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Sat, Apr 24, 2004

Diamond's DA40-180-FP: It's ALL In The Details (Part 2)

The Kinder, Simpler, MORE Affordable Diamond Four Seater (Part Two)

As noted in Part One of this series, Diamond Aircraft was kind enough to throw caution to the wind and send their only prototype DA40-180-FP to Winter Haven, FL, to let me beat it up a little bit and see if the concept of a kinder/simpler DA40 had promise.

Diamond's Mike Skoczen was either in the dog house back home, or had lost a bet, and so was selected to suffer the indignities of having to fly with me. Skoczen briefed me well on the plane prior to our flight and a walk-around inspection revealed some interesting details. First of all; the free-castering nosewheel has a gear leg that looks like it came off a small cannon… it's a pretty beefy affair. Break this and you're going to need a REALLY good excuse to explain yourself. Getting to all critical assemblies takes little time and effort, and allows for a simple pre-flight, EXCEPT for the T-Tail's horizontal stab which is a bit taller than most folks and will require a step ladder to do a proper look-see. Since the gear has been "de-pants'd" for normal flight school ops, access to wheels and brakes is excellent.

Entry/exit is a double-edged sword. There is a very handy step forward of the leading edge on BOTH sides of the aircraft that offers excellent access to the wing next to the cockpit, underneath the forward hinged canopy. The step in, though, is a deep one and it is a mite awkward if one is a little short in the leg department… a fold-over seat cover that might be used to guard the seats from foot prints, and the detritus that comes with them, might be a good idea… especially in a heavy-traffic flight school environment. The Diamond folks have put a VERY handy hand-grip on the forward part of the panel assembly that can actually take one's weight and steadies the let-down process well so that getting into a seat is a more gentle affair rather than the 'crash-landings' many open cockpit set-ups consign us flyers to. It's especially handy to help in getting out of the bird.

Diamond equips the DA40 series with adjustable rudder pedals that require one to press on the pedals to get the necessary depth while pulling a locking release, then letting go, when the required dimensions are reached. It's simple and works very well. Leg room is adequate (and is a bit better in the production birds since this prototype was just a bit shorter than the norm), head room is OK, and the width is adequate at the hip and while a bit narrower in the leg well, the effect is not restrictive, but feels somewhat supportive.

The cockpit is equipped with two short-throw control sticks that are slightly goose-necked forward to offer a little more room, at full aft displacement, in order to avoid the infamous "panic flare/partial vasectomy" that several students have given the occasional unwary instructor (who tends to talk like Mickey Mouse for some strange reason…). Their position and range of motion are excellent (even for those of us with "enhanced thighs") and the system exhibits little mechanical friction or breakaway inhibitions. There is a lengthy center console that offers a wonderfully positioned mechanical pitch trim wheel that offers a ratio that I find to be nearly idea… neither overtly sensitive nor requiring an unending series of turns to reach a desired attitude. A modestly sized RED switch on that console allows one to select either tank (there are two), it is safetied with a pull-out knob to avoid accidental movement. The throttle area contains the mixture, carb heat and throttle in a location that seems positioned well... about where one's hand might naturally rest. Just above that, heater, defroster and parking brake levers are available.

By the way; Diamond puts in a handy map pocket in a small area next to the outside cabin wall I on either side of the aircraft… and also includes a small cup holder, to boot. We suffering CFIs who have had to secure cokes between our legs (and often look like we'd had an 'accident' after a bumpy flight) hereby tender our thanks to the wizard who came up with that idea… it's almost enough to justify a purchase, alone… no kidding. The only major note of discord in the seating area is the short stature of the female side of the seat belt connector… it's of fairly short length and often requires one to have to dig down and around to find it. It can be a real pain to attach for those of us who remain enamored of the charms of the quarter-pounder (with cheese, please), and have the love-handles to prove it. A slightly longer connecting assembly would be a big help here. Seating, overall, though, is pretty comfy with good back support and a head rest that actually is fitted for real live human beings and not the munchkins some designers envision us all to be. While seating is designed well for people, that general layout doesn't leave a lot of room for loose charts and paperwork, so plan your needs carefully before settling in.

Suitably ensconced, the visual gig is a good one. The top of the panel is not high enough to require a periscope and the peripheral viz is just plain great. Our bird was equipped with a prototype Garmin 1000 system, which has impressed the heck out of us in each of the birds we've been privileged to try (including the first-ever published report on the G1000 that ANN did last fall). I love the attention that Diamond paid to this panel… it fits beautifully… everything that SHOULD be at eye level, IS. They did one thing that I can't applaud highly enough in that they actually put the backup gauges in a place where they can be used, in a real life, oh-sh*t, EFIS outage without making the visual aspect of the IFR to visual transition a visual Ping-Pong match. These gauges need to be as high as possible so as to keep eye/head movement (when looking down at the gauges and looking out to seek VFR references) to a minimum and guard against the treacherous dangers of vertigo that rapid head/eye movement can bring… and if you're in a situation where you've lost your primary attitude system, you're plenty rattled enough as it is, without having to bounce your eyes around. Kudos to Diamond for doing this.

Other nice cockpit appointments include two REALLY BIG air vents on either side of the cockpit, a flap switch that does not require a contortion to access or visually inspect (and yet, is positioned in area that would seem to negate accidental flap retraction), and breakers that are both visible, as well as accessible, in flight. Start prep required nothing special and a simple series of (mostly) rocker switches gives the pilot access to everything required. Due to the presence of the G1000, there is a backup electrical system for the AI. A big red acccess switch is safety wired to the ready position, so an undisturbed (still safetied) switch means that the system may be accessed if the primary electircal system takes an inopportune hike.

The start-up procedure is child's play thanks to the uncomplicated nature of a carbureted engine. Even cooked up a bit, the O-360 starts readily with/without a slight prime (as required) and careful throttle usage. The canopy can be stowed in a partially open condition that allows for some ventilation but still keeps out most of the dust and grit embroiled by the average engine start. The SOLAR magnification effect (think of ants under a magnifying glass) is considerable, so the need to SAFELY taxi with a partially open canopy is essential. Since the G1000 requires little in the way of stationary alignment, one can get underway pretty quickly.

The DA40 series uses a free castering nosewheel and toe-brakes to keep things from getting out of kilter. Light braking produces excellent directional motivation and the nose wheel casters a slight bit easier than some of the heavier birds we've played with, of late. The effective turn radius, as a result, is on a par with a taildragger… making tight operations a real dream for close quarters. Run-up offered no surprises, the G1000 was pumping us with all kinds of info (including an amazingly accurate depiction of our position on the airport), and after locking the canopy down for good, we taxied into position, lined up on the center line and dropped the hammer on the O-360… we were off.

To be continued...

(ANN will be publishing flight test data and research from our flights in the new Diamond DA40-180-FP, the new Cirrus SR22-G2 and the recently certificated Lancair Columbia 400 over the next several days… don't miss them!)

FMI: www.diamondair.com

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