Plastic Airplanes

by Philip Greenspun, ATP, CFII in November 2007, lightly updated in May 2011

Site Home : Flying : One Article

For long cross-country trips with a friend and a dog, one really needs a 4-seat airplane. Buying a plane of any kind goes against the conventional (male) pilot wisdom of "If it floats, flies, or fucks... rent it". And in fact nothing could be easier than renting a 4-seat Cessna 172. However the cost becomes prohibitive if one wants to hop from city to city and hang onto the rental airplane, not necessarily using it every day, for months at a time. For a bit less money and a lot more hassle, one can have a much more nicely designed airplane, of which the three best-known examples are the Cirrus SR20/SR22, Columbia/Cessna 350/400, and Diamond DA40. These airplanes are fast and clean despite having the fixed landing gear that is essential for novice pilots. They also happen to be made of a mixture of carbon fiber reinforced plastic or glass fiber reinforced plastic. In other words, plastic!

The author has owned the Diamond Star DA40 and flown it all over North America and the Caribbean (700 hours). The author current owns a Cirrus SR20 and has flown it from Boston to the arctic ocean in Nunavut then down south to Alaska before returning to Boston (500+ hours of experience). The author has conducted biennial flight reviews in the Cessna 400 (formerly "Columbia 400").

The Cirrus SR20

I've written a complete review of the Cirrus SR20 based on my ownership experience. Below are some notes that I wrote up in early 2002 after my friend Gary and I went to Augusta, Maine for our first ride in a 600-hour demo SR20.
Traveling by plane turns out to be exceptionally convenient if you're visiting an airport. So we rented a 27-year-old Cessna 172 to make the trip up there from Boston. The 1.5-hour ride in the Cessna would have been enough to convince anyone of the virtues of a modern airplane. As I put on my shoulder harness, a trim piece that holds the harness up against the roof of the plane fell off. Part of the instrument panel was loose on the lower right side of the airplane, i.e., right in front of me. After I adjusted my seat it refused to lock into position, calling to mind the following mournful August 17, 2001 Associated Press item:
PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) -- Cessna Aircraft Co. was responsible for a fiery plane crash that injured three people in 1989, a jury ruled in returning a record $480 million verdict against the company.

Plaintiffs lawyers said the verdict -- including $400 million in punitive damages and $80 million in compensatory damages -- is the largest in aviation history.

Plaintiffs claimed the crash was caused by a defective seat latching mechanism. The suit alleged the pilot's seat suddenly slid back as he was attempting to land and caused the nose to pitch up because he had the control yoke in his grasp.

The single-engine Cessna 185 then crashed and burned in a small clearing amid thick woods 75 yards from the runway at Coastal Airport, a small Pensacola landing strip.

"Virtually everybody who's ever flown a Cessna at least has had a seat slip of their own or has heard of a friend who has had a seat slip," Arthur Alan Wolk, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said in an interview.

Once we were up in the air, I kept looking for the panoramic view through an unobstructed Plexiglass canopy that I get from the Diamond Katana in which I train. Instead I found myself looking at roof support rails, wing struts, and the underside of the wing. The Katana gets toasty warm even on cold days, partly from the sunlight streaming in but mostly because the cockpit is tightly sealed and the cabin heat is powerful. The Cessna by contrast was so drafty that even with full cabin heat my feet were frozen and the rest of me, encased in a Goretex down parka, was chilly.

My friend is an excellent conscientious pilot. Nonetheless the lack of a headrest in the seats and the easy-to-slip-out-of shoulder harness didn't inspire any confidence in the survivability of a crash in the Cessna 172. Not to mention the fact that the airframe was certified long before the development of 26G European crash standards.

Anyway, we made it to Augusta. The Cirrus in the hangar was a beautifully finished machine and, despite its 600 hours, appeared brand new. Everything seems very logically placed and ergonomically sound. Entry and exit isn't so easy, however, and involves stepping on the wing before going through a gullwing door. Back seat passengers have to work their way around the front seats to get in. It is sort of like riding in the back of a 1974 Camaro except that the seats are leather and you wear a 4-point harness with a slick and comfortable inertia reel on both shoulder straps. These 4-point harnesses are a welcome sight in a composite airplane. Aluminum planes crumple and absorb shock to some extent, which is why so many people have survived crashes in the seemingly dodgy Cessna 172. By contrast composite (plastic) airplanes are super rigid and the cockpits have remained intact after impacts nearing 100Gs. This means you may escape being crushed by collapsing airplane parts but the full force of deceleration must be absorbed by the seats and your body against the seat belts. With two shoulder straps instead of the standard single strap, the damage to ribs and organs should be considerably reduced. (Be careful when wearing these harnesses, though; they tend to drift up so that the lap belt is around your stomach instead of your hips.)

