Smooth-As-Glass Trainer

Canadian Skies challenged me to go back to school, so to speak, to test fly the Diamond DA40 trainer. It’s been a long time since I was a student pilot, and I was keen to see how flight training has changed in the three decades since I soloed. 
This is not the article I expected to write. I thought I would be critical of a training aircraft equipped with the latest high-technology avionics; nevertheless, I booked a lesson in the extravagantly-equipped Diamond DA40 Star at Ottawa Aviation Services (OAS). As we’ll see, the experience was educational indeed. 
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The DA40 is a modern composite four-place light airplane produced by Diamond Aircraft Industries Inc. of London, Ont.  When I was a student, a trainer meant a Cessna 150 or 172; mostly tired old airplanes even then, but for lack of an alternative we assumed that they would soldier on forever. Fortunately, Diamond came along with a better idea. In the mid-90s they introduced their DA20 line of two-seat trainers, which look good and fly well, and have been gaining traction against the aging Cessnas ever since. The four-seat version, the DA40, was certified in 2000, and is gradually usurping the venerable Cessna 172 as the preferred flying school advanced trainer and rental ship. 
There are now several variants of the DA40 in service, but the OAS ship is a DA40-180 Diamond Star, powered by a 180-horsepower Lycoming IO-360 engine. With a T-tail, composite structure and hinged canopy, the DA40 is an attractive airplane, but the key difference to the old trainers of my acquaintance is the Garmin G1000 electronic flight instrumentation system (EFIS). Dual large-format colour displays dominate the instrument panel, providing a wealth of capabilities that were not to be found even in airliners when I was a student. The first entry in my logbook was on May 7, 1979, which was just after dinosaurs roamed the earth, and long before anyone thought to put computer displays in cockpits. I couldn’t help but feel a bit anxious about how the presence of so much technology would have changed flight training. Would today’s students be mere button pushers compared to my generation of analog pilots? Admittedly, I was sceptical. And I wondered what it takes to transition to a modern digital cockpit, and whether I was prepared for the newest technology. 
I pitied the poor instructor who would try to teach this old dog some new tricks. Adam Vandeven, OAS’s assistant chief flight instructor, was the lucky guy. At age 27, Vandeven displays a mature and serious approach to aviation that would make student pilots feel they were in good hands – although I allowed myself to wryly recall that I have sweaters older than him. Vandeven learned to fly with the Air Cadets before graduating in 2005 from the Aviation Flight Management Program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont. Since then, he has worked mainly as a flight instructor, amassing a wealth of experience and over 2,200 flight hours. He would be my instructor in the DA40. 
To assess the capabilities of the aircraft, we planned a flight to Smiths Falls, Ont., for a GPS approach, with a touch-and-go landing before returning to Ottawa for a few circuits. 
We stepped outside into a chilly January afternoon, and I followed Vandeven to the DA40. The airplane was better dressed for the cold than I was, with an engine block heater, cowling cover and cockpit area heater. OAS clearly takes good care of their airplanes. In fact, considering that it was a 2005 model year, and subject to rental and training duties, I thought the DA40 was in excellent condition. While Vandeven did the pre-flight inspection, I strapped in. I was quite enamoured of the cockpit design, with its comfortable semi-reclining seats, 1.14-metre (45-inch) wide cabin, and good ol’ control sticks. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Sitting next to a qualified flight instructor, I was on my best behaviour as we rolled down Ottawa’s runway 22 for takeoff. My lack of familiarity with the DA40 was hardly a factor. Tracking the runway centreline was easily managed to the scheduled rotation speed of 59 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS). At an ambient temperature of -1C with a 12 knot headwind component, the published takeoff distance was an impressive 500 feet. After takeoff, Vandeven cued me to retract the flaps, deselect the fuel pump and reduce the propeller speed to 2400 RPM for the climb, all very conventional. 
En route to Smiths Falls, I took a few minutes to take stock of the Diamond four-seater. The cockpit field of view was ample; an important attribute for a trainer in often-busy airspace. From my eye position, the large flat instrument panel glareshield sat just below the horizon, offering a good visual attitude reference, also important for a trainer. Some steep turns and gentle maneuvering showed pleasantly light controls. The control harmony caught my attention, with the roll control forces being slightly heavier than the pitch forces, but by resting my left hand on my knee I could achieve satisfactory precision. I performed a stall in the landing configuration, discovering a very gentle pitch break at 45 KIAS, consistent with the published values. Slow flight demanded conscious rudder footwork to make coordinated turns, a satisfyingly old-fashioned trait. In all, I had to conclude the DA40 was a very benign and conventional airplane; attributes that contribute to making it an effective trainer.
Performance was quite reasonable at our economical power setting of 22 inches of manifold pressure and 2350 RPM, displaying 125 knots true airspeed courtesy of Garmin – and that was with the wheel fairings removed for winter operations.  The flight manual showed a respectable maximum cruising speed of 141 knots true airspeed. The DA40 was fully fuelled with 152 litres (40.2 US gallons) at takeoff, affording us a notional maximum still-air range of about 480 nautical miles at 75 per cent power. With Vandeven and myself onboard, our takeoff weight was roughly one passenger (90 kilograms or 200 pounds) below the maximum permissible weight of 1150 kilograms (2535 pounds), providing a productive trade-off between filling the seats or filling the tanks. 
