Plastic Planes, Part Four: That's a Wrap

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AVweb's Dave Higdon recently managed to put three all-new composite, four-seat, IFR singles through their paces all in the same week. In this last of a four-part series, he compares the Diamond DA40 Star, the Cirrus SR-20 and the Lancair Columbia 300. Is there a "best of the bunch"? How do they compare to each other? Is an airplane made from composites better or worse than one made from aluminum? Have composite airplanes "arrived"? Don't miss the answers to these questions, and more.

If Benjamin Braddock paid more attention to his future and less to Mrs. Robinson he might today hold an executive position at a young, new airplane company. All Ben, the central character in the classic film, "The Graduate," had to do was heed that "one word" of advice he received during the opening reel of the movie: Plastics.

No less than five new composite general aviation airplane designs came into being between the end of the 1980s through last year. The era of the certificated, plastic/composite-production airplane began with 1983's debut of Beech Aircraft's Starship 2000 at that year's National Business Aircraft Association convention in Dallas. For years, the Starship was your only choice if you wanted an airplane substantially made from anything other than metal. That market expanded only slightly with the Diamond DA20 Katana, which was introduced in the early 1990s just as the Starship program coasted to an end after only 50 airplanes. Two products and a 50-percent failure rate is hardly a trend instead, it was looking more like a future trivia question.

Instead, the use of composite materials to manufacture airplanes finally jelled for good only within the last 24 months. Between fall 1998 and early 2000, no less than five new designs won their official FAA flying papers. They include the Australian-made Eagle Aircraft 150B two-place trainer long available down under, it finally won FAA approval in late 1998; in October of that year, Cirrus received the SR20's type certificate on the same AOPA Expo stage in Palm Springs, Calif., as Lancair's Columbia 300; Diamond won its flying rights from European authorities a few weeks back, and expects U.S. approval of the DA40 Star in early 2001; and a scant couple of weeks ago, Cirrus received the type certificate for the follow-on to the SR20, the 310-horsepower SR22.

Diamond DA40 StarNow before anyone gets their flaps split over the allusion that modern composites are somehow "plastics" in the vein of drink bottles or lawn furniture, the mantle "plastic airplane" far predates the three machines their manufacturers allowed me to fly. Materials aside, the Cirrus, Diamond and Lancair we flew and presented to you are all "real" airplanes by all the critical criteria. They all reflect, amply, a paraphrase of an old ad from the same era as Ben Braddock: "Better living through chemistry." They all share the composite construction of the Starship 2000 and the Eagle 150B two-place AVweb asked me to review earlier this year, as well as the SR22 we expect to fly soon. Like the canard-configured 150B trainer, they owe much of their speed and fuel efficiency to the aerodynamic efficiencies of their airframe, shaped more easily in composite than metal, wood or fabric.

But even if executed in other, more conventional airframe materials, the three airplanes you've read about over the past six weeks would still represent departures from the mainstream for their unique ergonomic, comfort and safety touches that set them pleasantly apart from other airplanes, as well as from each other. Otherwise, they share strictly-conventional configurations that differentiate them more from the pioneering Starship and innovative Eagle than from the masses of metal-made machines that dominate aviation in general. Most of all, their mere existence and collective initial success give composite materials the critical mass they long lacked and paves the way for more applications of advanced composites toward a level in general aviation equal to their acceptance in critical structures used in other industries.

Plastics. The idea may not have appealed to Ben Braddock as much as Mr. Robinson's wife did, but from all indications, plastics' appeal to pilots has grown with time and should continue to expand.

A Checkered Pedigree

Cirrus SR20Lancair's Columbia 300, Diamond's DA40 Star and Cirrus Design's SR20 all reflect what happens when barbarians cross the moat and breach the fortress walls of conventional wisdom. The designers, engineers and executives in all three programs worked with an opportunity that arrives all too infrequently: the chance to start with a clean computer screen and brainstorm their perfect airplane from scratch. All three also benefited from the trails blazed ingloriously before them by other types, including the Windecker Eagle, the LearFan and the Starship 2000.

Starship obituaries quoted aviation's sages somberly predicting it would be years if ever before anyone again tackled so foolish a departure from convention: A pusher canard and composites; plastics in an airplane? One that doesn't really look like an airplane? How absurd, they said. It's a metal-man's world, this aviation community. Absurd, indeed. Methinks the same things were being said when designers started moving from wood and cotton, to tube and rag and on to all metal.

Instead, it was only 1994 when Lance Neibauer, of Lancair kitplanes fame, began the program that became the Columbia 300. At the same time, brothers Allan and Dale Klapmeier converted Cirrus Design into a factory-airplane company from their roots as small specialty kitplane company, leading to development of the SR20. And preliminary work went on for several years at Diamond Aircraft in Austria before the DA40 Star was unveiled at EAA AirVenture in 1997. With the additions of the Columbia 300, DA40, SR20, SR22 and, soon, the Columbia 400, pilots have five new, all-composite, four-seat machines from which to choose, all of which deliver on light weight, high performance and excellent efficiency. Each should fulfill their promise of corrosion and fatigue resistance and low maintenance, all expected advantages that have long made composites attractive.

Details Previously Delayed

Some aspects touched too briefly on in the three reports preceding this wrap-up, some readers pointed out, include concerns about the longevity of composites a concern common to any aircraft with a significant quantity of synthetic materials in its airframe. To assure longevity in a world perpetually short of hangar space, all three composite planemakers give their products a loving overcoat of ultraviolet light-resistant paint that produces a near-flawless finish. And, since these planes don't use the fiberglass cloth popular among homebuilders, there are fewer problems with filling tiny pinholes in their surfaces. With normal care and cleaning, these finishes should last for years, the airframes for decades. And the engineers with these companies tell me that heat degradation is not the problem for these airplanes that it was for the fiberglass experimentals like the Windecker Eagle many of which are well beyond their teenage years with little sign of weather-exposure deterioration.

Lancair Columbia 300To address other concerns and to ensure their longevity, manufacturers included strategically-placed drains to provide outlets for the moisture certain to gather in the airframes and control surfaces; what little metal they use may be subject to corrosion engine-mounting tubes, bolts and other metal fasteners, control linkages, cables and the like but certainly no more so than what most of us fly today. In other words, with less TLC than we need to apply to our metal airplanes, these birds should easily last as long if not longer with fewer concerns about the ravages of the sun and the enemy of all metal airplanes, corrosion.

Yes, to answer a few comments, composite structures suffer more from UV degradation and heat than metal airframes - composites in which foam and fiberglass are the component materials. Carbon fiber, honeycomb structures and the bonding resins used today enjoy much higher resistance to UV and heat problems. Furthermore, as we noted above, the manufacturers use UV-blocking finishes that should make the concern pretty much moot even as these planes age to become the middle-aged members of the fleet. Recreational boats, long made of fiberglass, show what the worst can look like and these birds use better materials, as we said.

We may have neglected fit-and-finish issues in the pilot-report trilogy, so for the record: All three were excellent, from their interiors to their fairings and to replaceable items. The obvious wear-and-tear of Diamond's DA40 Star test article, which, as you may remember, had more than 1,100 hours and 16,000 landings at the time of my turn in the cockpit, and Lancair's Columbia 300 a factory prototype that received use as a factory demonstrator shouldn't be an issue since so few of us put anywhere near that level of wear on our personal planes. Any owner flying even triple the annual average hours should enjoy long service and good looks from any of these.

If there is a weak link in what's known of these composite airplanes, it's in the repair arena. But even here, we do have some examples, among them the runway-overrun accident a Starship suffered in Europe several years ago. Patching composites, it turns out, poses few problems in the field, as long as the proper materials and techniques are applied.

Getting Down To It

But you want to know more than the brochure numbers, right? So, AVweb reasoned, what better way to compare three planes with so much in common than to put one writer to work flying all three as closely together as possible, in this case a five-day period in the same state (Florida) and in conditions that varied little within the period: some wind (cross, always), some turbulence, some cumulus, some haze plus that region's seemingly ever-present heat and humidity. What we learned you may find useful if one of these new, modern and innovative airplanes is on your short list for a new ride. So far, more than 1,000 pilots hold commitments to buy one of these three, attracted to the performance, comfort, modern aviating accouterments and price.

So, strap in tight here it comes. The Lancair Columbia 300, Cirrus SR20 and Diamond DA40 Star share little in common among themselves beyond their composite airframes. As much as these three share in composite construction and the advantages inherent, they exhibit distinct traits that make each a bona fide individual, each with a character all to itself. Suspecting this contradiction that three planes so seemingly similar can be so different we jumped at the opportunity to bring the trilogy of plastic-plane pilot reports you've been reading. All the better for direct comparisons, flying them one-after-the-other at almost the same time.

Quick And Dirty...

Here's the short version.

  • The Cirrus SR-20 makes 160 knots true on 200 horsepower and delivers 614 pounds of payload with fuel to fly 800 nautical miles.
  • The Diamond DA40 Star covers the ground beneath it at 147 knots on a mere 180 horses, with an equally attractive useful load of 746 pounds with full fuel enough to cover 600 nautical, with reserves.
  • The Lancair Columbia 300 is a fire-breather good for 193 true knots with a range of about 1,300 nautical miles on a full 106 gallons of fuel that leaves about 564 pounds of payload.