Occupants of the front seats get a more upright and comfortable position than Katana pilots. Legroom is ample. Though I'm 6' tall I had to move the seat forward a bit in order to reach the rudder pedals. Visibility is excellent, much better than the Cessna 172. However, the gullwing doors necessitate thick door pillars on either side of the front cabin. This is a significant obstruction compared to the Katana's canopy or the Diamond DA40 front canopy.

Dog owner alert: getting a big dog into the rear seats without risking scratches on the wing finish would require lifting/throwing the dog into the cabin.

How does it fly? Takeoffs and landings were pretty straightforward and controllable. Once up in the air, however, even this wimpy 200 hp version of the Cirrus proved to be terrifyingly fast. A moment of inattention in the 80 hp Katana and you've climbed 100 feet above your assigned altitude. The same moment in the SR20 and you find that you've drifted up 500 feet. Going from a 105-knot Katana/Cessna-class aircraft to a 160-knot plane like the Cirrus doesn't seem like such a huge deal but in fact everything is happening much faster. It really isn't all that practical to fly the Cirrus as slow as you'd fly a trainer. To get a noise measurement comparable to the C172 we wanted to cruise at 105 knots, for example. This required cutting power to such an extent that the cylinder head temperature was falling below the green arc. I.e., the engine was getting overcooled in the -7 C air. We ended up having to extend 50 percent flaps and increase the engine power. This might be the world's easiest to fly 160-knot airplane but low-hour pilots will benefit from a fair amount of dual instruction.

The SR20 has a split-airfoil wing design that ensures the wings will stall near the fuselage first, leaving the outer wings and ailerons unstalled. The result is very controllable behavior right up to and including the stall. The Cirrus felt as least as good in slow flight and power-off stalls as the Diamond Katana trainer, though of course everything is happening 20 knots faster (The Cirrus stalls at 56 knots with full flaps, 65 knots clean; the Katana stalls at 37 knots with flaps and 41 knots clean). [Three months after my test flight, a couple of new SR-22 owners had a less happy experience doing stalls in an SR22; see NTSB accident report NYC02FA089.]

One of the most modern and beloved features of the Cirrus is its side yoke. This looks like a stick but works like a yoke. If you're flying left seat, you operate it with your left hand. The yoke itself falls naturally into your hand when your arm is on the armrest. Push straight in and the nose pitches down. Pull straight out and the nose pitches up. Twist to the left and the plane rolls to the left. Twist to the right and the plane rolls to the right. The twisting effort will give your left wrist a good workout if you don't have the plane precisely trimmed but fortunately trimming is made much convenient by the provision of a little 4-way trim switch right on the yoke handle. This looks sort of like the power mirror control on a car and you use it to adjust elevator and aileron trim. The same switch, if pushed straight down, will disengage the autopilot.

The side yoke is better than the huge "steering wheel" central yokes of most airplanes in that it frees up sightlines to instruments and displays on the panel. The side yoke is better than a floor-mounted stick in that it frees up your lap for holding charts and clipboards and so forth. All of this said, based on my limited flying experience I prefer the Katana-style floor-mounted center stick. With a true stick the same kinds of motions and muscles are used for all flight control. There is some support for this among experts. Here's an excerpt from a 1998 USENET posting from Mary Shafer, SR-71 Flying Qualities Lead Engineer at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center:

"Right now side sticks are stylish, but many flying qualities engineers (like myself) and pilots are of the opinion that center sticks are better, at least in high-performance aircraft."

How about the multi-function display (MFD)? It is certainly big and any computer nerd will tell you that the three most important things in user interface are screen space, screen space, and screen space. I had heard that it would be hard to read in bright light but we had no trouble on a fairly sunny day just after noon. None of us had any idea how to operate the MFD but its default mode seems to be to show a schematic map of your airplane plotted against the nearest airports. Very useful and comforting though maybe you could get much of the same benefit from a Garmin 530 mounted in any old plane. One thing that the Cirrus MFD does that the Garmin won't is walk you through checklists.

Interior noise levels were moderate at low speeds, 83-84 dbA SPL at 105 knots (no flaps) against 92 dbA SPL for the Cessna 172 that we'd flown up. If you push the Cirrus up to 140 knots, however, the noise level also comes up to around 93 dbA. For some perspective on these numbers, note that OSHA limits worker exposure to 90 dbA for 8 hours and mandates periodic testing of workers continuously exposed to 85 dbA or louder noise. Noise above 70 dbA is considered fatiguing. A Honda Accord going 70 MPH generates an interior noise of 66 dbA.

