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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 :).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂 ).
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.
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).
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.