Just as all three share in their carbon-fiber airframes and use of advanced avionics or instrumentation; all three share interior aspirations with the Acura/BMW/Lexus/Infiniti sports-sedan set.

...Does Size Matter?...

Diamond DA40 Star prototypeThe smallest of the three, as common sense would indicate, is the design with the lowest power: Diamond's DA40 Star. But that doesn't mean the Star is cramped or claustrophobic. In fact, my aft positions of the adjustable rudder pedals hinted to me that pilots much taller than my 5-foot-9 frame should be fairly comfortable; rear-seat leg room is equally generous. And the SR20 and Columbia 300, in order of power, each seemed proportionally larger than its predecessor in the lineup.

Instead of giving up the creature comforts or lack thereof we've come to expect in some of the metal airplanes on the market each of these three delivers comfort and room that others only fantasize about in light planes. Each design also meets the latest FAR Part 23 standards for safety systems, crashworthy seats and lightning-strike protection. In terms of bang for the buck, these birds should do more than hold their own they should make other contenders in the same power and price range suffer some market-share loss or, at least, help expand the market for new-plane sales. This isn't to say that pilots taller than 6' 5" won't look at these as airplanes as "snug". But most of us will find more than adequate leg and head room and, for those less-vertically-challenged pilots among us, they will likely find themselves facing similar size and space problems in any of the other, more conventional airplanes on the market that compete against these three.

...Configurations...

All three sport completely conventional fixed-tricycle gear and airframe-design configurations engine in front, then a wing, followed closely by a tail along with numerous unconventional ideas that individualize each airplane and elevate the state-of-the-art in pilot-airplane integration. That said, taxiing the three with differential braking brought out some differences in turning ease when maneuvering in and out of tight spaces. Of the three, the Columbia 300 challenged me most and felt heaviest when making slow-speed taxi turns that involved changing the angle of the nose gear. Conversely, once you start the takeoff roll, all three come quickly under rudder control.

All three designs sport two doors, yet amazingly still differ in their door configurations. The Cirrus and Columbia sport a left-and-right door configuration while the Diamond's designers built-in a front-left and back-left arrangement. Entrance and exit of the three is generally very easy; climbing into the right seat is toughest on the Star, while back-seat access is conversely easiest in the Star. Access to the back seat of the Cirrus and Columbia beats that of many a sheet-metal airplane, particularly those with only one cabin door, but is no better than on some of the larger four-place designs planes like Cessna's 182 Skylane and 177 Cardinal and Beech's two-door Sierra/Musketeer models.

None of the three use conventional yokes. One, the Diamond, is controlled with dual, floor-mounted joysticks. The others using side-mounted yokes that resemble sticks.

...And Equipment

Cirrus SR20 under chuteOf course, one, the Cirrus SR20, provides its users with what some consider the ultimate safety device an integral emergency parachute system but which others believe is more hype than it is a real-life tool. In any case, its deployment will likely save the pilot and passengers but would immediate transfer the airplane's ownership to the insurance company.

Two of the designs the Cirrus and Columbia sport panels dominated by large multifunction displays, while Diamond plans something along the same lines before deliveries begin around the first of 2001. Pilots early to embrace these massive displays should tip their hats at least partly to ground broken by aviation experimenters and these companies, which have blazed something of a trail by including the screens in certificated airplanes so far ahead of mainstream planemakers. But the distinction of these advanced avionics packages won't last long, thanks to a community eager to upgrade even flying antiques with the best electronics they can fit into a panel. The distinctions of these airplanes' different materials and efficiency gains, however, are permanent.

In The Air

These are certificated airplanes, and as such, much of how they fly, stall, recover, roll and resist spin is subject to the interpretations of FAR Part 23 regs, the engineers and the test pilots the company guys who sample the engineers' work, and the FAA test pilots who sign off each step. So, differences in flying characteristics are understandably small, overall. That doesn't mean that each isn't generally distinct in its responses. So, for your concise consideration, here are some direct comparisons from the first three installments of this series.

Diamond DA40 Star...

Diamond's entry in the plastic plane sweepstakes could be the new Cherokee or Skyhawk. Imagine an airplane with the precise handling and mellow response of general aviation's top two everyman's planes, endow it with more full-fuel payload, 25 or so additional knots, and lower fuel consumption. You'd still have an airplane owners love, FBOs love, renters love, students love and one that's a perfect first airplane, in good weather and bad. You'd have the Katana's big brother, the DA40 Star. So, what's wrong with this picture? Diamond commands a price closer to a Skylane than a Skyhawk. Not ridiculous, though, when you consider that those payload and speed numbers also put the DA40 in the same league as Cessna's big 182 for about $40,000 less, or thereabouts.

