Dave Hirschman

The Dreadful, Wonderful RV-1

May 6, 2012 by Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor

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.

Intro flight
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.

Constructive dissatisfaction
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:

11 Responses to “The Dreadful, Wonderful RV-1”

  1. Tom Haines Says:

    For more on this remarkable airplane, its history, and the dedicated team that put it back into flying condition, see “Rebirth of the Pioneer RV,” in the April 2012 issue of AOPA PILOT: http://www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/2012/april/f_rv-1.html

  2. Dick VanGrunsven Says:


    If you were intentionally trying to pull my chain, you succeeded. To call the RV-1 a “Simply Dreadful” airplane just shows that aviation journalism has sunk to a new low. In its day it had a top speed of 170 mph and a climb rate of over 1700 fpm, and operated comfortably from a 650 ft. long grass runway. It was capable of all normal aerobatic maneuvers up through vertical eights. If that’s “Simply Dreadful”, then I guess that we all need to go back to school. “Good looks” is a subjective term, but in all of the years, I have never had anyone insinuate that it was ugly until now.

    The seat now in the RV-1 is a poor substitute for the comfortable bucket seat I had made and installed to accomodate my 6′ 1″ frame in reasonable comfort. A lot of other things were changed on the RV-1 since I sold it in 1968, and none of them improved it in my opinion. It is now about 100 lbs heavier than it was then, but that in itself doesn’t affect much other than the rate of climb and landing speed. The ground handling now is much more sensitive than originally. The wheels probably need aligning, the tire pressure may be too high, and the new tail wheel has springs that are probably too tight. All of these are details which didn’t originally exist and can probably be fixed. To assume that they are inherent problems sufficient to justify condeming the airplane is silly.

    The volunteers in Texas did a good job of making the RV-1 airworthy again. They did not have time to bring everything back to its original form and performance.

    If the RV-1 had been as “Dreadful” as you have labled it, I never would not have used it as a basis for the RV-3 and all that followed. In fact, the RV-1 in its day was a very good airplane, and is still a good airplane. Its performance, as mentioned above, was the motivation for the “Total Performance” lable we have used for every RV design that followed it.

    Simply Dreadful. Indeed!

  3. Dave Says:

    Wow – my reaction to the above … Geez Van, pop a chill pill why don’t you !!!

    No doubt the title was a touch pejorative – but that’s a common device that journos often use to generate interest in a story. It’s the information age you know – you need to “cut through” … it hardly marks the plumbing of new depths in aviation journalism, as you suggest.

    Case in point: when I read the title, it made me smile – just a tad – and it engaged me just enough to make me click the link in order to read the article. Think of the possibilities – I could have just missed it, or simply ignored it – not bothering to read about you, your RV-1 and the legacy of your later designs at all. Yeah, great work.

    I think any fair-minded reader would come away from this article with the impression that the author was pretty balanced and was actually trying to be quite complimentary towards your legacy of remarkable and wonderful airplane designs – starting from the RV-1 onwards. Obviously, as the author stated, they have improved as the models have progressed; even your own response alludes to this fact. Nobody doubts your skills as a designer, or the handling qualities of the RV-1 as an airplane, to which you have devoted much effort in your rebuttal of non-criticism. Clearly the author was concerned about the performance of your pitiful first attempt at a 1-seater when he mentioned it had no problem running down the adjacent Bonza moving at full-steam! Oh hang on ..

    If this is how you respond to a good review, I’d hate to see how you deal with a bad one. I guess it’s just good fortune that you’re such a talented airplane designer and therefore don’t receive too many of them. The truly “simply dreadful” thing is that you seem to have missed the bigger picture – that people care about you and your airplanes enough to write about them at length. I’m a little disappointed to be honest.

  4. John Schubert Says:

    The “dreadful” headline got my attention, but the article sure didn’t make the case for “dreadful.” Brisk cruise speed, great climb rate, sensible final approach speed, good handling. . . . The author forgot to mention the fully aerobatic part.
    OK, so the fuel system and instrument panel are simple. Uh, that’s what most homebuilts are like! An experimental aircraft has tight cockpit dimensions! Holy smoke, Batman, call in the marines! You want a big cockpit, buy a Skylane and go 100 knots slower on the same fuel burn.
    Sounds like there are some issues with the trim, but (a) it’s an experimental plane, and (b) VanGrunsven sold it 44 years ago. Perhaps that could be fixed.

