Eight years ago we flew the GippsAero GA8 Airvan in the UK. We took off from Oxfordshire airfield Hinton-in-the-Hedges with eight people on board, climbed to 10,000 feet and threw six out of the side door… and watched as they swooped into formation before pulling their ‘chutes and floating back to the airfield. Back then we called the Airvan “a nice little earner” for the skydiving company operating it.

Since then GippsAero has been bought by Mahindra, an aerospace and engineering conglomerate in India. Mahindra has pumped fresh investment into a raft of new projects now underway by GippsAero at its HQ in Australia. The first of these projects to see light is the turbocharged version of the Airvan.

The GA8TC-320 Airvan 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 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.

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.

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.

The creators of the Airvan, Peter Furlong and George Morgan, set out to create a no-nonsense load-lifter that would fill a gap between Cessna’s piston-engined 206 Stationair and the same company’s 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 Stationair than the 208 Caravan. Conkin & de Decker, aviation 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. That was certified in 1991 and 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. Now more than 200 Airvans have been delivered worldwide including 16 aircraft to the US Civil Air Patrol which uses them for maritime surveillance.

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 told me that the door was designed to accept a standard size 1.0 metre x 1.2 metre cargo pallet. Just 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.

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).

The GA8 is so versatile that LOOP’s video ninja, Philip Powell, a strange cove at times, reckons he could live in an Airvan. Just add a motor caravan conversion – as has been done many times to VW’s Kombi – and a light weight video editing deck and we wouldn’t see him for weeks.

Banking over Lake Michigan on the way back from a dawn flight along the Chicago shoreline.

The Airvan GA8TC-320 we’re flying is a very smart example, with the Mahindra logo on the huge fin. It’s fitted out with six passenger seats and two more seats up front for the pilot and another passenger. The seats are good enough but not exactly the last word in comfort. What there is though, is an aisle. Yes, you can move easily around the inside of the Airvan with single seat each side of the aisle. Baggage can be stowed behind the last row of seats and also behind a cargo net in the rear of the fuselage. You can also add a luggage pod under the fuselage. A step folds down through the rear door to help passengers get in and out, and is removed for skydiving work and cargo ops.

Up front, there are doors either side of the cockpit. Big doors with simple no-brainer locks. You can lock the door completely open while you’re loading up the aircraft and preparing for startup – useful if you’re somewhere hot – though you have to close them for flight. It’s quite a step up into the cockpit, with a couple of handily placed handles and footrests to help.

The Airvan is flown single pilot and the instrument panel is angled towards the left seat. I’m flying with Muncie Aviation pilot Andrew Davis who is in the right seat, a position he’s used to as a flight instructor giving conversion courses to new owners.

As soon as you sit in the Airvan’s left seat, you’re aware this is aircraft is different. The first thing you notice is the control column is hinged at the foor and huge, with a substantial yoke on top. It’s what you’d expect in an airliner but somehow seems to fit in with the rest of the Airvan. The quadrant with throttle, prop and mixture levers is similarly massive, accompanied by a Tonka Toy trim wheel. There’s also a button on the control yoke to adjust the trim electrically.

But what’s really different about this Airvan is the instrument panel. The standard Airvan has the usual six pack of analogue instruments with a random scattering of other gauges and switches. It also has a bunch of switches and circuit breakers in the roof which are a nightmare to find and operate until you know them by heart.

Muncie Aviation is developing a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) to install a glass cockpit into the Airvan along with a sensible, rational re-location of the switches. Right in front of the pilot is a Garmin G500 with two screens, Primary Flight Display on the left and Multi Function Display on the right.

Left of the G500 is a J P Instruments Engine Data Management EDM 930 display. This neatly packages all of the engine info including engine rpm, manifold pressure, exhaust gas temperatures, turbo inlet temperature, cylinder head temperatures, oil pressure and temperature, generator voltage and battery amps, fuel flow and fuel levels, as well as a host of background functions such as a history of extreme values.

There’s no doubt the JPI display, certified as a primary flight instrument, frees up a lot of panel space. It also concentrates all the engine data in one place but the downside is that everything is very small. At first I found this a real issue, having to squint and examine each indicator carefully. When you’re rolling down the runway, you just want a quick glance at the Ts & Ps to make sure they’re in the green. However, at the end of two days and three flights in the aircraft, I became more used to the display.

On the right of the G500 and directly above the centre console is a Garmin GTN 750 navcomms unit, with a backup GTN 650 below it. Both are touchscreen operated and take a while to get used to, with multiple methods of inputting data and finding out what you want. Below the GTNs is a Bendix King autopilot which looked very old tech compared with the sparkly Garmin displays. Other instruments include an L3 backup Artficial Horizon and Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI).

Below the displays is a line of switches including the aircraft lights, relocated from the roof panel. Muncie Aviation’s glass cockpit is much improved over the standard Airvan panel, much cleaner and less cluttered with things exactly where you want them. When I sat in the standard Airvan afterwards, it was heck of an adjustment to make sense of all the analogue gauges and awkward switches.