From the AOPA ePilot, Vol 4(2), March 22, 2002:

When a Cirrus SR20 went down in a field in Lexington, Kentucky, last Saturday it marked the first time that the rocket-launched parachute system had been activated by a customer. But there is uncertainty as to why the parachute didn't activate immediately. The airplane's owner, Paul Heflin, and another instrument-rated pilot, Ben Ditty, were going to do practice instrument approaches in actual conditions at Blue Grass Airport when they experienced instrument failure after takeoff, Heflin told "ePilot." Heflin said that the pilots found themselves in an unusual attitude in the clouds. Heflin said he reported to controllers that he was pulling the activation handle at 2,000 feet agl. After there were no immediate signs that it had launched, Heflin said he continued to pull it numerous times in the manner in which he had been trained. But the chute didn't fire until after the airplane landed in field several miles from the airport, he said. Neither pilot was injured.

Heflin said engineers later determined that he had exerted a force of 100 pounds or more on the handle and that he had pulled at the proper angle. Heflin said that the rocket canister was found about 50 feet from the aircraft. Heflin had complied with a service alert bulletin issued by Cirrus that required immediate modification to the activation cable that may have prevented the parachute system from launching. But he did not comply with another service bulletin designed, with a modification, to reduce the force necessary to activate the chute. Cirrus sent out a message to owners Sunday recommending that they comply with the second bulletin before the next flight. The company also advised, "Pull down with both hands-- hard!" Cirrus spokesman Ian Bentley said that "it's impossible to speculate" at this point what exactly happened and that "nobody is pointing fingers." An NTSB investigation is currently under way.

A feature that we did not try is the airframe parachute. If the engine fails when you're low to the ground and can't see any reasonable landing strips, deploy the ballistic parachute and you and all of your passengers will float to the ground for a really-painful-for-your-insurance-company-but-maybe-not-so-bad-for-you landing. Experienced pilots tend to scoff at the utility of this feature and indeed only one of the 250+ Cirrus planes flying has ever required a deployment (see note at right). A good pilot would rather glide to a landing than destroy the airplane and hit the ground with a force that is compared to being dropped from 10 feet off the ground. But what about guys like me? Novice pilots? And what if some of the internal parts fail and the control surfaces become disconnected from the yoke or stuck? My friend Richard has flown roughly 1500 hours in 20 years. He says that only once would he have considered pulling the 'chute. A mechanic had reinstalled fuel intake lines into the wing tanks of his Mooney 231 such that they could only reach about half of the fuel. So with the right tank fuel gauge reading 1/2 full, the engine quit at 6000' above a tree-filled swamp. There were no roads. Fortunately Richard had a nearly full left tank and was able to switch tanks and restart the engine before the Mooney had glided all the way to the ground.

Today I have 1350 additional hours of flying experience and 200 more in the Cirrus. What can I add that isn't in my review? The Cirrus is a great passenger's airplane and it is a good airplane for people who want to get from Point A to Point B in non-icing conditions. The Cirrus is not fun to hand-fly and is not a good trainer. It is a good final airplane for someone who is never going to want to spend a lot of money on an airplane or want to go some place on his or her own schedule. A fair number of Cirrus owners would be alive today if they had saved themselves $100,000 by purchasing a 10-year-old turbocharged de-iced Mooney that can climb safely through potentially ice-filled clouds and get on top of the weather.

Cirrus was started by a couple of brothers from Wisconsin, then sold to First Islamic Investment Bank, a group of investors from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in August 2001.

Diamond Star DA40

I've written a complete review of the Diamond DA40 based on my ownership experience. Below are some notes that I wrote up in early 2002 after Richard and I on a demo ride in a 2001 DA40.
"This has the best visibility of any airplane I've ever flown," said normally grumpy Richard (the 1500-hour pilot mentioned above). Earlier in the day we'd spent 1.5 hours playing around in a DA20 Katana, which offers superb visibility through its clear canopy. The DA40 is better. The beltline is even lower than in the Katana. Because the DA40 is a four-seater, the wings are farther behind the pilot's seat than in the Katana. The only way that you're going to be more at one with the sky is in a sailplane.

