Tech – Where Little Planes Come From: A Visit to the Diamond Aircraft Factory, February 2008

By Boran Pivčić
All photos author

There always comes the time when young pilots ask their senior instructors: “Where do little planes come from?” :). In an attempt to answer that question, I was sent – as part of Aeronautika, a local aviation mag I write for – to the Diamond Aircraft works in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, a nice 4 hour hop by bus (a very nice one at that) away from Zagreb.

1. The factory

Diamond’s main works – as well as the main admin center – is located at the small airfield of Wiener Neustadt-Ost (ICAO location indicator: LOAN) just outside the small town of the same name, some 50 km south of Vienna. Though not as famous as the company’s London works in Ontario, Canada, this is the site where Diamond aircraft first came into being – and were first produced for a number of years.

Wiener Neustadt-Ost and the complex that has grown around it. The factory itself consists of just a couple of buildings running parallel to the runway - everything else has been built around the (economic success) of the factory, and even includes a shopping mall and swimming pool :)

Wiener Neustadt-Ost and the complex that has grown around it. The factory itself consists of just a couple of buildings running parallel to the runway - everything else has been built around the (economic success) of the factory, and even includes a shopping mall and swimming pool 🙂

The site itself was also well known for one the bigger Messerschmitt factories outside of Germany proper during WW2. The actual buildings though were leveled late in the war by USAAF’s 15th Air Force aircraft based in Italy, but one of the aircraft produced here has managed to survive the war and is now part of Diamond’s aircraft museum, located on the present factory grounds.

A beautifully preserved Bf.109G-6 at the Diamond museum

A beautifully preserved Bf.109G-6 at the Diamond museum

The modern complex is designed to provide everything needed for aircraft production, from basic materials and components all the way through to final assembly and painting. Outsourcing is a no-no here :). Christian Dries, the man behind Diamond Aircraft, half-jokingly told us that the only thing in this factory they hadn’t made themselves are the aircon units – even the tables were designed and built in house. Sounds like an expensive approach, but ask Boeing about their current experiences with letting other people make your planes… :). This in-house system not only reduces production errors, but considerably speeds up construction as well, which can now be done at the same standard of quality throughout.

Oh my God, it's full of Stars! A view down the LOAN ramp is enough to make even the hardest man drool...

Oh my God, it's full of Stars! A view down the LOAN ramp is enough to make even the hardest man drool...

As of late 2008., the factory complex also includes Diamond’s own engine manufacturing facility, where the new AustoEngines piston Diesels – naturally, Diamond-designed – will be built. Though it may appear that the whole AustroEngines venture is a direct response to Thielert’s recent financial woes, Mr. Dries told us (back in February) that they’re just finishing the paperwork for an engine production line – so it may have been on the cards for awhile now.

2. The aircraft

The majority of the aircraft built at this site are DA-40 Stars and DA-42 Twin Stars, as well as their Airborne Sensors modifications (there’ll be a follow-up on that division here soon 🙂 ). At the time of our visit, most of the aircraft on the assembly line were Twin Stars, so I’ll concentrate on them.

Basically a Star with an additional engine, hidden behind some modifications, the Twin Star was the first twin-engined aircraft designed from the outset to use Diesel principle engines. Ironically, it’s the only Diesel aircraft that received a avgas piston conversion (with two 180 HP IO-360s as seen on the Piper Seminole), but those are few in number despite the waxing and waning fortunes of Thielert, the German company that supplied the first mass produced Diesel engines, the Centurion 1.7 and 2.0.

Sharing pretty much the same basic fuselage as the Star, the DA-42 is a four seater – and along with the aforementioned Seminole, the only twin in this configuration in production today. While the front of the cabin is roomy and airy thanks to that extensively glazed canopy, the rear is a bit claustrophobic and cramped I must say – but at my 1.92 meters, many aircraft are :). But, with twin engine safety and a total fuel burn of a Cessna 172, we can forgive it that :). The Garmin G1000 glass cockpit suite is a standard and playing with it on the demo aircraft I must say it has some amazing features – but this, coupled with FADEC-controlled engines, in my opinion makes the Twin Star a bit too easy to fly. It’s like playing a flight simulator, which may lead to a bout of unfounded self confidence and an erosion in basic piloting (and common sense) skills. The Twin Star almost thinks by itself…

OE-FEF, a specced-up Platinum demo model that I got a ride on later

OE-FEF, a specced-up Platinum demo model that I got a ride on later

For the Twin Star’s specs, you can visit Diamond’s website at: http://www.diamond-air.at/da42_twin_star+M52087573ab0.html

3. The production process

The tour, led by Mr. Dries, took us – as mentioned – through the whole production process. We were allowed to photograph everything we wanted – except the starting procedure for molding and preparing the composites. Though this is a significant process – because all the major components, wings, tail, fuselage, are built here – there’ll still be plenty to see as all of those are put together.

