My Favorite Plane

N181EB at Ryan Field

N181EB at Ryan Field

I haven’t flown that many planes. In fact, my online logbook says that I’ve only flown nine different types and only three of those are more than four hours. One is less than an hour. But having spent over sixty hours in the DiamondStar DA40, it is everything I want a small plane to be.

It is small enough that when I am in the plane alone it is close to strapping on a pair of wings and being hurled into the sky. It is big enough that Nell, Rudy and Dexter have hummed along over the desert with me, with luggage, for an overnight in Las Vegas.

It is fast, so the flight to Las Vegas was less than two hours. It is slow, so when I am interested in looking at something I can hang out over it at a hundred knots, peering down, circling. When I come in to land I am at seventy-five knots “over the fence,” and the wheels touch at a little faster than sixty-five knots, which is just seventy-five miles per hour. That’s a speed I am used to steering along a highway. The design is based on a sailplane, a glider, so the plane does very well without the engine. Although I don’t plan on flying without the engine, knowing that the plane is so easy to fly in a glide makes a big difference for my level of comfort when I consider an engine failure.

The best thing about it is that it is a modern airplane. It is made of plastic (carbon fiber reinforced, technically) and it has a cockpit designed to withstand a twenty-seven G crash. (That’s mysterious to me, actually, because the human body cannot withstand that.)

The windscreen wraps around the front seats so the visibility is amazing. The lack of “A pillars” (like in a car, the pillar between the front window and the windshield) means that the view is panoramic. (It also means that the airplane can’t have regular doors, like a Piper Cherokee or the new Cirrus. Instead the DiamondStar has a canopy that hinges forward, so the entire cockpit is open to the sky while you climb in. I am a fair-weather flier so far, but I can’t help but wonder what that would be like in a heavy rain.)

Entry and egress are issues with a small plane. When we flew to Fresno (for our trip into Yosemite), I twice loaded the boys in the back, Nell into the front and then realized that I needed something from the luggage compartment. On the DiamondStar Nell and I each enter from the front of the wing. The boys enter through a single rear hatch on the pilot’s side. That means that one might have to climb over the other if they are getting out separately, but that never happens. I loved that I loaded Dexter into the plane in Las Vegas and he fell right to sleep. We were able to load the luggage, Rudy, take-off and land in Santa Monica, unload Rudy and the luggage all before we need to wake Dexter. So although it might even be a little smaller insider than the Piper Cherokee we rode to Fresno in, it is easier to get in and out of, and that makes a big difference.

It is a low-wing aircraft, but the wing is set back so that I can look straight down to the ground out my window.

To avoid having that twenty-seven G crash, the cockpit keeps you aware of the situation. Situational awareness is they key to reducing the chances of an accident. The cockpit is glass panel, which means all of the primary flight instruments are on a ten inch color screen right in front of the pilot (the Primary Flight Display or PFD). There is a second screen in front of the co-pilot. If the main screen fails everything will be displayed on that second screen (the Multi-function Display or MFD). Most of the time the pilot is looking at flight instruments and the co-pilot has a moving map display of the airplane and the area you are flying over.

The second display is much more than a map. It is first a simple map, so we know whether we are over the I-10 or the I-15. It has a database of all the airports (yes, in the world), which means that with the press of a button I can bring up a list of the six nearest airports. I keep an eye on that on longer trips. The plane glides at an 1:8 ratio. I am often flying a couple miles above the ground, so that means I can feel good about landing strips that are within twenty miles. An engine failure means I would fiddle for a bit, and then be pointing toward the nearest airport. Out in the desert I am sometimes out of range of one, but out there a road is a good choice (they are straight, flat and empty).

The map allows us to put in a flight plan. When I fly to Las Vegas I enter a dozen or more points and once I am off the ground I turn the autopilot on. I am handling the communication with Air Traffic Control, managing the engine and the autopilot climbs to altitude and steers through a series of turns over the San Fernando Valley and the San Bernadino mountains. The MFD draws a magenta line across the map to show the course that we will be flying.

The display includes terrain awareness. Portions of the landscape on the map which are above the aircraft’s current altitude are shown in red. Portions that are within five hundred to a thousand feet are shown in yellow. This means that as we were taking off from a tiny un-towered airport near Monterey, at night, toward the hills separating us from Salinas, we could see the red and yellow reassuringly disappear as we climbed to pass over them.

The most important feature on the map display is traffic. In all of the congested areas where I fly there is a system which transmits the position of nearby aircraft. So as I am coming in to land at Santa Monica I have the map set to show a two nautical mile radius “range ring” around my aircraft’s little plane icon, and I see other planes around that as diamond shapes. The diamonds have little swords which extend in the direction they are traveling. They have a two digit number next to them to show the hundreds of feet different their altitude is from mine, so when I see something scooting across the map with +25 next to it, I don’t worry because that’s twenty-five hundred feet above me. If there IS a target to worry about, the system draws it as a yellow circle and the system says, “Traffic,” in my headset.

My eyes aren’t yet trained well to pick out objects in the sky. I’m working on it, but targets are tiny and I’m just not used to seeing them against a background yet. (On our long flight to Arizona Adam and I had a plane three miles away at the same altitude and directly off our right wing and we couldn’t find him, even though we flew next to him for forty minutes.) So the traffic system makes me feel much better about flying into an airport. (Collisions happen around airports, the rest of the time it’s a big sky.)

It’s not a perfect plane. I wish small planes had better sound insulation. I would prefer to fly with Nell and be able to talk without the headsets. Apparently the TwinStar is a lot quieter inside because you aren’t directly behind the engine. I wish it were bigger, sometimes. I wish that we could take six people for a trip instead of just the four of us. But that’s only rarely. (The Beechcraft Bonanza is a six passenger, single engine plane with the same glass panel. I have a feeling it is not as nimble in the sky.) The seats, in order to provide the incredible protection they do, are not at all mobile. That’s a little difficult on long flights. The trade-off for the incredible visibility is that the plane gets pretty hot on a sunny day. At least on the ground it does.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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