Some people feel that the Japanese and Germans produce better cars, TVs, computers and cameras than the Americans, but there’s never been any question about the world domination of American airplanes. General aviation aircraft from the United States continue to lead in sales and performance at home and overseas.
Such American companies as New Piper, Cessna, Beech/Raytheon, Mooney, Cirrus, Columbia and others comprise at least 70% of personal and business aircraft sales around the world. The United States has dominated the aviation market for at least the last 50 years, despite occasional threats from Extra, EADS/Socata, Partenavia, Pilatus, Bombardier and a few others.
In the last decade, however, an Austrian company has begun to make major inroads into the world market. Diamond Aircraft of Neustadt, Austria, and London, Ontario, Canada, has emerged as a major player in the production of personal airplanes. Once known only for its motorgliders and the Rotax-powered Katana, Diamond now offers products for training and personal travel—and soon they’ll enter the very light jet (VLJ) market. (In fact, at this writing, Diamond had just begun flight testing its prototype D-JET at the company’s Canadian facility.)
Certainly, one of Diamond’s most popular products is the DA40 Star. Since its introduction six years ago, first overseas and then in the United States, the Star has penetrated the general aviation, fixed-gear-single market in a big way, selling some 600 units. That’s nearly 100 a year—big numbers in today’s economy.
Not surprisingly, the Diamond Star has the Skyhawk, Archer and Tiger dead in its sights. As everyone knows, the 172 is one of the world’s most successful airplanes, and the Archer is a consistent performer that’s been in more or less continuous production for 40 years. The New Tiger, in its third iteration, is still experiencing birthing problems, but its sportplane image and cult classic popularity of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s promise strong potential for the new century.
The Star’s 180 hp Lycoming engine and fixed gear match it well with the Cessna, Piper and Tiger products, but closer examination reveals major differences between the airplanes. For one thing, the Star offers a constant-speed prop. While all four machines offer comfortable 2+2 seating for a quartet of people, the Star has the unique advantage of a rear-entry door, hinged at the top of the fuselage and folding up and to the right. This allows rear seaters to board independent of the pilot and copilot. In combination with the front hatch that folds up and forward, the rear door allows pilot and passengers to enter the front seats from both sides and the rear independently from the left.
Unlike the Skyhawk, Archer and Tiger, the Star is the only model that features boarding steps just forward of the wing’s leading edges on both sides. That means you board the Star from the front. It also means you’ll almost never see any sane person climbing into a Star with the prop turning. And that’s not a coincidence, it’s just great design.
Even a half-dozen years into the DA40’s life, it’s inevitable that pilots will compare it to the original, Rotax-powered Katana. As with most expandable designs, however, there are virtually no common components between the two models. Diamond offers three engine options on the four-seat Star, none of them Rotax. There’s the standard 180 hp, injected, Lycoming IO-360 with a constant-speed Hartzell or MT out front, rated for 2,200 hours TBO; and a carbureted version of the same powerplant with a fixed-pitch prop, which is $11,000 less expensive and aimed primarily at flight schools. Finally, there’s a turbodiesel model fitted with essentially the identical 135 hp Thielert Centurion mill used on the Twin Star.
Currently, the Thielert-powered Star is only being built in Austria and is limited to overseas sale. If avgas supplies continue to dwindle on this side of the Atlantic, however, expect to see production of the diesel Star at London, Ontario, Canada, for the North and South American markets.
Despite the waspish, T-tail empennage and generally similar configuration, the Star is a considerably larger airplane than the Katana or Eclipse, both outside and inside. The fuselage is three feet longer, and the Wortman FX 63-137/20 laminar-flow airfoil spans an extra four feet. Fuel is stored in the outboard wing (20.5 gallons per side)—the better to isolate fuel supply from the cabin for improved crash worthiness.
Inside the cockpit, the front cabin measures a full 45 inches across, wider than the Skylane, Bonanza or Mooney. It’s also 44 inches tall, and because the seating is semi-supine (engineer-speak for reclinable), the Star can easily accommodate even a short Celtic center. The seats don’t adjust, but the rudder pedals do, allowing for long-legged pilots.
Side sticks are all the rage these days, and there’s no question that they work well on Columbia and Cirrus models, but the Star employs conventional, center-mounted sticks. Personally, I love joysticks, even if you do need to step around them during boarding. On the old (and new) Tiger, the standard drill was to flip up the bottom seat cushions or simply step on them during boarding, but the new Star is fitted with luxurious leather, and even clean Reeboks might scratch it.
Settled into the seat, you can’t help but notice the Garmin G1000 (nav/com/engine/flight) instrument system. There’s nothing old hat about the G1000, but most pilots have at least seen it, even if they haven’t flown it, so we won’t reiterate the system’s multiple talents here.