It all begins here. Composite materials like fiberglass (green) and carbon fibre (black) are moulded, shaped and impregnated separately before being put together into their final shape, as seen here. After this is complete, the aircraft will be disassembled again for painting and systems installation

It all begins here. Composite materials like fiberglass (green) and carbon fibre (black) are molded, shaped and impregnated separately before being put together into their final shape, as seen here. After this is complete, the aircraft will be disassembled again for painting and systems installation

As the aircraft is being built, it progresses through the several interconnected hangars, coming out finally at the other side of the airfield. This ensures a steady and clean flow through the factory and prevents… traffic jams :).

Inner (I think) wing elements, with flaps being fitted and calibrated.

Outer wing elements, with flaps being fitted and calibrated.

A jigsaw puzzle. Wingroots, engine bays and control surfaces are shown here, painted and ready for reassembly onto the aircraft.

The jigsaw puzzle. Wingroots, engine bays and control surfaces are shown here, painted and ready for reassembly onto the aircraft.

A bit of the same here. These fuselage joint elements bear most of the dynamic loads on the aircraft in flight, as they transfer the lift generated by the wing onto the fuselage

A bit of the same here. These fuselage joint elements bear most of the dynamic loads on the aircraft in flight, as they transfer the lift generated by the wing onto the fuselage

Starting to grow into a recogniseable aircraft again. The elements from the previous photos are here being joined to the rest of the fuselage

Starting to grow into a recognizable aircraft again. The elements from the previous photos are here being joined to the rest of the fuselage, while on the inside the G1000 system and some avionics would soon be fitted

Next, mounting the engines on the frame. Once properly loaded, the aircraft can lowered onto their landing gear and stand on their feet freely like the example in the background

Next, mounting the engines on the frame. Once properly loaded, the aircraft can be lowered onto their landing gear and stand on their feet freely like the example in the background

The Twin Star's piece de resistance - the Thielert Centurion 2.0 engine. Both the 1.7 and 2.0 develop the same 135 HP, the difference being in capacity - 1.7 vs 2.0 liters, far less than an equivalent avgas engine - and some changes to the turbocharger system. A condensed mass of wires and pipes, this is not a purpose-built aircraft engine, but a converted and heavily-modified Mercedes roadcar Diesel tweaked to accept more volatile Jet A fuel

The Twin Star's (former) piece de resistance - the Thielert Centurion 2.0 engine. Both the 1.7 and 2.0 develop the same 135 HP, the difference being in capacity - 1.7 vs 2.0 liters, far less than in an equivalent avgas engine - and some changes to the turbocharger system. A condensed mass of wires and pipes, this is not a purpose-built aircraft engine, but a converted and heavily-modified Mercedes roadcar Diesel tweaked to accept more volatile Jet A fuel. Despite that, the fuel consumption is less than half of that of similar avgas engines, with the additional benefit that - at least in Europe - Jet A is considerably cheaper than avgas

With the wings on, the aircraft are towed to the next hangar for systems assembly. Most of the basic framework for the electrics, as well as the G1000 suite, had already been fitted during structural assembly

With the wings on, the aircraft are towed to the next hangar for systems assembly. Most of the basic framework for the electrics had already been fitted during structural assembly

Nearing completion. This DA-42MPP - Multi-Purpose Platform - will eventually join the Diamond Airborne Sensing fleet also stationed at Wiener Neustadt

Nearing completion. This DA-42MPP - Multi-Purpose Platform - will eventually join the Diamond Airborne Sensing fleet also stationed at Wiener Neustadt

