Words: Ian Seager – Photography: Ed Hicks
20 July 2020
Yeah, yeah, yeah, another test of an aeroplane that you can’t buy in the UK or the rest of Europe, I mean what’s the point? Hang on a minute, take those blinkers off, grab a chair and listen up, let’s see if I can persuade you otherwise. This one’s important for a few reasons. For starters it’s the first aircraft to come out of Vashon, the company owned by John Torode, founder and owner of Dynon Avionics – and definitely not the bloke from Masterchef. Then there’s the fact that it was designed by Ken Krueger. Ken spent 17 years at Van’s Aircraft and was the chief engineer on the RV-7, -8, -10, -12 and -14. Van’s (hold that email grammar police, that’s the name of the company) has more aircraft flying than any other kit manufacturer in the world. Ever. If that’s not reason enough there’s the price. The base model, called the Yellowstone, is being sold for just $99,500 and unlike most other base models this one comes equipped with glass (Dynon, obviously), a two-axis autopilot, ADS-B out and all sorts of other features that other manufacturers leave in the options list. When was the last time you saw a fully kitted-out, factory-built, two-seat aircraft being sold for that price? Vashon is based in Woodinville, Washington, in the far north-west of the USA. However, happily for us, early Ranger owner Kurt Bosshardt has his example based in Pompano Beach, Florida, and during our last pre-covid US trip we arranged to meet up and go flying.
I wouldn’t normally lead with the negatives, particularly as I’ve just made a case for it being an important aircraft, but there’s no getting away from it, the Vashon Ranger is not the best looking aircraft on the apron. It’s boxy, it’s got a big tail and a huge up and over windscreen, which from certain angles looks like it’s the love child spawned from a Chris Whitty/Dominic Cummings liaison. If you want to see it at its best you’ll either have to fly when it’s dark, or lay flat on the floor with the front of the aeroplane at your 10 o’clock.
Admittedly, that may not be enough to turn it into a stunner, but it is an improvement. OK, maybe that’s being a little harsh. I have to admit that once you become a little bit more familiar, you start to appreciate the aeroplane in a ‘function over form’ no-nonsense kind of way. If you’re looking for aesthetic positives, I quite like the clean lines you get with a high cantilever wing, and the main gear and chunky 600 x 6 tyres look like they’d not be overly troubled if you took the aeroplane into the backcountry, or even if the wheels occasionally got to the ground before you managed to flare. Its rugged simplicity suggests any long-term relationship would be based on strength of character, long after others have lost their cosmetic beauty.
To better understand why the Ranger ended up looking like it does, it’s worth going back to its design goals, I spoke to its designer, Ken Krueger (see video) and he explained that a key requirement was that it should be able to be put on floats. It turns out that Vashon (and Dynon) founder John Torode is a bit of a seaplane fan, and so the float thing had to be so (there’s one float-equipped Ranger so far, and it is on the water outside Torode’s house). Although it’s technically possible to have a low-wing seaplane, nobody really does that, hence the high-wing. Most float conversions need to find a way to add tail area, so Krueger built the tail for floats from the outset. In addition the Ranger had to meet the LSA requirements for max weight (50kg more for seaplanes), max stall speed (45kt clean) and max speed in level flight (120kt). There were two other requirements – it had to be able to be manufactured easily so the cost could be kept to below $100,000, a level that was judged affordable to many individuals and flight schools, and it had to be powered by the Continental 0-200-D rather than a Rotax. Say what? Yep, there may be a Rotax in the vast majority of LSAs, but this one was going to have the old-school, newly lightened Continental, which nonetheless is about 20kg heavier. I imagine that the Continental, built in Mobile, Alabama, may appeal more to traditionalists. Mind you, knowing a few of them I’m not sure how they’ll now react to Continental’s Chinese ownership, but I digress, that’s politics and this is about aeroplanes. Let’s just say that it’s tough to build an aeroplane to a weight budget, and I can’t imagine that is any ea
Walk up to the Ranger (properly known as the Ranger R7) and once you see past the ‘beauty’, the details start to make themselves known. The pitot static is a curved structure that sits high above the wing. In addition to being a pitot static, it’s the AoA probe and it also carries the fuel vent, its height is another one of the seaplane things… when docked it’s less likely that anyone will add to the world’s population of one-eyed pilots or passengers. The Ranger is assembled with pulled rivets, but rather than them sitting proud they’re flush. It turns out that not only are all of the panels pre-punched, but that the turret punch press can also dimple, meaning that there’s next to no cost or complexity added if you have flush rivets. While we’re talking aluminium panels and rivets, it’s worth mentioning that plain sheets of aluminium arrive at the factory pre-painted in white, as do the rivets.
