Afavorite topic of post-flight barroom chatter is anguish over the price of new airplanes and the heartfelt conviction the industry could build a $40,000 airplane if it adopted automotive manufacturing methods. If you’re a believer in that, your ship has arrived in the new Vashon Ranger LSA.
But it doesn’t cost $40,000, it’s $100,000 and it may be a push to deliver on that. Against the limits of low volume, the Ranger at that price is still a high-value proposition and the company—an offshoot of Dynon Avionics—sees the Ranger as potentially nothing less than a modern iteration of the Cessna 150, with a dash of modest adventure flyer thrown in.
At press time, Vashon hasn’t officially launched—that will happen at AirVenture 2018—but the company has built a half dozen production examples and is filling its order book before even having a proper factory.
The Ranger tests multiple notions. Can a generously equipped LSA priced at $100,000 to $115,000 achieve sufficient volume to be profitable? Will it find traction in a training market heretofore biased against light sports and does the idea of an outback/adventure LSA you can sleep in resonate with buyers? And is the Cessna paradigm about to fade as Textron loses interest in piston airplanes and tapped-out 150s and 172s finally expire?
Vashon is the brainstorm of John Torode, who amassed wealth in the semiconductor industry and combined that with a lifelong interest in aviation to build Dynon Avionics. Dynon is a fixture in experimental aviation and lately has been giving Garmin a run with its low-cost retrofit EFIS suites for the Cessna 172. Torode would apply the same strategy to airframes.
“The history of my business career has been to bring the cost of something down so the volume goes up,” Torode told me in an interview at the company’s Woodinville, Washington, factory. “We did it in early PCs, in plotters, in semiconductors and I’ve been interested in aviation all my life. It’s so expensive now in constant dollars that only old geezers like me can afford to fly,” he says.
That gave rise to the Vashon Ranger, an airplane built to ASTM standards and thus liberated from FAR 23’s onerous certification hoops, but also saddled with the ever-more-arbitrary 1320-pound weight limit, but with the 1430-pound option for eventual floats. Torode had in mind a design tailored for efficient production, but one with some unique attributes, including a wide, long cabin, what he describes as a “real aircraft engine”—the Continental O-200D—and a sophisticated avionics suite well integrated with the airplane’s relatively simple systems.
And that’s what the Ranger is. It’s all metal with weldments forward for the engine and nosegear, with a single-piece riveted aluminum cantilevered wing so as not to be cluttered with wing struts. And with an overlarge cabin that gives the Ranger a vague pregnant guppy look from the outside, Torode and designer Ken Krueger see the airplane appealing as both a trainer and flying RV.
To that end, the seat cushions strip out in about a minute and the seatbacks fold forward to open up the entire cabin as a potential bed for two. It’s 78 inches from the aft bulkhead to the sticks and at the widest, the cabin’s interior dimension is 45 inches. There’s plenty of room to move around inside except for the largest of occupants but plenty of room even for them when configured for flying. The rudder pedals slide to accommodate the tall and the short.
The standard Ranger—which no one seems to be buying—prices at $99,500 with a single Dynon HDX system. The top-selling premium model, with two displays, sells for $114,500, with a single VHF radio. The HDX system is fully integrated into the airplane, with bleeding-edge stuff like electronic circuit breakers through an integration module, full engine monitoring (including fuel flow), ADS-B In and Out, an angle-of-attack system and a full-featured autopilot that includes the now-routine level button. The Ranger doesn’t give up much to a near-million-dollar Cirrus in avionics sophistication.
When I got inside the Vashon shops, I gravitated straight to the landing gear attach design. This, more than anything, has been a sore spot for flight schools’ reticence to adopt LSAs. Krueger said the company made both the nosegear—a heavy steel weldment—and the main gear as robust as possible.
“We can’t throw a lot of things at it because of that weight consideration. That’s valid for any airplane, doubly so for a light sport where we have a fixed takeoff weight,” Krueger says. The main legs are laminated fiberglass bolted into heavy cross braces between floor spars. To prove both structure and production techniques, the company built eight prototypes before settling on flight hardware. Some were used in drop tests to prove the gear.
Just Like Cars?
If Vashon hopes to be profitable with the Ranger at $114,500—and Torode says that’s an unknown thus far—it can suffer none of the production inefficiency that seems to dog light aircraft building. To get there, it has adopted what is the most efficient production strategy I’ve seen yet. Production chief Scott Taylor, who did stints at Boeing and Glasair, describes the factory strategy as marrying existing technology to the light aircraft realm—call it ambitiously evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Squatting in the center of the production floor is a giant—and expensive—CNC turret punch capable of match holing for most of the airplane’s sheet metal parts. And when it punches, it also dimples so the airplane has the clean look of flush riveting, even though the holes aren’t countersunk. Vashon buys the skins pre-painted white and does the match holing, bending and shaping over a protective film. Like the all-green airplanes emerging from Boeing’s Everett works immediately next door, Rangers are all white. The trim color comes from automotive-style vinyl appliques that can be customized. The demo Ranger had a tasty evergreen and mountain Northwest-themed scheme.