Handling the DA40 was a treat both on the ground and in the air. Despite having a similar castering nosewheel design, the DA40 is somehow easier to taxi than either the DA20 Katana or the Cirrus. Once in the air the familiar floor-mounted center stick was completely natural for someone like me who had trained in the Katana. The DA40 does not have aileron trim like the Cirrus and the elevator trim can be controlled either from a switch on top of the stick or, if that should fail, from a standard trim wheel in between the front seats. The top of the stick also has controls to disengage the autopilot or to reset the autopilot's heading.

As a novice pilot whose trimming techniques are imperfect, I greatly preferred the stick to the Cirrus's side yoke. On the Cirrus if I didn't get the aileron trim correct, I was exerting a lot of force with my wrist muscles. If your trim isn't just right in the DA40 you have the full power of your arms available. I also thought the stick was nicer and more intuitive for making radical aileron adjustments to compensate for winds when taxiing.

Surprisingly, the DA40 was easier to fly than the DA20 Katana. The extra weight and size somehow seems to make the airplane more stable during approaches to landing. And the DA40's behavior in very slow flight, power-off stalls, and power-on stalls was predictable. Because there is no tendency for either wing to drop, it can be tough to tell that the DA40 is actually stalled. You've had the stick all the way back for awhile. The airspeed indicator has dropped below 20 knots. There is a very mild buffeting. But the plane still seems to be flying and the wings are level.

Experienced pilots will appreciate the DA40's three engine controls: throttle, prop speed, and mixture. Not me, though. As a confused beginner, I'd like to have one control: power. The Cirrus and the old Rotax-powered DA20 Katanas are closer to my personal Nirvana in that each has two engine controls. Sound like a trivial point? We were doing touch and gos in the DA40. I (15 hours) was left seat. Chris (5000 hours) was right seat. Richard (1500 hours) was back seat. I forgot to push the prop speed control to max on final and the real pilots in the airplane didn't notice. After we were rolling down the runway I pushed the throttle full forward for maximum power. The DA40 seemed to climb a bit less eagerly back up into the air. Only at 300' above the ground did I notice that we weren't in fact getting maximum power because the prop was constrained to spin at 2400 RPM. Why didn't we end up testing the 26G safety cockpit in the trees of Lawrence? It was a long runway. It was at sea level. It was a cold January day in Massachusetts the air was therefore dense. But this is the kind of mistake that you simply can't make in an airplane with fewer controls.

The DA40 interior is spacious and cramped at the same time. Getting in and out is easy. Front seat entry is similar to that on the Katana. You step on a special step and grab a handhold above the panel and then can step onto the floor of the aircraft. No need to step on the seats. Rear seat passengers have their own gullwing door (should be very handy for dogs). Once the rear seat passengers are in place, they have an awesome amount of space and plenty of legroom even for this 6' tall person. Like the front seats, the rear seats are equipped with car-style 3-point inertia-reel seatbelts. The view from the rear seat is an amazing 180-degree panorama out the teardrop . This would be the ultimate sightseeing tour plane for groups of 3 plus one pilot (half fuel, no luggage, and make sure those 3 tourists aren't too fat). I would have been happy to ride in the back seat all day.

What's the cramped part? Sadly it is the pilot's seat in a DA40, better in the 2002 and subsequent model years but still not comfortable for flights longer than two hours. The seat does not slide forward and back. Rather the pedals are adjustable as on a Katana. That's fine except that although I'm only 6' tall, the tops of my thighs were touching the bottom of the instrument panel.

Space between the front seats is in short supply in the DA40. In the Cirrus the seats are separated by a useful center storage console, sort of like what you'd see in a sports car. This is just big enough to keep Cirrus pilots from rubbing elbows. The seats on the DA40 are closer together.

Interior noise in the DA40 was approximately 92 dbA SPL at 125 knots indicated airspeed (full cruise power at 3000 feet). This was the same as the Cessna 172 at 105 knots. Slowing down to 110 brought the noise down to 91 dbA. At 105 we were at 90. By pulling the prop speed back to 2240 RPM and slowing down to 65 knots, we were able to bring interior noise down substantially to 85 dbA. Bottom line: looks like the Cirrus is the winner in the interior quietness department at slow speeds but at standard cruise speeds the planes are similarly noisy inside (of course the Cirrus is covering more miles per hour at its cruise). Both airplanes meet tough standards for noise pollution as perceived from the ground.

The Cirrus and DA40 have very different instrument panel styles. The Cirrus looks like it was injection molded and designed for mass production. A lot of the controls are comfy rounded plastic pieces. The Diamond looks like it was handmade by craftsmen. A lot of the controls are machined aluminum pieces. The Cirrus looks more like a car inside; the Diamond looks more like a traditional airplane.

