Three all-new composite, four-seat, IFR singles are or soon will be available on the U.S. market: The Diamond DA40 Star, the Cirrus SR-20 and the Lancair Columbia 300. Other than the composite materials from which they are made, each is different: Different powerplants, different equipment and different markets. AVweb's Dave Higdon managed to put the three through their paces — all in the same week. In this first of a four-part series, he tackles the Diamond DA40 Star.
October 30, 2000
Diamond's New Star, the DA40: More than a Katana All
it safe? That's generally a good question to ask before any flight in the
first of anything: The newer the program, the more daring the design, the more
important the question. But rolling the prototype DA40 from base to final at
the Plant City (Fla.) Municipal Airport, the last worry on my mind was whether
flying it risked more than letters from an angry manufacturer or the respect
of readers. Before my turn came to engage the starter of the Star's Lycoming
engine, pilots with Diamond Aircraft in both Austria and North America had
racked up a monstrous number of landings and takeoffs, as well as an
impressive number of hours along the way: 16,000-plus circuits totaling more
than 1,100 hours. The abuse is part of Diamond's cleverly named BETA program
Best Ever Tested Airplane.
Why a BETA program? Diamond's execs want to confidently boast of the Star's
status as the best-tested new general aviation airplane ever, one with an
airframe designed with fail-safe integrity. Judging by the numbers dozens
of sets of tires and brakes, several fuel pumps, scores of oil and filter
changes, plus the wear-and-tear of high use on the example I flew the Star
prototype suffered a long-lasting array of abuses from others far less benign
than me, well before my turn in the left seat. The bird survived the abuse
without embarrassment. And if it held together for them, it should stay
together for me. Diamond designed the airframe for unlimited life; even 2,000
hours falls far short for even life-limited airframes.
Double-dribbling down a runway, on the other hand, always embarrasses me
because, usually, I can do better. But there were no embarrassing bounces on
my first two touchdowns at Plant City, both of them in stiff, rowdy winds
about 70 degrees cross to the runway. In fact, I got my best two-out-of-three
first. So, after two, quitting seemed prudent. Still, it was hard to imagine
not blowing the third one simply because surprises sometimes distract me
and little surprises me more than making a couple of brag-worthy touchdowns
right off the bat, in an airplane new to me. Of course, the Leprechaun, my
mechanic buddy, ascribes to a standing theory: credit for me looking good in a
landing must belong to the airplane. The Leprechaun may be right, in this
case, a perspective far more noteworthy than a couple of strokes of timing by
a big kid with playing with a new toy.
a plane can make me look good, chances are it can make most pilots look great.
And of the three new composite airplanes available today, the Diamond DA40
Star exhibited the least-demanding, most-forgiving attitude of all. From my
perspective, the Star's blend of speed, utility and harmony makes it the best
prospect for use in basic and advanced flight training, since the demands it
makes on a pilot are no more or less demanding than the basic requirements to
stay ahead of the airplane.
Now to give away an old test-pilot's family secret to enjoying any
airplane: Follow its numbers, keep a light grip on the stick, at least one eye
on the centerline all the way through flare, and enjoy yourself. You may need
a second or third try to refine your touch and timing, but you shouldn't
suffer any surprises. Oh, and you're supposed to have fun.
In a case of less truly being more, keeping my touch light and relaxed only
made the Star feel more connected. Fewer fingers, far less opportunity to
over-finesse and over-control, and far more sense of how finely the Star flies
when handled lightly. These traits exist at a level that could challenge the
mainstays of flight schools and rental counters today. Although it suffers a
price disadvantage, methinks Stars will frequently find fine homes on ramps
where Skyhawks and SPs and Archers dominate today and deliver a look,
impart a feel, and provide performance superior to anything else flying behind
only 180 horsepower today. The handling is there; so is the forgiveness; ditto
for the performance the best in its class.
Despite the appearance of suffering obvious, repeated mishandling at the
hands of some unknown abusers, the Star's right-and-light control balance
should make it a confidence builder in the hands of a relaxed, comfortable CFI
and all but perhaps the least intuitive students among us. But for the rest of
the pilot population, neither students nor those otherwise employed in torture
testing airplanes, transitioning from yokes or other sticks should pose no
problem if they approach the task with a relaxed, open mind. Remember,
learning new things is part of the fun, whether a new rating or a new type.
And learning about the Diamond Star was one of those experiences that keeps
my work fun.
A New Star Is Born
My short morning drive to Plant City from Lakeland simply spiced my
attitude for flying Diamond's highly anticipated new design: a clear sky,
benign cumulus here and there. So forgive me if my mindset at flying the Star
was one expecting to have some fun while satisfying my professional and
personal curiosity. Earlier, sitting in a mock-up reaffirmed my memories of
the Star from the prior year's AirVenture: roomy, well-thought-out and with an
unusual two-door configuration both on the port side, one for the front
seats, one for the back. Twin center sticks, adjustable rudder pedals, a
convenient console and comfortable seating complement large windows and a
well-equipped panel with plenty of space for all the goodies a new owner would
want. An injected IO-360 Lycoming making 180 horsepower and the plane's empty
and gross weights put it in close company with the Comanche 180 I fly, and
those similarities further piqued my curiosity. What could be more fun?
conflict with my let's-have-fun attitude was the knowledge that the wind would
be blowing well off the runway heading, the air would be bumpy and, since some
pilots already considered the Star a tad touchy, the plane would prove a bit
prone to bouncing in the bumps. That's why we fly these birds to divine
some truth from our experience to counter the incessant hangar flying and
instant expertise of some more prone to generating hot air than flying in it.
As usual, much of the scuttlebutt proved out but much didn't, mostly in
a couple of negatives offered me by otherwise sincere, trying-to-be-helpful
folks. Worrying about a perception of the Star as a sensitive airplane might
have spoiled a good time. In the end, however, the Star's combination of
precise, crisp flight controls and nimble response made my transition an easy
one and the experience pleasant and comfortable, despite the warm conditions
and my unfamiliarity. Students and veterans alike, at least those lacking an
automatic iron grip, should find the Star fun to fly, with enough utility to
make it as versatile as airplanes tend to get. And that versatility and
performance should make the Star a strong contender against today's similar
market contenders, both of conventional and similarly unconventional genes.
Comfortingly responsive without any tendency toward excessive reaction, the
DA40's appeal to flight students takes no great leap of imagination. Picture
students of all ages whetted by Microsoft Flight Simulator and expensive
feed-back joysticks and the fighter-like center stick of the Star becomes
largely a non-issue, particularly considering its intuitive nature, precise
feel and the proportional control pressures I experienced during my flight.
Now, imagine friends and families launching off for a long weekend, or a
couple off on an adventure in paradise. The Star has that potential, as well.
And with its forthcoming IFR approval, there's little this plane can't do that
any other in its class does and some things it will do better.
Simple, Sturdy Systems Make for a Durable Delight
Let's face it: More than 16,000 landings as of last spring puts the
Star prototype far ahead of most private planes in private hands, longtime
trainers excepted. Thanks to a tall windshield and a cowl that slopes downhill
to the engine inlets, more than a few pilots sampling the Star for the first
time found themselves over-rotating at both ends of a flight, dragging the
skid, bouncing the gear, mashing the tires, straining fittings and fasteners
all over the airplane.
the more reason for a thorough walk-around. But in my extensive preflight of
the Star, nothing stood out as showing any abnormal wear save, maybe, for that
replaceable tailskid, poor thing. In fact, that unusually big view out of the
cabin and many pilots' visual dependency on timing rotation, climb angle and
flare probably helped create the Star's reputation for twitchy response,
over-rotation tendencies and control sensitivity. Hard to look at that
visibly-scarred tailskid and not worry. Scarring skids is not an uncommon
outcome for pilots new to a plane. For proof, check the skids and tail tiedown
rings on Cherokees, Musketeers, Tigers and Tomahawks.
