Van’s Aircraft, Inc. may be the biggest aircraft manufacturer that nobody mentions when the subject comes up. Over 8,300 completed airplanes – an average of one every other day since Richard VanGrunsven founded the company. The totals have increased more rapidly in the last decade, with the seven year average now resting at 1.5 completed aircraft per day.
Still, being a big fish in a small pond is of little value if the pond’s drying up.
Richard VanGrunsven, known to everyone as Van, has been flying since the mid-50s, and his career has spanned large changes in general aviation. He has spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to spread the joy and satisfaction he’s found in aviation to a new audience and keep the water flowing into the pond.
One of the first things I thought about is just exposure. When I was a kid, probably half my contemporaries had some direct, personal, exposure to aviation. My dad did some flying in his youth, and it seemed like every classmate had a father, uncle, or aunt who had flown during the war. That exposure has rippled down, but it’s been significantly diluted. I’ll bet that a considerable percentage of pilots flying today are second generation pilots, or even third or fourth generation pilots.
The percentage of pilots from the general public is far, far less. It’s obvious that people born into aviation families are much more likely to become pilots than “regular” people are. So, since I’m sure that we would have trouble convincing all pilots that they should have 12 or so kids just to keep aviation going, what is the next best alternative?
I would reason that providing more people an exposure to aviation, hopefully an intense and prolonged exposure, should gain pilot converts. Programs like the EAA’s Young Eagles, now expanded to include Sporty’s online course, are a good step. However, they may provide a rather fleeting exposure. We need to devise some means of expanding the extent and impact of exposure to aviation to candidates of all ages, but especially the young.
Van’s has put significant time and effort into supporting the TeenFlight and Eagle’s Nest projects, where groups of young men and women actually build an RV-12 – not a model, nor a computer simulation, but a real airplane that they can get in and fly. (I’ve personally been involved with a couple of these projects and it’s been fun watching young people connect with something so different than anything they’ve been exposed to before.) At least four RV-12s have been completed through these programs (with several more on the way) and it’s had the desired effect: several participants have pursued pilot training, and a couple even found summer jobs helping “stalled” kit builders finish airplanes.
Spreading the wealth – and the expense
Beyond exposing a new audience to aviation, we should address the issue of cost. Airplanes are, in industrial terms, a boutique product. They will never be produced in quantities of bicycles or cars, so the unit costs will always be high. We all know what’s happened with fuel prices. Hangar rent and insurance are expensive as well.
All of these costs can be significantly reduced through shared ownership or flying clubs.
Most privately-owned aircraft are under-utilized, often flying less than 100 hours a year. Reversing the cost/use spiral obviously requires more use or more users. The most practical means of doing this is through shared ownership. This reduces both the hourly cost (through better distribution of fixed costs) and the cost of admission (it should cost less to buy a sixth of an airplane than a whole one.) We’ve been pleased to see the RV-12 serve as a “core” for several flying partnerships. Four or five people can build an RV-12 in short order, operate it very economically, and according to the people involved, have a lot of fun in the process.
Flying clubs can also provide a lower cost flying option, but have never become as popular and widespread as they should be – at least in the US. I’ve flown in Europe and Australia, where the flying club is the accepted avenue for recreational pilots. Besides providing more affordable flying, the clubs are usually pleasant places to hang out, with decent cafes, lounges and a park-like atmosphere that invites entire families. These social aspects should not be underestimated. For many of us, the pleasure of flying is the people we meet and associate with. Having a place to gather that Mom and the kids also enjoy is a big plus, too!
I think that, as an industry, we should work on marketing or “concept packaging” promoting the benefits, social and monetary, of the flying club. Perhaps we could offer discounts on kits, or serve as meeting points for people trying to form clubs.
From all indication, kit airplanes will continue to play an expanding role in general aviation. New kitplane registrations are now similar to, or possibly exceed, those of similar factory-built aircraft. Even traditionally production aircraft-oriented publications are featuring articles – including cover photographs! – on kit airplanes. Rather than going after a share of a shrinking market and letting the weakest fail, the kit industry would be better off combining efforts to expand the overall “pond” to give us all room to swim. To that end, Van’s was one of the founding members of the Aircraft Kit Industry Association (AKIA).
We can build on the traditional strengths of the aircraft kit – good performance and lower costs — to help grow the pilot population. We can provide well-engineered aircraft with good instructions and quality components packaged in kits that maximize the builder’s sense of accomplishment and minimize his (or her) frustration. We can concentrate on designing airplanes for the world we live in – more efficient, using new fuels, easier to store and maintain.
By emphasizing the traditional strengths of kit airplanes and developing new ways to afford them, we can introduce new a new generation of potential pilots to the fun, satisfaction and beauty that pulled us into the flying pond in the first place.
Van’s latest: the Factory-Built RV-12 SLSA
Our Factory Built RV-12 SLSA will also provide opportunities for GA growth. While its sale price is lower than most successful upper end SLSAs, it still represents a much greater investment than a used two-seat sport/trainer aircraft. As an offset to the “new” cost, an RV-12 offers a number of advantages over an older used plane like the Cessna 150:
- Larger cabin.
- Greater useful load
- Better field of view.
- Better performance, both cruise speed and climb rate.
- Arguably better handling qualities/control responses.
- Since it is “new,” lower maintenance cost for engine and airframe.
- Modern instrumentation (Skyview EFIS is standard)
- Inexpensive autopilot option and LED lighting options.
- In general, new and improved in many ways.
These features are attractive to both private and business buyers. For the business users, flight schools or flying clubs, these attractive features should attract more pilots, particularly younger people who are accustomed to and insist upon new technology. Flight schools and flying clubs that offer attractive rates based on high anticipated utilization rates will hopefully attract enough students and pilots to fulfil their optimistic projections. Adopting a business as usual approach will quite possibly result in business as usual. What I am trying to say is that users of these planes must apply new promotional tactics to go along with the new airplane.
Van’s secret of success is simple: They design and manufacture airplanes that offer performance, handling qualities, and appearance that appeal to recreational pilots. While this hardly sounds radical, it has proven to be a successful, though conservative approach. Too often kitplane designers attempt to hit a home run with specialized designs. They can provide some unique features or spectacular performance, but they either lack the utility recreational pilots require, or demand skills and finances the average pilot just doesn’t possess. Hitting that target consistently has made Van’s the largest producer of kit aircraft in the world.