The RV-1 is a simply dreadful airplane – and that’s what makes it so important.
Had it been fast, comfortable, efficient, well engineered, and good looking, there would have been no incentive for aircraft designer Richard Van Grunsven to address its many shortcomings by inventing the RV line of kit planes – far and away the most successful ever produced with more than 7,600 examples currently flying.
The RV-1 has few admirable qualities. It’s primitive, painful to sit in, and ergonomically awful.
Even with the improvements Van Grunsven made from the time he built the airplane in 1965 until he sold it three years later (he replaced the 65-horsepower engine with a 125-horsepower model, added a bubble canopy, and a cantilevered aluminum wing) he couldn’t transform the sow’s ear into a silk purse. So he sold the RV-1 and designed and built the RV-3 in 1971 from a clean sheet. And that single-seat airplane, and the two- and four-seat designs that sprang from it, are phenomenal.
The RV-1 languished largely forgotten for decades until Paul Dye, an RV pilot and builder, discovered the remnants in a hangar in Houston, Texas, and swung into action. The NASA flight director recognized the RV-1’s unique place in aviation history, and he put together a group of volunteers to make the RV-1 airworthy again. They also flew it, promoted it, and this summer (the 40th anniversary of Vans Aircraft) they will deliver it to the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for permanent display.
Until then, the RV-1 is touring the country, and a few fortunate, curious, and – if they know what’s good for them — short pilots (like me) get to move it Pony Express-style from one location to the next. (My 100-mile leg was from AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, on May 6.)
Flying the RV-1, it’s easy to imagine the young Van Grunsven thinking about ways to address each fault in subsequent designs. From the seating position to the construction materials to the baggage compartment, trim system, and redesigned tail, little was left untouched. The RV-1 and the RV-3 are about the same external dimensions and used the same engine. But where the RV-1 is crude, ungainly, and uninspiring – the RV-3 that immediately followed is sleek, relatively roomy (once you’re actually in the seat), a model of efficiency, and an absolute delight.
My intro flight in the RV-1 took place on a mild spring evening with clear skies and light winds – ideal for getting to know a new airplane.
Preflight inspection showed the airplane has been carefully brought back to airworthy condition with a Catto fixed-pitch prop, new tires, new wiring, a Garmin SL40 radio, and an unscratched bubble canopy. The airplane hasn’t been restored to as-new condition, however. Its fabric is worn, the paint is faded and chipped, and the wings have scratches and dents from decades of accumulated hangar rash.
The RV-1 has a rudimentary fuel system (a single 22-gallon fuselage fuel tank and on on/off valve), a 14-volt electrical system (single battery and alternator) and minimal VFR avionics (no attitude indicator, gyros, or nav radios). Double-puck hydraulic brakes seem like overkill on such a light airplane, but they work. The steel-tube fuselage is fabric covered, and the aluminum wings with manual flaps appear quite similar to the RVs that followed. The wire-braced tail has manual elevator trim (ground adjustable tabs provide aileron and rudder trim), and the steerable, full-swivel tailwheel is solid rubber.
Climbing into the cockpit requires stepping on the seat with both feet and lowering yourself, carefully, into the non-adjustable, straight-backed seat. I’m barely 5 feet 8 inches tall, and the rudder pedals seem absurdly close with my shins and knees nearly banging on the fuel tank and instrument panel. The instrument panel also appears far too close to the pilot, and the throttle and flap handle are awkward to manipulate. The swing-over canopy locks into position in two places when the single lever is pushed forward, and a fresh air vent on the right side of the canopy provides almost no ventilation.
Engine start for the carbureted O-290 is normal, and taxiing requires S-turns to clear the path ahead. The pre-takeoff checklist is short: Fuel pump on, elevator trim set, canopy locked.
On takeoff, the tailwheel feels like it’s sliding on ice as the airplane accelerates through about 25 miles an hour, and it remains somewhat squirrely as long as it’s on the ground. Fortunately, aircraft acceleration is quick, and the RV-1 is flying before the lack of positive steering causes too much consternation.
Once in the air, the RV-1 has refreshingly light ailerons, its elevator is somewhat heavy, and the rudder is heavier still. The climb rate at 90 mph is 1,200 fpm (with full fuel), and the airplane had no trouble joining and maneuvering with the photo ship (an A-36 Bonanza with the rear doors removed) which was flying at 2,000 feet msl and 120 kias. Significantly faster speeds are possible, but the RV-1 runs out of nose-down trim at about 140 miles an hour, and higher speed requires constant forward stick pressure.
The RV-1 handled well enough during our 45-minute photo flight that I almost forgot the cramp in my left thigh, the contortions required to manipulate the throttle, and the discomfort of the straight-backed seat.
Approach and landing weren’t difficult as the RV-1 flies solidly in the landing configuration. There’s a nose-down moment when the manual flaps are deployed, and the flap handle itself makes the elevator trim difficult to reach. With two-thirds flaps and an approach speed of 70 mph there was no more nose-up trim available, so I made a main-wheel landing at that flap setting and kept the non-trustworthy tailwheel off the pavement as long as practical. Once the tailwheel touched down at about 20 mph, the RV-1 decelerated quickly to taxi speed.
The RV-1’s shortcomings are many – and they mostly serve to highlight the amazing progress experimental aviation has made in the nearly half-century since this airplane first flew. We take for granted that speed, efficiency, control harmony, superior construction materials, and brilliant avionics were somehow inevitable. But such extraordinary advancements only came about because a few visionary and restless people (Van Grunsven chief among them) believed they could do better.
The rest of us are beneficiaries of the fact that they were right.
Hopefully, there are some similarly gifted future designers out there flying today’s best airplanes with the same sense of constructive dissatisfaction.
We all look forward to the wonders they produce.
To follow RV-1’s tour: