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Vans adds the Rotax 912 iS Sport to the RV-12.

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When Van’s Aircraft introduced the RV-12 in November 2006, its purpose was to enter the new Light Sport Aircraft category with a plane that is easy to build, easy to maintain, and keeps the excellent flying qualities that pilots expect from the Aurora, Oregon, based company. Powered by the now ubiquitous Rotax 912 ULS (included in the kit, along with the propeller and all firewall-forward components), the original RV-12 offers complete wiring harnesses for a standard set of avionics. Detailed instructions guide the builder through every phase of construction, right down to inserting Plug A into Socket B to power up the radios.

The 912 iS Sport features electronic ignition and fuel injection, and makes carb synchronization a thing of the past.

The RV-12 features excellent visibility due to a forward placed cockpit, and performance bumps right up against the LSA limits without exceeding them—in other words, it gives you maximum bang for the buck. The design also includes easily removable wings, so the aircraft can be put on a trailer after a flight and taken home, thereby saving money on hangars and tie-downs. (History seems to show that very few owners actually demount the wings on a regular basis, but the capability is there.)

The new look of the RV-12iS front end—cat eyes and much larger inlets for water and oil cooling. NACA scoops in the cowl help with spot cooling.

Initially available as an ELSA kit, the RV-12 is also sold as a factory-built SLSA. Some have been built as E/A-B aircraft, with a few builders trying alternative engines and various different avionics suites. Van’s has supported all builders to the same level, despite how the aircraft is licensed, and there are hundreds flying throughout the world.

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The old and the new: Changes to cooling are apparent between the 912 ULS and the 912 iS Sport.

Over the 10 years the airplane has been flying, Van’s has collected comments and ideas from builders and pilots—things they wish could be done a little differently or that could result in a better kit or completed aircraft. Van’s has examined these comments, looking for common threads, and this year introduced an upgraded aircraft, the RV-12iS, that addresses many of the upgrades people would like to see.

The resulting aircraft should prove a boon to the training market, with upgraded structure in the landing gear to better handle the abuse of novice pilots and the latest in engine technology, the fuel-injected Rotax 912 iS Sport, for more efficient travel and greater reliability.

The redesigned fuel tank disappears when the seats are in position. It creates more usable baggage space and allows access to the tail cone.

KITPLANES was given the chance to witness the first flights of the RV-12iS and make an evaluation flight after the mandatory test hours were completed. Here’s what we found.

LSA—Beefed Up

Aside from being an outstanding kit aircraft, the RV-12iS might be the revolutionary trainer that flight schools have been looking for. One of the biggest problems with most LSA designs has been the weight limit of 1320 pounds. In order to provide adequate payload to carry two normal-sized adults and fuel, structure has to be kept very light, no matter if the material is aluminum or composite. This light structure is just fine for the pilot seeking to enjoy a little time in the air (at less than 120 knots), but it has proven to be a problem in the flight school industry—a market that has been crying for inexpensive, easy-to-maintain, new aircraft for decades.

The world’s supply of Cessna 150s won’t last forever, and in fact, the standard trainer for most schools now seems to be the four-seat C-172 or the equivalent 180-hp Piper Archer. Small mom-and-pop training operations stick to the dwindling number of aging C-150s and -152s, but what is needed are modern airplanes, with modern avionics at an affordable price level, to allow more pilots to enter the training arena and complete their license.

Most of the existing LSAs, in order to save structural weight, have proven to be ill-equipped to handle the rigors of repeated bounced and dropped-in landings. The RV-12 is no exception. With at least one service bulletin issued by the factory to strengthen the landing gear attachment structure, schools were wary about its ability to survive in a day-to-day training environment.

The new version of the -12 has a beefed-up structure in the bottom of the fuselage that will survive just about anything—even having the landing gear ripped off completely. If that ultimately bad scenario occurs, the rest of the fuselage should be fine for an economical repair.

There’s a lot to see on the new center console: The throttle feels good to the hand and features a stop to keep the engine in economy mode. Note the new electric flap switch just behind the throttle.

Feature Rich

In addition to the beefed-up landing gear, the RV-12iS features a number of improvements that have been asked for by builders over the years. First among them is probably a redesigned fuel tank that runs across the fuselage behind the seats. This frees up baggage space and eliminates the need to remove the tank to take out the aft bulkhead for inspections. A two-part aft bulkhead has been an option for some time, but the inspector still had to work around the large tank; this should simplify maintenance considerably.

The panel in the prototype features dual Dynon HDX SkyView screens and a Garmin 625 IFR navigator.

Of course, the name of the aircraft includes what many will consider the biggest change—the use of the Rotax 912 iS Sport engine. Fuel injected and computer controlled, it can optimize power output at any point in the power curve. It is designed to run in economy mode at all but full-throttle power settings. Push the throttle past a certain position and it goes to a rich setting, which gives you as much power as it can. From the pilot’s perspective, Van’s designed a unique throttle quadrant (on the center console) that features a soft stop that keeps you from pushing it past the transition point. This is implemented as a wider slot for the center console power lever. You hold the lever slightly to the left, and it contacts the stop. Slide it slightly right, and it moves past the stop. It is a simple and effective way to let the pilot know they have gone out of economy mode without requiring a separate lockout lever or device.

