The Airplane Van Didnt Want to Build

How the RV-6 became the most successful kit aircraft yet.


N666RV is the very first RV-6A. Flown in 1989, it soldiers on in Van’s transition training program and has accumulated over 5000 airframe hours. The paint is faded and the interior’s worn, but it’s still a favorite among Van’s staff.

When Richard VanGrunsven (the “Van” in Van’s Aircraft) created the single-seat RV-3, pilots raved. It was a true pilot’s airplane: nimble, light, fast, and beautifully harmonized. But pilots have friends and spouses and significant others, and one seat wasn’t going to be enough. So Van brought forth the RV-4. He wasn’t willing to give up any more performance than he had to, so it was light and narrow and sleek, with tight tandem seating for two. The friends and spouses and significant others protested…who wants to sit in the trunk like baggage? We want to sit up front, alongside the pilot.

Van resisted. Side-by-side airplanes were draggier, slower, heavier, and didn’t look as good. He was sure no pilot would want that, no matter what the folks in the back seat said. Even if he came up with a “side-by-side RV-4,” it wouldn’t sell.

Boy, was he wrong.

With the RV-4 and RV-5 designations assigned (Yes, there was and is an RV-5…), the obvious number for a side-by-side airplane, if there ever was going to be one, was the RV-6.

Strangely enough, there already was an RV-6…in fact there were two of them.

Using preliminary plans for the RV-4 wing and a fuselage of his own design, Art Chard built two side-by-side aircraft and called them RV-6s. This one was powered by an O-320.

The Originals

Art Chard, of Branson, Michigan, was one of Van’s early customers and built the first customer-built RV-3. (Some idea of Art’s skills might be gained by realizing that he built the airplane from an extremely rudimentary kit in 13 months! “I should have had it done in a year,” Art says, “but I took a month off the project to roof my mother’s house.”)

After his RV-3 was finished and flying, Art needed another project, and his thoughts turned to an airplane similar to the Mustang II he’d helped his brother build. He contacted Van, knowing that a 2-place was in the works. At the time Van was developing the tandem concept and had no plans for a side-by-side model. He agreed to supply Art with some preliminary wing plans for what was to become the RV-4, and Art produced a pair of side-by-side airplanes based around Van’s wing and a fuselage of his own design. One flew with a Lycoming O-320, the other with the unusual Continental IO-346. Art adapted the available T-18 canopy and produced his own fiberglass cowl. He called them RV-6s, and they flew very well indeed, exhibiting the exemplary handling qualities that had made the RV-3 such a hit…and both were in the air well before Van, buried under the workload of producing kits for the RV-3 and details of developing a rapidly expanding business, could complete the RV-4.

When Van’s brother Jerry bought Art’s Lycoming-powered RV-6, N6RV, Van had the chance to fly the airplane quite a bit. He liked it, but found that it was significantly slower than the RV-3. This convinced him he’d made the right choice in picking tandem seating for his two-seat design. He continued along his original path and developed the RV-4. It was hard to argue the point…the RV-4 far outsold the RV-3 and became the airplane that really established Van’s Aircraft.

Even though the RV-3 and RV-4 were selling well by the early ’80s, the clamor for a side-by-side airplane became too loud to ignore. Part of this was the usual excuses every aircraft designer hears—if it only had a different landing gear/different canopy/different engine/high/low wing/atomic de-remangulator, I’d buy it!—but inside all that, Van recognized a real demand. He realized that, despite his personal unwillingness to compromise performance for room, baggage capacity, and passenger “equality,” there was a large contingent of potential customers who would willingly make that trade.

So he did two things—he put aside his personal preferences, and he hired Art.

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.

Refining the Design

Art moved west to the tiny town of North Plains, Oregon, where he and Van began to develop a Van’s Aircraft RV-6. During the early ’80s, Van’s Aircraft, Inc. was essentially Van’s garage. About the size of a four-bay service station, it was located on one end of a 2800-foot grass runway that served a residential airpark. Most of the space was dedicated to production tools (an 8-foot power sheer, a couple of hand-powered sheet metal brakes, some workbenches and racks, a tired old forklift) and the “prototype shop” was just a walled-in corner of the hangar. Measuring about 20×12 feet, it was just long enough for a fuselage jig and just wide enough that Van could install a drafting table along one wall and still give Art, a slender man, room to edge around the growing fuselage, rivet gun in hand. Barely.

Sixteen-hour days were Van’s norm at the time, and employees, (some of whom are still with the company 30 years later) can remember Van dozing at that drafting board while Art drilled and riveted away, about eight feet from his ear. Somehow the two of them made it work, and in 1985 the prototype RV-6—the Van’s Aircraft version—was pulled out onto the grass strip for its first flight.

