Sunday, March 9, 2008

Musings on an experimental airplane

Word comes this morning from Doug Weiler, the president of the Minnesota Wing of Van's Air Force that the wing's quarterly newsletter is ready. A pdf version of it can be found here.

Doug's "cover story" hits home... again: financing the building of an experimental airplane, specifically an RV-7. Doug took about a dozen years to build his RV-4 as his family was growing. The kids are grown now and Doug retires in September from Northwest Airlines and it's time, he says, to get serious about developing a financial master plan.

Doug has sold a prized BMW and he'll probably end up selling his RV-4 to help finance the construction.

I've been thinking about this more and more as I continue to plod along on my pay-as-you-go project and deal with the various brickbats from some RV builders who come from better neighborhoods.

I've started planning on what I want in the panel and getting serious about making some decisions. Here's what I've decided: I should've bought a J-3 Cub. The budget isn't allowing for much more. I wanted to put in a Vertical Power system; that's not likely to happen. I wanted to put in an Advanced Flight System 3500. That's not likely to happen (although I haven't ruled it out, yet). I wanted to have a nav/comm radio. That's not likely to happen (I have already bought an Icom A210 comm.). I was going to go with an audio panel; now I'll probably stay with the cheesey (but functional) PS Engineering intercom and forego all the fancy audio warnings of various components I won't be installing. I was going to go with a digital transponder. That's not going to happen. I'll go with the cheaper GTX-320A.

So what's left? I learned -- and still fly -- with steam gauges. Give me airspeed, altitude, vertical speed and an HSI, and I can fly a plane from here to there. I know how to navigate by looking out the window and checking with the paper map in my lap. Because I'm an old-timer, I'd rather have a VOR radio than a GPS, but VORs aren't going to be around that much longer so why spend money on a vanishing technology? And I have plenty of options for engine monitoring, all of which are better than the few dials on the Piper Warrior II I rent.

So what am I left with on my scratchpad this morning:

A Dynon EFIS - $2,500
Garmin 296 GPS and an Air Gizmo dock - Already purchased
A TruTrak Digiflight II one-axis autopilot - Already purchased
ICom A210 Comm radio - Already purchased
Garmin GTX-320 Transponder - $1,550
Grand Rapids engine monitor - $1,000
Backup altimeter and airspeed indicator - $400

From what I can tell -- and I'm sure I'm missing something -- that gives me a functional panel for under $6,000.

Of course there are still plenty of other things to consider, altitude encoders, remote compass, ELTs etc., but this seems like a good basis to move ahead, and I can always add bigger bells and whistles later.

I'm not an instrument pilot; I'm a day (and occasionally night but only around the patch) VFR pilot who likes to go up and look down and generally stay close to home. In my dreams, my RV will take me back to New England from time to time, or other locations across country, and I see no reason why this setup won't accomplish that.

Of course, the chuckleheads will still chuckle.

Speaking of newsletters, the first RVator from Van's Aircraft in pdf format is now available here. I recommend saving it to your own computer before trying to print it out. Just right-click the link and "save target as" button.


  1. Hi Bob,
    I ran across my packet from last year's RV BBQ. Had a moment of bittersweet recollection, a moment in time that is gone. Anyways...

    I've run into the same difficulties you are now grappling with. My solution, the RV-7 kit has been sold. The RV-4 will be sold soon, and I will restart my build... on a RANS S6 Coyote. Tube and fabric and all steam gauges.

    I sometimes find myself getting caught up with all the whiz-bang gadgetry that is out there. With the RV-7 I almost felt a compulsion to keep up with the gadgets everyone else was installing; the autopilots, the latest EFIS, the latest whatever. The only problem was that the plane I was find that I HAD to build was a plane I couldn't afford.

    I finally had to take a long look in the mirror and decide I would rather fly than put my family deep into debt for my hobby. So the new plane will have basic instruments that are good enough... and affordable.

    My RV buddies are now treating me like I'm a dying man. They keep telling me how sorry they are that I will be leaving their ranks. Huh? I'm still an aviator I think.

    You said you should have built a J3. I think you are more right than you presently realize. You will probably finish your RV-7 but find that the people you want to fly with can't keep up with you. And the people you can fly with, you don't really want to hang out with. And you'll wish you had that J3 or that Champ or that RANS S6 Coyote.

  2. Dutchman. There's at least one guy I know who is also building an RV who I wouldn't mind flying around with. I'm not a "gaggle" type guy, however. I'm a "go fly, find an airport, and see who's there" kind of flyer and it doesn't much matter to me what the folks own.

    I'll find you! I promise. And if we decide to go off somewhere for pancakes, I'll give you a head start and fly as slow as I can.

    You'll have to tell me where the VOR is, though.

  3. I can tell you where all the VORs are... on the ground. ;-)

  4. Bob,

    I have to agree, again, with you. My 7 panel will cost no more than $10k, hopefully less. Simple low cost efis, one radio, xponder, and some switches.

    Glad you are still writing!

    dutchman...those that are your friends (I'm one!) will never say you're leaving "our" ranks. An aviator, is an aviator, is an aviator...BTW, I am coming out your way in September to visit another mutual friend of ours, and we plan to head your way to hit you up for some lunch!


  5. wv,
    I will most likely be planeless at that time so if I can bum a ride then a great lunch it will be, if I have to rent, then we're eating at McDonald's. :-P