Van’s designers spent a lot of time on details like the new oil door. Not only does it have a place to keep the oil cap when using the dipstick, its hinge geometry now keeps the door from scratching the cowling paint when it is open.

Another big change is from manual to electric flaps. While most RV models now feature electric flaps, pilots have liked the manual Johnson bar flap lever in the RV-12 because of the speed of extension and retraction. The new system is designed with a fast-acting motor to replicate the manual function, and it does a pretty good job of it. Full-up to full-down is a matter of about three seconds or so. Yes, you can do it faster with a Johnson bar, but I am not sure that you really need to. The factory pilots are using half flaps on downwind and going to full flaps on base, and the transitions really take very little time. The switch on the center console falls easily to hand when you are adjusting power with the throttle.

The circuit breakers are now on the center console, leaving room up top for an IFR navigator for those who might want to use the airplane as an IFR trainer or for actual IFR.

Cockpit enhancements include a new heater system that is fed by a hot-air heat exchanger off the muffler, instead of the water/air exchanger on the original. This should provide more heat for colder environments, and the cockpit controls have been updated to allow separate heat settings for the pilot and passenger. The seats now have a quick-adjust feature, a first for the RV line. This is in keeping with building an airplane that will be useful in the flight school environment. It allows fast sizing adjustments between students and instructors. And here’s maybe the biggest trivia news: the cockpit now features a cup holder—another first for the RV line!

Yes, that’s an actual cup holder between the seats. CFIs everywhere will now be able to stay hydrated while teaching many lessons in a day.

The new Rotax 912 iS Sport features a larger alternator, providing options that were not available with the original 912 ULS due to limited total amperage supply. The 912 iS Sport will, in fact, support all of the standard avionics and EFIS systems, and it also has enough power to drive a Garmin 625 IFR navigator. This is a huge plus for schools wanting to use the airplane as an IFR trainer. Coupling the 625 with the EFIS provides modern instrument training for students at a fraction of the price of larger, more complex aircraft.

All in all, the feature set of the new RV-12iS is a reflection of comments received from the builder/pilot community, along with input from flight schools across the country. The end result is a versatile new airplane that can do many things and will appeal to a wide range of people.

The new seats are quickly adjustable with a spring-loaded pin. Pull it back, put the seat where you want it, and release the pin. It’s much quicker than the old hinge pins found on virtually all Van’s aircraft.

Kit Review

The original RV-12 was the first Van’s model to feature a completely different concept in kit and instruction design. Between the extremely detailed step-by-step instructions and a kit that contains almost every item a builder needs (including engine, propeller, firewall-forward components, wiring, avionics, and all of the connectors), the RV-12 is aimed at first-time builders who don’t want to experiment—they really want a finished airplane. The latest version of the RV-12 continues this trend, keeping construction as simple as possible and refining certain areas to make the project even more simple and foolproof.

The company has taken the opportunity to update the instructions and plans, as well as to refine the design with additional access panels for wiring and other systems. The center console has been redesigned to provide more legroom, while now holding the new throttle quadrant and fuses. Other changes include pre-bent longerons, increased baggage capacity (now 75 pounds), and a new cowling that is easier to remove and provides greater cooling on the ground and in climb.

The new canopy latch holds the canopy securely in the ventilation position. It can neither open nor close without turning the handle.

With the canopy fully closed, the new latch holds securely on the nylon block.

Probably the biggest kit change (besides the engine) is the new wiring harness. It is designed as a single backbone that can be run through the airframe in a more efficient manner. Grommets are now large enough to hold all the wires without stuffing, and routing is simplified. Where the original design made generous use of Molex connectors, the new design features mostly D-subminiature plugs and sockets. Molex connectors have been somewhat temperamental for many builders, creating poor connections, which led to frustrating troubleshooting. The D-subs are better suited for single transmission and low-current circuits, and have much smaller pins and sockets. The single harness design allows more all-up testing before it is delivered to the customer, with the goal being to eliminate problems that might be encountered from builder errors in making connections to plugs and jacks.

The little piece of firesleeve material insulates the ignition coils from the coolant expansion chamber—a known 912 iS Sport issue that Van’s solved in a typically simple way.

How Does It Fly?

We were fortunate to be on the scene at Van’s for the first and second flights of the new RV-12iS and flew along in the chase plane as the company pilots collected their initial flight data. As soon as the mandatory test hours were completed, I was offered the left seat for an evaluation flight and didn’t have to be asked twice.

The cockpit is the same basic workspace as the original RV-12, but there are numerous small and large enhancements that come from suggestions by builders and pilots of the hundreds of -12s that have gone before. The seats now have a quick-adjust mechanism that allows you to move the seat-back pivot point forward or back with a spring-loaded detent lever, instead of by pulling hinge pins. It’s still not the same as pulling the seat-adjust lever on your car—but it is much quicker than most of Van’s simple seats.

