You might think you know the RV-8 – it really is ‘the goods’

By Peter Lawton (Pictures: John Allan)I have yet to find my perfect aircraft, but the search, spanning forty years and over a hundred types has been a tremendous education and a lot of fun – and still goes on. Encountering a new type of aircraft is rather like going on a blind date, where you have to assess looks, comfort, ergonomics and performance before committing to the next step.

Aircraft that have passed my personal ‘blind date’ test include the Chipmunk, J�ngmann, Stearman, Harvard, Cassutt Racer, Dragon Rapide and Hawker Hunter. In 2002 a friend who knows my taste in aeroplanes remarked that I had an empty workshop, lived close to an airfield and had spare time, so why didn’t I build an RV-8? I was impressed by the video he gave me and faxed Van’s Aircraft for an empennage kit. Why was I so instantly attracted? The RV-8 had tandem seating, which is best for aerobatics. Fitted with a 200hp engine and CS prop, the performance figures were mouth-watering: 222mph at 8,000ft and a solo climb rate of 2,700fpm. Building my own aircraft would give me the opportunity to design the control layout, paint scheme and instrument panel. As my job involves peering into EFIS flat screens I wanted my aircraft fitted with as many dials and gauges as in a P51 Mustang. This would also please my inner Walter Mitty, who sees himself flying a war bird. The avionics I settled on are simple but effective: a NavCom, Mode C transponder and a handheld IPAQ in a cradle on the panel to provide a moving CAA half-million VFR chart display. A Jet Provost throttle was grafted on to the RV’s quadrant, and comes with a PTT button and a rocker switch originally intended to operate airbrakes, but I re-wired it to work the flaps. This meant the stick grip could be kept uncluttered, only needing a coolie hat switch for servo-operated elevator and aileron trims. Since completing the aircraft I have now had two-and-a-half years to appreciate its renowned handling and amazingly versatility. Touring, aerobatics, formation, STOL and although not strictly legal at present, instrument and night flying (should the rules change), the RV-8 does them all very capably indeed. A good pair of pins

Considering that this is an aerobatic aircraft and a homebuilt, the seats are surprisingly comfortable and neither occupant feels cramped or uncomfortable after a long flight. And when it comes to touring, this aircraft has legs. The 160kt cruise at 75 per cent lower puts the Isle of Mull just two hours from Norfolk, Caernarfon one hour, and Bodmin one hour thirty. Just draw a circle of radius 80nm around your home airfield and see where you could get to in a mere half hour. Distant places suddenly become close neighbours. Because the RV-8 goes so fast, the 36lph equates quite well with mpg in the family saloon. Useful load is 700lb, the fuel capacity is 160 litres, so even with full fuel, there is still 450lbs left for two people and up to 75lb in the rear baggage hold and another 50lb in the forward compartment. Despite the aircraft having tandem seating, the C of G is rarely an issue, and the view from both seats through the long bubble canopy is panoramic. My only possible criticism is that the RV-8 is not as stable an instrument platform as a Warrior or Cessna 172 and does require flying the whole time – but you can always fit a wing-leveller. Let’s flyThat’s enough pre-amble, let’s go for a flight. This starts with pushing the RV out of its hangar – easy enough for one person, because it is so light (1,100lbs empty) and compact (24ft wingspan). The pre-flight inspection doesn’t take long. If you’re new to the aircraft you’ll be impressed when you check for ‘full and free’: the ailerons and elevators are controlled via pushrods and bellcranks, and as the ailerons operate through a spring bias trimming system, they float back to the neutral position oncedisplaced. The elevator is similarly light and frictionless, but stays put when moved away from neutral. The rudder is cable-operated and moves just as freely. It helps that all the flying controls have mass balances forward of their hinge lines. The oil dipstick is accessed through a small flap on the upper cowling. Fuel is sampled from two strainers, one under each wing tank. Time to climb aboard, fire up and go. Mounting from the left in true Cavalry tradition, step over the deployed flap up onto the wing walk then over the cockpit side wall onto the seat cushion. Finally, lower yourself into the cockpit, taking care not to snag knobs and switches. Once enthroned, I am always reminded of the Tardis. The RV-8 seems a lot bigger once you’re inside it. Start the injected Lycoming from cold with mixture rich, throttle cracked a half inch, and a short prime with the boost pump to 15psi. Twisting the start switch, the pilot is rewarded with a low, gentle rumbling sound accompanied by a crackle from the unsilenced exhaust stubs. On releasing the toe brakes, we move off from the pan in front of the hangar at Great Massingham and onto the old peritrack. The tail wheel steering is engaged by allowing the aircraft to run briefly in a straight line. There is some deliberate slack in the system – most noticeable when weaving – which allows for some rudder to be applied during a crosswind landing. If a tighter turn is required, differential braking is used to unlock the tail wheel, and the aircraft can then be turned within its own wingspan. The steel sprung undercarriage gives a firm, old-fashioned-sports-car sort of ride which seems appropriate in this machine.Prop clearance is considerable in the three point attitude, so you needn’t worry about stone chips; the downside being a slightly restricted view over the nose while taxiing. Standard run-ups including cycling the prop, and pre-takeoff checks complete, we line up on Massingham’s runway 04. Eager to go

