GippsAero Airvan GA8

GippsAero Airvan GA8

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Aircraft as workhorses: the unglamorous side of business aviation but they perform essential – and some fun – tasks. P1 looks at the latest from GippsAero, the turbocharged Airvan

What aircraft do you choose if you want to fly a couple of paramedics and supplies into a remote village in Papua New Guinea? Or pick up a heart for transplant from an out of the way, short, unimproved airstrip for delivery within hours to hospital? Or, come to that, if you have a bunch of excited parachutists to carry up to 14,000 feet?

You could choose a Cessna Caravan, or its smaller sibling, the 206 Stationair. But there’s quite a jump in cost between those two, both in purchase price and running costs. In between those two much-loved aircraft is the GippsAero Airvan, made in Australia though the company is now owned by Mahindra, an engineering conglomerate headquartered in India.

The creators of the Airvan, Peter Furlong and George Morgan, set out to create a no-nonsense load-lifter to fill that gap between Cessna’s piston-engined 206 Stationair and the turboprop 208 Caravan. So the Airvan is bigger than the 206, seating eight including the pilot, but smaller than the Caravan.

Running costs and purchase price of the GA8 Airvan are a lot closer to the 206 than the Caravan. Conkin & de Decker, industry cost analysts, say the variable costs of operating these aircraft are: 206 Stationair $214/hour, GA8 Airvan $226/hr, 208 Caravan $665/hr.

The list prices for the three aircraft are even more revealing: T206H $597K, GA8TC-320 $720K, 208 Caravan $2m. That’s the huge gap in the market that Peter and George spotted – you could buy and operate two Airvans for the price of a single Caravan.

Both Peter and George are licensed aircraft engineers as well as pilots so well equipped to come up with the aircraft. In fact, the Airvan was their second aircraft. The first was the GA200 ‘Fatman’, an agricultural cropspraying aircraft claimed to be 50 percent more efficient than its rivals, certified in 1991. Shortly after, the idea of a plane that could carry eight people with just 300hp, the Airvan, was born.

It took them another eight years of development to get the GA8 Airvan certified and into production, a heck of an achievement for a tiny company lacking the resources of a major manufacturer like Cessna. Now more than 200 Airvans have been delivered worldwide including 16 aircraft to the US Civil Air Patrol which uses them for maritime surveillance.

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RIGHT FOR WHITE VAN MAN

Surveillance, skydiving, cargo, passengers – is there no end to the Airvan’s capabilities? Well, not if you think of the GA8 like, say, Volkswagen’s Transporter Kombi van. Just like the Kombi, another long-lasting, simple, multi-role vehicle, the Airvan has almost straight metal sides, flat floor and a huge door on the side – which can be removed for skydiving or, as we found out, for photo shoots.

GippsAero says the door is designed to accept a standard 1.0 metre x 1.2 metre cargo pallet. Drive up with a fork lift truck, slip it in, tie it down and away you go. There’s so much space in an Airvan that the biggest danger is over-loading by weight, something operators have to be vigilant about.

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Max payload for a typically IFR equipped turbo Airvan is 848 kg, so if you want to carry eight people at a standard 80 kg each, you can’t have full fuel tanks. But you could carry four adults at 80 kg each, plus two kids at 60 kg each, 150 kg of bags, and brim the tanks for a full 349 litres (weighing 252 kg).

GippsAero originally launched the Airvan with a normally-aspirated 300hp Lycoming engine, but has since added a turbocharged version to the range, the GA8TC-320. It is an important aircraft for the US market and anywhere else where the plane operates in hot and/or high conditions. The engine is basically the same Lycoming six-cylinder 8.8-litre aircooled IO-540 as fitted to the normally-aspirated GA8 but the turbocharger offsets the effects of thin air by cramming more air and fuel into the combustion chambers.

The result is a powerplant that produces a maximum continuous power output of 300hp. More importantly, the turbocharger means it holds full power output from sea level up to critical altitude. Below 5,000 feet density altitude there’s the option of setting a couple more inches of manifold pressure and getting an extra 20hp, useful if faced with a short runway or obstacle on climb-out. That’s where the ‘320’ in the aircraft’s title comes from.

This extra high altitude performance transforms the Airvan’s appeal to all sorts of operators, especially ones flying over a mountain range such as the Rocky Mountains in the west of the USA. The Rockies are a major barrier for light aircraft. In summer, when daytime temperatures can be up in the 90s, the density altitude can be 50 percent higher than the actual altitude.

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For example, 8,000 feet at 90 degrees Fahrenheit is around 12,000 feet density altitude where normally aspirated engines (and people) are gasping for oxygen. But the Airvan’s turbocharged engine still thinks it’s at sea level and thus produces full power.

It’s not just the American West. Humanitarian NGOs such as the Mission Aviation Fellowship operate Airvans in developing countries such as Papua New Guinea. They face tiny mountain strips, with heavy loads and high temperatures, so the extra power is highly valued. Just type ‘Mission Aviation Fellowship’ into YouTube and marvel at the work MAF does and the incredible places it flies to.

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For our test flight however, we face no such conditions. We’re in the city of Muncie, not far from Indianapolis, in the American Mid-West. Chicago is just over an hour’s flight to the north-west. In early March, this part of the USA is still suffering from the extreme cold weather that hit the country from early January onwards. The temperature is still below zero and there’s an icy north-east wind. Lakes are still frozen and the land grey with frost. Plus it’s flat round here with barely a hill in sight, let alone a mountain.

The reason we’re here is that Muncie Aviation, based on the town’s airfield, is one of the biggest dealers for Airvan in the USA and it has installed a new panel on a turbo Airvan. This is the aircraft we’re going to fly, with another, non-turbo Airvan along for comparison and also to use as a cameraship.

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