  5. Jim Vroom Says:

    The writer is dead wrong in trying to justify an absurd intro. Yes, it may get our attention, as was his intent, but it is incorrect information. That is offensive to us that know the aircraft.

    My first thought was that, though he may be a nice guy, the writer was much less that knowledgeable about the plane and that it was an ” National Inquirer” level intro. The reason I clicked on the story was ONLY to find out what other absurdities might be printed. The rest of the article proved to be fine. The negative thought still lingers.

    I was at RV Central while the RV1 was being restored and later flown, though I helped very little. Paul Dye had the big “RV grin” after the initial flight. “dreadful” was a less than stellar choice.

    This is to offer another opinion … not to start an opinion WAR !

  6. M. E. Atwood Says:

    Hmmm….after a little head scratching…frankly I can see both sides of this..ah…debate. I’m not taking about the aircraft, because I’ve never fllown an RV of any number. I’m talking about the styleof the article. A few years ago I felt so compelled after reading an article by Ian that I wrote him also. In essence, and my opinion he belittled an older aircraft about its paint, interior, radios, etc. I got the feeling he was looking down his nose at the plane, which so many pilots would have been very happy to own as is. I thought it wasn’t up to AOPA standards to belittle someones aircraft that way. In his defence, Ian did write me back. To get the the yeng and yang of it, Dave…no one wnats to hear that thier baby has a wart on the end of its nose so you might have made a statement that the RV “could” be an uncomfortable aircraft for some, similar to the recent article on the Pitts, and Dick, just because you don’t want to talk about the wart doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Blue skys to you both fellas.

  7. Mark Treger Says:

    Provocative and innacurate title detract from credibility of story. Glib response to aircraft designer’s thoughtful critique seem consistent. Did author present draft article for a fact check and to get an initial reaction from aircraft designer? My understanding is competent reporters do so, in any field of journalism. Unfortunate.

  8. Roy haggard Says:


    Designers and visionaries like Van deal with massive amounts of counter intention. Frankly, it gets tiresome. This, IMO, fuels his spirited response.

    I believe than Van’s RV-1 as a proof of principle prototype was a fantastice achievement, and aggree with his the position that “dreadful” is not an appropriate adjective to apply. It was all he needed to make the next set of decisions that turned into the finest product line of recreational aircraft in existance. It was simple, to the point, economical, and elegantly provided the confirmation that Van was looking for to move on to the next steps…

    Imagine the engineering expense in both hours and prototype fabrication would be spent by Cessna, Beechraft or Piper to develop the RV product line.

    The RV-1 was truly the snowball that started the avalanche of the most enjoyable product line of aircraft that exists today.

    Roy A. Haggard,
    (Also with a product design and development background)

  9. Dave Hirschman Says:

    At the risk of taking more hits, I’d like to jump back in to make a couple points I think are being overlooked.
    First, I love RVs and have nothing but admiration for the company and its founder. (I’ve owned an RV-3 and an RV-4 — and my mom flies an RV-10). They are the most versatile airplanes I know, and the best part is that there’s a tremendously capable and positive community that comes with them (see http://www.vansairforce.net).
    The Texas volunteers who contributed their talent, skill, and funds to return the RV-1 to airworthy condition have done a great service to our aviation community, and I look forward to being a spectator when the RV-1 makes its triumphant arrival at OSH 2012 and gets its much deserved place of honor in the EAA museum.
    The performance standard in Experimental aviation has risen dramatically in the last 47 years, and an airplane that was a good performer then may be seen as lacking by modern standards. Dick Van Grunsven has done as much, and perhaps more, than anyone else to raise those standards, so it’s a tribute to him and other visionaries that the airplanes being built and flown today are the marvels that they are.
    Now, I’ll bug out and give someone else the last word . . .

  10. Mark C Says:

    Wow, the title worked, look at all the attention the article received. I’m quite jealous of anyone who gets to fly this historic airplane before it becomes a museum piece, and even found myself thinking that I’d kind of like to build an RV, a thought I abandoned long ago when I realized that I’m a pilot, not a builder. I do have a question if Van is still watching here – when you originally built it, could you trim the plane for hands-off flight at 170? Just curious if that is something that someone managed to screw up in the intervening years.

  11. Susan Bennington Says:

    Sounds great! I have been thinking about this RV-1 and many people that it is really great.

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