Take a look at the doors and many of the interior panels and you’ll see that they’re double skinned or closed out, meaning things are that bit stronger, while there are fewer ways of losing your keys, phone or other bits of pocket shrapnel. Talking of doors, they’re huge, again, another seaplane thing where being able to jump in and out quickly is a good thing. Not only are they massive, but when open they lay flat against the cowling where they’re secured with a pin arrangement, meaning that unless it’s jolly breezy, you don’t have to worry about your door beating itself into a big maintenance bill. Despite that big door opening, you still have to do a bit of manoeuvring to get in – thanks to the stick. Basically, you have to get your leg over, which as you know is often easier said than done, but backing yourself in before swinging, while pivoting from the hips did the trick. Practice would, I’m sure, make things easier. Once you’re in, you close the door like you would in a car, i.e. without the need for the three-handed multi-latch fumble.
Stretch out… and snooze
The seats are comfortable, at least for the hour or so that I was sitting in one, and the backs will fold completely flat if you remove the cushions, consequently giving you loads of room should you wish to park up, stretch out and snooze.
Apparently some people like the idea of sleeping in an aircraft – Ken certainly does. Personally I can think of little worse than spending a night in your sleeping bag in an aeroplane, but hey, if it works for you. If sleeping inside doesn’t appeal, Vashon does offer a tent that fits over one wing giving a more conventional camping option. The cabin is wider than most four seaters, and thanks to that boxy shape it’s cavernous with loads of headroom (both Torode and Krueger are tall, so it’s a good bet that headroom wasn’t going to be a problem). Given the weight budget the interior was never going to be dressed with the finest leather, and spartan rather than sumptuous would be a better description. Spartan is definitely not a synonym for cheap. It looks and feels solid, this is not the sort of aeroplane where you wonder if something’s going to come off in your hand, or succumb to an early demise after multiple students have done their worst.
Kurt’s aeroplane was the sub $100,000 base model to which he had only added an iPad in a Guardian Avionics panel mount on the right-hand side. In front of me was a single 10-inch Dynon SkyView screen with integrated engine monitoring, There was a two axis autopilot, ADS-B out and Dynon’s radio. More kit and more capability than you find in the majority of the legacy fleet, and lacking, well pretty much nothing important. The aeroplane even comes with five point harnesses!
The Continental’s an old tech engine, so depending on conditions you might have to use the primer prior to start (yes, even in 2020), crank over the Continental and you get that satisfying air-cooled, four opposed cylinder burble. I’m a signed up Rotax fan, I like the lightness, the smoothness, the frugality and the reliability. I like everything (except perhaps the price), but I’ll take the sound of the little Continental over the Rotax all day long.
FLYER interviewed Vashon Aircraft founder John Torode shortly after the Ranger was revealed to the General Aviation world in 2018…
How did Dynon Avionics come to be?
Having had my own aircraft since 1967, I was astounded by how ancient the equipment in aeroplanes was, and in most cases still is. With my background in physics, engineering and computer science, I thought: let’s see if we can build something that’s useful for the average pilot. We produced a 4in EFIS which displayed all the primary flight instruments and introduced it to the market for $2,000. It really got the attention of home-builders and caught on in a way that even surprised me. Now, seven per cent of all planes in the world use our avionics.
Why start Vashon Aircraft?
It was my goal to produce an aircraft that’d cost about the same as a fancy car: the Ranger R7. I think cost is an important parameter that’s keeping young people from GA. The price of a new basic aeroplane, like a Cessna 172, is $400,000. How many pilots can afford this? Back in 1960, a brand new aircraft would cost you about a year’s salary, but today $400,000 is 10 times as much as a fresh-out-of-college kid earns in a year. Add to that the rising costs of training, fuel and maintenance, and it’s no surprise GA is dying. Currently, only about 1,000 new factory piston aircraft are sold a year worldwide. In 1976, it was 17,000. This is a shame, as flying is such a great hobby. There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’ll get there. A big part of it is volume: if we sell 25 Rangers every year, we won’t make any money, but if we sell 250 a year, we will.
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope that with Dynon Avionics and Vashon Aircraft we can positively influence the future of GA. There’s an ongoing revolution, both at the FAA and EASA, to reduce the bureaucracy of aviation regulations, while keeping safety on the same high level. We fit into this shift with our affordable aircraft & avionics – because safety that isn’t affordable, isn’t safety. When I’m gone, I want to leave this planet a little better in at least one area – private aviation.