Engine controls and instruments being connected to the engine

Engine controls and instruments being connected to the engine. Unlike the Star and Twin Star, the DA-20 Katana sports a Rotax 4 cyl avgas engine, which comes in 80 and 100 HP normally aspirated versions, and a "top-of-the-line" 115 HP turbocharged model (though I must admit I've never seen that one on a Katana)

Almost done. Systems test, checking whether everything works as advertised

Almost done. Systems test, checking whether everything inside works as advertised

With the diagnostics done, the aircraft is essentially complete - and just in time for a wash to clean up residue, oil and fingerprints. Once fully done in the factory, it will be flight tested by a test pilot to see whether everything actually works in flight, which will also give the engines a chance to deconserve

With the diagnostics done, the aircraft is essentially complete - and just in time for a wash to clean up residue, oil, grease and fingerprints. Once fully done in the factory, it will be flight tested by a test pilot to see whether everything actually works in flight, which will also give the engines a chance to deconserve

Final checks on another example. The grey stripes on the wing and stabilizers are the de-icing system elements

Final checks on another example. The grey stripes on the wing and stabilizers are the de-icing system elements, permitting the little Twin Star to boldly go where even bigger aircraft can't

Set and done. Depending on the customer's wishes, the aircraft can now be painted in a number of stock or custom paintschemes

Set and done. Depending on the customer's wishes, the aircraft can now be painted in a number of stock or custom paintschemes

One such example already painted - and costing €700.000 :)

One such example already painted - and costing €700.000 🙂

The end product shining in the afternoon light

The end product shining in the afternoon light

4. Aboard the Twin Star

As well as being shown around the place, all of us – assorted journalists and wannabes like me 🙂 – got a demo flight on the previously pictured OE-FEF Platinum Twin Star. The flight, though short at about 15 minutes, was designed to showcase the G1000 suite, as well as the aircraft’s handling and engine-out characteristics. Being just a photographer – and not a cameraman – I was relegated to the back seat with a friend, denying me the opportunity I had dearly wanted: to fly the TStar myself. But be it as it may, the rear seat wasn’t all that bad – apart from being a bit cramped for a person my size as I already menioned.

Lifting off Wiener Neustadt's 1,067 m runway 10 to the sight of six brand new, factory fresh Twin Stars waiting outside after assembly. The big grille you see on the nacelle is the coolant system radiatior - being originally a car engine, the Centurion is water cooled.

Lifting off Wiener Neustadt's 1,067 m runway 10 to the sight of six brand new, factory fresh Twin Stars waiting outside after assembly. The big grille you see on the nacelle is the coolant radiator - being originally a car engine, the Centurion is water cooled

The takeoff performance was very good even fully loaded – and don’t let the puny 135 HP engines fool you. When you have to turn a prop up front, torque is what you need. The more torque you have, the bigger the prop you can turn, making better use of the available power. And a turbocharged Diesel has enough torque to go around, so the takeoff and climb performance shouldn’t be surprising.

Another subjective observation I made is that the Twin Star appears to be fairly loud in the cabin. I’ve flown on our aeroclub Piper Seneca III – an old, 70-tech aircraft with big, mean six cylinder engines and soundproofing from the Ford Model T – and it was noticeably quieter than the TStar. The excellent David Clark headphones in OE-FEF, wired into a comprehensive intercom system, greatly helped matters though, but one would have expected the aircraft to be somewhat quieter.

A view of the picturesque Austrian countryside, with the foothills of the Alps in the distance

A view of the picturesque Austrian countryside, with the foothills of the Alps in the distance

While we were climbing, our pilot showed off some of the G1000’s capabilities. Describing those would take a couple of dozen pages – and is common knowledge on the net – so I’ll skip that. But suffice to say that everything you really need, you’ll find it in there somewhere. But I stay by my earlier comment that a glass cockpit of this sophistication can be a double-edged sword, despite its cool factor and greatly increased reliability over the old steam gauge cockpits. It’s easy to forget basic navigation and flying skills when you have a computer running the show.

Typical composite reflections add to a general feel of "clean" and "precise" of the TStar

Typical composite reflections add to a general feel of "clean" and "precise" about the TStar

After we’ve reached what I judged to be about 3,000 feet (didn’t bother to look at the altitude readout on the G1000), the real demonstration started – what good is a twin if you can’t kill off an engine inflight? 🙂 Not being a display of showing off, but a very worthwhile safety demo – international aviation regulations state that all twin engined aircraft have to be able to maintain altitude on the power of one engine. Naturally, that altitude is lower than with both engines, but it’s better than losing it you’ll agree.