The new ingress/egress handle works well to pull yourself up out of the seat.

Looking behind the seats, the biggest change is that there is no large fuel tank taking up the right side of the baggage compartment. Long an item of discussion among the RV-12 community, the new fuel tank design is lower and up against the backs of the seats, stretching from side to side so that unless you know it is there, you really don’t notice it. Now the rear bulkhead can easily be removed for inspection without removing the tank, and the baggage compartment just looks more usable and much cleaner. The fuel filler has been moved lower and a bit more forward on the side of the fuselage as well.

The airplane is designed to use the incredibly lightweight EarthX LiFePO4 battery.

The new center console is narrower and provides a little more space for wider legs and thighs. The throttle is now mounted on the center console and is a very comfortable lever design that falls easily to hand and feels natural. Trim, autopilot, and push-to-talk (PTT) switches are located on the stick grips, and we rarely had to touch much more than those in flight. The panel in the prototype features new Dynon HDX SkyView screens, and there is plenty of room on the panel for other options—including a Garmin 625 IFR navigator. And, of course, there is that cup holder in the center console, a truly revolutionary touch from Van’s, a company that doesn’t usually work with simple creature comforts. I expect that a whole generation of flight instructors might thank them in the coming years!

Starting the new 912 iS Sport involves little more effort than the original 912 ULS. In fact, it could hardly be simpler since there is no choke. You simply get the computer powered up with the airplane master and ignition switches, then turn the key. The engine starts with a little roar that sounds deeper and a little less smooth than the ULS it replaced. No one could agree why it sounded rougher because it is actually running smooth—but Van’s is going to look into the exhaust note and see if there are other potential issues. We noticed no stumble or signs of a problem, so perhaps it is simply the voice of the new 912 iS Sport.

Flying the airplane is pure RV-12. The visibility and flight characteristics are essentially unchanged, and both are delightful. We did some shallow and steep turns, a couple of military eights, and then some stalls; control was positive and quick throughout. The stalls were crisp with clean breaks and a fall-off to the right. The airplane still only had a few hours on the clock when we flew it, so there had been no chance to see what, if any, adjustment is necessary. The break was comfortable, both flaps up and flaps down, and in my opinion, it will make a good trainer because it has a noticeable buffet and actually stalls—unlike many new aircraft that simply mush along with an increasing sink rate.

Setting up for a couple of touch and goes, the airplane’s new electric flaps worked fine, and it was easy to establish a stabilized approach with a short landing right off the bat. The airplane makes its pilot look good, with a predictable flare and touchdown. Flicking the flap switch to up on the go had them fully retracted before a smooth application of full power was complete, and off we went for another go.

The audible angle-of-attack alerts seemed to activate a little earlier than we liked, with considerable frenetic chirping going on at normal approach speed, so we took the plane up to altitude and did a quick recalibration before returning to Van’s Aurora base for a final landing (another good one) and a taxi back to the hangar. Ground handling was good, and the new canopy latch allows the canopy to be positively retained in the partially-opened ventilation position—a nice safety feature that was originally a builder’s design, but was adapted for production with factory-machined parts.

Performance numbers are very preliminary, but the RV-12 has always been tuned to fly right at the LSA limit of 120 knots in cruise. That is pretty much what we saw on the flights we participated in. The new RV-12iS seemed to climb a little better than the original, with both airplanes ballasted to maximum gross weight at takeoff, but additional testing will refine the numbers over the coming test period. It was too early to see fuel burn data from the few hours flown, but we’ll be interested to see if the new engine improves efficiency, as indeed it should.

My overall impression of the new RV-12iS is that it flies like an RV-12—honest, harmonious, and predictable—excellent qualities for a trainer or any airplane with which to enjoy a little time separated from the home planet.

Refined—not Revolutionized

The new RV-12iS is a good example of what a company can do with a decade of feedback from smart, involved customers who communicate with each other and the factory. The new engine is, of course, the most noticeable improvement, as indicated by the name—but the many changes, large and small, that have been implemented in this version of the airplane speak to a long-term commitment to the training world, as well as those who want to build a fun and friendly flying machine.

It’s good to see improvements made to an already successful design, and the upgrades in the RV-12 should continue to make it a popular aircraft—and not just for the LSA crowd. The RV-12iS is a good airplane regardless of category, and if you have no need to go really fast, but just want to cruise around within a few hundred miles of home, meet with friends for a burger or breakfast, and make an occasional long-distance trip, the latest version of this little plane is definitely worth a look.

Learn more about the RV-12iS from Mitch Lock, president, and Rian Johnson, chief engineer, of Van’s Aircraft. Visit www.kitplanes.com/rv12is.

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Paul Dye
Paul Dye, KITPLANES® Editor at Large, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the Space Shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen, and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra they completed. Currently, they are building a Xenos motorglider. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 5000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor, as well as a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.

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