Since its launch in 2012, British homebuilders have been patiently waiting for the first Van’s Aircraft RV-14 fly in the UK. We’ve flown it, and can say, it’s been worth the wait…
Words: Ian Seager Photography: Ed Hicks
12 May 2021
No aeroplane is perfect, but having just flown the first RV-14 to be completed in the UK, I’d say that Van’s is getting pretty close, at least in the big two-seat taildragger furrow that the RV-14 is busy ploughing. Its high speed cruise and spacious cockpit deliver great touring potential, while its outstanding low speed capability will get you in and out of all but the most extreme short grass strips. It does all of this with Van’s great handling, but if that’s not enough, it’s capable (when approved by the LAA) of flying some fun level basic aeros, too.
The RV-14 first made an appearance at Oshkosh in 2012, when, unannounced, it pulled into the central static display area. That particular aeroplane was an RV-14A, (the ‘A’ denoting a nosewheel variant), and it soon drew a large crowd of people seemingly eager to explore each and every rivet. A couple of years later, Ed Hicks and I visited the factory in Oregon, and flew the aeroplane for a feature in our August 2014 issue, so when Bill Sweetnam asked if we’d like the opportunity to fly his beautiful – and recently completed – RV-14 taildragger, let us bite your arm off, was only appropriate answer.
At a very basic level the RV-14 can be thought of as a bigger version of the RV-7, but it is of course much more than that, drawing as it does on the experience and knowledge of the world’s biggest and most successful kit aircraft manufacturer to deliver a kit that not only performs, but is said to be its easiest to build yet. In fact, Bill said several times that he feels a bit of a fraud, given that all he had to do was to follow the very detailed and clear instructions.
G-ORWS has just 27 hours on her and was gleaming in the sunshine outside Bill’s hangar. The deck angle and long main gear legs of the taildragger accentuate the size of the aeroplane and make it feel bigger than the RV-14A. Although it’s a bit of a cliché, the aeroplane really does look fast even when it’s parked. It might be a kit aircraft but the build quality and finish is every bit as good as any certified aeroplane and better than quite a few.
In terms of construction, the -14 is typical Van’s. In common with most aluminium aeroplanes it is essentially a semi-monocoque aluminium structure held together with solid rivets. The wings, which use the same proprietary aerofoil as the RV-10, are constant chord, constant thickness making for a simple build. Unlike most Van’s aircraft you don’t have to choose between a hinged or sliding canopy. Van’s has made that choice for you, and you’re getting a forward-hinged tip-up canopy which provides unhindered visibility, thanks to the big Perspex bubble (there’s a chunky rollover bar behind the seats for occupant protection). Inside there’s a large baggage area behind the seats that will take a maximum of 100lb/45kg, a 46ft/117cm wide cockpit and a Garmin panel. With a MAUW of 2,050lb/932kg and an empty weight of 1,229lb/558kg there’s enough useful load (and CofG range) to fill the 50usg tanks, put a couple of 14st/90kg people in and the max of 100lb/45kg of baggage.
I said ‘nearly perfect’ earlier, and there are a couple of small niggles that become apparent as I climb in. The first is that the long main gear means that the first step onto the wing is quite a big one. A small step on the ground (offered by Bill, declined by me) or the addition of optional fuselage steps would fix that. Then once you are on the wing, it feels like the tilting hinged canopy could do with a little bit more tilt, as stepping in can feel a bit awkward as you have to sort of lean your body a bit backwards. I’m sure the wiggle becomes second nature over time.
But these are minor niggles, and once in you’ll find yourself in an outstanding cockpit that’s dominated by two Garmin G3X screens either side of a Garmin stack that has a GTN650, a second radio, an audio panel and the Garmin autopilot. There’s also a standby G5 and before long Bill’s planning an Air Avionics traffic display to add to the ADS-B in that he sees on the G3X screens.
I asked Bill about his choice of Garmin over Dynon: “I went for Garmin because although they weren’t perfect, I found information about the product more readily available than Dynon. Garmin were represented better and took the trouble to set up at the LAA rally and had people to talk to.”
The engine controls are nicely placed at the bottom of the stack, and running from the front bulkhead back between the seats is a floor-level tunnel that carries the control runs and is home to an Andair fuel selector, a compass and the CBs.
