No LSA For Diamond

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I spent the latter part of last week at Diamond Aircraft's London, Ontario factory which is, by my estimation, what Hollywood would come up with for an airplane plant. High ceilings with skylights, open bays with airplanes moving down the line and lots of bustle.

The Diamond factory actually dates to the 1940s, when it made aircraft for the RAF and RCAF.

I was there to evaluate the new DA42 NG with Austro diesels. Look for a video on that next week. I have to hand it to Diamond for pulling that project together, given how rapidly the Thielert fiasco unfolded. During my visit, Diamond CEO Peter Maurer and I had a discussion about why Diamond isn't doing an LSA. I don't think they should do an LSA either, but my understanding of why was different than Maurer's.

He pulled out a sketch pad and listed all the basic weight specs for a DA20 C1, Diamond's basic trainer, and a 1320-pound light sport land airplane. When you account for the engine, the people and the fuel—all the same for both LSAs and certified two-placers—the Delta is something like 400 pounds. Where does that weight go? "Structure," says Maurer.

Diamond's analysis reached the conclusion that the C1, even though more expensive to buy, will ultimately have the same or lower operating costs as an LSA because it will hold up better. Almost as if to prove the point, there was a 6000-hour school airplane out on the ramp still going strong. The paint was a little faded, but it looked sound.

Because of its training orientation—even the new DA42 NG will be pitched at the training market—Diamond is big on operating cost calculations. Maurer is constantly pulling out bits of paper to scribble down columns of numbers and to engage him on this topic is to enter a gun fight armed with a knife. Diamond figures they'll be better off selling the C1 to schools on this basis and now they've added some glass—the Aspen Evolution and Garmin G500--to sweeten the deal.

My reason for thinking Diamond should give a pass to the LSA market is that there are just too many airplanes in the segment, there's little chance of competing on price, the margins on cheap airplanes are unappetizing and the investment required to bring one to market is unlikely to pay off in any reasonable time frame. Further, it would prove a distraction to other certification efforts where Diamond might actually make some money.

One of those is its D-jet, by the way. Although throttled back, it's still in the test phase and I saw test jets taxi in and out several times. Diamond could very well be the last man standing in this quagmire, now that Eclipse, Adam, VisionAire, Safire and others have tanked. All it has to do is hang on until economic conditions improve.

That's something that could be said of all of us.

Comments (16)

Diamond's comments mirror my own thoughts about LSA's. Of what I've looked at, you are either sitting in an aluminum pan with a cushion, or on a piece of fiberglass with a boat cushion on it - or you're flying a cub. Of the few LSA's I've flown, the ergonomics leave something to be desired and they seem rickety (understand I'm far from an authority on the LSA movement) I personally would like to either see the weight limit increased to say 2500 lbs to allow the typical spam cans to compete, or perhaps allow recreational privileges with a driver's license in lieu of a medical. In my opinion, the primary reason LSA's are being considered is the reduced training time and driver's license medical. I am not sure we are making a good decision to lighten up these airplanes to meet the magic 1320 gross weight. If the whole category were gone, Diamond would be competing with Cessna and Piper on operating costs and purchase price, as it should be.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 26, 2009 3:43 PM    Report this comment

Diamond also manufacturers a “true” sport plane in the HK36 Motorglider, which is both operationally less restrictive and generally higher-performing than the LSA. Powered aircraft don’t get much “greener” than a motorglider.

Posted by: Dan Eldridge | August 27, 2009 9:07 AM    Report this comment

As a 10 year owner of a Diamond C1 I must say they hit the ball way out of the park with that design.

I do all my flight training at UVU, Utah Valley University where they have a large fleet of Diamond models. Many of the C1's in the school have around 5,000 hours and have held up well in the training environment.

The C1 is fairly fast, sleek and has a low fuel burn. I don't see how the lighter LSA's can compete with the C1's in the long haul.

Ric Lee

Posted by: Ric Lee | August 27, 2009 10:44 AM    Report this comment

I think the entire LSA segment missed the mark. LSA was envisioned as a way to make flying more affordable for the common man. But typical LSAs cost 6 figures. A local FBO rents an LSA for training but it costs more to rent than a C-152. In my opinion the only real viable LSAs are the classics that meet too stringent and seemingly arbitrary limitations like the Cubs, Champs, Luscombes, etc... And Vans RV-12 which is actually pretty affordable if you are willing to take the time to build one. Just a little relaxation of requirements would allow a whole slew of airplanes (C-150s, 152s, etc...) into the category and then it might be possible to see some of the benefits the category was created for.

And Dan makes a good point - a motorglider is a viable alternative to LSA without many of the limitations. Motorgliders require less training than a typical PPSEL and do not require a medical. I'm surprised that the LSA segment gets so much ink and virtually nothing is written about motorgliders in the aviation press.

Posted by: Mike Wills | August 27, 2009 2:29 PM    Report this comment

I have to agree that Diamond would probably do better to stay away from an LSA from a business viewpoint, as long as interested flight schools can buy them and stay profitable with Diamonds' products too. But on the first day of this blog, and already condemnation, mockery and ridicule of us homebuilders working hard to build and own an LSA of our own as 'alum pans with cushions', 'rickety' and the old standard mockery of light aircraft as 'spam cans'. Just so all those whose needs crave flying higher and faster might not be aware of - it's like chasing the horizon. You'll never catch up to your noses.

Some of us veterans got banged up in service so, as some of these problems come to light in older age, we are very grateful for the LSA movement. Which in my opinion is strong and very helpful to GA. Yet I do agree that more 2-place aircraft should be included like the 152, etc. Motorgliders are great for local flying, but many of us want to fly cross-country, so they might not work for that.

Good luck to Diamond in whatever choice it makes on LSA's.

Posted by: David Miller | August 27, 2009 4:34 PM    Report this comment

Dave - my intent was NOT to offend anyone considering a LSA. I'm simply offering my observation - I've got 2000 hours and am an aircraft owner, CFI & A&P. One particular S-LSA I flew burned tires up in about 25 hours - they were glorified wheelbarrow tires - and by the way you had to use the "factory" tires because they were the only ones approved by the manufacturer, and thus the only ones allowed by the LSA rules. This particular aircraft required a person to take their hand off the stick to activate the flaps - or cover your eyes with your other arm as you reach across your face to reach the flap handle located over your right shoulder! There was no stall warning system, and there was no buffet before a stall. I've also flown some classic airplanes. These are alright, but probably not what a flight school would want (can you say GROUND LOOP!) As I looked at the LSA's at Oshkosh this year, in many of the aircraft you really do sit on fiberglass or aluminum pans on upholstered foam cushions, or slings! I'm not trying to make fun - this is a fact! I think we've got to consider what the LSA rule was supposed to do - create a low cost upgrade from ultralights to allow pilots to legally fly small two seat aircraft.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 27, 2009 5:27 PM    Report this comment

Many of the LSA's have glass panels and look like baby Lancairs - to bend the rules this much you are going to lose structure - and niceties like real seats. Dave hit on what I believe is the real interest in the LSA movement, the driver's license medical. I'm willing to bet that if the driver's license medical were extended to maybe Day VFR, Fixed pitch prop less than 200 hp, 2300 lbs gross, and no more than 1 passenger, the LSA movement would all but disappear. With that being said, I'm not anti-LSA, but I do want a safe and well constructed airplane - some of the LSA's I've been around make me real nervous.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 27, 2009 5:27 PM    Report this comment

Dave, I have to admit I was a little bothered by the rickety comment too. Of course one man's rickety is another man's efficient use of materials to create a higher performing airplane. But then I fly an RV-4 I built in my garage and its powered with a car engine so I may be a little thicker skinned than some people. Some people simply wouldnt be caught dead in anything not built by Cessna, Piper, Beech, and powered by Lycoming or Continental, and there is no swaying them.

I dont have any flight experience with any of the LSA designs, but what I've seen looks pretty good from a design perspective. I just cant afford any of them (except the RV-12 or an old Luscombe).

Cross country flight does not necessarily eliminate a motorglider from the picture. Some are pretty efficient and pretty fast. Unfortunately they are all out of my price range too.

Posted by: Mike Wills | August 27, 2009 5:34 PM    Report this comment

I think the question is not, would I be caught dead in anything that is not a certificated airplane, but the question is, would I teach a primary student to fly in an experimental or S-LSA airplane? For me the answer is in some airplanes - yes, but in most - no. The major role of the factory built LSA's is flight training. Your RV is fine for you personally to fly cross country, but try putting 10 new student pilots in it who don't know how to start an airplane and you start to find out what is a good trainer. I'm sorry it seems I've started a fire here, but unfortunately I'm really not impressed with any of the light sport aircraft I've seen from a flight training perspective, for that mission I want something I can have students drop in from 10 feet repeatedly and not break. I also want something stone-age simple and inexpensive to maintain. And most importantly, I want a forgiving plane that will not bite a person too hard if they make a mistake when flying solo. With this being said, I've been thinking about building a Harmon Rocket for my personal flying.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 27, 2009 6:32 PM    Report this comment

Josh, I didnt intend to offend anyone either. And the two posts before mine came while I was typing so I didnt see them until after I posted.

From a training perspective I'll bow to your experience - I'm not a CFI and never will be. From my perspective, that of an already licensed pilot, LSA was supposed to be a less expensive means to get into aircraft ownership, and to avoid the medical issues. It only addresses one of those. I never considered LSA sloely as a means to make overweight Ultralights legal though I know that was part of it.

One place we completely agree. Glass panels and some of the composite airframes seem to miss the point as well.

