When you think of dedicated utility airplanes, what’s the first machine that comes to mind: a Cessna Stationair, a Cherokee Six, a Cessna Caravan? George Morgan of GippsAero in Moreland, Australia, has a slightly different answer to that question. “In many parts of the world, utility applications for general aviation are more the rule than the exception. Airplanes are graded more on what they can carry and where they can go than how fast they can get there,” says Morgan.
“A few years back, my partner, Peter Furlong, and I decided to design a new dedicated utility aircraft that could perform a wide variety of missions without compromise, and do so at a lower operating cost than anything else on the market,” Morgan explains. “The GA8 Airvan is the result of that effort.” Furlong and Morgan initiated development in the early ’90s and finally earned Australian certification of the GA8 Airvan in 2001 after eight years of R&D. Since then, nearly 170 Airvans have been sold in places that have need for the airplane’s special talents. Airvans have found unusual applications in remote sections of Congo, Botswana, New Zealand, New Guinea, Canada, Alaska and dozens of other outback locations.
Morgan and U.S. General Manager Randy Juen recently offered editor Jessica Ambats, SMO pilot Michelle Kole and me a day in their unusual bush bird, and we loaded up tents, mountain bikes, chairs and miscellaneous camping gear plus six people, and launched for a California backcountry experience.
The Airvan wasn’t new to me, as I’d seen several of them in Australia while delivering aircraft Down Under in the early 2000s. From a distance, you might mistake an Airvan for a Cessna Caravan, and that’s exactly what ATC called us most of the time.
In fact, the GA8-TC is a smaller aircraft, though you might not know it by the airplane’s generous useful load. By the time you read this, the Airvan will be certified in the U.S. with up to eight seats at a gross weight of 4,200 pounds. The GA8 I flew had an empty weight of just over 2,400 pounds (replete with Garmin 650/750 avionics and an Aspen PFD), so useful worked out to slightly under 1,800 pounds. Fill the 88-gallon tanks with 100 octane, and you’d be left with an impressive 1,278 pounds of payload.
Furlong and Morgan designed the GA8 with a flat floor and a quick-change interior that allows you to add or subtract seats in a flash, the better to switch from hauling people to freight or a team of huskies to a piano. That’s exactly what we did, without the huskies and the piano to contend with. We left out two seats in favor of mountain bikes and camping gear.
The cabin measures 50 inches across by 45 inches tall, and that was easily enough to accommodate our load. For convenience, the aft cabin is configured to allow long items to be stored back into the tailcone. Despite all the equipment and six outdoor enthusiasts, our load worked out to roughly 1,100 pounds departing Santa Monica, still at least 150 pounds under gross.
The test airplane wasn’t fitted with the optional ventral cargo pod, but if it had been, the 18-cubic-foot container would have allowed us to stow an extra 440 pounds of whatever outside the cabin. GippsAero suggests there’s no performance loss with the pod installed, and we’ll take their word for it. The Cessna Caravan typically sacrifices at least five knots to its belly pod.
Before we flew, I did a walkaround with George Morgan, and he pointed out the myriad of little design features that make the airplane stand out from other flying machines. This was a clean sheet design. Morgan and Furlong consulted with dozens of bush operators in Australia, Africa, Canada and Indonesia on optimum features for a bush airplane, then incorporated those features into their airplane.
The GA8-TC’s Hartzell prop resembles the designs in use on many aircraft today, but it’s actually unique to the Airvan. It’s a three-blade tractor, semi-scimitar in shape and 82 inches in diameter. Despite its large track, it’s mounted high, so tip clearance isn’t a problem, an important consideration on a bush aircraft.
There are two engine options on the Airvan, both Lycoming IO-540s previously employed on the Piper Saratoga HP. The first is the standard, 300 hp IO-540-K1A5. The second adds an AiResearch TEO-6 turbocharger to the same powerplant and upgrades takeoff power to 320 hp (up to 5,000 feet density altitude). This is a well-proven mill that’s been in service for over three decades.
The nose gear employs a spring inside the strut that won’t allow it to collapse, a valuable hedge for aircraft destined to operate off-airport much of the time. Main gear legs are tube steel, designed to absorb the shocks of a hard landing without excessive rebound.
Also in keeping with its bush mission, the Airvan uses a 6.00×6 nose gear but mounts 8.50×8 mains. Even larger tires are available. If you need to land on a beach or other soft surface, you’ll stand a better chance of success with the wide-tread, semi-balloon tires.
There are cabin doors for both pilot and copilot that open a full 180 degrees and fold forward against the cowling on both sides. The designers incorporated small locking brackets on the engine cowling that allow you to lock the doors open in case of strong winds. The sliding cargo door at aft left is a tall, double-stop utility portal for loading large items. If your cargo is palletized, you could use a fork lift to put it on board.
|The step for the rear door doubles as an armrest for the backseat.
In the front office, the Airvan’s pilots have airline-style yokes that spring up from the floor rather than growing from the panel. Morgan explained this was a hedge against forward-impact injury from the yoke being crushed into the pilot’s chest in a crash. It also allows electrical wiring to the yoke to run beneath the floor rather than behind the panel.
The fuel system is almost disarmingly simple. There’s an on-off pull control on the upper-left panel that goes full-in for “run,” full-out for “stop.” Fuel is either on or off. Though there are two conventional wing tanks; there’s no selector. The Airvan feeds fuel symmetrically from both tanks. On the ground, there’s a simple valve in each wing that precludes overboarding fuel if the airplane is refueled and parked on a slanted ramp. (Twenty years ago in Libreville, Gabon, on a trip to South Africa in a Caravan, I lost about $300 worth of fuel when I parked the airplane with one wing slightly downhill on a slanted ramp and neglected to turn off the fuel selectors.)