During the preflight, control linkages, hinges, tires, oil and fuel were
all easy to touch and check. Ditto for the lights. With fuel, oil and air all
right, it's time to climb inside.
But, even inside, the Star showed little wear and tear for the abuse doled
out to it and particularly little considering the volume of people entering
and exiting the cabin. Of help are the large doors and the built-in handholds
for seats, front and back. No need to stand on upholstery, lean on the panel
or trip on a control stick. Compared to the Cessna singles, with their two
front-seat doors, the New Piper, with its single cabin door, or the Tiger,
with its sliding canopy, rear-seat access is a particular joy even though
right-seat flyers up front must navigate over a console to park and strap in.
once seated and belted, all controls fall nicely to hand, particularly the
fuel and electrical controls. Adjustable rudder pedals allow the seats to be
fixed in place, simplifying the process of meeting FAR 23's 26-G
crashworthiness requirements when compared to adjustable ones. And the seats
do allow some additional adjustment by changing the thickness of the cushions
for seat bottoms and backs.
Starting the 180-horse engine the lowest power rating of the three new
composites AVweb flew for this series is typical for injected
Lycomings: Pull the mixture to idle cutoff, use the boost pump only long
enough to move the fuel pressure needle into the green, turn off the boost
pump, hit the starter and advance the mixture control when the engine catches.
Sounds harder than it is. But the technique works, even for hot starts, and
the Star roared to life after about five of the three blades of its MT
constant-speed prop went by the cowling, settling into a comfortable idle.
Aiding the Star's easy starting is the first OEM installation of Unison's
LASAR full-authority digital ignition system. The LASAR system also enhances
the Star's fuel efficiency but more on that later.
While the engine warmed and we waited for our clearance, the Star endured
my engine-run-up procedure, as it had for so many others so many other times.
Again, no surprises; the LASAR ignition works seamlessly with the engine and
you probably would never notice the difference I never did.
One thing pilots will notice is the Star's nosegear and steering: a
castering nosewheel that responds only to differential braking of the mains.
Theoretically, differential braking suffers from the disadvantage of wearing
out brake pads and discs faster than on aircraft with nosegear steering.
Conversely, nosegear steering adds weight, complexity and maintenance
considerations to an airplane.
All three plastic designs flown for this series the Cirrus SR20, Lancair
Columbia 300 and this Diamond Star use castering nose wheels, and it's
almost a coin toss between the DA40 and SR20 for easiest to drive on the
ground. If the Star enjoys any edge, it seems likely to stem mostly from
lighter weight, since the geometry appears so similar between the two.
Overall, it proved a non-issue.
Long Wing + Quick Acceleration = Short Roll
The airport at Plant City, Fla., doesn't exactly overwhelm visitors with
the length of its 3,950-foot runway but for the Diamond Star, just over half
was all we needed to counter gravity. Holding the centerline with differential
braking lasted scant seconds before the rudder became effective and allowed me
to slip my toes off the brake pedals positioned perfectly for me, thank you
very much, due to a wide range of fore-and-aft adjustment.
the boost pump on, one notch of the electric flaps and holding the brakes
until the engine hit redline, we sailed easily into the blue in defiance of
the 90-degree temperature, 70-percent humidity, and our 2,200-pound operating
Other flyers, the company demo pilots warned me, tended to over-rotate on
takeoff, but for me, the same trick I use on my Comanche worked like a charm:
Add a touch more nose-up trim than needed to help you break the nose gear free
and let the airplane tell you it's time to raise the nose. As the nose comes
up, hold the pitch angle, trim for best-rate climb speed and away you go
without dragging the tail.
Holding the heading straight on 090 degrees held little challenge, thanks
to the generous control authority designed into the Star. The plane made it
look and feel easy, as we climbed at 900 feet per minute and sailed an easy
500 feet above the departure end of the runway against winds that varied
from between 140 degrees and 160 degrees while gusting from 10 knots to 18.