We were lucky enough to have three flights in the turbo Airvan, one for the video shoot, one for stills and then another up to Chicago for a dawn flight along the shoreline. More of that later.

For the first flight, it was just Andrew and myself in the aircraft so we were very light, miles away from max payload. We waited for ages for the oil temperature to come up in the Arctic conditions, set one stage of flap for takeoff, and gunned it down Muncie’s runway.

The aircraft leapt off the ground in next to no time and once cleaned up, I pulled the nose up for an indicated air speed of 80 kt, best rate of climb. This was clearly a silly angle with the sky filling the windscreen, so I lowered the mose a little for a better view and we let the speed come up to 90-100kt. The large fin and rudder – part of the requirements for certification – kept the aircraft straight on takeoff roll and during the climb with just a modest amount of right foot, but I was busier with the trim wheel until I remembered the button on the yoke.

A great deal of the Airvan’s performance comes from its high-lift wing, which is how it can carry eight people on not a huge amount of power. The wing is set back so the pilot has a pretty good view when turning – the blind spot is actually behind and above you.

The downside of such a wing is drag which means the Airvan isn’t particularly fast. GippsAero says the aircraft cruises at 120 kt, at 10,000 ft, burning 79 litres of fuel an hour. Max speed is 130 kt. We spent most of our time at around 110 kt which seems a happy economical cruise speed. Quite noisy inside the cabin though – noise-cancelling headsets are a necessity.

Surprisingly for such a big aircraft, the Airvan feels just like a Cessna 172 to fly. It’s stable, easy to trim to fly hands-off, and everything seems to happen at about the same speeds as a 172. Put the Airvan into a turn left or right and it needs very little rudder and remains very stable. Just what you want in a mini airliner.

The Garmin G500 and GTN 750 give tremendous situational awareness between them. There was no weather of any note around, but we picked up other traffic quickly and the moving map gave us all the info we wanted. Andrew knows the Garmin system very well and was able to monitor other frequencies as well as the one we were using air-to-air. After three flights with him, I was beginning to pick up how to use the GTN 750 but would feel happier if I’d gone on one of Garmin’s G500/GTN three-day training courses. They’re held at Garmin’s HQ in Kansas, but the company also makes training videos available too.

There’s a lot to learn: creating flight plans graphically, loading departure, arrival and approach procedures, using hazard avoidance systems such as traffic and weather, how to best manage diversions, navigation using VORs and waypoints, and getting what you need out of airspace charts. Plus, of course, loading and using radio frequencies.

During our three flights we talked to various air traffic controllers, including nearby Grissom Air Reserve Base to discover that their Military Operations Area (MOA) was indeed active. Named after local man Gus Grissom, one of the three astronauts killed in a launch fire at Cape Canaveral in 1967, the Base is home to Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers so we wanted to keep well out of their way. The GTN 750’s moving map is big and clear so routing around the airspace was no problem.

As I mentioned, one of our flights was along the Chicago shoreline at dawn, with a night takeoff and flight there. I left the radio to Andrew and his colleague Todd, flying the cameraship, and marvelled at how Chicago’s controllers weren’t bothered in the least by our request. So long as we stayed under 2,500 feet and out of the Class B, and remained over Lake Michigan, they wouldn’t launch the F-15s to take us out.

This was an extraordinary flight. We made two passes, north then back south, parallel to the shoreline. Only just a little way from the shore mind you, since we were flying single-engine aircraft. Lake Michigan was still largely ice but it would have been better if Chicago’s former lakeside airport, Meigs Field, was still there instead of having been turned into a park.

The sun popped up over the eastern side of the lake, hitting the side of the aircraft and the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. Once America’s tallest building, the 442-metre high Sears Tower (OK, now called Willis Tower) was easily identifiable but I couldn’t make a positive call on the new Trump tower.

After this highlight, it was full speed back to Muncie, with a quick stop at Chicago Gary airport for fuel and a comfort break.

Approaching Muncie, we gradually reduced power and descended, lining up for runway 14. Now, we’d already made a couple of landings and it was clear the Airvan is sensitive to speed on landing. That big wing generates lots of lift and means you need to be at just the right speed to avoid floating down the runway. The Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) has a table giving the correct speeds for the aircraft’s weight – the heavier you are, the faster you need to be. With just two of us on board, coming over the threshold at 65 knots meant we floated quite a way – 55 kt would have been better.

For this final flight however, we had two extra passengers including video producer Phil, making himself very comfortable in the back and planning where to put the divan. This time 65 kt proved spot on, although I flared a little high. The Airvan’s ultra strong main wheels took the firm landing with no problem however.

There’s no doubt GippsAero has very successfully filled the gap they spotted, and improved upon the original GA8 with the turbocharged version. Of course, for many parts of the world, an engine burning Jet A would be even more attractive. GippsAero has such a product in development, the ten-seat GA10 powered by a Rolls-Royce Model 250 turbine producing 450 shp. Now where shall we go to fly that aircraft when it’s through certification?

First published in LOOP, followed by a re-nosed version in P1, 2014.