Diamond was the launch customer for the G1000, and three years ago, I was privileged to fly the prototype box installed in a Star at a press unveiling at Garmin’s Lenexa, Kan., facility. Transitioning from analog, steam gauges to rolling tapes and digital readouts takes some getting used to, but it’s not a problem for any pilot willing to try.
The view to the outside with the wraparound canopy is excellent, though I’d love to see visors fitted to avoid the greenhouse effect from all that Plexiglas. The opposite argument is that it would be neat if the painted portion of the overhead canopy could be engineered to shade from deep tint to clear to provide a better view to the top. I know this is an upscale concept, but some corporate airplanes already offer this feature.
The 2006 model Star I flew with Robert Stewart of U.S. Aero in Long Beach, Calif., weighed around 1,710 pounds against a gross weight of 2,535 pounds. That left 825 useful pounds, and full fuel (41 gallons) only subtracted 246 pounds. Even in a heavily equipped Star, you should be able to fill the tanks, load up to 600 pounds and fly away.
The later-model Star provides more options for storing things inside the cabin. What used to be an open ski tube in the baggage compartment has been improved with an internal door and, with the aft seats folded flat, can fit such long items as golf clubs or snowboards.
Though you might assume the Star hasn’t changed much since its inception in 2000, there have been several subtle improvements. The gear has been redesigned around smaller tires and slicker fairings, and the nosegear strut has been revised. The horizontal stabilizer has been widened by four inches for more pitch authority at low speed, and the interior has been spruced up to look more professional than utilitarian.
Diamond wisely elected to stick with a nonsteerable nosewheel on the Star. Without the limitations of a rudder/nosewheel interconnect, directional control doesn’t require major brake stabs, and the lack of stop limits on the nosegear means the airplane can reverse direction in practically its own wingspan. Locked-wheel turns are never a good idea (to avoid flat-spotting tires), but a nonsteerable nosewheel provides vastly superior maneuverability in tight places.
Climb is better than you might expect with only 180 hp motivating one-and-a-quarter tons of airplane. The Star will easily top 1,000 fpm on a standard day from sea level. Perhaps more importantly, vertical speed holds up well at moderate altitude. Expect at least 500 fpm out of 8,000 feet. Service ceiling is listed as 14,000 feet, in case you’re inclined to challenge the tall rocks.
The stick control for roll and pitch provides good response, partially a function of pushrod interconnects rather than cables. Only the rudder pedals are connected via conventional cables.
The Star’s slick design and composite construction also deliver when it’s time to level for cross-country travel. Max cruise speed is listed as 145 knots, and I’ve seen 142 knots under good conditions. It’s certainly conceivable that the airplane might turn in 145 knots with the CG at the aft limit, all vents closed, perfect rig, a properly broken-in engine, new prop, etc.
It’s interesting that this performance approaches the best efforts of some of the old, 200 hp retractables, such as the Commander 112 and Beech Sierra. Remember, the Star leaves the wheels hanging in the wind, so don’t believe those folks who preach about general aviation’s glass being half empty.
Fuel burn at the max cruise setting is about 10.5 gph, so you’d only have three hours endurance plus reserve with the left lever against the wall. If there’s a need to stretch the distance traveled to reach the next pit stop, 50% power delivers 120 knots in exchange for only 6.7 gph, extending range by an easy 100 nm.
Stalls are nonevents hardly worth noting, but it’s notable that if you hold the airplane in a full stall with power off and gentle pressure on the pedals to keep the wings level, the descent rate is less than in a Cirrus SR22 with parachute deployed. Combine that with 26 G seats and crush zones beneath the fuselage, and a controlled descent into even rocky terrain might be more survivable than you’d imagine.
Diamond’s experience with gliders is evident in the airplane’s descent and landing characteristics. The long, 39-foot wings provide a glide ratio slightly better than that of most other general aviation singles, and a typical 65-knot approach speed will still preserve plenty of flare at the bottom. In fact, a little too much pressure too early will result in a memorable balloon. It’s best to fly the Star to the bottom of its glide, then flare gently when you’re only a foot or two above the runway.
Examine the Star’s numbers closely, and you can see why folks at Diamond say that the DA40 is more competitive with an airplane in the next class up—the 235 hp Skylane. Climb and speed are about the same, though a typically equipped Skylane probably carries more payload and offers greater range.
However you compare the Star, it competes well with airplanes in and out of its class. With 600 DA40s sold to date (many to flight schools), buyers all over the world are voting for the slick four-seat single from Diamond Aircraft.
SPECS: DA40 Diamond Star