Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

DA 40 XLS: The Innovator Keeps Getting Better

With the addition of Garmin’s Synthetic Vision Technology and other improvements, the popular composite four-seater reaches a wider audience

DX 40
The aircraft’s cockpit offers an open feel and superb visibility thanks to its low window sill height and the absence of windshield support posts or divisions.
Diamond achieves this astonishing safety record through innovative design and construction techniques. For example, critical structures and joints are redundant—designed so that a complete failure of one element will still allow a safe flight. Small components like aileron hinges are solid hunks of metal that look like they could hold up a truck—and there are four of them. Dual wing spars shield the aluminum fuel tank between them. The long list of safety innovations is impressive.

Back in the DA40, hovering a mile over Los Angeles, Stewart and I had Sinatra playing through the XM radio as we headed toward the mountains near Camarillo. I was about to experience an extraordinary demonstration of the DA40’s unique and forgiving handling. “The XLS is really docile even at the edges of its envelope,” said Stewart. “Bring the power back.”

The airspeed bled off and, with flaps down, I eased the stick all the way back. With the stall warning blaring, the DA40 just hung on. The winglets allowed me full aileron control with no hard break. The XLS simply bobbed gently and mushed along without drama.

We cranked in full power, and I buried the stick in my gut, not knowing what to expect. The XLS buffeted but never broke off to either side. Stewart then had me try turns in that configuration. The XLS shook and protested like a quarter horse resisting the ramp into the transport trailer, but it banked around without issue while the stall warning bleated away. Getting into trouble in this airplane would be extremely difficult for even the most ham-handed pilot.

“Fly me to the moon,” crooned Frank. “Let me play among the stars.” And so we did, as the late afternoon sun lay before us. I was sporting my new featherweight JH Audio Aerous in-ear headset, and its incredible sound quality, coupled with the Diamond’s quiet cabin, made fatigue nonexistent. Approaching Santa Paula, Stewart showed me the capabilities of Garmin’s Synthetic Vision, which affords a full 3-D view of surrounding terrain features. Obstacles turn yellow on the MFD screen as they become a hazard, and red if the system thinks you would collide with them. Contours and landforms appear with striking clarity. The situational awareness is nothing short of phenomenal.

One of the issues that these technologically advanced aircraft have to contend with is perception. I have to admit that I had approached the DA40 XLS ready to dislike it. Being a “traditional” pilot, I had cut my teeth on tailwheels and fabric and looked at these newer airplanes with disdain. I had laughed and agreed with the “plastic airplane” comments. I’d taken jabs at “video-game pilots” and their “toy-airplane” screens. But this airplane single-handedly changed my mind.

What the G1000 and the SVT provided was simple: a safer environment to fly in. Any pilot ignoring the benefits of this type of situational awareness is, in my opinion, crazy. From the TIS traffic display, to the satellite weather, to the awareness-enhancing features of the G1000, the technology can be a lifesaver. The marriage of this technology with the aircraft’s superb handling and design makes for a total system that is, in one word, compelling. My amazed nods followed Stewart as he demonstrated the system’s features.


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