The Airvan’s strut-braced wing employs a modified USA 35B airfoil (reminiscent of the Piper Cub) with a mild 2Â½ degrees of dihedral and 2 degrees of incidence. Total area is 208 square feet, which generates a wing loading of about 20 lbs./sq. ft. High wing loading is usually indicative of a smoother ride in turbulence.
Moving back to the empennage, the vertical tail is swept, and there’s a ventral fin installed below the horizontal stabilizer. Morgan told me the flight tests for anti-spun characteristics were performed by the National Test Pilots School in Mojave, Calif., and the ventral was a result of those tests.
The Gipps GA8 specifies one notch of flaps for takeoff, and you can maintain that setting all the way to cruise. Morgan said flight tests revealed a slight climb advantage with flaps extended, plus a better view over the nose.
Our test airplane was the turbo model that delivers 40 inches of manifold pressure on takeoff and provides a gratifying shove in the back on power-up. Put the left lever against the panel, and the Airvan responds with more enthusiasm than you might expect. The airplane flies off at about 55 knots and starts uphill with a strong positive rate, if not an aggressive one. Book spec is just over 900 fpm at sea level, and certified ceiling is 20,000 feet.
On the way to cruise height, you can’t help but notice the visibility. Every seat offers an excellent view. There are windows everywhere, over a dozen in all, including two eyebrow skylights at top cabin above the pilot and copilot. If you need to maneuver in a tight canyon or fly a close-in pattern, the eyebrows give you a look into the turn. The flight crew sits well forward of the wing-leading edge, so normal turns allow you to keep track of the runway threshold on base and final.
The cockpit features an Aspen Avionics PFD and Garmin GTN 650/750 avionics.
As mentioned above, cruise isn’t the Airvan’s strongest suit, but that’s not relevant to its mission. At a typical 75% setting with a full load, you can plan on about 130-135 knots. If there’s a need to fly an out-and-back trip with no fuel available at the destination, you can reduce power to 45% and plan on a no-wind, one-way leg of 350 nm.
Inflight handling is more reminiscent to that of a Skyhawk than a 4,200-pound flying truck. Roll and pitch response is appropriate to the weight, but it’s well short of oppressive. The airplane maneuvers easily as long as you keep the big, elevator-trim wheel moving.
The GA8 approaches the stall with no evil intent, and low-speed maneuvering isn’t any special challenge. Approaches can be as you like them. Full-flap stall is 56 knots, so you can fly a standard approach at about 70 knots, and short-field efforts work well at 65 knots. On one approach, I was a little high on final, and Morgan suggested I simply maintain the top of the white arc with full flaps and power at idle. This introduces a significant amount of drag that allows you to fly a steeper profile toward the runway. It also prolongs the flare, but drag is so high that the total landing distance isn’t that much greater.
The landing is anticlimactic. The Airvan does perch lower than you might expect on its tricycle gear, and if you’re nervous about the weight and approach too fast, it will float. Fortunately, it’s easy to predict when the wing will pay off and lower the wheels to the runway.
The Airvan isn’t a true STOL airplane in the strictest sense, but it will do very well on most sea-level runways of 1,000 feet or more. Landing distance to a smooth, dry, sea-level runway is listed at 483 feet, but takeoffs require more like 800 feet, so as with most other aircraft, you may be able to sneak into places you can’t leap back out of.
Agua Dulce Airport (L70) offers a surprisingly tranquil setting for the outskirts of the greater Los Angeles area. A monthly barbecue fly-in is held on the last Sunday of each month. Visit www.l70airport.com for more information.
Morgan’s Airvan is predictably adaptable to a wide variety of jobs. It can be mounted on wheels and skis to fly missions ranging from skydiving, game spotting, pipeline patrol and law enforcement, to search and rescue, air ambulance, sightseeing and freight hauling. Approval on Wipaire floats is pending. There’s even an openable window on the sliding aft cargo door that allows for direct air-to-air/air-to-ground photography so the photographer doesn’t have to shoot with a $2,000 camera through a $10 piece of Plexiglas. Morgan commented that they hear of new applications for the Airvan all the time, and they’re often surprised at the innovative variety of jobs the airplane can fly.
GippsAero is also well into development on a stretched Airvan, the GA10. This will be turbine-powered (probably a Rolls-Royce 250) and approved for a 4,500-pound gross weight. Gipps also hopes to revive and improve upon the Australia Nomad turboprop commuter airliner, the GA18.
Inevitably, someone’s bound to ask what all this utility talent costs. The answer is $699,000 for the basic GA8 with the normally aspirated engine. Add turbocharging, and base price increases to $729,000. The Garmin IFR package we flew with adds another $18,000 for a total of $747,000 on the test airplane. Two other popular options are air conditioning ($37,500) and the cargo pod ($12,750), and as usual, you can keep adding options to the limit of your credit line.
Utility airplanes aren’t built for the pilot public, though it’s easy to imagine a family with a large clutch of kids finding happiness with one. The GA8 Airvan is more of a dedicated utility airplane, something like a four-wheel-drive, crew cab pickup, designed specifically for a down-and-dirty, off airport mission, willing to work hard and generate a profit for the pilot with a need for its considerable talents.
Visit www.gippsaero.com for more information about the Airvan.