“Oh Eight Three, Oh Eight Three” I repeated over and over, as a mantra, staring straight at the guy with the mic, “Oh Eight Three, Oh – Eight – Three.”
“And now, the drawing for the airplane ride,” the speaker crackled across the ramp, “The winning ticket number is “Oh Eight Three, Oh – Eight – Three.”
At a single bound, I was up from my chair and in one leap crossed the tarmac and held the ticket out, half expecting I had misread the number.
“That’s it!” the announcer confirmed, “And you’ve got your choice, the Diamond DA-40 or the Skyhawk.”
I had seen the new shiny Diamond DA-40 sitting on the ramp, with a constant stream of visitors walking around it, peering inside, marveling at its sleekness, at the tidy arrangement of the cockpit and cabin, at its smooth lines with ‘aerodynamic’ of the highest magnitude obvious in its appearance.
Even though my previously owned airplane was a Cessna 172, and that all my rentals at South Ramp had been their fleet of 172s, I was ready for something new.
“The Diamond,” I said, and went right over again, this time to take a careful look at what lay in store.
John Armstrong is, as his business card states, “President & Flying Experience Counselor” for Dominion Aircraft Sales, out of Raleigh.
He asked me about my flying experience and I mumbled something about “used to have a 172”, had some stick time on a Baron and currently crew on the A-26 Invader “Spirit of North Carolina” parked across the ramp.
“Good, you’ll do most of the flying, hop in the left seat,” he said.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
He asked again, “Do you have any experience with glass panels?”
“No,” I answered, “steam gauges only.”
‘Steam gauge’ is a slightly derogatory expression, a throwback to something from the age of steam, like on railroad locomotives, and it refers to the round instruments that got aviation through two World Wars, Viet Nam, and got men to the moon. The Space Shuttle and now most executive aircraft and jet liners all have the modern ‘glass panels’, LCD displays fully integrated into the plane’s systems, including navigation, situational awareness, runway layouts and much, much more.
The engine is a Lycoming IO-360, a ‘real’ airplane engine unlike converted snow mobile or auto engines (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld used to say).
I climbed in and settled into the comfortable leather seat, with the stick right at my hand. Engine start and taxi gave me a few minutes to try to understand what I was looking at, and all of a sudden we were at the end of the taxiway, and John called for clearance.
Cleared for takeoff, I pushed the throttle forward, and was amazed how quickly the plane leaped into the air. “Full throttle,” John reminded me, and I was again overwhelmed and chagrined to see that I had made a part-throttle takeoff. Some pilots shove the throttle forward all at once, some ease the throttle forward during the takeoff roll. Ease the throttle forward in the Diamond and you’re in the air before you reach the stop.
Quickly though, we climbed out and I had a chance to absorb the panel display, and John pointed out more features. I had been momentarily overwhelmed without the conventional ‘six pack’ in front, but sure enough, there was the airspeed ribbon, the altimeter ribbon, heading, horizon and the rest.
John tapped a few buttons and put altitude and heading into the autopilot, and turned on some music on the headset.
“Turn this knob to adjust the heading,” said John as the airplane reached its altitude and I fiddled with it but requested we ditch the music and autopilot so I could hand fly it. I had overcontrolled a bit on takeoff and climbout, but settled down now into trimmed out level flight and took it all in. First of all, we were flying along the face of Wrightsville Beach, NC at 2,500 ft., on a severe clear Carolina Blue Sky day. The control stick responds to feather pressure, but is firm and authoritative at higher inputs.
All too soon the sightseeing part was over and I was instructed to head for home, so took the path along the Cape Fear River and the Battleship North Carolina and downtown Wilmington and made the turn toward ILM.
“Follow the boxes,” John said, and I nodded like I understood, but saw a train of boxes appear, and put the circular position indicator on the first one. “Get ready to turn toward the next one in about 10 seconds,” John said, and I tightened up the turn to intersect it and the rest of them, now nicely arranged into the neat ‘highway in the sky’ and all I had to do was keep the circle (us) in the boxes, the glideslope.
John took the controls about 30 feet off the numbers and all too soon, it was over.
It was an experience like no other. I was impressed from the startup by how quiet it was. Start up a Cessna 172, particularly an old one like my 1956, or the rental fleet of newer ones, and the first impression is that the engine is trying to shake all the rivets loose from vibrating aluminum body and wing panels. The composite carbon fiber construction of this aircraft makes for one continuous structure, not like aluminum substructures riveted and bolted together.
The Diamond DA40 XLT was very, very comfortable, and a total delight to fly. We were cruising with three big guys on board, over 30 gallons of fuel and seeing 145-150kts and the visibility was amazing for everyone. I could see myself enjoying cross country trips to many destinations in this delightful aircraft. The new DiamondShare.com program they are offering also now makes this plane so financially accessible that you’ll likely hear “Diamond Star” on the radio more and more when you fly.
Bill Messer, the lucky winner of this flight describes himself as:
AvGas in my veins since childhood. Two Tonkin Gulf cruises on USS Intrepid in ‘60s, got pilot’s license in early ‘70s. Joined EAA Chapter 172 in 1961. Got my own plane, a 1956 Cessna 172 in late ‘70s and sold it in 1984 when IBM moved me to Raleigh. Got current again after a twenty year lapse in early ‘00s flying rental 172s from ILM. Currently crew on Spirit of North Carolina, a Douglas A-26 Invader based at ILM. Writer-photographer-filmmaker. Regular column in Pender Topsail Post-Voice newspaper.