Officially Joined the VAF!
Finally joined the club! I just flew my new Vans RV-8 from Paine Field, Washington to Hanford, California.
In 2010, when I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy, I went out and got a tailwheel endorsement, in a Bellanca Super Decathlon, because of an awesome little airplane I saw at the local airport called an RV-8. It looked like a little P-51, and the owner said it flew better than any other airplane he’d ever flown. It became a dream of mine to someday own one of these beautiful airplanes.
Going online, I researched the airplane, and looked a numerous build sites, to include Randy Lervold’s which had link to Michael Robbins build site for his RV-8, N88MJ. The instrument panel and striking Red and Grey paint job immediately captured my fancy, and those pictures were my desktop background for a long time in college.
Anyway, I graduated (barely), and got busy with work and eventually got to fly some pretty cool airplanes for the Navy, but I still had the desire for an airplane of my own. I bought a share of a friend’s Lancair 320 for a year to get a taste of airplane ownership, and discovered that the weekend traveling lifestyle that a light airplane brought was like catnip to me. Not to mention the awesome airport community that begins to emerge once you are a fellow airplane owner.
As time went on, I’d continued saving pennies and the dreams and tire-kicking looking for an airplane became more serious. Except now that I had the ability, the number of RV-8’s on the market that met my criteria (IFR, IO-360, Constant Speed Prop) that were within my price range were slim.
I looked and looked until despair set in. Maybe I had waited too long and all the good airplanes had already swapped owners. I didn’t think my dream plane was going to be out there.
Then one day on barnstormers an ad popped up that didn’t appear when one searched for Vans RV-8’s. There was only one picture listed, that was red and grey. I didn’t immediately recognize the airplane, but the list price was in my ability, so I called the owner.
Michael Robbins is a former Navy A-6 Intruder Bombardier/ Navigator and we immediately started chatting about Navy stories. When he started talking about the airplane I started getting excited; this airplane sounded like it was equipped nicely, but my deployment schedule wasn’t going to allow me to get to Washington and inspect the airplane. I thanked Mike, and hung up, feeling uneasy. I liked the sound of the airplane, but didn’t want to complete a deal on an experimental airplane sight unseen.
On a whim, I googled the N-number to see if I could find any more pictures and I stumbled upon Mike’s build site; the same one that I had seen 7 years ago as a college student! The detailed pictures on the site were enough. This was the airplane. My dream plane from all those years ago.
I immediately called Mike back and offered a deposit on the airplane. He responded that I hadn’t even seen the airplane yet, and he didn’t want to take my money. I explained that I was confident this was the airplane I’d been looking for, and wanted to make sure that it didn’t get sold to someone else, but that I needed time to arrange for a pre-buy inspection, and I wouldn’t be able to come to Washington for a month until a training detachment for NAS Fallon, NV was over. Mike responded that he trusted a fellow Naval Aviator, and that he would hold the airplane without a deposit.
Thanks for the wonderful folks on Van’s Air Force I was sent to Terry Burch who completed a pre-buy inspection on the airplane, and gave me the details, as well as some beautiful, high resolution pictures. I called Mike back, announced my intention to buy the airplane and we made a deal. Mike would only take a very small deposit, and then held the airplane for over a month while I finished up training detachments in San Diego and Fallon.
Finally, I was able to make my way up to Seattle, Washington and see the airplane for the first time. I was awestruck. The airplane that I’d seen 7 years ago and dreamed about was sitting before me, glistening and polished in the hangar looking like it had first flown yesterday. Mike was the picture of humility, pointing out a few areas the paint had been touched up that I’d still be hard pressed to find again.
The next day I went to Arlington, WA to meet up with Terry for my first day of RV familiarization only to find that the RV-7 we had planned on using had been damaged by a freak gust of wind (catastrophic canopy crack) and would be unable to be used for training. I called Mike, and told him the situation and said that I had to change my plans of flying the airplane home, and instead would have to ride in the backseat while he flew. I was disheartened once again, but refused to fly this beautiful airplane without the proper training.
