ‬the RV-6‭ ‬is a well-understood aircraft‭.‬

Prices

A decent RV-6‭ ‬or 6A will be around‭ ‬$60,000‭ ‬with a low‭- ‬to mid-time engine and VFR or light IFR avionics‭. ‬For that price‭, ‬the RV should be in very good‭ ‬shape cosmetically and mechanically‭. ‬Good IFR radios such as a Garmin‭ ‬GNS430W will add to that‭, ‬and high‭ ‬engine time will subtract‭. ‬There are‭ ‬RV-6s available in the‭ $‬40K range‭, ‬but‭ ‬expect them to need work‭, ‬sometimes‭ ‬lots of work‭. ‬ADS-B already in place is another plus to the value for most people and certainly for resale‭. ‬As with all things it is usually smarter to pay more and get the best plane you can rather than pay less with the intention of fixing it up‭. ‬Somehow‭ ‬the fixing up always costs more than you think‭.‬

Calendar age isn’t a big factor for the airframe value‭, ‬but years of little or no‭ ‬flying can take a toll on the engine‭. ‬A‭ ‬careful prebuy inspection is always vitally‭ ‬important before any such purchase‭.‬

There is a reason why Van’s sold so‭ ‬many RV-6‭ ‬and 6A kits‭. ‬They represent a very good value for an airplane that serves most people’s needs very well‭. ‬It is a little tight on space for big guys and‭ ‬does not hold a great deal of baggage‭, ‬but it hits a sweet spot for a lot of pilots looking for affordable performance‭. ‬

Photos: Dave Prizio, Paul Dye, Cary Peebles, Jonny Salmon, courtesy of Van’s Aircraft.

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Dave Prizio
Dave Prizio has been plying the skies of the L.A. basin and beyond since 1973. Born into a family of builders, it was only natural that he would make his living as a contractor and spend his leisure time building airplanes. He has so far completed three—a GlaStar, a Glasair Sportsman, and a Texas Sport Cub—and is helping a friend build an RV-8. When he isn’t building something, he shares his love of aviation with others by flying Young Eagles or volunteering as an EAA Technical Counselor. He is also an A&P mechanic, Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR), and was a member of the EAA Homebuilt Aircraft Council for six years.

1 COMMENT

  1. I see at least one item needing correction. The Original RV-6A N666RV is indeed still flying has almost 6000 hours on it and is still serving all the time a s a transition trainer. Mike

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