With the patterns of Plant City and Lakeland, to the east, nearly overlapped,
clearing the runway end was my cue to turn right and get well south of both
fields and out to where the real fun could begin.
Airwork was a piece of cake. Lifting my toes off the rudder pedals allowed
the Star to respond naturally to my 15-degree bank and the skid ball settled
easily toward the center at least, as much as it could settle in the
continuous light chop during our climb past the cloud base. Once in the smooth
air above the widely-scattered cumulus, the great roll-yaw coupling of the
Star became abundantly evident. The ailerons' differential design the
upward movement of the inside aileron exceeds the downward movement of the
outside surface eliminates most, if not all, adverse yaw. Yet with its wide
39.4-foot span and high-aspect-ratio wing (only 145 square feet) typical of
all Diamond products, the Star looks the perfect candidate for adverse yaw:
when the nose initially wants to go the opposite direction of the roll. The
Star's combination of three degrees of dihedral and differential ailerons
works well at most bank angles a pilot will ever see in normal flight. You
practically could forget what the rudder pedals are for in flight.
Banking beyond 15 degrees through a bit more than 30 needed virtually no
help from the rudder to keep the ball centered. Stopping a bank at the desired
angle also took little effort and the response came crisply and easily, thanks
to the ailerons' wide span. Even at the steeper angles which command
ever-higher pitch inputs and power levels for level flight the control
stick remains tactile and firm, giving feedback that made the steepest turns
easier than in most machines in its class. And despite its wingspan, the Star
responded quickly to roll-reverse maneuvering, going from 45 to 45 quickly and
Based on these turns and banks, I can conclude that learning to handle the
Star should present no serious challenge to student aviator or seasoned
veteran alike. Overall, the crisp handling and enemy of easy maneuvering
stability blend well enough to make the Star a worthy instrument trainer,
instrument-flying or cross-country platform.
the Star's low-speed handling seems to have received the same level of
attention by Diamond's engineers. Its docile stall characteristics made me
verbally ask, "That's it?" With the stall warning at full tilt, the
Star simply declined to fully break into a nose-dropping stall, instead sort
of mushing along, the nose rising and falling gently almost as if a canard
surface controlled pitch instead of a conventional T-tail.
Flight schools should love it even more than the capable Katana as a
primary trainer because of the Star's combination of pleasant, predictable
handling and its potential to take students beyond primary and into instrument
work. And then there's the roomy, comfy rear seats the DA20 lacks
regardless of its powerplant that give the Star true family-travel
Few Fixed-Gear Four-Seaters Can Match This 180-Horse Bird
Stand aside, Skyhawk SP, move over Archer III, watch out Tiger and
beware Skylane. The DA40 misses nothing that I can think of for the first-time
buyer or step-up pilot moving into a grown-up bird from a two-seater. And tops
among the Star's attributes is its startling speed: more than 140 knots during
my turn in the bird on a hot, high-humidity day with some of the finer
drag-cutting touches of production models missing.
Think about it more than 160 miles an hour on 180 horses that, thanks to
the Star's LASAR ignition system, burns fuel more like a 160-horse aircraft.
Not since the days of the old C-model Mooney M20 and the later 201 has one
design managed so much velocity on so little horsepower and, just as
importantly on so little fuel. Diamond's projected 147 knots on 9.1 gallons
per hour of fuel converts to a whopping 18.6 statute miles per gallon, in
still-air terms, of course. While that's a pre-certification projection, I see
no reason the production Stars can't make that number.
At that level of efficiency, the Star's standard 41-gallon fuel supply
translates into 600 nautical miles, with a 45-minute reserve. And with a
992-pound useful load, that 246 pounds of fuel means the Star can carry 746
pounds of payload with full fuel, which is equal to four FAA-standard,
170-pound adults plus 66 pounds for bags and a few charts. If flying four-hour
legs leaves you feeling like a slacker, Diamond offers an option that ups the
fuel to 52 gallons, worth another 1.3 hours of avgas and 191 nautical miles.