Pulling away from our parking spot, the aeroplane’s easy to manoeuvre thanks to its fully castoring nosewheel. There are toe brakes on both sides and visibility is great thanks to acres of perspex. There’s a maximum of 25.5 US gallons split between the two wing tanks with another 2.5 gallons in a header tank fed from the wings. Useful load is 445lb or just over 200kg, so not huge, and certainly not enough for Kurt and me to take anywhere near full fuel. Happily with a consumption of around 5usg per hour you don’t need full tanks unless you’re heading off for a long trip, and we had just over two hours’ worth as we lined up for departure. The flaps are electrically operated and set at either 20˚ or 40˚,but for our take-off we went with no flaps. Even the shortest runway at Pompano is at least 10 times longer than we need, but I prefer first take-offs in type to be a gently progressive affair rather than a hurried leap into the air. Even taking things slowly we were up and flying away within a few hundred feet, rotating at about 50kt and settling into a climb at about 75kt. As soon as there’s enough air going over the surfaces it’s obvious that this is a very nice aircraft, there’s no tendency to lurch to one side, nicely weighted controls and responsive when you need it to be, stable when you don’t.
Despite the lack of sound insulation (remember that spartan bare metal interior?) cabin noise levels were fine (I had my Bose headset on). Settling into the cruise you’ll see a comfortable 100kt in return for a 5usg/hr fuel burn (just a bit under 19lph), which is comparable to the numbers that you’ll see with almost all side by side LSAs. While the look is maybe a little more Transit than Testarossa, the handling isn’t. What a sweet, sweet aeroplane… want to chuck it about while playing with clouds? No problem. Want some slow flight (who actually wants that by the way?) no problem, stalls are (blissfully) dull and anything in between is, well exactly what you’d expect. I know it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ken’s already proved that he can design superbly handling and performing aircraft, but the experience was kind of reaffirming. If LSAs were meals, quite a few of them would be cold tapioca puddings, a couple would be custard with a few random chillies thrown in, most would be meat and two veg but a small number would be perfectly cooked fillet steak (insert appropriate vegetarian or vegan alternative) with a side of perfectly cooked chunky chips. The Ranger is definitely at the top of the perfectly cooked steak section of the menu.
With this particular meal drawing to a close I called Pompano. There was a lot going on, and it seemed prudent to remain high and just off the coast, enjoying the handling, the glistening sea and some of Florida’s well-to-do coastline. Sadly it all quietened down, and I reluctantly made my way back. There was a bit of turbulence and a bit of a crosswind but the Ranger shrugged it off, a nice speed stable approach finished by a firm landing thanks to yours truly. I was full, but I would have happily gone back for seconds, and thirds. Who said you can have too much of a good thing anyway?
This aeroplane is exactly why we need a 600kg category in the UK. Happily, the responses to the CAA’s recent consultation on the matter were overwhelmingly in favour, there was even mutual support from the BMAA and LAA (hopefully that’s as strong as ever, despite them no longer dating with a view to marriage), so it’s now down to the Department for Transport to give the nod, and for everyone to get on with it as quickly as possible.
Being able to buy a factory-built aircraft like the Vashon Ranger can only be a very good thing for General Aviation in the UK, for its post-covid recovery. Hopefully that’ll include a mini-boom as people realise flying themselves and their family somewhere quickly and efficiently is much more enjoyable than arriving at a crowded airport two hours ahead of departure, just so you can share a busy commercial flight that will generally take you a lot further from your destination than you’d like.
If the right levers are pulled then General Aviation, and great aircraft like the Ranger, can be part of a flexible, efficient and environmentally friendly mode of transport, and can play an important role in getting the economy back on its feet. As they’d say in Vashon Ranger land, let’s get it done!
Ken Krueger spent 17 years of his working life at Van’s Aircraft, so he clearly knows a thing or two about kit aircraft. During his time working for Van’s, he was awarded the August Raspet Award for his contributions to the matched-hole production processes that have made metal kit aircraft so accurate and buildable.
I asked if the Ranger would ever be available as a kit, and the short answer is ‘no’. The wing’s a single piece with a span of nearly 30ft (9m), so that’s a challenge for most, but even if you can resolve that problem, the fact is the Ranger costs under $100,000 dollars ready to fly, so by the time you buy the kit, the avionics, the engine, the prop and the hundreds of bits and pieces that go to make up an aeroplane there’s not going to be much change from the original purchase price, so why bother?
|Max speed (Vne)||131 kias|
|Max cruise speed||114ktas|
|Stall speed||(clean/full flap) 45kt/41kt|
|Max take-off weight||600kg|
|Propeller||Two-blade Catto composite, fixed pitch|
|Avionics||Skyview by Dynon|
|Vashon Aircraft||19825 141st PL NE Woodinville, WA 98072 USA www.vashonaircraft.com|
|Basic||$99,500 Including a one-year, spinner-to-tail warranty|