Remember in those far off days when Land Rovers were the only four wheel drive vehicles in existence? This was way before they were pimped up to look exactly the same as the myriad other four wheel drives on the market. When they were a workhorse owned only by farmers and the army. They were practical and rugged, built to last not years but decades, they lacked any unnecessary frills and they served the purpose for which they were perfectly designed. They became a classic.
The GippsAERO GA8 Airvan strikes me as being the original Land Rover’s airborne relative as it has all the rugged usefulness of the famous four wheeled counterpart in a modern guise with some interesting and innovative features.
The Airvan is a single engine, high wing, all metal, eight seat load mover. First receiving certification in 2000 it’s the brainchild of George Morgan and Peter Furlong who saw the need for an aircraft to fill the niche between the Cessna 206 and the Cessna Caravan. They have achieved this admirably producing an aircraft which, through its simplicity and passenger carrying capability, equates to additional profitability for operators.
My initial reaction on seeing the Airvan when Alan Campbell from the GippsAERO team flew in to Essendon to meet me was its size. It doesn’t look large from the outside but it is shaped to give an enormous amount of space inside, accommodating an extra couple of seats over the C206. And very comfortably so, with the GA8 avoiding that trait of so many other aircraft that narrow and reduce in height over the third row of seats. The square shape continues throughout the cabin, so the width and height is retained over its four rows of seats making the interior beautifully spacious – no claustrophobic feeling in this aircraft. The cabin even includes an aisle which negates the need for extra passenger doors: the rear sliding door providing easy access to the six passenger seats in this section.
Aft of the cabin, the upswept rear fuselage ends in a conventional tailplane which sits very much higher than normal, to eliminate leading edge damage to the stabilizer and elevator with the rudder extending up only half of the vertical fin. The long, untapered wings include mechanically operated, simple bolt and bush flaps with no rollers to wear out and tracking systems to replace making them easy and economical to maintain. The heavy duty landing gear completes the aircraft’s external rugged, workhorse look. Designed to be able to operate from rough, unimproved strips, the Airvan has been designed with spring suspension nose gear rather than an oleo type strut, working on the principle that a flat nose wheel strut in a remote location is something of a pain. The main landing gear has tubular spring steel legs, heavy duty six bolt wheels with 8.50 x 6 tyres as standard and, with the main gear located further aft than is usual, there is no tendency for the aircraft to tip on its tail during loading and unloading.
Access to the cockpit is easy with front opening doors on both sides with easy to reach steps and handles. One nifty little design feature allows the doors to clip back and lock in position when open to stop them swinging in the wind; such a simple device to avoid pain and damage to the pilot and craft. The rear sliding door allows easy access for passengers and with dimensions of over 1m? facilitates loading of bulky freight.
The Airvan can be transformed from a people mover to a cargo aircraft, and every stage in between, in next to no time. All the passenger seats are easily removed along with the seatbelts and seatbelt attachments leaving an uncluttered 5m? floor area for cargo stowage. The seats themselves can be stowed in the rear fuselage and even with all the seats in place there is still ample storage in the baggage area behind the seats. This combination of seats and cargo make the GA8 a very useful aeroplane for many different operations and with the cabin door being certified for in-flight opening it can add parachuting, supply and other dropping operations to its list of can dos.
The Airvan is powered by a Lycoming IO-540 six cylinder power plant which provides 300hp to propel its 1814kg MTOW through the air. With a useful load of 800kg the Airvan can carry five 80kg passengers, 50kg of baggage plus full fuel giving an endurance of six hours at a normal cruise power setting. For shorter journeys, a full load of passengers, cargo or a combination can be carried with three hours of fuel. Add to this its ability to safely operate from a 550 metre strip with a full load and its appeal increases again: a fact that has been realized by many operators particularly in more remote regions where its simplicity, and consequent low maintenance, is of huge benefit and where short, rough strips are often the norm.
Although Essendon cannot be described as remote, rugged or lacking in runway length, that did not stop me from checking out its take off performance as we set off for Latrobe Valley. Taxiing the Airvan makes use of fairly heavy nosewheel steering requiring a lot of pedal input and rudder deflection without the use of too much differential braking. Once moving forward at a reasonable pace it was easy to steer and turn. The aircraft accelerated easily along the runway, requiring a reasonable amount of rudder to maintain direction with the highly cambered, long wings producing sufficient lift to leave the ground at only 57kt with one stage, or 14º, of flap deflected. Rotating to position the nose slightly under the horizon, the GA8 quickly accelerates away to its initial climb out speed of 80kt. Retracting the flap increases the climb speed with no discernable attitude, and thus trim, change necessary.