What would have been a worrying sight in normal cirumstances is here an excellent display of the TStar's fine engine-out handling.

What would have been a worrying sight in normal cirumstances is here an excellent display of the TStar's fine engine-out handling.

After that was done with, the pilot flew a some random gentle maneuvers in the aerodrome zone above LOAN and offered the controls to the almost pale cameraman sitting upfront – who promptly declined. I was about to explode at that point, cause I had wanted to do that, but was ousted by someone with better credentials and a third of the guts (though – to compensate – the guy had trice my girth 🙂 ).

Some flying fun after the serious stuff had been taken care of

Some fun flying after the serious stuff had been taken care of

Soon enough, our 15 minutes were up, so the we turned back to the field. Either to demonstrate the TStar’s descent capabilities with everything hanging out – gear and full flaps – or simply to shave off some time, the pilot flew a tight, high speed descending turn toward RWY 10, lining up less than 500 meters from the threshold.

Tight right base for RWY 10, with both the runway and the Diamond works easily and clearly visible

Tight right base for RWY 10, with both the runway and the Diamond works easily and clearly visible

Going down the fast way. You can see the proximity of the runway to the rest of the town... there must be some awesome spotting positions here :)

Going down the fast way. You can see the nearness of the runway to the rest of the town... there must be some awesome spotting positions here 🙂

Given the TStar’s low weight and some glider-ish characteristics inherited from the Star – which inherited those from the Katana, which itself dates back to the HK-36 Dimona motorglider – landing was predictably soft with little flaring needed. Despite the diminutive size of the wheels, I remember the brakes being quite powerful, with the aircraft stopping in about 300-350 meters (though it could do better I presume if you really hit the pedals).

There being still a few people in line for the flight, we got out of the aircraft pretty quickly, but not before I managed to snap a shot of the panel (unfortunately with the G1000 off).

The simple and uncluttered cockpit of the TStar. You don't really have much to push or play with in there, a single throttle level for each engine - the prop and mix being FADEC-controlled - a starting switch or two and lights and heating. Excuse the prints, but in the process of showing of various bits of info on the displays, touching them is inevitable

The simple and uncluttered cockpit of the TStar. You don't really have much to push or play with in here, a single throttle level for each engine - the prop and mix being FADEC-controlled - a starting switch or two and lights and heating. Excuse the prints, but in the process of showing of various bits of info on the displays, touching them is inevitable

Getting ready to go back out there after a two-minute turnaround

Getting ready to go back out there after a quick two-minute turnaround

All in all, the TStar is a sweet little machine and an excellent showcase of what is possible with present technology, brining single-engine economy into the reliable twin engine world. Coupled with the G1000 and docile and forgiving handling, the Twin Star is well on the way to becoming  a very popular tourer, possibly reactivating a the four-seat twin niche that many manufacturers have abandoned some years ago. But – and I’m sorry about restating this again and again – it’s too… protective of its pilot, both in handling and pilotage, to be the ultimate tourer in my book.

4 thoughts on “Tech – Where Little Planes Come From: A Visit to the Diamond Aircraft Factory, February 2008

  1. Nice report.

    I hope to be visiting the Factory in July when the FIA Round The World 2009 flight starts from there. I am looking forward to my visit, and from your report and photos, I don’t think we will be disappointed.

    Regards

    Simon

    • Simon,

      Glad you liked the report! Though our visit was planned in well advance by Diamond themselves, I think they also offer private tours – but it shouldn’t be an issue since they’ll probably open everything up for such an event.

      Be sure to also visit the Airborne Sensors hangar. This is Diamond’s airborne specialists division, flying mostly DA-42s equipped with a wide range of exotic – and rather pricey – optical sensors. You may even find some one-of aircraft in there – we saw the wingless D-Jet European prototype in there, while the DA-50 Super Star prototype was parked just outside.

      Regards,

      Boran

  2. Pingback: Pages tagged "aircraft spotting"

  3. I have to describe my visit to the museum for homework.But i can’t find anything about the museum and the things inside it.

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