My circuitous path to the left seat of a seven-seat, million-dollar-plus, jet-A-burning Diamond DA62 twin didn’t come to fruition overnight. In fact, it took several years for me to arrive at this point. It all started with a chance encounter back in the summer of 2011, before the DA62 even existed as a certified product.
I was strolling the grounds of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin with my dad, who’d come down from his farm in nearby Waupaca to see the night airshow. At the Diamond Aircraft booth, we met John Armstrong, an independent Diamond distributor from North Carolina who was working the exhibit. I was showing my dad the DA40 single when we struck up a conversation. John could tell I was enamored with the airplane, which I’ve always admired for its sleek lines, IMAX-movie-screen-like canopy and fun-flying qualities.
Ever the abiding salesman, John suggested I buy one. I explained that I wasn’t quite in a financial position to purchase a new airplane at the moment, what with a baby on the way. But I liked that DA40. That’s when John told me about a new shared-leasing program he was creating with the manufacturer’s blessing called DiamondShare. The idea, he explained, was that one pilot would purchase a new Diamond aircraft and three others would be recruited to lease hours in the airplane at a fixed monthly price. The math worked out so that the monthly payments from the three lessees covered the bank note on the airplane. The owner essentially got a free airplane (minus depreciation), and three pilots gained access to a brand-new Diamond that they otherwise couldn’t afford. The fuel they burned was the only additional expense. Talk about a win-win—or rather a win-win-win-win—for the four pilots involved.
After the show, I spoke with a pilot friend who I knew was interested in a partnership in a DA40. I put him in touch with John, figuring we now had two pilots in the same geographic area who were willing to lease hours—if only we could find someone to buy the airplane. Imagine my surprise when I got a call three weeks later from my friend saying he’d just signed the paperwork to take delivery of a brand-new 2012 DA40, which he planned to base in a hangar at Caldwell Airport near both our homes in northern New Jersey. I was the first of what eventually would be three DiamondShare members in that airplane for what turned out to be a terrific deal for everyone involved. The program worked just as John explained.
The next two years were a period of aviation bliss for me—that is, until the airplane owner announced he was moving to Delaware. What could I do? Poof. Just like that “my” airplane was gone.
I joined a local flying club based out of Morristown Airport that had a gaggle of Skyhawks, but very soon, I was promoted to the position of editor-in-chief at Flying. That meant I would be assuming the lease of a 2013 Cirrus SR22T, which I based for the next two years at Signature Flight Support at KMMU, just a quick hop south from KCDW—and nearer the home my wife and I had moved to in Hunterdon County, now with our second child on the way.
Bliss doesn’t quite describe my time in the SR22T. Aviation nirvana? That’s a closer approximation to what I experienced as I happily flew as the sole pilot of that airplane everywhere, including, of course, to Oshkosh, trips that seemed perfectly tailored for such an exceptional traveling machine. Is there any wonder the SR22 is the best-selling piston GA airplane in the world?
Alas, negotiations with Cirrus to lease the airplane for a third year ran into a hitch when Cirrus needed the airplane back. Again, I was without wings. While considering my options, John and I started talking about possibilities for me to rejoin the DiamondShare program. There was just one problem: No airplane was available in my area. But, he said, he knew of a pilot who was seriously contemplating buying a DA62 and basing it at KMMU. Would I be interested in becoming a member in it, he asked? The word “yes” couldn’t have come out of my mouth any faster.
With the airplane purchase completed and the DA62 safely delivered to its hangar at KMMU—coincidentally in the same spot as I kept the SR22T, right next to the Trump Organization’s corporate Sikorsky S-76—I signed the contract and mailed a sizable check to cover the deposit and first two months of membership. Then I waited. And waited some more. The next step in the process was for me to complete 10 hours of transition training, a requirement of the insurance company. I chose to do the training with Take Flight Aviation, an all-Diamond flight school at Orange County Airport in New York that had just been named the best in the country by AOPA.
As I inquired about my start date for training, I began to understand that there was a problem on the aircraft owner’s end. I was getting an uneasy feeling about the agreement that I had thought was a done deal.
For reasons completely out of my control, the DA62 owner chose not to place his airplane in the DiamondShare program after all. Learning of this unfortunate turn of events, the kind folks at Diamond Aircraft in London, Ontario, agreed to make a factory airplane available to me so I could complete the transition training anyway, with the understanding that if another DA62 joins the DiamondShare program at a local airport, I can immediately sign on as a member.