Of course, cabin load will need to be traded off to use that additional
for fuel consumption closer to a 160-horse airplane goes largely to Unison's
LASAR digital-ignition system and the unit's full-authority timing control
that varies the spark advance from zero to 41 degrees. And, at prices ranging
from around $150,000 to about $230,000, some of the Star's competition match
its duration, some its range but generally on more fuel. Conversely, some
competitors in its speed class cost more and fly slower, have shorter legs and
use more fuel. Nothing comes to mind on the new airplane market that matches
the Star in range, fuel efficiency and speed, together.
It's not even impossible to imagine the Star snagging a few buyers away
from Cessna's finest family sedan, the 182S Skylane a 140-knot bird on fuel
consumption in the 13-to-14-gph range. First, the Skylane has more payload
than the Star, but would cost more in fuel for the same trips. Aiding Diamond
in making its case for the DA40 is more than a simple speed-versus-payload
projection: There's also the day-to-day living costs, including higher,
ongoing costs of care and feeding the Skylane's six-cylinder Lycoming 50
percent more oil at each change, 50 percent more spark plugs, six-cylinder
mags, etc. Of course, until Diamond expands its dealer and support network,
some pilots will always opt for the larger outfit. And there's always the
180-horse Skyhawk SP, which gives up about 100 pounds and more than 20 knots
to the DA40 at a savings equal to the Star's price advantage against the
Finally, beyond the costs and payload differences is handling that rivals
Cessna's best the 206H Stationair albeit not all of the large Cessna's
mass-related resistance to the bumps. It simply can't happen where total
weights differ so much, even with similar wing loadings.
Making Light Work in Heavy Conditions
with its high wing loading, the Star makes transitions to and from the runway
easy exercises with little to worry even the novice, once adapted to the
Star's preference for a light touch and its slight hesitation to slow down, of
course. Which brings up something to remember in all three of the
high-performance plastic airplanes AVweb flew for this four-part
series: You have no option to throw out the wheels to fudge bad planning, bad
timing or bad ATC requests. The sleek, drag-cheating landing gear of all three
plastic planes is down-and-locked for all time. Still, the Star offers flaps
and a constant-speed prop to aid in deceleration.
This was all brought back to me the hard way, since even though luck smiled
on my landings, the fates didn't reward my descents and pattern arrivals with
the same enthusiasm. With two aboard and arriving at Plant City a bit high, my
usual 500 fpm descent rate for pattern altitude worked out a bit too little,
too late. A go-around seemed to loom ahead until the Star showed me how
easily and predictably it slips toward a runway. With no tendency to wobble or
accelerate, the Star let me aim for my spot comfortable in the knowledge that
my airspeed wouldn't grow proportionally with my 1,200-fpm descent rate. When
time came to round out and cheat ground effect, simply relaxing my crossed
controls, smoothly and proportionally, headed both my speed and descent rate
My entire second approach worked out better, thanks to starting my descent
a bit earlier, in recognition of the Star's airspeed in my setup for the
descent. After starting down farther out, the Star responded nicely to the
braking of a higher engine rpm and we decelerated below maximum flap extension
speed without a problem. From that point on, managing descent with power let
me get the Star close to and off the runway even sooner. The faster guys
landing behind me seemed to appreciate the effort. In both cases, crossing the
numbers at 55 knots, decelerating, gave me an arrival close to my target spot
on the runway. The smooth, relaxed pitch-up flare put me firmly on the
pavement, rolling slowly enough to make the turnoffs.
the Star pilot needs to watch for anything, it's an urge to flare too soon
and/or too aggressively. Blame that on two positive traits: A big windshield
and a relatively low glareshield. The combination gave me a view that looked
closer and faster than my intentions. Holding the nose steady as our speed
declined and the airplane and its shadow converged kept me from popping up a
few feet in a premature flare as well as avoiding a bad case of the
ground-effect follies of arriving too fast and too flat. Instead of watching
hundreds of feet of runway sail beneath me, the Star settled well once and
for good on each landing. And I had worried that the beefy spring gear and
tall windows would throw off my timing. No problem.
