Oops, Diamond neglected to name their new plane. I think that’s in part because it is technically a version of their Twinstar, a plane I am struggling to upgrade to. So maybe it is so they don’t tip off the regulators, or maybe that is part of the Type Certificate: Model Name.
Under any name, it is an amazing machine. It is out of my price range, at $1.3m, but if I had that hanging around I would plunk it down in a hot minute. The DA42, which I hope to be flying in a few weeks, has exactly the same interior as our trusty N971RD Diamondstar. The same exact seats, the same lights, vents, carpet and luggage area. Everything is so close I don’t think you could pick which plane a photo was taken in. (That doesn’t mean it won’t be an upgrade, it’s an amazing machine and I’ll write a whole set of posts about that.)
Over the years Diamond has made incremental advancements to the DA42. When our plane was brand new (we did not buy it brand new) the DA40 was $250k and the DA42 was $350k. You could get a second engine for $100k. Of course, the people who did that were sad a couple years later when the engine manufacturer went bankrupt and Diamond explained that the engines were warranted by the manufacturer, not by Diamond. I think that’s still being litigated.
The latest version of the DA42 is amazing. It is called the Dash-Six (DA42-VI) and it is a true 190 knot airplane (at 16,000 feet). They have cleaned up the airframe in all sorts of little ways that add up to a lot more speed. It costs $950k, which seems silly, they should just call it a million dollar airplane. We’re not getting one of those, either.
The truth is that it is still the DA40 fuselage with nearly the same interior.
Ah, but when you open the door to the DA62 it is like you’ve opened the door to Tesla’s Model X SUV, all the leather, suede on the sidewalls, and every corner polished with luxury. So many seats, three rows of two, three, two. I saw it down in Long Beach a few weeks ago after it had made an appearance at the big NBAA (National Business Aviation Association) convention. I sat in the last row of seats to see if it was a cheat. It really didn’t feel like it. It was a little snug, but so is the back seat of a Cessna Corvalis, which everyone agrees is a four seater. I would be happy flying to Vegas (1.5hr) in the DA62 way-back seat.
Last week I got an email explaining that the DA62, a DA42-VI and a DA40 with the new TDI engine would be making a tour along the Pacific coast and I could sign up for a test flight. I jumped on it.
My friend Susan flew down to KLGB with me from Santa Monica. Her co-worker Julie came along; it’s always nice when the boss (that would be Susan) gives you a day off to fly in small planes over Los Angeles. We landed and parked near Angel City Flyers. Seosamh Somers, the founder, was strolling the ramp and checking out the planes. They used Toby (the Tow Bot) to pull the DA62 out of the hangar for us. Leo Korikov would be our right seat pilot for the test flight. We hopped in without dallying and I explained that I got my multi-engine rating there at Angel City, so I was familiar with the area and with the drill. I poked around my seat and reported there was no checklist to be found. He said that was okay, that he’d handle the radios and take care of telling me the checklist items.
Starting it was as simple as starting a Prius. He did three checklist items, switching the G1000 into reversionary mode, flipping to the engine system page and checking the fuel. I called “clear” and pressed a brushed aluminum button on the lower edge of the instrument panel. I held it for about a second. Leo said not to hold it more than about two, but in less than a second the left engine was purring and I let go. Really, I think I could have tapped the button. The Austro engines idle at 700rpm, a little lower than the Theirlerts I trained on, so the hum while you are on the ground is even quieter. In about five seconds the engine had stabilized, everything was in the green, and I pressed the right button. In an instant the right engine was turning and we were ready to taxi. (In my Diamondstar I think I would still be working my way through the checklist. Maybe I would have made it to priming the fuel.)
It is a vast gulf between 1950s tractor engine technology (large displacement cylinders, magnetos, lead as an anti-knock agent, a mixture lever to set the proportion between air and fuel) and a modern engine.
We taxied down to the run up area. I fiddled with two small chrome switches (the “voter” selectors for each engine), stopping one FADEC board and substituting the backup, making sure that both were working. Then I held the two black buttons marked “run up.” The FADEC ran the engine and propellers through automatic tests to make sure that everything was operating within specifications. It was. We pulled up to the hold short line for runway two-five left.
Handling on the ground had been crisp and straightforward. With all of fifteen hours in type, I taxied out to the centerline, gave it one notch of flaps, held the brakes, and let the engines have full power. Once the little meters hit the tops, I let go of the brakes and we started a gallop down the runway. I had briefed for the various scenarios of what to do if something went wrong, but it was all smooth; I kept a little back pressure so that the nose wheel didn’t carry all the weight. At 80 knots I pulled a little more on the control stick and we were up, fifteen degrees nose high, climbing at 1,500 feet per minute. Leo tapped the brakes for me and I announced positive rate and pulled up the gear.
Like in most German cars I have been in, every switch was right where I expected it to be, every meter was where I happened to glance to look for it. (One glaring exception, noted later.) At five hundred feet I lowered the nose a little and we pulled the power back to 95%, although you are allowed to keep it in for five minutes it isn’t necessary. Cleaned up, the plane continued on up at twelve hundred feet per minute. I actually dropped the nose a little more, since I like a better view of possible traffic and there was a recent midair collision over the Long Beach practice area, which we were about to traverse.