Mike suggested I complete the familiarization in the RV-8…which I still hadn’t paid for, since it was the weekend and the bank wasn’t open until Monday. When I brought this fact up, Mike just said “Then don’t wreck it.” I battled with my conscience. I needed the training, and Mike and Terry both seemed to think we could complete it in the -8. Somewhat reluctantly I climbed into N88MJ for my first RV flight.
The start, taxi and takeoff were uneventful…and what an airplane!! The RV grin is real! At the full 1800lb gross weight we were climbing at 1,500 feet per minute, and the controls were fingertip light. They reminded me of the controls in the T-45C Goshawk I’d flown in training, and Mike mentioned that it somewhat reminded him of the Navy TA-4J Skyhawk. Like the Skyhawk, the RV-8 is an airplane that I’ve never heard a single negative comment about. A-4 and RV-8 pilots both absolutely adore their airplanes…and for good reason.
Then came the landings. The first landing we did was a ½ flap, wheel landing…or an attempt at one. This is where the 7 years since I’d flown a tailwheel airplane showed. I gave Terry a tour of the entire runway at Arlington, first inspecting the left side edge lights, then the right edge lights, then back to the left all the while stabbing desperately at the rudder pedals. This continued for the next 3 landings until I finally told Terry I needed a break and we taxied in for lunch. Defeated; I got out of the airplane with doubts in the back of my head. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Had I totally lost the skill set that I’d believed I had from my 30 hours in the Super Decathlon? Was the RV-8 the airplane that I would always lust after, yet never be able to fly?
We ate lunch at the airport café as I mulled over the experience…what had I been doing in the previous airplanes that I hadn’t done in the RV-8? Hmmm. Then, as I thought about the crazy swerves all over the runway, it hit me. My memory of those swerves were all focused just over the nose, thirty feet in front of the airplane! I made a mental note to look at the end of the runway next time, and hurriedly finished my lunch so we could jump back in the airplane and try it again.
This time, Terry suggested that we just do high speed taxis down the runway with the tail up to focus on directional control, with the caveat that if they were getting too unstable we could lift off the runway before departing the prepared surface. This time, we applied power, and ran the length of the runway with the tail up without any problems. Terry asked what I’d done differently, and I explained that I hadn’t been looking at the end of the runway. We taxied back for another repetition, and this time it went off smoothly as well. We lifted off into the traffic pattern and proceeded to do 8 uneventful landings. The feet were slowly remembering what to do, as long as my eyes were at the end of the runway, able to catch a swerve before it really developed. I was enjoying the challenge, and with the self-doubt removed, each landing was exciting as an opportunity to improve on my past performance.
The next morning, we re-convened and after 5 smooth, and directionally stable wheel landings in a 6 knot crosswind, Terry deemed me safe to solo the RV-8, and I felt comfortable as well. We agreed to limit myself to slight crosswind components to begin with until my comfort level and abilities grew.
Finally on Tuesday morning, with the Washington fog burning off, Michael and I blasted off in N88MJ bound for Lemoore, California. I couldn’t hold back the RV grin, as we topped 1,500 feet per minute at 100kts and 25” MP with 2500 RPM. This airplane was as close to a personal fighter as I was likely ever going to be able to own…and only burned 8 gallons per hour to do it!
As we cruised by Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Shasta, Lake Berryessa, and into the San Francisco Bay Area I was awed by the new horizons opened by this traveling machine. With a conservative range of over 650nm, Las Vegas, San Diego, Phoenix, and Portland slide into weekend possibilities.
Putting the machine away that night, after cleaning all the bugs off the leading edges, and waxing the surface until it shone, I decided on a fact. These aren’t just “homebuilt” aircraft…they are “handcrafted, custom built” machines that reflect a part of the builder’s soul; and the responsibility for keeping Mike Robbin’s handcrafted, flying work of art in as immaculate shape as I received it in is a big one, but one I’m thrilled to be allowed to take on.
Glad to be a proud member of the VANS AIR FORCE at last, here’s to some good flying to come!!
RV-8 N88MJ (Built by Michael Robbins)