Having wandered from track a bit, I decided to update our routing direct to Smiths Falls from our current location, and immediately came down with an acute case of Hovering Index Finger.  Vandeven saw me flailing around with the avionics and quickly talked me through the requisite keystrokes. After years of casual encounters with the G1000 system, for some reason I never seem to acquire any proficiency with it. However one might feel about the G1000 interface, designing an integrated avionics system with neither a numeric keypad nor a directional cursor control device is a challenge. Suffice to say that those who use it regularly seem to love it, but operation of the G1000 is syntax-intensive. Garmin strove to keep it simple, but my old brain proved simpler still. With so many features and functions to play with, the G1000 has the potential to monopolize one’s attention, becoming a sort of eye magnet that distracts the pilot from more important things going on outside the airplane. Scan discipline needs to be strongly emphasized during training. In fact, Vandeven readily admitted that acquiring fluency with the G1000 is the major portion of a checkout on the DA40, and that even after they are checked out, most pilots only know a portion of its vast capabilities. 
Those capabilities were well demonstrated during a GPS approach to runway 24 in Smiths Falls (CYSH GPS RNAV24). Vandeven patiently talked my indecisive index finger around the Garmin controls while I loaded the approach procedure from the database. Following a few admittedly unfamiliar keystrokes, the multi-function display showed the routing to the initial approach fix and the transition to final approach, providing instant situational awareness. I engaged the autopilot and let Captain Garmin fly. Vandeven emphasized that the DA40 was typically used as an advanced trainer by OAS, mainly for the instrument flying portion of the professional pilot syllabus. As such, it would be an excellent trainer indeed, with systems and capabilities representative of what pilots will fly when they graduate from training.  
In keeping with a personal tradition, I asked Vandeven my Secret Question: If you could fix or change just one thing about the DA40, what would it be?
He seemed to think for a long time. Students tend to come in a bit fast and really float the landings. I think I’d like to make it easier for the airplane to slow down. I couldn’t help but laugh. If an experienced instructor’s first wish is for more drag in a light airplane, then there was truly little to criticize about the DA40!
I recalled Vandeven’s comments about the DA-40’s tendency to float on landings as we completed our approach to runway 24 at Smiths Falls. I maintained the assigned approach reference speed (VREF) of 71 KIAS with a surprising bit of difficulty, in part because of the light pitch control forces, but mainly because the airspeed tape on the G1000 seemed a bit too lively. Under what were essentially calm conditions, the indicated airspeed was continually bobbing and bouncing ±2 to 3 knots. It seemed to my eye as if the G1000’s air data computer needed a better digital filter; resulting in a tendency to chase variations in indicated airspeed. 
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Climbing from our touch-and-go landing in Smiths Falls, Vandeven poked the digital equipment and programmed a GPS course back to Ottawa. Within seconds, I was following a magenta line on the moving map display. I furrowed my brow, in curmudgeonly reflection that I’m old enough to remember when navigation was a skill. Now it’s a chip. I pulled a sectional chart from my coat. Seen one of these before? I asked him, only half in jest. 
Sure, he replied. Vandeven went on to explain that OAS’ student pilots still learn all the fundamentals of navigation. Casting an eye on all the gee-whiz equipment, I wasn’t sure I wanted to believe him.
They draw track lines and 10 degree drift lines in pencil? I asked.
Yup.
Students learn to do manual groundspeed checks? I prodded. They know the 1-in-60 rule?
Yup. 
I relented, feeling relieved.
My brief exposure to the high-tech nature of modern flight training really forced me to confront some conflicted feelings. I must admit that I was not entirely at peace with the prospect of student pilots training on fancy glass. Does anyone these days remember Richard Bach’s quaint old aviation stories about Drake the Outlaw? Way back in 1974, when I was at the staring-through-the-chain-link-fence stage of my flying career, Richard Bach published an engrossing book of short stories, entitled A Gift of Wings. One of his characters is a renegade flight instructor, Drake, who starts his students’ training by having them build gliders out of bamboo and linen. In Bach’s romantic vision, real pilots learn to fly by feeling the wind lift their handmade wings. I suspect that many pilots of my vintage harbour sympathies for this type of training where the fundamentals prevail. Mind you, I’m not actually suggesting that jumping off a hill on wood-and-wire wings is a substitute for the government-approved syllabus; nevertheless, the sight of a computer-derived wind vector on the DA40’s primary flight display seemed like a sacrilege. Aren’t pilots supposed to learn to sense the wind? Don’t autopilots and moving map displays detract from training? 
Probably not. Modern pilots are going to fly modern airplanes; machines that will demand effective use of technology to be flown safely. I can’t argue that training on such a capable airplane as the DA40 would make a very capable pilot, in the modern context. As an old timer, I have to admit that some of the old fashioned skills we learned don’t apply anymore. Upon reflection, I felt pretty darned good about the DA40’s potential as a trainer: a forgiving and thoroughly conventional airplane with the systems and capabilities to be relevant in a world of digital avionics and glass displays. 
As I turned to leave, my eyes caught a poster on the wall with Ottawa Aviation Services’ motto: We are an ˜old school’ flight school stressing the fundamentals of flying in order to make our customers real pilots. That was exactly what I was looking for; and with that reassurance, I ventured out from my day at the flight school knowing that today’s student pilots are in good hands. 
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Rob Erdos is an experimental test pilot licenced for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. In addition to being an engineering graduate from the Royal Military College, and holding a masters degree in aviation systems research, Rob is a former Canadian Air Force SAR pilot. An avid airplane builder, and a passionate flyer of historical aircraft for Vintage Wings of Canada, Rob flies such iconic planes as the Spitfire and Hurricane.

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