DA62 vs. the World
In the meantime, I’ve renewed my membership at the local flying club, which operates four nicely equipped Cessna 172SPs. I’ll keep that membership active even if I become a DiamondShare member in another DA62, as a form of backup lift. After all, not every mission requires a seven-passenger twin that can cruise at nearly 200 knots and fly more than 1,000 nautical miles between fill-ups.
As you might imagine, transitioning from steam-gauge Cessna Skyhawks to a brand-new Diamond DA40 to a high-performance Cirrus SR22T and then training to fly the Diamond DA62, only to wind up back in a Skyhawk, has been somewhat emotionally deflating. Trips I used to be able to do nonstop comfortably in three hours or so in the Cirrus take much longer in the 172 and, of course, necessitate a stop for fuel. I’ve easily done Oshkosh to New Jersey nonstop with a good tailwind in the Cirrus; my previous trip in a 172 took nine hours with stops in Michigan and Ohio. But an airplane is an airplane, and as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. Until I bite the bullet and decide to buy an airplane of my own—or find a DA62 to fly—I must accept the rather minor limitations that the sharing economy can place on a pilot like me.
The long-percolating idea of transitioning to the DA62 has naturally led to comparisons between the Diamond twin and the Cirrus single. For several years now, the SR22 has reigned supreme as the top-selling piston GA airplane in the world. When I did the original flight-report article on the then-just-certified DA62 in 2015, I noted it was an exceptional airplane, but I also predicted it wouldn’t sell very well. That prognostication has proved to be true, but I’d also noted in that article the meager sales wouldn’t be the DA62’s fault. Diamond’s flagship twin is an amazing machine—it is, in truth, the most technologically sophisticated and capable GA twin ever produced. But new-airplane buyers are resolutely convinced of the superiority of high-performance piston singles. It’s become so ingrained in their psyches that during the buying process the idea of purchasing a twin rarely factors in when they start researching which airplane to purchase.
That’s a mistake. The DA62 stacks up incredibly well against the SR22, and in many ways, it is the superior airplane. If I was in the market for a new high-performance piston GA airplane, the Cirrus would be on my list, of course, along with the Mooney Ovation and Acclaim Ultra models, Piper M350, and the DA62. Where the DA62 tips the argument in its favor is the redundancy of a second engine. And not just in terms of having two engines in case of an engine failure, although that’s certainly a worthwhile consideration, especially if you’ll be flying long distances in hard IFR, over water or at night. A second engine also offers a redundant power source to run the avionics, important in the tech-heavy era in which we live.
There was a time when moving up to a twin was something every pilot dreamed of doing. The pendulum has swung completely the other way; today, very few pilots want to go anywhere near a twin. Why is that? Flying magazine may bear some of the blame since it was our own Dick Collins who began pointing out many years ago that piston twins were not in fact safer than singles, as many pilots and apparently even insurance providers assumed was the case. In the heyday of the twin movement in the 1960s and ’70s, pilots intuitively understood two engines were better than one. After all, if an engine quit, a twin could continue flying while a single could not.
The reason for the abysmal safety record of twins is that pilots were mishandling their airplanes during single-engine operations—which almost always happened during VMC demonstrations at low altitude during training. It turns out, the second engine wasn’t the problem with piston twins—and, in fact, the IFR accident rate in twins was better than singles. Rather, it was the way pilots were training. Few people at that time grasped the underlying root causes for the twin-versus-single safety-record discrepancy, they only knew there was a problem, and piston twins, with their higher fuel burn and maintenance costs, were no longer sought after by pilots.
Enter the Diamond DA62, which holds the possibility of turning the conventional wisdom on its head. I’ll try to avoid injecting too much hyperbole into the argument, but here are the facts: The DA62, a technological marvel of the 21st century, is so easy to fly and manage that loss of control after an engine failure should be almost unthinkable. What’s more, the engines—based on a Mercedes diesel that has been produced in the millions for cars—is so reliable that the likelihood of an engine failure in flight is extremely remote. Those jet-A-burning Austro AE330 compression-ignition engines are also so efficient that there’s essentially no difference in fuel burn in normal cruise flight between the DA62 and competing high-performance piston singles with their brawny and thirsty gasoline engines.
