Humble Beginnings

Begun originally by Van in the 60's as a derivative of a Stits Playboy, the RV-1 was actually the first RV, but was never sold. As Van looked for ways to improve the Playboy he first designed a new cowl and canopy. Not satisfied with the performance improvement he then turned his attention to the wing. With the combination of performance parameters he was after in mind, he settled on the now famous RV wing planform and airfoil. He found this had a greater impact on on the overall performance of the aircraft and the die was cast. Further changes were subsequently made to the cowl which evolved into the "cheek" cowl that many consider an aesthetic triumph as well as functionally efficient. At some point in this process Van realized he'd finally created an entirely new airplane and designated it the RV-3.

The RV-3 was originally designed then in 1968 and first flown in 1971. Serial number 1 was N17RV, the prototype and first aircraft built from his new plans. N17RV now rests in the EAA museum on Oshkosh, see further info below on this particular aircraft.

Van originally sold plans for the RV-3, along with a with a few of the harder to make at home components, for several years. By 1974 however it had evolved into a complete kit, at least by the standards of the day. He began working on the RV -4 in 1975, all the while improving and selling RV-3 kits. The first RV-4 flew in 1979 with kit sales commencing in 1981. All the while word was spreading about the RV-3 and it's fabulous flying qualities. For an example of how the RV-3 was viewed in it's day see Budd Davisson's 1973 article in November 1973 issue of Air Progress magazine, an interesting read indeed.



TOP: the original RV-3. BOTTOM: 80's vintage bumper sticker

With the RV-4 now flying and kits selling, Van completely redrew RV-3 plans in 1984. Changes at that time included both front and rear wing spars, rear spar attach, and myriad other details consistent with Van's philosophy and emerging pattern of continuous improvement. Between 1984 and 1998 notable changes included two change notices on RV-3 wing spars in response to some well-publicized failures that resulted in an FAA GENOT.

By 1996 Van now had field experience from nearly two hundred RV-3s then flying. With this data, and with what he learned from subsequent designs, Van just wasn't comfortable with the strength limits of the RV-3 wing spars. Thus, kit sales were suspended in 1996. After completing the new RV-8 wing, the B wing was designed in 1998. The B wing was designed with CAD and used the same spar techniques and technology as the then new RV-8 wing. This entirely new RV-3 wing, called the "B" wing, once and for all brought the RV-3 into compliance with Van's conservative standards for strength. While RV-3s have been available previously with either a single fuselage fuel tank or dual wing tanks, he B wing comes exclusively with integrated 15 gallon wing tanks. If interested, see the Info page for a summary of RV-3 Wing types and modifications. NOTE: Any pilot operating an RV-3 or RV-3A should be aware that operation should be restricted to Utility Category (+4.4g, -1.76g) unless the wings have had both CN-1 and CN-2 mods. See the Info page here for more detailed info.

Hot-rodding the RV-3

I was inevitable. As good as the RV-3 was, there were some who wanted to make it faster. John Harmon, an early and prolific RV builder from Bakersfield, CA, took the assignment. Most every RV builder has heard of John Harmon and the Harmon Rocket series of RV modifications. Many may not know that this all started with the RV-3 which became known as the Harmon Rocket I. The "HR1" package consisted of bolting on an angle-valve IO-360, different cowl, and a raised turtledeck with modified canopy. My understanding is that there have been four HR1s built. Apparently John Harmon built the first two, the third was built by Dave Burdett, the red/white one pictured below, and the fourth by Pete Albrecht which was completed in 1997, also pictured below. If anyone can send info and pics on the first two please do so.

Unfortunately N455DB was in an accident in Utah in 2007 and was totalled. The pic above is of the salvage for sale at AirVenture 2007.
N455DB has since been acquired by Jim Stoia of Manning SC and rebuilt.

Pete Albrecht's beautiful bird. 200 hp IO-360, 870 lb empty weight, fun!

Of course the Harmon Rocket II, based on the RV-4, and now the Harmon Rocket III, are still being built today and are as popular as ever. More info on Harmon Rockets can be found at

N17RV - The Original Prototype

The original RV-3, N17RV, now resides on display at the EAA Museum at national headquarters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. But how did it get there, and where has it been all these years?

N17RV was of course Van's demo ship for many years. Van sold it in 1980 to Dr. Steve Mosely, a local Oregonian. In 1983 N17RV was totaled in a fuel exhaustion accident and was put into storage for many years. In 1995 Van's local EAA chapter, Chapter 105, took on the restoration of N17RV as a chapter project, and to prepare it for gift to the EAA museum. The Chapter 105 web site has information on the restoration.

For those curious, N17RV was originally powered by a Lycoming O-290, a ground power unit not intended for aircraft. No doubt one of the reasons this engine was chosen was for it's low cost. An O-320 was eventually fitted to N17RV to see how it would perform, but that engine was later taken out and used in the RV-4 prototype and the O-290 refitted to N17RV. Consistent with low cost and light weight, N17RV spent most of its life with no electrical system. Van of course hand-propped it for many years.

The RV-3 Today

Van's ceased selling RV-3 kits in 1996 in order to address the wing spar situation. Kits were again made available, now with the new B wing and called the RV-3B, in 1999. Not a year goes by that Van's doesn't sell a few RV-3 kits. Today an RV-3B airframe kit can be purchased currently for around $12,500, less than the cost of most ultralights.

As of early 2008 serial numbers are up to 11426. That means that 1,426 sets of plans or kits have been sold over the years. Van's Aircraft records indicate 254 RV-3s have been completed and flown. The FAA database shows 180 RV-3s in their database, but there may be RV-3s that are not called "RV-3" and therefore not included in the search. Van's currently estimates that there are "about 150 RV-3s flying".

As the progenitor of the wildly successful RV series, the RV-3 holds a special and significant place in experimental aviation history. The webmaster hopes this site will help recognize the RV-3 not only for it's place in history, but for the fine aircraft it is even in today's environment.