On opening the throttle fully, the aircraft tugs you urgently down the runway, the blast of air over the tail allowing it to be raised almost immediately for a better view ahead. A squeeze of right rudder keeps it straight and within two seconds and 80 metres into a 10kt headwind at 60kt, the RV-8 flies off with the slightest rearward nudge of the stick. Let the speed build to 100kt before climbing.The aeroplane has an impressive short-field takeoff capability and a solo initial climb rate nudging 3,000fpm. Having squared the power at 25”/2500rpm, we reach 5,000ft in quick time, level off and trim her out at 24”/2300rpm which holds the IAS at 160kt with small forward blips on the coolie hat. Any slight roll tendency due to fuel imbalance can be countered by the aileron trim. Flat out below 4,000 feet, the ASI needle touches 180kt, (only 20kt below VNE), and the optimum cruise is achieved around 8,000ft, where the TAS is 190kt-plus. My RV-8 uses 36 to 40lph. That means four hours to empty tanks, or 640nm, no reserves. The ailerons are light and instantly responsive, the elevator a little heavier and beautifully positive without being so light as to produce pilot-induced oscillation. The rudder is a tiny bit heavier still, but feels spot on for crisp entries and exits from rolling manoeuvres and precise control during takeoff. Manoeuvring the aircraft only requires light pressures on stick and rudder. There is little adverse yaw effect to counter while rolling. Stability is positive in pitch and yaw, and just the positive side of neutral laterally. Let’s crank the machine into a steep turn. Any bank angle between 45 and 90 degrees is easily kept level by aligning the horizon on the E2B compass (on top of the instrument panel) and pulling g as required. The bubble canopy provides the pilot with a superb view all round with the small exception of the roll bar which runs round the sides and top of the windscreen.An aileron roll is irresistible. Due to the high cruising speed, all aerobatic manoeuvres can be entered from straight and level: indeed, most figures could be started from 40kt less than the cruise – what a luxury not to have to dive. I raise the nose ten degrees and apply less than full aileron, being over the 124kt max manoeuvring speed, marked on the ASI with a blue line. The roll rate that follows does not disappoint, and squeezing the stick forwards a touch as we roll through the inverted achieves a minimum of pitch-down during the manoeuvre. For more serious aerobatics, the fuel selector is set to the Left (Aeros) position, the HASELL checks completed and the aircraft is flown upside down for a few seconds to check the inverted fuel and oil systems are functioning and that there are no loose articles to spoil the fun. I always think there is something masochistic about dangling from one’s straps; perhaps that’s why we do it. From level, power-off flight, the stall speeds at solo weight are 58kt clean and 55kt with full flap. There is no wing drop and aileron remains effective down to the stall. I have had no qualms about spinning, and a precision recovery onto a heading is easily achievable with practice. Looping requires a 3.5g pull-up from level flight at 160kt, which will give a big, round shape, provided the back pressure on the stick is relaxed at the top for a second or two. The stubby wings require frequent monitoring against the horizon on the way up to keep the loop straight. Entry speeds down to 120kt can still produce an acceptable figure.Stall turns work well both ways and barrel rolls can be as tight or loose as you fancy.Flying the RV round huge Spitfire-at-airshow barrels is sheer joy.The fin and rudder are not designed for flick rolls above 80kt, and below that speed they tend to be untidy. But Avalanches (flick roll at the top of a loop) go well. Slow rolls are straightforward, the elevator and rudder powerful enough to maintain level flight – likewise hesitation rolls. A traditional break

We’ve reached our destination airfield and here, where they know me, the traditional run-in-and break arrival seems appropriate. A shallow dive soon achieves a shade under 200kt along the runway, and I pull up, throttle back, over bank to avoid ballooning and fly a quick circuit while trying to reduce speed to manageable proportions for the approach. Selecting pitch fully fine has a braking effect. Side slipping works well in the RV-8 if needed, and 20-degree flap can be lowered at 95kt, going for the full 40 degrees at 85kt. The approach is flown at 70kt, and the point-and-power method of maintaining glide path and speed seems to work best with a fairly high wing loading. Power is maintained all the way down to the flare, and I have learnt that a solo three-pointer with the forward C of G runs out of up elevator a little before the three-point attitude is reached. The stick can be persuaded a tiny bit further aft, which achieves a passable landing with all three wheels grazing the concrete in close proximity to each other. When solo, I mostly land on the mains, which also saves the little tail wheel from wear and tear. You can increase elevator power by setting elevator trim fully nose down on final, the tab slightly increasing the effective elevator area. This little trick produces a reliable solo three point landing, but does mean you are fighting the trim on the way down. With two souls on board and a more rearward C of G, three-point landings are easier.In conclusion, the Van’s RV-8 is for me very close to perfection. The handling has been variously likened to a BAe Hawk, a mini Mustang and a Chipmunk on steroids. One friend of mine who has flown a Spitfire thought the RV-8 actually flew better than the elliptically winged legend. It is comfortable enough to whisk two people, a tent and baggage 300nm away in less than two hours with another two hours’ worth in the tanks for those with longer-haul bladders. With tail wheel differences training completed on a Cub or similar, a conversion onto the RV-8 should be within the reach of an average PPL. I fly around seventy hours a year in G–RVPL, mostly short-haul sorties of formation practice, aeros, displays, cloud dancing and the odd land away, enjoying the truly amazing versatility. It was one hell of a blind date, and now we are an item.