Diamond DA40: Airline Pilot Trainer (Part I)

Much has been written about Diamond Aircraft’s spectacular DA40-180 Diamondstar.Almost all the recent press has surrounded the Diamondstar as launch customer for GARMIN’s G1000 Primary Flight Display (PFD)/Multi-Function Display (MFD) integrated suite of flight instrument, navigation, communication and engine management equipment.But very little has been written about the DA40’s suitability for a mission in which it is rapidly finding a niche…ab inito primary and instrument training for students on the professional-pilot career path—an airline pilot trainer.

As a consultant for Embry-RiddleAeronauticalUniversity I had the happy duty of evaluating the DA40 as a pilot training platform for ERAU’s Commercial Airline Pilot Training (CAPT) program (http://www.embryriddle.edu/omni/sp/dbcapt/index.html).The decision to acquire the DA40 for CAPT had already been made; I was asked to fly the airplane and let Riddle (and Diamond) know what an experienced instructor thought of the airplane as a training tool.Here’s what I found:

The DA40 seems at first glance a smallish airplane, but get close and you’ll find that’s an illusion.At 26 ft 3 inches nose to tail the Diamondstar (no one I’ve spoken with, including the president of Diamond Aircraft in Canada, called it that—it’s always the ‘DA40’) is only eight inches shorter than Cessna’s 172N; the sailplane-heritage Diamond wing, 39 ft 2 inches in span, is nearly four feetlonger than the Skyhawk’s.The DA40’s vertical stabilizer, rising 6 ft 6 inches above ground, is much squatter than the 172’s (which is just under nine feet off the ramp)…but it seems taller because of the T-style horizontal stabilizer, elevator and trim at the top of the Diamond’s tail.I think it’s this seemingly truncated vertical tail and the Diamond’s guppy-like, low-slung belly and thin aft fuselage that make it look like a smaller aircraft than it is.

Other than my discomfort at not being able to completely inspect the horizontal tail without a ladder (remember, a lot of instructional airplanes are kept outdoors where birds may roost, and in many climes face the possibility of frost and ice) the preflight was extremely simple—it’s a clean airframe with few inspection points.Like any other airplane there’s a need to check fuel and oil, security of oil and fuel filler caps, and all visible connections and controls.The pitot tube is unusual but it just takes a glance to see that it’s unobstructed; flap hinges are external, beneath the wing, requiring a look.Tightly-panted tires and the glassy cowling make the DA40 fly very efficiently but prevent all but the most cursory of inspection of what lies beneath.If I was running a flight school with DA40s I’d have the mechanics jack up and spin the wheels every morning to check the condition of the tires and brakes, pull the cowlings at least once a week for a thorough “under the hood” inspection, and insist on using cowl plugs (fore and aft) to keep birds and nesting insects out of the cowling.

Mounting Up
A boarding step on each side of the lower fuselage extends just ahead of the wing’s leading edge.Before stepping up, reach to the latch (on the airplane’s left side) to swing the forward canopy open.The entire windshield/front canopy pivots upward and forward.Plant a foot on the boarding step, stabilize yourself with a hand on the canopy rail (don’t hang on to the opened canopy itself), and step up onto a narrow walkway on the wing.Then, step down from the wingwalk into the cockpit.Don’t forget that the control stick needs to go between your legs!You maybe able to step directly down onto the floor, but you’ll be tempted to step on the seat first—expect seat cushions to be a high-maintenance item for a well-used, instructional Diamond.

The boarding and canopy-opening arrangement precludes the old staple of climbing out while the engine’s running to let the properly endorsed student fly solo (I never liked that anyway).Every boarding and unboarding requires engine shutdown—no exceptions.

Forego big flight bags…economy of space and good cockpit organization is key in the DA40.There’s very little space for charts, approach plates, and the flashlights, spare batteries and other stuff we’re all ingrained to carry.Take what you need but nothing more, because except for small sidewall pockets beneath and ahead of the canopy frame there is nowhere to put what most pilots and instructors carry for cross-country and especially instrument training flights.Perhaps the new-panel MFD technology will soon include “paperless cockpit” software that cuts down on the “stuff” needed to complete a flight.

A section of the rear fuselage encompassing the entire left rear window and hinged near the airplane’s centerline, opens upward to admit rear-seat passengers.Step down onto the left, rear seat—this cushion will also be abused in high-frequency flight training—then duck through the low-slung hatchway while drawing your other leg in and onto the floor.Uncurl yourself onto one of the large and comfortable rear seats.A second rear-seat passenger might have more difficulty boarding, since much of the aft-cabin maneuvering space would be filled with the first rear-seat occupant.