One complaint that some people had with the early Katanas has been resolved to some extent with the DA40: roasting underneath the canopy during long taxis on hot summer days. The DA40 canopy opens from the back and has a special notch so that it can be left open during the taxi. Plus there are lots of windows and air vents.

An interesting feature of the DA40 is its modular construction. An aircraft mechanic can take the whole plane apart in a day and put it into half of a shipping container. Then you can ship the whole thing to Europe and reassemble it for a few months of recreational cross-country trips in the Old World. If you fly your DA40 to the London, Ontario factory they can take it apart and ship it over to their Austrian counterparts who will put it back together for you. The overall cost is probably in the same $5000 range as hiring a ferry pilot, buying ferry insurance, etc., but the aircraft is spared the 40 hours of pounding across the North Atlantic.

Diamond is owned by the Dries family of Austria, which was wealthy enough to invest tens of $millions in their Canadian expansion factory. So they ought to have reasonable staying power.

January 2005 update: After 700 hours of time logged in the DA40 I can say that this initial impression proved more or less correct. The plane was always a delight to hand fly. It was hot inside on sunny days. It was simple and inexpensive to maintain, with the exception of a couple of items that hadn't existed on the earlier Diamond airplanes, e.g., the MT Prop and the KAP-140 autopilot. I ended up wishing for an adjustable seat with thicker padding.

February 2006 update: I have been doing some flying with a local pilot who bought a 2005 DA40 with the Garmin 1000 glass cockpit. I wrote up some of my impressions in an Avidyne versus Garmin comparison.

The 2007 DA40 with the Garmin autopilot will be a truly great airplane. If you're relatively rich and want a plane in which to get your Private and Instrument airplane, the DA40 is the perfect first plane to own. If you're not quite as rich and lookign for a plane to lease back to a local flight school, the DA40 is a great choice because the plane is so easy to fly that the renters won't wreck the plane and the insurance will be much lower than if you tried doing this with, say, a Cirrus SR20. If you're buying this plane in which to get your ratings, don't worry too much about the KAP-140 autopilot. The King autopilot is perfectly adequate for most purposes and you're going to want to hand-fly most of the time. If this will be the last airplane that you buy, I recommend waiting for the Garmin autopilot.

Cessna Corvalis 350/400, formerly Columbia, formerly Lancair

The Cessna Corvalis/Cessna 400/Columbia 400 and its simpler cousin, the 350, are composite designs with similar performance to the Cirrus SR22 and Cirrus SR22 Turbo. These airplanes have some excellent hand-flying qualities, but have never proved popular with customers. According to some airplane salesmen I've interviewed, nearly everyone who test-flies both the Cirrus and the Cessna Corvalis ends up buying the Cirrus. The Corvalis seems cramped inside compared to the Cirrus and the controls are spread out more, with some overhead, some underneath the central armrest, and the remainder in front of the pilot on the panel.

As the Columbia 350/400, the airplane had insufficient market appeal to keep its manufacturer in business. The Bend, Oregon company went bankrupt in 2007. Production in Oregon was shut down in 2009. Cessna restarted production with a component manufacturing operation in Mexico and a final assembly operation in Independence, Kansas.

One of the big selling points for the Corvalis was its ostensibly greater structural strength than the Cirrus's. The Corvalis was certified in Utility category whereas the Cirrus is a Normal category aircraft. This marketing claim was called into question on December 10, 2010 when the FAA issued Emergency Airworthiness Directive 2010-26-53 because of a Cessna Corvalis that "suffered a significant structural failure in the wing during a production acceptance flight test."

Bottom Line (Cirrus versus Diamond)

It is a shame that at prices exceeding $300,000 you have to compromise, but you do. The Diamond Star DA40 is the pilot's airplane, the Cirrus SR20 is the passenger's airplane. The DA40 is fun to fly and gets into short runways. The SR20 is more comfortable and gets you from medium-length runway to runway substantially faster, especially if there is a headwind (and as you fly more cross-country trips, you'll discover that there is always a headwind). The DA40 is good for learning. The SR20 might be the last airplane that you buy if your mission calls for a lot of 300 n.m. trips for two people in reasonably good weather.

In my experience, the DA40 is more rugged and somewhat cheaper and easier to own. Insurance for the DA40 is slightly cheaper than SR20 insurance ( is probably the cheapest carrier for the DA40).