Engine data is shown on the G3X and we watch the fuel flow on the right-hand screen when the fuel pump is turned on to prime before starting. The IO-390 requires the usual fuel-injected three-handed Lycoming shuffle, but after a couple of blades the engine fires and settles into a pleasing rumble. For a taildragger, forward visibility is great with no problem seeing exactly where you are going. Control on the ground is easy and before long we’re lined up on Wadswick’s grass runway which begins with a bit of an uphill slope. The flap switch on top of the stick took me a little while to get used to. Essentially it’s a small sprung toggle switch on the top of the column, you can use this to infinitely vary the flap setting, or to automatically motor them to either of the two flap settings. Electric trim is also set from the top of the stick and monitored by position indicators on the G3X’s screen.
First take-off in a new type is always a bit of a discovery, and sitting next to the chap who just completed the build adds a little extra pressure to keep things tidy and safe. I advanced the throttle, left the tailwheel on the ground to make sure that we were tracking straight and then eased the stick forward to get the tailwheel off the ground. Happily I needed only a few rudder inputs to minimise the slight weave and keep us on the southern (slightly smoother) side of the runway. A couple of seconds later the aeroplane flew off the ground between 55 and 60kt, albeit with the stall warner activated which caught my attention.
Handling felt solid and responsive right from start, and the aeroplane accelerated as we left the circuit. Climb rate is impressive with (according to the extensive flight tests done in ’WS for the LAA by an independent test pilot) 1,100fpm available at max gross weight. I gave max climb a miss as I wanted a better view out of the front and more cooling air going over those new cylinders.
We flew around Pewsey Vale, playing with different power settings, an excellent way of reminding yourself just how much ground gets covered in an RV. In busy complex airspace you’d want to make sure your brain got to the various boundaries before your aeroplane did. With a bit of a tailwind and some altitude I’m sure ground speeds of three miles a minute or more will be commonplace. Some variable speed cruise and a bit of slow flight highlights how versatile and efficient the aeroplane is, although being kind to an engine that’s not fully run in yet, there’s a limit to how much experimentation would be healthy.
Bill reports cruise speeds of 165kt (TAS) for a fuel burn of 36lph which is pretty impressive, so impressive in fact that I asked him to go back and check the numbers. The G3X Touch generates huge amounts of data, which can be downloaded for post-flight analysis (you just need an SD card), and Bill came back to me with the following. “Here’s the data from a 1.5 hour dash down to Cornwall and back. The data shows 162kt TAS at 3,200ft with a fuel burn between 10.3 and 8.6 usg depending on leaning, so between 39 and 32lph. I have yet to master the lean assist function, so was erring on the side of caution…”
I remember the stalls in the factory RV-14A as being very benign. Reading through WS’s test reports the same is true of Bill’s aeroplane which stalls at 50kt with full flap, 60kt with take-off flap and 61kt clean. The report also mentions the stall warner activating a bit early, which explains the slightly unexpected activation when we took off.
It was soon time to make my first landing on type, something I find more nerve-racking than my first take-off, so I’d made sure that we were close to a nice long strip that I know well to make things a bit easier. If you’re going to be cruising at high speeds and maybe with a bit of altitude, you’re going to need to think in advance about both slowing down and getting down, something that can be helped with some basic mental maths. Or, if you want to be precise, by using the VNAV function in the Garmin GTN to calculate your top of descent (you can even set the autopilot to fly it all for you). That’s not to say the RV is tricky but you need to think ahead.
At circuit speeds everything remains solid, and I settled into a slightly longer final than usual to give myself some time. We’d chatted about speeds and I was maybe 2kt over our agreed 65kt as we crossed the threshold, and sure enough there was more float than ideal. We landed eventually in a nice three-point attitude, and still only used about half of the runway. I suspect that a speed somewhere between 60 and 65kt would produce a shorter, more consistent result, and maybe even a little slower for any extra short strips.
After chatting to some friends on the ground it was time for what would turn out to be the hardest part of the day, starting a hot injected engine. I failed miserably, but Bill’s obviously a bit of a Lycoming whisperer and got things fired up easily.
