Early into our conversation this week with Diamond CEO Christian Dries, he asked if we thought a well-equipped, fast twin could compete against an equally fast but less efficient single. He has in mind, of course, what Diamond has always had in mind: taking on the Cirrus head-on with the diesel-equipped DA42 twin.
My answer? Hell if I know. I form my opinions based on what I see in the industry and what so-called experts tell me. But experts are often wrong and I've been wrong more times than I can even count. In 2004, I thought a plastic twin with new, unproven diesels was a bit nutty, but Dries pulled that rabbit out of the hat. I didn't think the Piper Matrix would sellneither did Driesbut it has.
What Diamond is up to here is version 3.0 of the DA42, the first being the Thielert version, the second the initial Austro-powered model and now a second-generation Austro version Diamond is calling the V1. (Not sure about that name
) This will be unveiled fully formed at Aero in Friedrichshafen in April, but we got a good look at it and a demo flight here in Wiener Neustadt this week. I can't go into the details by agreement with Diamond, but suffice to say the performance is considerably enhanced with a range of improvements, some major, some minor. Says Diamond's Michael Feinig, whom I've known for years, "It's not one thing, but one knot." Diamond has taken a sort of LoPrestian approach to sorting the airplane out and taking advantage of what the diesels can do. (They need the help, too, because the Austros are heavier than the Thielerts and in a twin governed by the need for single-engine climb, that can be a killer.)
We flew on a nasty Austrian day with low ceilings, rain and a gusty crosswind. By happenstance, these conditions made the point that Dries is pushing: A pilot needn't be fearful of flying a twin if it's designed right. I was too busy taking notes and filming to fly it myself and we were pressed for time. But our demo pilot, Ingmar Mayerbuch, either has the best hands I've ever seen or the airplane really is much easier to fly than previous twins. Bouncing around in turbulence above a cloud deck, he shutdown the right engine a couple of times, did the restart and showed us impressive single-engine climb with three people aboard. (It's over 400 FPM at altitude.) We bolted up to 16,000 feet and had a look at the cruise speeds, which looked to be in the mid-180s on about 10 to 12 gallons total, giving the airplane huge range. Returning to base, he showed a couple of crosswind landings that appeared effortless, despite the gusts. That was skill, not the airplane, necessarily.
Dries wanted to know how you sell such a thing against an able, impressive airplane like the Cirrus. The new twin will sell for about $80,000 more than the Cirrus, but will deliver like speeds on less fuel flow. Does this sort of thing matter to the buyer who can afford an airplane north of $700,000? It might to some. How about the second engine? Dries would like to sell the idea that a second engine is better than a parachute if things go sour. It may be true. But neither the second engine nor the parachute are passive. Both require judgment and positive pilot action to use, something that hasn't been exactly a high note in the Cirrus owner community.
If I were selling the DA42, I'd make the sales promo focus on the airplane's simplicity of operation and try to eliminate the stigma that twins are one engine choke away from a smoking crater. This prejudice against twins has been justified mostly in circumstances where pilots simply aren't proficient in engine-out ops or where the airplane was just marginal to begin with. (The word Apache comes to mind.) Does the new DA42 eliminate that problem? I'm not so sure, although it certainly appears to knock the sharp edges off. Its performance is impressive.
Diamond is looking eastward to Russia, China and India for much of its growth, but the V1 is intended as a personal airplane for the main market that still supports expensive, owner-flown high-value personal transportation and that's still North America. So heading into the rest of the 2012, expect to hear about Diamond's revised twin. It will be at Aero in April along with some other new things from Diamond.
It's going to be an interesting ride.