Most of the interior parts are CNC laser cut and Vashon has invested in but not yet deployed a robotic welder. Is robotic riveting an option? Taylor says it’s not out of the question, but remains an unknown until production economics mature. For now, assembly is heavy on handwork. Fabrication happens in a shop behind Dynon’s HQ in Woodinville, Washington, with final assembly at Everett’s Paine Field. Vashon plans a new, integrated factory at Arlington, Washington.
The Ranger’s flight characteristics are exceptional for not being exceptional. It flies like it looks with no surprises. Any LSA with 100 HP will climb at about 750 FPM and cruise at around 100 knots and the Ranger does that.
The O-200D is a curious choice, for it is an old-school if recently lightened engine in a cutting-edge airframe. Torode sees an appeal in a traditional aircraft engine and not a Rotax, which he argues still has the perception of being difficult to maintain, even if the market seems to have overcome that. Older pilots who may constitute individual buyers may prefer the O-200.
But it has two disadvantages: It’s 50 pounds heavier than the equivalent Rotax and because it’s carbureted, it’s susceptible to carb ice, which is a leading cause of Cessna 150 accidents.
As LSAs go, the Ranger is on the heavy side. According to the POH, the demo airplane weighs 882 pounds for a useful load of 438 pounds. That’s only 8 pounds less than the max allowable empty weight.
With two FAA-standards aboard, that leaves capacity for 16 gallons of gas; plenty for training, but not long cross countries. Of course, in the real world, like it or not, the 1320-pound LSA weight limit is the most widely fudged limitation in aviation. No moral judgment; a passing observaton. The O-200 has one advantage over the Rotax and that’s its flyability. With a heavy flywheel and prop, its throttle response is more damped than the Rotax’s nervous reply to throttle commands and the exhaust note is certainly more satisfying.
The Ranger’s control heft is similar to that of heavier airplanes, say like a 172 if a 172 had control sticks, as the Ranger does. There’s hardly need for any rudder and the airplane is nicely trim stable, especially on approach. Trimmed for 65 knots indicated, it stays there without much fuss. It has barely discernible pitch up on flap deployment, so on application of full power, a trim-tab stall is unlikely.
Stalls themselves are benign. It takes willful stick holdback to get a stall at all and once entered, there’s no break or roll off, but a gentle parachute mode easily held level with aileron; no need for rudder. I greased the first landing easily, and the landings after that, too. However, it does take concentration to keep the nosewheel from touching down before you want it to. It doesn’t slam down, but alights firmly in a way that makes you think not to let it do that next time. Ken Krueger told me his goal was to make a pleasant flying airplane and the Ranger certainly is.
The cabin width is ginormous, more like a Bonanza than an LSA. With no struts, the optics out the side windows are panoramic and constricted forward only by a pair of downtubes. Vast acreage of glareshield provides a momentary place to put stuff. You could cram even more in the huge baggage compartment, which has a 100-pound limit. But that won’t be useful with two aboard. One ergonomic touch I liked is that the flap switch presets to 20 and 40 degrees and is placed so you can fingertip it while manipulating the throttle. Nice.
If I have any complaint about the Ranger, it would be the fuel system. The airplane has a 2.5-gallon header tank located inside the cabin behind the firewall. The two 14-gallon wing tanks feed into it. Krueger says the header is practically “nuclear hardened” against crash damage, but still, modern design trends are to keep fuel out of the passenger space.
This concern may prove unfounded; we can only await crashworthiness history to know for sure. On the plus side, the header acts as a 30-minute reserve and a warning light on the HDX informs the pilot of low fuel in the header. Another plus: The Ranger has five-point harnesses. These are rarely seen in any airplanes, much less LSAs.
In my view, the Ranger is a rethink of the LSA idea but not a reinvention. Its efficient production plan will keep the price lower than the competition, but will it be low enough to ignite demand? This much we know: The upper end of the LSA price spectrum hovers around $160,000 or higher and these have been the top sellers. Cheaper hasn’t equated to higher sales.
The Ranger’s fate, at least in the training market, may be tied to influences beyond the company’s control, such as what Cessna and Piper do in the training market and whether Vashon can disabuse flight schools of their biases against LSAs as trainers. Furthermore, if the arbitrary LSA weight is lifted, Vashon will have some additional engine options, which could be transformational. Torode hinted that the company is exploring other engine possibilities. I mentioned to Ken Krueger that I thought the airplane is capable of 1500 pounds gross, at least. He didn’t disagree.
For now, the Ranger is honesty writ in metal. It is exactly what it appears to be: A pleasant flying airplane with good performance and handling, exceptional cabin comfort by dint of size and impressive potential as a trainer. Whether that’s enough to displace the 150 as the King Dog of all trainers is yet to be determined.