Here's a table of safety-related factors for low-time pilots:

Stick or Yoke Feel When Slow same as when fast (springs) sloppy and loose like a Cessna DA40 experience
Approach Speed 75 knots (max weight) 58-71 knots (weight-dependent) DA40 POHs
Takeoff Speed 65-70 knots (max weight) 54-66 knots (weight-dependent) DA40 POHs
Aborted Takeoff Distance 3478 ft. 2158 ft. DA40 USAF test
Autopilot Banks With... persistent aileron trim temporary force on ailerons DA40 experience
Glide Ratio 10.8:1 (windmilling) 8.8:1 (windmilling) or 10.3:1 (prop stopped) Cirrus POHs
Engine Failure Over Water Float down under parachute Ditch and Flip Cirrus common sense
Spin Recovery (theory) "the SR20 is not approved for spins and has not been tested or certified for spin recovery"; apply opposite rudder; deploy parachute if you don't come out of the spin DA40 has been spin-tested; recovery procedure is listed in POH but also a note that spins aren't approved (spins are tough on an IFR instrument suite and spin certification is time-consuming) ? POH
Spin Recovery (practice) NTSB accident report NYC02FA089 A non-factory pilot who intentionally (and illegally) spun a DA40 reported that it "spun gently" and was "not as much fun as spinning a DA20-C1" (the DA20s are spin-approved) DA40 NTSB; private conversation
Crash and Burn? Yes. NTSB accident report LAX01FA145 ("burned wreckage") and NTSB accident report NYC02FA089 No Diamond aircraft has ever burned after crashing. DA40 NTSB, Diamond
okay, let's add some comfort factors in too
Payload Capacity with Full Fuel 520 lbs. 570 lbs. (standard tanks) Diamond POHs for real airplanes
Cabin Width 49 inches 45 inches Cirrus brochures
Range 800 n.m. 600 n.m. (standard tanks) Cirrus brochures
other factors
Upgrade Path SR22, Vision Jet DA42, D-Jet let's see if either jet gets certified brochures
Letting Friends Fly tricky side-yoke simple center stick Diamond experience
Loading Bikes In disassemble into tiny pieces open rear canopy Diamond experience

One difference in safety that is easy to overlook is the spring-loaded yoke on the Cirrus. Whether you are parked on the ramp or flying 150 knots, the resistance to yoke movement is about the same. Ergo, you get no tactile feedback that you are getting slow and are going to stall the airplane. The SR20 may have stopped flying and there are no longer any airloads on the controls, but you don't realize this because you're still pushing against springs. You don't get the subconcious "something's wrong" urge to move the yoke forward that you would get in a Cessna or Piper when the controls got sloppy.

Another unique feature of the Cirrus is the persistent aileron trim and the way that the autopilot uses it. If you are unhappy with what the autopilot on a Diamond, Cessna, or Piper is doing and disconnect it to hand fly, you might have to deal with a plane that is badly out of pitch trim. The autopilot might have been trying to hold altitude despite a power loss, for example, and be trimmed 10 degrees nose up. The Cirrus has aileron trim, which is uncommon in light aircraft. What is even less common, and perhaps unique to the Cirrus, is that the autopilot uses this this persistent trim to bank the airplane. The autopilot might have been trying to turn right, for example, to hold heading in turbulence. You take the plane back and then have to deal with a plane that wants to bank 30 degrees right and pitch up. This is a lot to ask of a novice pilot in the clouds. The only airplanes that I know of with aileron trim are airliners and their autopilots bank the aircraft via some other mechanism; when the airline pilots take the plane back they get whatever aileron trim they'd set before, not what the autopilot was using in order to turn and bank.

The bottom line on safety seems to be in favor of the Diamond. As far as I know, as of February 2006, only one DA40 worldwide has been fatally crashed (botched instrument approach in very low IMC) whereas a Cirrus pilot manages to kill himself every month or so.

Would I do it again?

People often email me asking "Would I buy the Diamond [or Cirrus] again if I had to do it over?" So I'll answer the question here in the article...


I bought the Diamond in order to learn to fly. I bought the Cirrus in order so that I would get a reclining seat, and so that my dog would have a comfortable quiet back seat.

The airport where I operate is so expensive ($550/month hangars, $6.10/gallon Avgas, maintenance, etc.) that the capital cost of the airplanes wasn't a huge factor in the overall cost of flying. The airports that I often fly into can be even more expensive (anywhere in Canada, BOS, IAD, TEB, etc.).

Should you do it?