Although aspiring airline pilots may like the aplomb of hopping in and out of the front cockpit of the DA40, there’s no truly graceful way to enter or exit either the front or rear seats.Cabin access design means that it might be unpleasant and possibly damaging to load and unload in rain or high winds.Carry a crash axe—if the airplane ends up on its left side or its back in an accident there’s no way out without smashing through the canopy or sidewalls.

Although I was evaluating the airplane as a trainer, it bears note that any baggage must be hauled up onto the left wing and loaded through this rear hatch before passengers enter.The seats fold forward for this purpose (later models allow the seatbacks to fold completely flat).Baggage space is limited by American standards, more in tune with the European concept of “aerial touring” than serious cross-country flying for multi-day trips.The Diamond’s towbar, a real necessity for ground handling, must also be loaded into the back before rear-seat passengers enter, and in most recent DA40s stores in a bin beneath the aft baggage area’s floorboard—you’d have to move the airplane, stow the bar, then load baggage and passengers before flight; and empty the rear seats and all baggage before getting the towbar to push the airplane into a hangar or a tie-down spot after landing.

Starting and Taxi
Arrange the cabin, close the rear hatch.Lean up and forward to pull the forward canopy fully closed, or a latched ground-ventilation position that leave a gap a few inches tall open to admit cool air.You’ll need it—even on a +3C day it got hot in the sun under the Plexiglass® in the fronts seats of the Diamond!A small electric fan to propel air through the cabin vents might be a nice addition for long sunny days spent instructing.

Panel layout in the pre-PFD/MFD ship I flew was familiar.The basic six flight instruments were dead ahead of the left seat, with King and GARMIN avionics center-stacked in the middle.A Master Caution and abnormal-indications annunciator panel hinted at the warning systems a student would see in his or her commercial airline future.The far right panel was filled with circuit breakers for all systems, including the all-electric flight instruments—no air-driven instruments, or any vacuum pump, suction gauge or pneumatic system are to be found on this airplane.For safety and certification the electric attitude indicator has a dedicated back-up battery, activated with a guarded and safety-wired switch on the upper left corner of the panel…if the safety wire is broken, indicating the emergency battery may have been run (and depleted), the airplane is grounded until the instrument battery is removed and recharged or replaced.This all-electric system mirrors what students will find in most turbine equipment, and provides the deft CFI an opportunity to reach up unnoticed and “fail” a flight instrument by pulling a breaker, without giving the scenario away by announcing the failure and covering up a “dead” instrument.

The Diamondstar I flew for evaluation was an early, Austrian-built model.Those built in Canada have the same equipment (unless equipped with the Avidyne or G1000 PFD/MFDs) but the circuit breakers have been moved to a strip below and across the bottom of the instrument panel.This makes the cockpit appear larger, less cluttered, and opens up space for the Canadian airplanes’ more efficient fresh air outlets.

Engine start is familiar to many as the fuel-injected Lycomings have already entered the training market.A sweep of the cockpit to check configuration before engine start; battery on, throttle open, prop and mixture controls forward; short burst of the auxiliary boost pump to prime the engine; then mixture to idle cutoff, crank the starter, and advance the mixture as the engine fires—all backed up, when appropriate, with the printed checklists.

A second student observing “Gemini”-style from the right, rear seat (or even participating with “pilot not flying” duties as in Embry Riddle’s CAPT program) has a surprisingly good view of the panel and out the forward windscreen without having to lean forward in an awkward position few can comfortably maintain for an entire lesson.

The DA40 does not have nosewheel steering.Turning on the ground comes from differential braking—something we used to avoid to promote brake longevity, but that too many of us did anyway.Maybe a few hundred hours of tailwheel experience helped me, but I found it incredibly easy to maintain taxiway centerlines with the free-castoring nosewheel.Like a tailwheel airplane, you have to anticipate the end of a turn with a jab of the rudder on the opposite side to avoid overshooting your new heading.It’s cool to spin the airplane tightly around in not much more than it’s own wingspan with a kick of the pedals and perhaps a touch of power.

Run-up and before takeoff checks are very conventional.For some reason in this day and age the DA40 still requires the pilot to select either the left or the right wing fuel tank, with no “BOTH” position…so be sure to pick the fullest tank for takeoff, well before you begin your takeoff roll (to assure you’ve properly selected the tank and have a good feed of uncontaminated avgas).The selector is in the center console where both student and instructor can see it.The Pilots Operating Handbook calls for “takeoff” flaps (about 12 degrees), so set and confirm flap position.Last item before taking the active on a hot day would be to latch the forward canopy into the fully closed, flight position—there’s no flying allowed with a partially open cockpit.