Pilot Report: GippsAero Airvan Delivers Utility in a Fun To Fly Package

 - March 1, 2014, 4:10 AM
GippsAero GA8 Airvan

GippsAero’s beefy boxcar of an airplane may look ungainly, but once you climb in and fire up its 320-hp turbocharged Lycoming TIO-540, pull the flaps lever all the way up and push the throttle to 40 inches of manifold pressure, the big single leaps forward and soars into the sky where it belongs.

The GA8 Airvan is a blend of Australian outback strength and a gigantic load-hauling fuselage topped with a forgiving wing fat with lift, and it handles and performs like a much smaller airplane while offering great flexibility. The GA10 stretched turboprop variant of the Airvan is in flight-test and slated for certification this year, and AIN flew the piston-powered model to get a foretaste of the Rolls-Royce 250-powered aircraft now in the works.

The Airvan was designed to meet the needs of pilots flying in remote areas and on unimproved airstrips. For those who wonder why not just use a Cessna 206 for that mission, the answer is that operators wanted an airplane that handles like a 206 and costs about the same to operate but carries a lot more in a much larger cabin. The Airvan designers clearly succeeded: compared with the 206, the GA8 is easier to fly, performs as well as if not better than the Cessna in some respects and costs less than $800,000 (about $200,000 more than a 206) with turbocharging and a Garmin G500 and dual GTN panel. Direct operating costs are about $178 per hour. Skydive, freight and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) versions are also available. The 41.5-inch rear door can be opened in flight.

Designers put much thought into useful features. The rear door fold-down step handily swings up to become an armrest for the seat next to the door. The crew doors swing 180 degrees against the nose then latch in place, and the pilot can reach the latch without leaving the front seat. Just under the door frame on the pilot’s side is an external power plug, also easily reached by the pilot to make jump-starting much simpler.

The airframe and systems are simple and strong, with spring-steel main gear and a spring-equipped oil-free nose strut. All fuel–92.2 gallons total–is carried in tanks in each wing, mounted one bay outboard of the fuselage to help keep fuel out of the cockpit in case of an accident. The tanks feed a single sump tank mounted below the right-seater’s floor, and there is no fuel selector, just an on-off handle and no worries about tank switching.

The Airvan’s simple slab wing eschews fancy touches; there are no flush rivets, although the wingtips, which appear ordinary, are low-drag tips adapted from a GippsAero agplane design. Also simple are the flaps, hinged at the trailing edge of the wing and actuated mechanically by a Johnson bar between the pilot seats. Because the Airvan was certified relatively recently (in 2003), it had to meet more stringent Part 23 standards. The seats had to be dynamically tested, and GippsAero had to demonstrate to the FAA that the Airvan could be landed following the failure of any primary flight control. The lowest lifetime structural fitting on the Airvan is the aft vertical stabilizer fitting, and it must be replaced at 15,000 hours. The wings are rated for 92,000 hours.

The Airvan’s large side windows are ballooned outwards to improve the downward view and make looking outside easier. This feature makes the Airvan an ideal touring and ISR platform. Of course, the Airvan’s 1,826-pound useful load, 1,300-pound full-fuel payload and 211-cu-ft cabin volume are also ideal for ISR loads and operators. The 18-cu-ft optional cargo pod carries up to 440 pounds and includes an aft door that opens to admit long items that don’t fit through the pod’s side door.

To make the ISR platform less conspicuous, the ISR Astra version of the Airvan can haul a retraction mechanism that conceals sensors such as a Wescam surveillance/camera system inside a modular pod, which appears to be an ordinary cargo pod. When the camera is needed, the mechanism deploys it from the modular pod, then retracts it after the mission is complete. Mission workstations weighing up to 165 pounds are available, too, and can be secured to the standard seat mounts in the cabin. The typical ISR configuration is a crew of five (two pilots and three operators, a workstation and the modular pod). With one operator and two pilots, an ISR mission could be flown for up to eight hours with reserves; with a full load of five and the ISR equipment, endurance would be four hours at a loiter speed of 85 kias.

Flying the Big Single

I was lucky to get to fly the GA8 with GippsAero chief pilot David Wheatland, who has flown the model for many years all over the world. We took off from Van Nuys Airport’s 16R on a typical bright, warm and sunny southern California winter day, at about 700 pounds below the maximum takeoff weight of 4,200 pounds. Wheatland did the first takeoff, rotating at about 60 knots then climbing at the best rate speed of 81 knots. At that speed, the nose is high enough to block the forward view, so we sped up to 90 knots for improved visibility.

Flying the Airvan felt much more like flying a smaller airplane, and it wasn’t until I looked all the way back in the cabin, where Gary Bushouse, head of Southern California-based GippsAero representative West Coast Aircraft Sales, was sitting in the rear-most seat that I appreciated how big this airplane is. The Airvan can haul up to eight occupants.

This Airvan is equipped with a Garmin G500 PFD/MFD, touchscreen Garmin GTN750 and 650 GPS navigators and a full set of analog backup instruments. The comfortable pilots seats are equipped with four-point AmSafe harnesses. Between the seats in the 50-inch-width cabin is a console housing elevator trim, engine controls, cowl-flap control and parking brake. A handy smooth shelf at the top provides a place to suction cup an iPad.

We headed over to Santa Paula Airport’s 2,700-foot runway for some short-field work, cruising at 3,000 feet and about 127 ktas, burning 18 gph. The tight pattern next to the mountains at Santa Paula provided a good test of the Airvan’s low-speed maneuverability. Wheatland demonstrated the first landing, followed by a short-field takeoff, then I performed two landings and one normal and one short-field takeoff. The Airvan’s Cleveland brakes bring the big single to a quick stop and we were easily able to turn off the runway at the halfway point.

The short-field takeoff is with full flaps; rotation is at about 50 knots, and the Airvan gently left the ground in about 1,000 feet as we accelerated to 60 knots and started retracting the flaps. Even at such low speeds, the controls felt solid and responsive, with no mushiness.

I brought the Airvan in high on final to 16R and, with full flaps set, I allowed the nose to drop and entered a slip to lose altitude. The Airvan handled the slip solidly, with no burbling or resistance, and I was able to touch down promptly and quickly bring the airplane to a slow pace so we could exit the runway.

GippsAero, which is owned by India’s Mahindra Aerospace, announced early last month that it secured an order for an unspecified number of ISR-configured GA8 Airvans from California’s San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department. The Airvans will replace the department’s existing fleet of Cessna single-engine airplanes, and deliveries are scheduled to begin this month.

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