N66RV was a typical Van’s airplane: clean, simple, and light. With a wood propeller and a 150-hp Lycoming O-320, it weighed just 960 pounds. Many things had changed since Art’s original airplanes. The cowl had an innovative single inlet below the spinner that admitted both cooling and induction air. The sliding T-18 canopy, designed for a narrower airplane with a much more angular fuselage, had given way to a sleek curved bubble hinged at the front. Van, figuring that if the airplane was going to be slower, it might as well be comfortable, had made the fuselage wider. The RV-4 wing was redesigned for a higher gross weight and slightly larger tanks. The landing gear followed the successful design of the RV-3 and RV-4, with tapered steel rods inserted into tubes welded into the engine mount. When Van flew it, he found that not only was it significantly faster than the original “Chard 6,” it was only slightly slower than the RV-4. Handling and aerobatic qualities were everything you’d expect in an RV.

After a period of test flying, including taking the airplane to Oshkosh 1986, Van made the decision to produce drawings and kits for the airplane. In the fall of 1986, kits for the RV-6 went on sale. The kit airplane was not exactly the same as the prototype—among other things, the firewall bracing was strengthened, and the production cowl reverted back to traditional cooling “nostrils” on either side of the spinner, with a scoop on the bottom for induction air.

The floodgates opened. Within three months, over 200 serial numbers had been issued and the old blueprint machine Van was using to print plans practically melted down. The production shop went to two shifts. Employees produced wing rib blanks at home on weekends and evenings just to keep up.

More Options for Builders

Over the next 10 years, three major developments made the RV-6 appeal to an even wider audience: the sliding canopy, the tricycle gear, and the QuickBuild kit.

The original tip-forward canopy put the roll-over bar behind the pilot’s head so the view forward was completely unobstructed. When it was raised, the glareshield came with it, so access to the back of most instruments was easy. From the flying point of view it worked very well, but it was difficult to fit accurately, and it tended to leak onto the back of the panel if the airplane was left out in the rain. Besides, to a lot of builders, there was just nothing sexier than a sliding canopy…what could be cooler than taxiing in with your elbow slung over the side and the wind in your hair? Real airplanes, like Mustangs and Thunderbolts and P-40s, had sliding canopies…why couldn’t RV drivers have one too?

It wasn’t a simple job—the RV-6 longerons formed a continuous curve from firewall to tail post—and sliding canopy rollers can’t follow a curve. So a 3-track system was adopted, with straight tracks on either side cutting across the arc of the longerons and a single track centered on the rear fuselage. This stole some shoulder room out of the cockpit and the fixed windshield made access behind the panel much more difficult, but customers didn’t seem to care. They bought the slider in droves.

Another untapped market for RVs was tricycle-gear pilots. When the RV-3 was first conceived, a large percentage of private pilots had been exposed to tailwheel airplanes. Champs and Cubs were common trainers, and the ex-military types had flown Stearmans and T-6s. The ubiquitous Cessna 150 changed all that—so there were thousands of pilots who’d never flown a tailwheel airplane and were nervous about trying. A tricycle-gear RV was the obvious solution. The RV-6A N666RV appeared in 1989 and despite the three sixes, there was nothing evil about it. It made its first flight off the grass runway in North Plains, and has made tens of thousands of landings on grass, gravel, pavement (and at least one on a road covered with fist-sized rocks) since.

With two canopies, two landing gear configurations, and two possible engines (Van had approved use of the 180-hp Lycoming O-360), the RV-6 seemingly had something for everybody who wanted a side-by-side airplane. The price was surprisingly affordable, but the biggest remaining barrier was the time it took to complete one.

The company estimated that it would take 2000 hours to build a simple RV-6. Finding 2000 hours of productive shop time was difficult for working people, so projects stretched out over several years. Van took a hard look at the FAA rules for amateur-built airplanes and concluded that there was a window for a partially assembled kit if the costs could be kept under control. Since the labor-intensive nature of the airplane was the problem, inexpensive, skilled labor was the obvious solution. Van’s found the answer in the Philippines. Skilled craftsmen were available, many of whom had worked for the U.S. Air Force and been cut loose as the United States closed overseas bases. Even generous salaries by Philippine standards were far below labor rates in the U.S. The QuickBuild program was developed, where Van’s produced all the parts as usual and shipped them in bulk to a Filipino company. There they were primed, assembled into partially complete wings and fuselages, and returned to the U.S. in containers. For about a 30% increase in cost of the airframe (less, if you figured it as a percentage of the completed airplane) a QuickBuild customer could reduce building time by something close to 50%.

Over 2500 Completions

More than 2500 RV-6 and RV-6As have flown in 40 or 50 different countries. Art Chard, long retired from Van’s, builds airplanes at his shop in western Montana—his lifetime total is at least 30. A couple of RV-6s have been ferried across oceans. Paul and Victoria Rosales have landed their RV-6A in every U.S. state except Hawaii, as well as many Caribbean islands and Canadian provinces. Both Chard 6s still exist; N66RV is stored in Van’s hangar until a museum finds a place for it, and N666RV soldiers on with over 5000 hours on its airframe, teaching pilots how to stay safe in their new RVs.

Now, 15 years after Van’s discontinued new sales of the RV-6 and 30 since the prototype appeared at Oshkosh, new RV-6s fly several times a year. There may be three hundred of them at Oshkosh this year…or maybe four hundred. Or five.

Pretty good for an airplane the designer didn’t think would sell.


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