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George Berka’s RV-4 | Waterbury, Connecticut RV-4 #752

Sky’s the limit for George! Applauding his successful debut flight with the RV-4. Here’s to many more thrilling adventures! He shares:

Good Morning,

I hope that it is acceptable to post this story here, since it does not pertain to an actual build, but only to a first flight. Nevertheless, it was still a very memorable event for me, and a true personal milestone, with a long time in the making. So I thought I would share it you. Also, I think that these types of stories will become increasingly more common, as more people are beginning to consider simply purchasing a used RV as an alternative to a production airplane. I believe that this is a good thing for Van’s, since it only helps to grow the product line.

I first discovered Van’s back in the early 1990’s, when I was in college, and also around the time I earned my pilot’s license. I believe the kit airplane industry was much smaller then, and more of a “niche, grass roots” movement. Now it seems that kitplanes have become much more mainstream, with makes such as Cirrus (which started as a kitplane), Cessna’s Columbia (essentially a production Lancair), and, of course, Van’s RV’s, becoming very popular and more widely available.

My all-time favorite has always been the RV-4, mainly because it is such a pretty airplane. It is so simple, elegant, and well-proportioned; in short, it represents what a classic airplane SHOULD look like. I would even call it a work of art, worthy of a place in one’s living quarters, to just be admired, like paintings or fine rugs, if you had the space. The same can be said for the RV-3, of course, but the -4 is just a far more practical choice. The versatility offered by the rear seat and larger baggage area makes a big difference.

After college, in about the mid-1990’s, I seriously considered ordering a kit. But “life got in the way”, the years slid past, and all of the sudden, I found myself quite a bit older, with the prospect of having to devote probably four to six more years to a build. (I am sure many of you can relate). That was when I seriously started considering just buying a used RV. (I’ve jokingly also heard of this route referred to as the “quick build” option.)

When a nice -4 came along at a good price, I “took the plunge” and just purchased it. It was not possible to fly it, or to even go up in it, or have someone “demo” it for me, so I had to take some things on faith. But it was close to 30 years old, with over 1200 hours on it, so I reasoned that it had to be well proven. The build quality seemed excellent, and the engine started instantly, and ran flawlessly. Moreover, I felt comfortable with, and trusted the seller, who was selling the airplane for the prior owner’s family. That made a big difference for me.

With the airplane bought and paid for, the next big question was what to do before actually trying to fly it. With almost 30 years of flying experience, over 700 hours of total time, and time in a Grumman Yankee, (which I was told had somewhat similar handling qualities), I was a bit tempted to just get in and see what I could do. But this “nagging little voice in my head” just kept telling me not to. I read as much as I could about the subject, including some of Mr. Van’s great “Epistle” articles from the late 1990’s. The more I read, the more a single message seemed to come through: “Get transition training”. I decided that since this was the advice given by the creator of the airplane, it would probably be a good idea to follow it.

I started by signing up for tailwheel training in a J-3 Cub in Great Barrington, Mass. Good decision. Most of my time had been in my Cessna 150, and other airplanes with a tricycle landing gear, and it was here that I learned how different the taildragger really is. This is definitely a necessary step for anyone contemplating something like this, although it is just the “first leg” of the journey. I had a tendency to over-control on the rudder during the landing roll-out, which I was told was somewhat of a common problem. Better to find out with an instructor aboard… After 5 or so hours in the Cub, I was allowed to solo it, and given my tailwheel endorsement, but was told to continue working on that rudder co-ordination, to be very careful in crosswinds, and to “ease into them”. I read that it can literally take years and many flight hours to truly become proficient at proper stick and rudder co-ordination. Now I believe it!

With the “ink on my tailwheel sign-off still wet”, the next step was to go see Mr. Bruce Bohannon in Texas. He offers transition training in his beautiful, black RV-8 at his little, private grass strip near Houston. I chose Mr. Bohannon because he was the only instructor I was able to find with a tandem RV, one that I felt would most closely resemble the -4. All of the other instructors had RV-6’s.

It was on the first day of my transition training that I realized just how ill-prepared I would have been, had I tried to just solo the -4 on my own. That little, nagging voice in my head was right. I was again over-controlling on the rudder after touchdown, and I found the -8 to be much less forgiving of this than the Cub. The possibility of a pilot- induced yaw oscillation, and a ground loop in this phase of the roll-out is definitely there, as I had witnessed first hand. It was at that moment that I realized just how glad I was that I chose to get the transition training. Although I suppose it was human nature to contemplate a “bare” first solo flight in the type, I think I would have been an arrogant fool to try to attempt it.

After three days, about 8 flight hours, and almost 70 landings in the -8 under Mr. Bohannon’s capable tutelage, it was finally beginning to come together. I was consistently starting to make acceptable landings, although still far from perfect. The big day was approaching. Many thanks to Mr. Bohannon for his wonderful transition program. The knowledge, experience, and confidence gained was priceless. I would consider this an absolute must for anyone contemplating transitioning to any of the tandem RV’s, especially for most of us ordinary “Cessna drivers”.

Next came a one-way airline ride from Texas to Florida to pick up the -4. We ordered four new lower spark plugs for it just as a precaution, and had to wait a day or so for them to arrive. With a fresh oil change and the four new plugs, the engine sprang to life with a snarl. The moment came. It was late afternoon the next day, with perfect weather, light winds, a warm, summer day, and a long runway at a quiet, out-of-the-way airport. The conditions couldn’t have been any better. I slowly taxied out to the runway. My heart was racing and nothing I did would calm it down. A run-up, and a final, pre-takeoff check followed. Everything looked good.

I lined up on the runway and eased the throttle forward. All I kept thinking about was the rudder pressures; just right, but not too much. It tracked down the runway as straight as an arrow. Stick in right the middle, the tail soon lifted, and the airplane just flew itself off the ground seconds later. Just like that…

Up at pattern altitude, I found it crisp and smooth. The time in the -8 had served me well. I did not over-control it much anymore, and my inputs were getting more appropriate and measured. I tried a few turns and slow flight, and was pleased to find the airplane remarkably well mannered at only 65 m.p.h. There was no tendency to drop a wing or anything like that, and the controls remained light and quick, just like Mr. Van said. I knew it would be better to try the landing sooner, rather than later. Yes, I was nervous about it.

I set up for a normal, left hand pattern, and everything seemed fine. I slowed it down to pattern speed, put in my flaps at the right time, and lined up for a nice, long, and straight final. I guess the only mistake I made was bringing it in too fast, maybe 20 m.p.h. too fast. In ground effect, it just seemed to float forever, and would not come down. A go-around would have probably been appropriate, but I reasoned that it would have to settle down “any second now”. I used up almost every foot of the long runway…

It was a great day. The ferry flight from Florida to Connecticut followed soon after, and was my longest cross-country flight to date. It took about 8 hours with two fuel stops. I am now enjoying this wonderful airplane immensely, and only beginning to “scratch the surface” of what it has to offer. Many thanks to Mr. Van for a true marvel of aeronautical engineering. It deserves a place in the Smithsonian, right along side the other greats, such as the Wright Flyer, the P-51 Mustang, and the SR-71.

Best Regards,
-George Berka

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