The air conditioning was going, the whole plane smelled like fine leather, and it all hummed us skyward. The synthetic vision showed the harbor stretched out before us and Catalina Island beyond. We were headed toward the Airport in the Sky.
Halfway across the expanse of cold, Pacific Ocean, the right engine failed. Well, Leo pretended that it failed and slid the throttle back to idle to demonstrate how catastrophic it was. Here is how catastrophic it was: I put a little more pressure on the right rudder and we continued on toward Catalina minus a few knots of speed. After gathering my wits to recognize the dire predicament I was in, I reached up and turned off the master switch for the right engine. It promptly stopped rotating and the propeller blades turned into the wind so that they produced almost no drag (automatic feathering). I needed less right rudder, we picked up a couple knots of speed. We could have flown all the way to landing like that, but I like the luxury of both engines turning, so we pulled the nose up until we were slowed to 115 knots, the maximum restart speed for an engine, I flipped the master switch for the right engine back up and in seconds it was humming along again. The tail wiggled as I equalized the throttles and lagged behind with my feet on the rudders.
Approaching Two Harbors I pulled out some of the power and we descended to traffic pattern altitude for Avalon. I announced us on the CTAF and entered a right downwind for two-two. We had been chatting about the plane, but now I focused entirely on landing. I’ve landed a lot at Catalina. It is one of my favorite places to go in the plane, it is where I made most of my trips in the first month I had our plane, and it was important for me to see the performance on the newest Diamond on a short, rough runway. I isolated the passengers from my headset and just talked to Leo. I dropped the gear a little early, as I entered the downwind.
Heading back out over the ocean, I dropped the first notch of flaps. We slowed to 115kts and I kept track over my shoulder. I turned base and dropped the last notch of flaps. I was a little low, and added some power. The response on the big twin engines was faster than my Diamondstar’s little engine. I pitched for 95kts and then, on short final, pulled up a little more for eighty. I had dragged it in, but things were looking pretty good. Just as we entered ground effect I rounded out and pulled the power. I was probably a little early on pulling the power, but it’s so difficult when that hump in the runway means you can only see half the length. We didn’t bounce, we just dropped the last six inches with a little more authority than I like. But we were on the centerline and straight ahead.
We taxied into the parking area and I ran up to give the tower my Catalina Aero Club card (unlimited landings). When I came back to the plane Leo was making sure all the parts were still on. While we waited for the passengers to finish in the gift shop he showed me the baggage area and we talked about the performance of the plane. The wheels are significantly larger than those on the DA42, and the suspension is longer travel. So the bumps on the runway are absorbed much better.
My favorite part is the start sequence, so when we were saddled back up I hit the two buttons and we were taxing in less than a minute. That’s so amazing: no worries about a hot start, about flooding the engine, about careful management of fuel-air ratios, shock cooling and dozens of other things. Just start the engines and fly. Well, taxi down to the runway and then fly. But still.
Take off was a little bumpy, which it always is at Catalina. I don’t know the plane well enough to drag it up into ground effect, which is what I do with my plane. But we were in the air with a minimum of fuss.
Friends who have looked at the plane at NBAA said that it seemed expensive. It is the same cost as a Beechcraft Baron, but it is more modern and carries one more person. (You give up too much luggage space to the air conditioning in my opinion, but I will admit that it was really comfortable to have air conditioning for the flight.) If Diamond split the rear-most seat they could allow people the option of having luggage and a passenger back there.
The real gain, even for such an expensive airplane, is moving into the modern era. Running on jet fuel rather than the leaded AvGas that all the little planes use is reassuring. And cheaper. (And the federal government, in the form of the EPA, promises they are going to end AvGas production “soon.”) It is a composite airplane, designed to keep the occupants safe in a crash. Most small twins out there are metal and were designed before we understood how engineer a structure to absorb the energy in a collision. And it is now gorgeously appointed inside. (As a little bonus, the new composite they use can be painted. All Diamonds used to be white. Now they can have a little more personality.)
When pilots talk about the plane they start comparing it to a Malibu or other turbine-engined planes. Those are great planes, but to take advantage of their efficiencies you have to climb up to 16,000 feet and be on oxygen. The speed Diamond lists for 16,000 feet in a DA62 is 192kts, but if I had one I would be popping up to the Bay area, down to San Diego or to Las Vegas. I don’t need to put on oxygen for those trips and I’ll stay down at 10,500.
Leo said, “Well, that was a decent landing. I wouldn’t have chosen Catalina with a fifteen knot crosswind for your first landing in a new plane, but you did a good job.” My landing at Long Beach was not quite as smooth, since I wasn’t as focused and Leo had to remind me to carry a little more power to the ground. I’ll get better in a DA42 and the next time I’m in a DA62 I’ll be all set.
(If you are a DA42 pilot, the transition course to a DA62 lasts all of an hour.)
(When landing, there are two fuel pump switches, one for each engine, that you need to turn on. They are outside of the master switches for each engine. Personally, I would have put them next to each other and next to the flaps, which are “things I touch while landing.” When I shutdown in Catalina I had to turn the fuel pumps back off and in my haste I turn the left master switch off before the left fuel pump.)