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The year everything changed

Even though the world’s largest airshow is ostensibly about “experimental” aviation, the real action has long been in the FAA-certified market where manufacturers as large as Airbus and Boeing show off their wares.

In 2022, however, the arrival of the first Van’s Aircraft RV–15 was a seismic event. The airplane was mobbed as soon as it appeared on the flight line, and the grass around it was quickly trampled in the outline of the single-engine, high-wing, backcountry airplane that created such excitement and anticipation.

It shows how much times have changed that an experimental/amateur-built (E/AB) kit airplane creates far more buzz than any action by a major general aviation manufacturer. Perhaps it’s an indication of how little is happening in the FAA-certified market for single-engine, piston airplanes that a new E/AB model gets a greeting like the Beatles.

Sure, this is the EAA convention, so you’d expect the tribe of aircraft home builders to get fired up about a new model. But the level of interest in the RV–15 reaches way beyond rivet bangers.

Pilots who have no intention of building an RV–15 welcome its arrival because they can see themselves buying one, eventually, on the used market. They’re interested in the details of the airplane’s design and testing because it’s just plain interesting—and it involves dedicated and determined people making progress toward a worthwhile new airplane. It also spurs their imagination about the dynamic and challenging brand of adventure flying the RV–15 is made for.

The RV–15 is the first high-wing aircraft Van’s Aircraft has designed during its 50 years of existence—but the new model brings more than stylistic differences. More than 11,000 Van’s Aircraft RVs have been completed and flown over the years, and most are highly efficient, versatile designs built and flown by pilots who share an affinity for sporty handling and control harmony as well as speed and range.

The RV–15, by contrast, is a rough and rugged all-terrain vehicle at heart. And just like other ATVs, it’ll attract an adventurous clientele that values extreme performance. Big tires, vortex generators, high-lift devices, and boosted engines are coming, along with under-wing hammocks, camping mods, gun doors, and long-range fuel tanks.

“The RV–15 is going to attract builders who never would have considered building a low-wing RV,” said Doug Reeves, founder of Van’s Air Force, a website dedicated to the Van’s Aircraft pilot and builder community. “I don’t think the company realizes how much its culture is about to change.”

Reeves has long advocated a high-wing RV, and he said he won’t be surprised if Van’s Aircraft sells 1,000 kits the first day the RV–15 goes on the market. He said he’s certain the RV–15 will become the most popular model in the RV series, even though the company won’t begin selling kits until 2023 at the earliest, and it hasn’t set a price for them.

With so much focus on the RV–15, it was easy to overlook the arrival of another high-wing kit airplane, the four-seat Sling. A group of three of the Rotax-powered aircraft arrived during AirVenture after completing a marathon series of flights from South Africa. The trio crossed the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Wisconsin, a testament to the company’s faith in its product.

As in previous years, there was a great deal of talk about electric airplanes, urban air mobility concepts, and investment in this area—but little of that’s tangible, yet.

I frequently get the unsettling sense that great tectonic shifts are taking place just under aviation’s surface, and they’re soon to burst forth with exciting new products that will change the way we live and fly: electric engines with enough battery power to fly fast and far; tiny, fuel-efficient turboprops that can replace piston engines throughout the legacy fleet; artificial intelligence and automation that go far beyond Garmin’s Autoland system to cover every phase of flight from takeoff to shutdown.

Even though the grounds and displays at AirVenture look the same, the arrival of the RV–15 shows the aviation world has changed. These emerging technologies are a sign that a revolution is coming.

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