An RV Builder’s Guide to Building a Bearhawk

I love the RV series of two-seat airplanes. They have revolutionized home-building, recreational flying, and perhaps even the overall world of GA. As far as airplanes go, they are pretty useful in that they go fast, handle well, and don’t have any bad flying habits. While they are useful as far as airplanes go, they aren’t as useful as transportation tools, especially if you plan to fill both seats. They are like sports cars- fast, fun to drive, and visually appealing, but short on trunk space, and with no back seat.
This shortcoming is something that often comes up in discussion with RV builders who see my Bearhawk. They look at the baggage area, and while it is still fairly small by car standards, it is cavernous by RV standards. While they are thinking of all of the stuff they could carry in there, I tell them that they could load 900 pounds of people and stuff in that big cabin (when the tanks are full) and still get a 500-1000 fpm climb rate on 180 horsepower, the gears really start turning.
There is a trap though for RV builders who have not built any other airplanes. It’s easy to not realize how streamlined the construction process is for the RVs. If an “RV only” builder extrapolates his builder experience with the RV and assumes that building a Bearhawk would be pretty much the same, plus a little fabric work, he would be in for a surprise.
Part of the success of the RV series is the quality and quantity of the engineering that goes into the builder experience. With thousands (perhaps soon, over ten thousand) examples flown, there are plenty of resources to devote to creating a thorough instruction manual. If there is a mistake in the manual, or if directions aren’t clear, the staff at Vans is going to hear about it. They have developed very specific instructions that make for a high completion rate with many satisfied builders.
This is where the Bearhawk is a different animal- a much more rare animal. There may be 200 examples of the line of Bearhawk airplanes flying, but I doubt there are more than that. Perhaps half of those are scratch-built from plans only, and not from a kit. I wasn’t around to know for sure, but I suspect that back when Van had 100 examples of planes from his kits flying, his instructions were probably not quite so well-developed either. The designer of the Bearhawk and the owner of the kit factory are receptive to customer feedback, and they are always refining their materials, but there is just not anywhere near as much information coming in.
Here are some examples. The Bearhawk wing is built much like an RV wing, with a few large exceptions like the strut support and the removable fuel tank. When the designer Bob Barrows specified the rivets to hold vertical rib stiffener angles to the ribs, he specified the alloy, head, and diameter of the rivet, and not the length. The intent is that the scratch-builder should be able to work out which length of rivet to use. Contrast to Vans instructions that specify rivet length for each hole, with associated symbols on the plans. Currently the Bearhawk plans are hand-drawn, and they are rich in detail and well made, but there is not as much information available as in the Vans package.
Personally, I try not to put a value on this difference to say that one is better or worse, since that judgement depends on perspective. The detailed instructions probably lead to a better completion rate. Once a builder has started construction, the detailed instructions are going to help that builder finish, especially if he does not need to deviate from the instructions. Prospective shoppers can look at a kit with more detailed instructions and perhaps be less intimidated by the prospect of building an airplane, and that probably leads to higher builder starting numbers. I wonder if that leads less-dedicated builders to start construction and later give up, but I don’t know if the numbers back that up. On the con side, someone can build an RV without having to do as much problem-solving and fabrication from scratch. To over-generalize, it seems to me that the RV builder community is more often a “buy it and bolt it on” group. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of exceptions, especially in folks who deviate significantly from the plans (such as by adding retractable gear or floats). Likewise, it would not be fair to say that the RV builder doesn’t still do plenty of fabrication. I think it is fair to say that an RV builder can produce a good quality airplane without having to learn many of the skills that a Bearhawk builder would need to have. Indeed, this is probably what has led to the popularity of the airplanes. It’s like the joke about whether Navy pilots are better than Air Force pilots: the Navy pilot says “I can land and stop on a tiny pitching carrier deck.” The Air Force pilot says “I don’t have to.”
In this regard, building an airplane like a Bearhawk is a different project than building an RV. The whole mindset is different. For example, you can’t “just buy a tail kit.” Another big appeal of the RV series is in the option to sneak up on construction, buying partial kits incrementally. With the Bearhawk, this isn’t an option. The tail parts are not difficult to make for someone who knows how to weld, but in the current kit production process, they must be custom-fitted to a fuselage, and delivered with a fuselage. In theory one can buy a set of wings separate from the fuselage, and the wing parts will line up with the fuselage parts, but there is a significant cost premium with this strategy, a large part of which is shipping. So when it comes to building a Bearhawk from a kit, there isn’t any toe-dipping to test the waters of building- it’s a head-first jump into the deep end. This also has its benefits. Builders have all of the parts on hand from the start, and need not be stuck waiting for parts, or try to roll the dice on sub-kit lead time.
Another big difference that may surprise some RV builders is the level of kit completion. The Bearhawk kit only includes Bearhawk parts. Nuts, bolts, fuel lines, washers, control cable, wheels, brakes, fabric, turnbuckles, pulleys, and paint are all purchased separately by the builder. The positive side of this is that a builder only needs to pay for exactly what he wants. Since there is so much variation in how builders finish Bearhawks, any hardware package provided by the factory would inevitably include lots of unused components. When the builder orders what he needs, he knows what goes where. This saves the trouble of having to sort out where everything in a big pile of little parts goes. The negative aspect of this arrangement is that in the end, builders are likely paying slightly more for the hardware than the factory would be able to buy in a large volume. In some cases, this savings might exceed the risk of wasted/unused parts, but with the way that Aircraft Spruce prices things so low these days, I think that is unlikely in most cases. For example, if the kit factory could provide bolts at 10% off of the ACS price, then a builder would need to have less than 10% loss, after correcting for the effort of having to figure it all out. This is another drawback, that the builder has to spend the time to figure out what he needs and where it goes, which is a direct opposite to the “knowing where it goes” benefit.
For a builder who is building for his own recreation and education, as I hope we all are, the Bearhawk will provide plenty of education opportunity to an RV-only builder. The quick-build kit comes with the wing almost entirely skinned, except for the section of the top skin aft of the main spar. This means that the wing shape is already locked in at the factory, and the remaining rivet holes are already deburred, dimpled, and ready to rivet once the builder is finished making connections inside of the wing. So in that regard, there is very little of the tedious aluminum work that an RV builder has already mastered.
Similarly, the quick-build fuselage is completely welded, so a builder does not necessarily need to be able to weld. Some Bearhawk builders chose to make minor modifications that do require welding, usually increasing the build time and complexity. Even without welding, working with steel is a new skill set. Then of course there is fabric covering. This should not be intimidating at all, because much like working with aluminum, there is plenty of information available on how to get the job done safely. The most important part of a covering strategy is to choose one system and follow that system’s directions exactly, and not do much wandering off of the map. The Polyfiber and Stewart systems are both likely to produce a result that will last decades. These are just a few examples of differences, and there are certainly plenty of others too.
To summarize, an RV builder should realize that the RV building process is very refined. The path that a builder takes is smooth, paved, and well-maintained. If an RV builder starts thinking he’d like to have an airplane with a little more space and payload capability, the RV-10 is not the only option. The Bearhawk is worth consideration for a builder who is willing to step off of that well-paved construction path onto a scenic hiking trail, in return for a little bit more of a challenge and a substantial cost savings.