The Star's handling and response make it suitable for primary students, desirable for instrument use, and more than acceptable for family travel. Thank part of its magic on the combination of an extremely clean, 1,543-pound airframe with the efficiencies of an injected 180-horse Lycoming four-banger using Unison's LASAR ignition system. At its 2,535 gross weight, the Star cruises at 147 knots with up to 746 pounds of people and bags for as far as 600 nautical miles plus reserves on 41 gallons. Such is the fuel efficiency of this one.

The Star's 39-foot, 5-inch wing helps it climb aggressively and cruise efficiently, with but a little adverse yaw because of that wide span. The ride is solid, without being stiff, and the Star's visibility is top-notch. With its 49-knot stall speed, the Star arrives with the type of manners moms like to see in their daughters' boyfriends. This is an airplane that a beginner should still appreciate well into the instrument years.

...Cirrus SR20...

Cirrus' much anticipated and wildly-popular SR20 could be the new Bonanza or 201. If Mooney still made a 201, the guys from Kerrville would have been wise to keep their eyes on Cirrus' first design. Even with the world's first certificated, integral emergency-parachute system, the SR20 handles up to par with the legendary Beechcraft Bonanza, cruises at speeds approaching today's A36 speeds and enjoys the kind of solid payload-and-fuel advantage over the Beech that even 201 drivers would drool over.

An expected increase in gross weight should put the full-fuel payload of the SR20 up above 664, from its current 614, if not higher. On the 54 gallons of fuel it carries, the SR20 can gallop more than 800 nautical miles, with reserves, with a tight, precise feel coming through the side yokes. It's higher speed and fixed landing gear demands more in the way of advance planning for arrivals, but nothing a frequent Cirrus flier can't pick up with a few hours of time.

And at prices closer to Skylane-elevations than the heights of the Bonanza, it's hard to imagine someone finding anything truly objectionable about the SR20 and lots to love.

...Lancair Columbia 300

Lancair's entry is Mooney-fast on weight-lifter bulk This may not be the way the Lancair folks want to see their baby described, but compared to the other two in our trilogy, the comparison is near unavoidable. With 310 ponies up front, a 2,200-pound empty weight, and a 3,400-pound gross weight, the Columbia clearly wins the weight-lifting and speed contests even in stall at 57 knots, the highest of this trio. At a with-reserves range of 1,354 nautical miles, the 300 also wins the distance derby, thanks to 105 gallons of fuel capacity. But at full fuel, the 300 does not win the fuel-fuel payload competition. Interestingly, that contest goes to the Star.

Arguably, the plane's stall is a non-event and its overall handling is precise, if not as crisp as the SR20's. Roll responses are in tune with the 300's mass and velocity and are absolutely perfect for the high-speed cruise regime. And that 194 knots lets the 300 outrun the other two composites, naturally, as well as the A36. It closely matches the Ovation in speed, but costs less than the Mooney and far less so than the Beech. Flyers with $320,000 plus to spend shouldn't be disappointed.

The Final Wrap

If You Can't Find Your Dream Four-seater Here, It Doesn't Exist

Lancair Columbia 300Most of us would approach the task of choosing one of these contenders in the way AVweb asked me to sample them fly 'em all, sort 'em out. Still, even among those for whom price is not an object, the decision won't necessarily be as clear as one might think. The reason we have such a variety of airplanes is because we have a variety of pilot needs and ways of using our airplanes. Some will go for the most fuel-efficient, some for the best speed and range, others for the middle of everything. Let's face it, buying an airplane particularly at the cost of a new one is a distinctly individual decision.

This has been prologue and preview. Only hundreds of planes flown by a representative cross-section of aviators over a period of years can reveal the true nature of these aircraft in the real world we share. As those years play out, we expect to revisit these airplanes from time to time, to keep pace with advances, to bring you up to speed on any problems and to track how the fleets hold up.

On its face, however, plastics really appear to have made our lives better in aviation, if by doing nothing more than elevating the state-of-the-art in cockpit and cabin design, or by giving us more than new competition a choice that we've never before enjoyed.

If only Benjamin Braddock had listened, he might have something better to fly than his trusty, now-rusty old Alfa and something better to do with his money than alimony for Elaine. Got that, Ben?


Editor's Note:

This concludes AVweb's four-part series on three all-new composite, four-seat, IFR singles available on the U.S. market: The Diamond DA40 Star, the Cirrus SR20 and the Lancair Columbia 300.

Look for AVweb to update this series with pilot reports on the Cirrus SR22 and Lancair Columbia 400 in the near future.