Should you buy a Cirrus or Diamond ($300,000+) instead of an old Cessna ($30,000+)? If you have $300,000 sitting in a savings account earning 1 percent interest, why not? Life is short, you can't take it with you, and you might as well arrive at your destination a little faster.

If, on the other hand, cost is an object, it is tough to argue that a new Cirrus or Diamond offers a lot more utility than an old $30,000 Cessna 172 augmented by a $1,000 handheld GPS. The old airplane will get you to the same places (actually more places than the Cirrus because the C172 can land shorter). The Cessna will get grounded by the same icing conditions that will ground the Cirrus or Diamond. [An interesting Cessna to consider is the 1977-1980 Skyhawk XP, which has the same smooth 6-cylinder engine as the Cirrus SR20.]

Finally remember that you don't have to buy a new Cirrus or Diamond. A good used one may be purchased for as little as $110,000. The steam gauge variants of these airplanes are almost impossible to sell, so don't pay too much attention to asking price.

The Future

Are these airplanes as good as it will get for general aviation? They are certainly a lot better than the old Cessnas and Pipers and maybe as good as the Beech Bonanza for one third of the cost. But there is a lot of room for improvement.

The reciprocating piston engine powerplants in the airplanes above are relics of the past. It is only a question of time before the engine stops in flight. For reliability what you want is a turbine, but nobody has ever engineered a aircraft turbine engine for mass production or efficient operation at the low power outputs required.

Given the fact that you're going to fly with a piston engine, however, the leaded Avgas-powered Lycomings and Continentals are dinosaurs. A diesel engine uses around 30 percent less fuel per hour at a given level of performance and can run on common Jet A fuel rather than high-octane leaded Avgas. A diesel engine will pollute less than an Avgas-powered engine. A diesel engine may be safer than an Avgas-powered engine due to the lower flammability of the fuel and the cooler exhaust temperature. The pilot's life may be simpler, as the folks put it: "Easy to operate - one power lever only. No mixture, no alternate air, no aux fuel pump, no magneto switches, no mandatory temperature, boost or power restrictions." As is usual with anything green, the Europeans are way ahead of Americans in this area. Diamond started delivering DA40s in Europe and DA42s worldwide with the Thielert TAE 125 diesel engine back around 2004. Unfortunately, Thielert went bankrupt in 2008. Diamond then created its own diesel engine, the Austro Engine E4. Cirrus was making noises about building an SMA diesel-powered version of its plane for European delivery "sometime in 2002" but never shipped an airplane. See NASA started a General Aviation Propulsion Program back in 2004, but seems to have given up on the idea, though survives.

With the Avidyne and Garmin G1000 glass panels, small airframes are catching up to the Boeings in terms of output to the pilot, but what about input? Pressing buttons. Turning dials. Wouldn't it be nicer to speak to the plane? Maybe you wouldn't want to rely on voice recognition software for throttle control. But how about saying "Tune radio to Nashua airport control tower"? Or having the airplane listen in on your ATC conversations and recognize your tail number and put the newly assigned frequency into standby? How come your $50 Android mobile phone can recognize "Navigate to 1432 Main Street" but your $300,000 airplane can't recognize when ATC speaks your tail number and then a new series of digits to tune?

Communicating with Air Traffic Control (ATC) is another area that could use improvement though it seems unlikely to come within our lifetimes. Right now a big collection of airplanes in a given region of the country communicate with ATC on a single open channel. If someone else is talking to ATC, you can't talk. If someone else is talking to ATC you have to listen and may be distracted. If ATC is talking to four other pilots you have to listen to their conversation carefully in case your tail number should be mentioned and the controller is actually saying something to you. If you want to check an ATIS or ASOS broadcast you have to do it while simultaneously listening to your assigned ATC frequency; the combination of these two audio streams may render both unintelligible. If the communication were digital the controllers could choose to broadcast to all pilots in a region, broadcast to a subset of pilots, or send a text or voice message to a particular pilot. Currently pilots who are flying VFR and aren't able to devote attention to the radio may legally choose not to opt into ATC flight following. But those pilots may miss important and relevant warnings of nearby traffic.

Further Discussion

Text and photos Copyright 2002-2011 Philip Greenspun.

Reader's Comments

Glad to hear your learning to fly. In addition to my aviation photography pursuits (, I am also a 4,000 hr Airline Transport Rated pilot, Gold Seal Flight Instructor, and FAA Aviation Safety Counselor. If you ever have any questions that you may want a second opinion on, please don't hesitate to ask. Also, thanks for quoting my friend, Mary Shafer. She's helped me out a lot with some SR-71 photo work. Mary is a wonderful friend, and great admirer of my work.

