Friday, March 28, 2008

Flying the Diamond Star

Spring Break means having fun, so we packed up the kids and headed to Southern California and four days of sunshine. This was particularly welcome after this winter's heavy snow (by the end, I needed to be careful to aim the snowblower exhaust toward the low spots in the snow banks). We had the usual fun (beaches, nice meals, the Getty Center...), but one day was reserved for my kind of fun: flying something new. In this case, something new meant the Diamond DA-40 Diamond Star.

The school sent me their checkout form and my heart sank. It was about 10 pages long, and included lots of questions that could be answered "painted on the airplane". (This metaphor is still appropriate with the Diamond Star's Garmin G1000 panel, because all of the engine displays indicate minimum, maximum, and normal operating values.) Typical aviation test: make it hard by making the questions hard, rather than making the material hard. Limitations are serious matters (although I once had a Chief Pilot who told me to "forget about" the Seneca's maximum zero fuel weight limitation), and should be studied. But there was no question about glide performance (ugg -- 8.8:1), which is the kind of thing that people need to know right now. Nor was there any reasonable flight planning information.

The Diamond Star POH is available online, so I suppose having the quiz helped guide me through it.

The situation at the airfield was completely different. A professional instructor (former regional airline pilot) met me and walked me through a lot of the G1000 stuff. This is important, and a large part of why I wanted to fly the aircraft: every flight instructor needs to understand these systems, and while I have plenty of time flying the Collins EFIS in King Airs, the G1000 is different. After this, we sat down at a genuine G1000 simulator, where I got to press the actual buttons and twist the actual knobs. Most of it was easy, based on past experience with various GPS and FMS systems, but there are always a few tricks.

An instructor also has to understand the stick-and-rudder basics; I'm counting on my tailwheel and glider experience to keep me sharp in this way. But that leads to a question: the DA40 POH lists Vx and Vy at 66 knots (maximum gross weight), and this does not make sense aerodynamically.

The airplane was nice. The wingspan looks short, with little winglets. Steve asked if I had ever flown a composite airplane, and I felt pretty dumb. Composites have been around general aviation for at least 20 years, and except for one flight in a Grob in Australia, all of my composite time is in gliders.

The seats were very comfortable, and the big canopy moved easily (it must be counterweighted?). It i hinged forward of the cockpit (the glider I am looking at has its canopy hinged aft of the glider, which might make it exit the aircraft if it came open in flight). There is plenty of visibility, and the ventilation is good.

The nose wheel casters, so you steer with brakes, like a Grumann Tiger. The engine controls feel really good, and it is easy to set power. The stick (yes, it has a stick) is held by the left hand, and I remarked that I had never flown a stick with my left hand before, but it became natural very quickly.

Maneuvering the airplane is easy, although there is a little more breakout force than I like. The G1000 is hard to learn, and for a while I was behind the airplane, more flying it out of the corner of my eye while staring at the wrong screen.

The G1000 supports a traffic display, and a pleasant voice said "traffic" when someone got close. We were dodging GA aircraft, airliners, Lears, and helicopters, and the display really did make it easier to see them.

My big complaint was that there is no place for a chart. A kneeboard would interfere with the stick. The cockpit is too tight for a built-in chart table. This is the big advantage of a side stick, and it seems odd to me that Diamond would have made this so difficult. It's OK in the G1000 versions, but the older ones didn't have the G1000s and then what did you do? Maybe you could lay them on the console?

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