Which brings up something else worth noting about the newest Diamond:
visibility. Of the three composite birds sampled for this series, the Star's
tall windows and low panel, low window bases and slim frames give every
occupant a great view of the outside world. And the position of the front
seats even affords occupants more ground view than most birds, thanks to the
wing's placement, almost even with where your posterior plants.
Diamonds and Rust: Maintenance and Upkeep Advantages
Finally, the question: How will it hold up over time? We, as a community of
aviators, designers, engineers and maintenance people, know, understand and
trust metal in airframes, be it steel tubing in a cloth-covered bush plane, or
in the sheet and stamped aluminum used in everything from bombers to business
Composites still await a following among purchasers of store-bought
airplanes and the would-be followers still need to be convinced. Compelling
evidence already exists in the Beech Starship and Diamond's own Katana series,
not to mention the hundreds of SR20s Cirrus has already sold, both in the
durability and reparability of carbon-fiber-and-honeycomb-sandwich structures.
The quick takers will provide the proof to the wait-and-see crowd, probably
sooner rather than later.
many of us fly aluminum airplanes made by people who, hopefully,
corrosion-proofed every part before assembly. Resistance to corrosion runs
highest in these metal birds so treated. But the years still pass and weak
spots continue to emerge, demanding attention. Need more convincing on this
advantage of a "plastic plane"? Look at the AD list of your favorite
bird and count how many exist because of the corrosion and fatigue to which
aluminum and steel are prone. Fatigue is always a concern where structures
must flex and bend the way airplanes must flex and bend; but what it takes to
fatigue composite panels would fail many metal structures. And only metal
fittings, joints and fasteners present potential corrosion concerns for
composite-airplane owners of the future. That means, on the Diamond Star, the
engine mount, the engine and exhaust system, hinges, bolts, cables and sundry
fasteners but none of the airframe itself. Carbon composites just don't
Fathoming the unknown and answering the question, "Will plastics hold
up?" bring us full-circle back to our initial observations of how the
prototype plane suffered through its testing and abuse under the BETA program.
Built and tested to fail-safe standards should help sway some prospects. Over
time, after what's unknown today has a chance to emerge, many others will
worry less about the mysteries of composite airplanes.
In the meantime, worries about corroded spars, skins, bulkheads and
stringers shouldn't be among the Star's problems.
The Bottom-Line View: Deliveries Can't Start Soon Enough
a pity that the Star won't be available in quantities until sometime after the
first of the year [NOTE: At this writing, Diamond has not yet received FAA
certification of the DA40, although the approval is expected very soon. -Ed.]
Given its unusual configuration of front- and back-seat doors, its delightful
handling qualities and sedan-level comfort, it's also a pity that it's not a
bit less expensive unless you make airplanes for a competitor. The fact is,
some will view the DA40 as a bit too much to get a bit too little. But those
same arguments arose when the Katana first hit the market, and its limitations
two seats, VFR-only didn't prevent it from becoming a success.
My instinct is that the Star will appeal to enough people to make getting
one problematic in another year, when all the certification and production
start-up chores are done and the assembly line is rolling. That assumes
Diamond will work its way out of some in-house problems in management and
And anywhere a product of this potential exists, there usually also exist
people who won't let it die. With its blend of speed, efficiency, comfort and
utility, the Star is likely to survive and perhaps succeed where others
The line is already forming, too, so delay only lengthens the waiting list.
And aviation's already waited too long for the composites revolution to unfold
This AVweb Pilot Report on
the Diamond DA40 Star is the first of a four-part series on three
new-production, all-composite IFR single-engine airplanes. In addition
to the Star, AVweb has flown the Cirrus
SR20 and the Lancair Columbia 300. AVweb will publish the
articles on the other airplanes two weeks apart, then conclude this
series with a wrap-up piece another two weeks later. Stay tuned!