Anyway, the gist of my post. have you considered the purchase of a NEW Cessna 172 or 182? Cessna began turning them out again a few years ago. I think you'd like the new models. Plus unlike the Cirrus or the Diamond, the windows OPEN, which make them good, inexpensive platforms for aerial photography. I've been shooting from them for over 10 years. and the wing strut is not difficult to work around at all.

Two things I like about 172s: they can fly and land pretty slowly without power (think forced landing), and they are made out of SOFT, ENERGY ABSORBING aluminum. Although I am impressed with the high performance of composite airplanes, the one problem I personally have with most of them is that their best engine out glide speed is fairly high, which means a painful forced landing on anything but a hard surface. The other problem is that while aluminum is relatively soft, and will crumple and absorb and dissipate the energy of a crash before it reaches the occupants, the stiff composite plastics tend to transmit that energy really well to the occupants. Cirrus sort of addresses this by installing an emergency parachute to the airplane itself with a placard stating "Use of this parachute may result in injury or death." Very reassuring! I'm not against flying single engine composite aircraft, But when I fly an F-16, I also have a parachute and ejection seat at my disposal.

All the Best,

Joe Oliva <>
Image: Photo1.jpg

-- Joe Oliva, January 8, 2002

Your comments regarding diesel power are well taken but I'd like to point out that diesel light aircraft power has been the holy grail for over two decades now and it's not clear that we are any closer to seeing it come true.

Here's an article that I wrote on the subject nearly five years ago. Yes, diesels were "right around the corner" then too.

Other background can be found at


-- Gregory Travis, January 10, 2002

Like your pragmatic views concerning "The Future," but not sure about voice activation in a 90db cockpit...

-- Carl Phillips, February 1, 2002
You write: > For long cross-country trips with a friend and a dog, > one really needs a 4-seat airplane.

I'd add: for anything else, a 1946 Piper Cub, Taylorcraft or Aeronca Champ would teach you more about flying, be more fun to fly, and make you feel much more a part of what's going on around you.

Oh, and they're great for long cross-country trips too - if you're not in a hurry. I spent a wonderful summer flying from NJ to ND, down the Mississippi to SC, back to NJ and finally again to ND. I met many, many great people and learnt how to fly that '46 Taylorcraft in every condition imaginable short of IFR.

Ahhh... That was life at 25 - when I'm 50 I'll do it again!

-- Michael Mee, February 9, 2002

What's all this talk about ballistic parachutes? Shut up and die like an aviator, I say!

-- Michael Newton, March 13, 2002
Hi Philip,

I flew our new Cirrus SR20 home today. I might point out in your comparison, the SR20 I bought has a backup electric vacuum pump that automatically comes on if the engine driven one fails (of course V2.0 will be all electric.) Only the AI is vacuum powered. I also have two alternators so if one goes I still have electric. (and 9 V batteries to power the TC if they go as well). Finally the Avidyne is way cool (and a reasonable trade off for the 530 you have vs my two 430's) It shows terrain (with elevation coloring), approaches, towers, airways and way more than the Garmin display. (Still not as good as the MX20 though). The autopilot does not have the cool altitude preset you have but it will fly an ILS localizer and glideslope with less than 1/2 bar deviation (and way better than I can). When you get back from AK you will have to take a ride and let me know what you think. After 4 days of training in Duluth I feel pretty comfortable with the plane but you are right that the higher speeds are more for a new pilot to handle.


PS Hope you are having fun in Alaska.

-- David Abrams, July 20, 2002


I would like to inform that the diesel future has arrived! The DA40 with the Thielert diesel engine is available, and my flying club has received it's first, and is waiting for it's second. The engine is very simple in use with a FADEC taking care of both engine and propeller pitch. The performance can best be illustrated by: 75% power requires 5.2US Gal of Jet A1 per hour, and this gives a cruising speed of approximatelu 120 knots. In Norway, the price of Jet A1 is around 35% of the Avgas price. Now, this is impressive!

Best regards, Fred-Johan Pettersen

-- Fred-Johan Pettersen, October 1, 2003

At the end, when the article ponders a voice-operated interface, I'm reminded of the honda sattelite navagation system I'm familiar with. I realize the author's talking about a system far more capable than that one, but with the voice recognition in the car, it's only really good at simple stuff "Go home", many of the more complicated commands need to be repeated. Also it's almost an axiom, the more stress you're under, the more noise there's likely to be, and the worse a job the recognition software does.

-- Mike Aracic, October 5, 2006
Add a comment | Add a link