The second take-off, cruise and landing back at Wadswick passed too quickly and without incident, and we pushed the RV-14 back into the hangar prior to a bit of post-flight cleaning. I had to work hard to suppress a grin because this really is an exceptional aeroplane. It does lots of things very well – another Van’s model to underline their ‘Total Performance’ mission. I imagine anyone living with it for just three or four hours will be totally smitten by its charms.
Of course there are a some small imperfections. The climb onto the wing and into the cockpit could be easier and the thin factory canopy latch could be nicer (an after-market item is available but will need an LAA mod), but that’s about it.
The only other issue is that it comes as a kit rather than factory-built, a fact that is essential for some and a red line for others. That aside, well done to the entire Van’s team for designing such a fantastic aircraft, and turning it into such a remarkable kit, and of course well done to Bill who did such a good job of building it!
The answer with any aeroplane is usually ‘it depends’ but that’s even more the case when it comes to kit aircraft. The RV-14 QuickBuild kit comes in at just under $50,000. To that you’ll need to add crating, shipping, an engine (there’s a choice of Lycomings, the 200hp IO-360, the 210hp IO-390 or the 215hp IO-390XP), a prop, avionics, paint, tools etc. Van’s estimates that by making some very wise choices (and by being in the USA) you should be able to build a -14 for $90,000. Bill estimates that once tools and some third party help with things like avionics and paint have been included he has approached £180,000 invested in the aeroplane.
I’d say it would be tough for anyone in the UK to get close to the Van’s estimate of $90,000, but that by making some different choices, you could spend significantly less than Bill. If building is not your thing, you can of course buy a used RV-14, although there aren’t many to choose from, and importing a pre-built example brings extra tasks and risks when getting it transferred onto an LAA Permit (golden rule – talk to the LAA first and get advice from people who know). The few I’ve seen advertised have been £200,000 upwards.
After getting his PPL in the late 1980s, Bill progressed through instrument rating, instructor rating and ATPLs. His day jobs as solicitor and director of a small private bank were not ticking the boxes, and Bill told me he came to loathe the law, walking away from it and eventually getting a job as a First Officer for Brymon in the late 1990s. After working his way up to a command on an Embraer 145, he left to fly a Legacy business jet before retiring in 2014.
Being a hands-on practical type, building his own aeroplane was a long-time desire, and an RV-7 was on the cards. After a chat with FLYER’s Ed Hicks (who was at the time building an RV-8), Bill decided to build the -14 instead, even though he’d previously not heard of it! He chose the taildragger version for the challenge of mastering the tailwheel.
Starting with a Quick Build (QB) kit, Bill’s project took a total 1,500 hours and was nearly complete after 18 months, but late in 2019, as the parts were being moved from home workshop to hangar for assembly, Bill was diagnosed with cancer. A seven-hour operation on Christmas Eve for stage 3 bowel cancer was followed by months of chemo which Bill found almost unbearable. It was August/September 2020 before he felt able to function again – still with substantial side effects from chemo – which took until January of this year to disappear. The project was kept moving, with Steve Ayres making the first flight in July 2020. Bill told me that he had incredible support from Ed and build partner Steve Mather, telling me, “They helped me through my darkest days by talking about our great project and how I was going to fly the wings off it when I got better. These guys are saints…”
Talking of flying the wings off it, Bill plans to get the aeroplane cleared for night and IFR (the -14s LAA Night/IFR flight test has already been completed and stability and control aspects found suitable) so that it can be used to visit many of the European destinations he took others to during his time flying the Legacy.
|Max speed (Vne)||200kt|
|Stall speed||Full flap: 51kt|
|Rate of climb||Gross Weight: 1,500fpm|
|Range||714nm 75% @ 8,000ft|
|Max take-off||2,050lb (930kg)|
|Fuel capacity||50usg (189litres)|
|Wing area||126 sq ft (11.7sqm)|
|Length||21ft 1in (6.42m)|
|Cabin Width||46in (1.16m)|
|Propeller||Two-blade Hartzell blended aerofoil, aluminium, constant-speed|
|Avionics||Builders choice - as tested Garmin G3X Touch, GTN650, Garmin GTR225 radio, Mode-S transponder|
|Name||Van’s Aircraft Inc|
|Address||14401 Keil Road NE Aurora, OR 97002|
|Complete standard kit||$36,215|
|Complete Quick Build [QB] kit||$49,390|
|Add||builders choice of engine, propeller, avionics, paint and trim|