It’s credited with a maximum climb rate of 787fpm from sea level, so no rocket type climbs here but it has a comfortable climb attitude and rate and it felt solid and stable and remaining unmoved by any bumpy conditions. Control pressures were easily trimmed out with a giant size trim wheel positioned to the right on the side of the centre quadrant which also contains the throttle, mixture and pitch controls producing a pleasingly traditional layout and thus saving the search for controls and instruments which so often occurs in new aircraft with designers seemingly intent on being different, usually to the detriment of common sense.
Adding to this feeling of tradition and logic, all the instruments are to be found on the pilot’s side with the avionics panel in the centre within easy reach. This gives the panel an open, uncluttered look with the panel of circuit breakers, lights and master switches contained in an overhead panel between the pilot and co-pilot’s seat. The Airvan is equipped to order with the aircraft I flew having a standard instrument panel with the addition of a second altimeter for IFR purposes with the avionics stack composed of Bendix King equipment including a GPS with full colour multi function display with moving map.
Levelling out at the top of climb at a weather-dictated 3,500ft required positive trim whilst the aircraft accelerated; waiting until the cruise speed is established makes the trim very heavy to use. But it was a pleasure to fly a new aircraft with a bit of weight and solidity to it – it was responsive to control inputs but without the touchiness of the lightweights and, once the Airvan is trimmed correctly, it sits in stable contempt of the lumps and bumps that were evident on our flight. A later flight in IFR conditions demonstrated what a stable platform it provides for instrument flight.
Visibility is fantastic with convex windows affording excellent viewing with small eyebrow windows in the cockpit ensuring increased pilot visibility when manoeuvring. All passenger seats have a window which is great for the tourist operators.
Cruising at 24” MP and 2400 RPM achieved a TAS of around 120kt for a fuel flow of a little over 60lph. Not the speediest aircraft but I can’t think of another powered aircraft that could transport eight people for such a miserly fuel flow. Similar to the C206 but the two additional seats in the Airvan equate to profit so, for operations where speed is not vital, why not go for profit especially where comfort and safety is also provided? The seats are comfortable and, thank goodness, adjustable. Result, no cushion required. More importantly however, an enormous amount of research and development has gone into the design of the seats to ensure crashworthiness standards of 21g for horizontal and 18g for vertical impacts which luckily wasn’t put to the test when I landed.
This emphasis on safety has been an important part of the development of the Airvan having been certified to the world’s most stringent airworthiness standard, FAR 23 and, which is evident in the flight stability characteristics, the excellent restraints with all passenger seats having three point harnesses with inertia reels; in the primary control system and electrical system redundancy requirements and with fuel system reliability and improvement.
The Airvan boasts a fuel injection system with electric boost pump and usable fuel of 332 litres. There is no fuel selector, just an ON/OFF switch with a starter that doesn’t start when the fuel is selected to off. The fuel management system levels the tanks automatically- if it senses one tank is getting low it will take fuel from the fuller side. The panel incorporates an electronic digital fuel flow and totalizer and also low fuel warning lights for each tank.
Looking around the GippsAERO facility was a fascinating experience as the aircraft evolved from sheets of metal to the finished article in a smoothly run operation with each step in the process emphasizing the strength, safety and durability that is expected. The aircraft is exceptionally well engineered with an excellent finish to all the components. All internal sheet metal surfaces and all airframe components are fully primed prior to assembly and all external steel parts are hot metal sprayed before priming. The finish is excellent both inside and out with a high quality paint job ready to be customized to order. The aircraft is predominantly metal with just the sidewalls being molded fiberglass. Pleasant enough for passenger comfort but sturdy enough to cope with the bumps and knocks of cargo loading.
The GA8 Airvan was developed to fill a niche in the market that obviously needed to be filled. There was certainly no need to have yet another light twin aircraft that couldn’t take full fuel if it carried more than four people nor was the a need for another claustrophobic single with no visibility for its rear seat passengers. The Airvan’s appeal has extended around the world and there are now 118 Airvans out there which can be found conducting sight seeing tours in Iceland, bear watching and hunting in Alaska, patrolling in the US and running passenger and freight charter flights elsewhere in the world.
It is great that the people who came up with the idea of this size aircraft actually then designed it with such attention to safety, practicality, durability and suitability for the range of operations that were envisaged for it. With a price tag of AU$638,000 it is similar in cost to a new Cessna Stationair and shares the same engine and similar running costs but, for the price of a few knots of airspeed, can transport a couple more profit-creating passengers. In addition, the aircraft was designed to be as low maintenance as possible with the elimination of maintenance intensive features again saving the operator money. It is great that it’s an Australian owned and operated company that is producing the Airvan and giving aviation operators the option of buying Australian made not simply because it is Australian, but because it is the best option available. It deserves to be around for as long as, and be as successful as, the old Land Rover.