Posted by: Mike Wills | August 27, 2009 7:17 PM    Report this comment

When I was a student a few years ago, I started in an Evektor. It has a Rotax 912 engine, and if you want to learn about P-factor, fly one of those. It will leave a 182 in the dust on take-off roll and be off the ground in less than half the distance. I finished my training in a 172 which was like driving a bus in comparison. I was young (experience-wise) and clueless, but really liked the LSA once I learned how to handle it. After I got my ticket, I maintianed my currency in the LSA's (not the Evektor - an ATP Jet-A jocky wrecked it - P-factor noted above.) For pilots that fly the heavier planes I can see how they would charactorize them as "rickety" as they do seem held together with spit and bubblegum to the unfamiliar. But actually, they are structurally quite sound. I like to fly the SportCruiser for local sky-hole-punching, but the Cessna (Columbia) 400 for travel. I took up my mentor pilot (partner in the 400) who has been flying for 30 years in the SportCruiser for a quick trip around the patch... He was green when we landed. Swares he will never fly in a LSA again. Different strokes for different folks. Similarly, right after I got my ticket, I checked out in a 150 for an hour and will never, ever get in one again. I swear the thing was in perpetual stall the entire time in the air. Yeah, it is the famed trainer of all time, but...

Posted by: Roger Dugan | August 27, 2009 7:45 PM    Report this comment

Mike, I agree that LSA has for the most part missed the mark on the aircraft ownership point. I've always argued that if a person wants to simply fly cheap, buy a good used 150 (or something similar like a PA28-140) and go fly the wings off! $15k to buy it, 6 gallons per hour, and $700 annuals, it just doesn't get cheaper for a two place aircraft. To fly with no medical, perhaps an Ercoupe or something like that would be cheapest. Don't overlook a single place 103 legal ultralight too. I think there might be a market for an ultralight like factory-built LSA for instructing ultralight pilots - and it looks like these might be $45k or so, still awful expensive for what they are. AOPA has repeatedly petitioned the FAA to allow recreational privileges using a driver's license medical - the FAA has denied it without giving a real solid reason for doing so. I'd personally like to see some pressure put on the Feds to reconsider this idea. By the way, I really enjoy seeing what's going on in the experimental movement, but you'll be hard pressed to complete an experimental for less than a nice used two place Cessna, and likely will spend thousands more.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 27, 2009 7:50 PM    Report this comment

I have been looking into LSA's for a couple of years now and am still trying to sell myself on the whole concept. Since when does light weight and low cost contribute towards making an AC as safe as possible?

It appears to me that the FAA and the AC manufacturers’ primary objective was to try and stimulate demand for GA fast and "on the cheap". The quickest and easiest route was to import micro lights from Europe, re badge them as something called an "LSA", and then use those specs for any new clean sheet designs to follow. With such a large emphasis on light weight and low cost, it doesn't leave much room left for designing and adding as many safety features as it could have.

Case in point, I looked at AMD's Zodiac at Sebring a couple of years ago. That plane is a low wing design with a forward opening canopy on top (like many low wing LSAs are). I told the rep if it flips over on landing there is nothing to protect the pilot and passenger from getting crushed in addition to being trapped with no to get way out (and with fuel possibly leaking from its wing tanks, not good).

His said they had designed a robust rollover protection system but it weighed too much and decreased payload so they left it out. You ended up with nothing to protect yourself and just take your chances. Even a $ 15,000 car has more safety features than a fully decked out $ 130,000 + LSA. (AMD has now added a lightweight rollover bar but many other low wing LSAs still have nothing).

Posted by: Dan James | August 27, 2009 8:05 PM    Report this comment

I also am not totally comfortable with this whole "self certification" concept LSA's have chosen to police themselves with. While I acknowledge the ASTM specs seem very good, expecting LSA manufacturers to comply without any FAA oversight makes me feel a little like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. If the FAA is satisfied with LSA's self policing then why isn't that good enough for other GA aircraft? Again cost is the primary reason and not safety as it should be.

And lastly why is it that after 5 years of LSA's being out the largest and best aircraft engine manufacturer in the world, Lycoming, still doesn't have an LSA engine in the market place? Yes I know their IO-233 is finally coming out next year but they sure are late to the party and I imagine will have a difficult time convincing manufacturers who already are using Rotax engines to switch, though I hope many will.

I know Rotax has proven itself in Europe but quite honestly as an American I don't think of Austria as the builder of the best and safest ac engine, sorry. And try getting a Rotax serviced at your local airport, there still aren't many certified Rotax mechanics even after 5 years of them being sold here. Why would I want to buy an LSA and have trouble getting the engine servied ?

All in all I think with the cost and weight restrictions that LSA's have bound themselves with they've done an admirable job, but in my opinion they're not nearly as good or safe as they could have been.

Posted by: Dan James | August 27, 2009 8:16 PM    Report this comment

It's not structure, it's MONEY. There is little profit but the same high liability for a manufacturer. The more they produce the more liability they create for themselves for little profit.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 2, 2009 11:00 AM    Report this comment

My comment comes a month after those above so few will probably see it; nevertheless, here goes. I believe the FAA is very much in the role of "promoting" the LSA category. They provide no oversight (part of the plan) leaving the LSA manufactures, and the ASTM, to self police themselves. This has not worked (or, in the eyes of the FAA, perhaps it has worked). Maybe half (give or take) of the certified LSA aircraft do not meet the stall speed requirement of 45 knots (CAS), flaps up. I have on several occasions pointed this out to FAA personnel (via emails and letters) but have received absolutely no response. For the record, I am an aerospace engineer.

Posted by: PAUL MADDEN | September 29, 2009 8:25 AM    Report this comment

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