Any pilot familiar with Van’s Aircraft probably could have guessed that when the company decided to build a light sport aircraft, it would deliver a lot of smiles for not much money. The kitplane company has for 40 years offered a long line of airplanes that offer impressive all-around performance on a relatively small budget. But there’s always been a catch.
You have to build the airplane yourself.
Van’s latest design is the RV-12, a two-seater with a 100-horsepower engine. It was designed to fit the Federal Aviation Administration’s light sport aircraft category, which limits aircraft to two seats, less than 1,320 pounds, a top speed of less than 120 knots (138 mph) indicated airspeed and fixed landing gear. Specifically the RV-12 is an E-LSA, where the “E” means experimental because it is an amateur or homebuilt aircraft.
The RV-12 has proven quite popular since its introduction a few years ago, with more than 150 flying already. It’s easy to see why. A complete kit costs less than $64,000 and includes everything you need to go flying except for gas, oil and about 800 hours of your time.
We recently paid a visit to the Van’s Aircraft factory in Aurora, Ore., and took an RV-12 demonstrator up for a flight. Ken Scott, Van’s technical-support guru and demo pilot, joined me. He’s built an RV-12 and hardly contains his excitement about the relatively simple airplane’s performance.
“My lawn tractor is way more complicated than my airplane,” he says, noting that his RV-12 lacks a suspension, steering mechanism or grass cutter. “And yesterday I was doing 126 knots straight and level on 100 horsepower!”
The RV-12 is a simple aircraft, essentially an aluminum frame with a few moving parts and an engine. And despite the experimental moniker, an E-LSA is not an experiment, but a safe and proven airplane approved by the FAA.
It should be noted that Scott was referring to the airplane’s true airspeed, while the 120 knot limit governing light sport aircraft refers to indicated airspeed. Indicated airspeed is what the airplane “feels” as the air hits the airframe. True airspeed corrects for altitude and temperature allowing the pilot to know how fast an airplane is moving over the ground, assuming no wind. At 10,000 feet and an air temperature of 65 degrees, the indicated airspeed may only be 100 knots, while the true airspeed would be 130.
Scott says he can climb at 1,400 feet per minute in his plane. This is impressive performance that makes reaching higher altitudes practical to chase higher true airspeeds.
We were flying somewhere over the Willamette Valley near the factory when it hit me. The RV-12 exceeds the kind of performance many pilots are familiar with flying stalwarts like the Cessna 172 or a Piper Cherokee. And while it’s true that, for most pilots, just about any airplane is fun to fly, the RV-12’s light and well-balanced controls elicit a smile far more easily than those classic aircraft.