I quickly learned just how easy the DA62 is to fly compared with older-generation twins during my transition training with Take Flight Aviation when I was paired with one of the school’s instructors, Steve Belknap. Like many modern, Garmin G1000-equipped GA airplanes, the focus in most newer airplanes is on making life easier for the single pilot. An engine-out emergency in the DA62 doesn’t require a litany of memory items that make the pilot look like a one-armed paper hanger as they push and pull on this knob and that, all while banking into the good engine and applying proper rudder input. When I earned my multiengine rating several years ago in a 1972 Piper Seneca II, the number of steps I needed to run through during each simulated engine failure made the training exhausting. In the DA62, I never felt even momentarily taxed.
For an example of how simple this airplane is to operate, take the engine starting procedure. Because the diesel engines are controlled by computer, getting the props spinning involves hitting the master switch, flipping on the engine master, waiting a moment to ensure the glow plug annunciation is out and then pushing the engine-start button. That’s it. The Austro diesels come to life immediately as the electronic engine control units manage rpm automatically and continuously check for faults, while the pilot’s only job is to steal a glance at engine indications. As long as the gauges are in the green, you’re good to go.
The before-takeoff run-up procedure is equally as stress free. It involves setting the parking brake, manually selecting the A and B channels of the EECUs to ensure both are online, and then pushing and holding the engine run-up buttons. Here’s where the magic starts as the AE330’s computers automatically increase power and perform a number of health checks, including cycling the props. The throttles never physically move, and there aren’t any prop levers (or mixture controls) to move in the first place. If no fault messages appear on the G1000 primary flight display when the test sequence is completed, you’re ready for departure.
In my case, that meant dialing in some right-rudder trim, stepping on the brakes, advancing the power to 20 percent, checking the engine indications, and then letting her rip. We departed from KMGJ’s Runway 22 and climbed up to 3,000 feet for some airwork—followed by emergency engine-out procedures and a couple of VMC demonstrations that proved to me that letting the airspeed drop below blue line with one engine running is still ill-advised, even in a twin that’s as easy to fly as this one.
Just how simple is the DA62 to fly? If you’ve ever been behind the controls of a DA40 single, there’s not a whole lot of difference. The DA62 essentially flies like a big DA40, which I like because the bigger airframe soaks up the bumps in turbulence better. Two engines also mean faster cruise speeds, and 192 ktas was easily attainable in straight-and-level flight on this day. During training, I spent most of my time with props pulled way back, flying endless traffic patterns and shooting instrument approaches—it never got old even for a moment. I can scarcely recall ending a training session where I felt less mentally tired, a testament to how pilot-friendly this airplane is.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit the training experience itself had something to do with the ease with which I progressed. If I had to make a comparison, I would say my training with Take Flight was most similar to my experience during my initial checkout in the SR22 with Cirrus at the factory in Duluth, Minnesota—of course, this was upstate New York in June and that was Duluth in January, so they weren’t completely similar experiences.
I was curious to learn what makes Take Flight Aviation so different. What exactly led to its selection as the nation’s top flight school in AOPA’s 2018 Flight Experience Awards? The accolade is predicated on a school receiving top scores from its own clients. Did Take Flight slip each student a 20 as it handed them their ballot? No, it turns out Take Flight’s students really do love this school.
“Our students happily fill out the AOPA survey, and we get a lot of feedback from it,” says Take Flight co-founder Ryan Mayo. “We’ve used the feedback from the form constructively with our instructors to ask, what can we do better? Our primary focus is always on customer service.”
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest requests from flight students is the promise to earn their licenses and ratings quickly, primarily as a way of minimizing their out-of-pocket costs. Mayo says to address this need, Take Flight created “ultra-efficient training programs” written in-house that allow its students to gain proficiency and earn their licenses far more quickly than the national average while also developing piloting skills typically not seen elsewhere. Better pilots more quickly. It’s a novel idea in aviation, but it shouldn’t be, Mayo says.
In studying Take Flight’s business model to determine what makes this school different from hundreds of others around the country, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that Mayo and his team approach the operation as entrepreneurs first and flight instructors second. That enables them to focus on running a top-notch service business concentrated on marketing, operations and customer retention. They don’t think of themselves as just another flight school looking to maximize revenue from their students.
It’s also clear that Take Flight has a clear vision to create something different—and special—that will allow the company to stand out from the competition across the field or around the world. That helps explain the school’s capital-intensive decision to buy a fleet of brand-new modern Diamonds rather than the tired and worn piston trainers that can normally be found on the ramps of many flight schools.
Last, Take Flight seems to do a very good job of focusing on what clients really want, which isn’t more hours put on the Hobbs meter but rather results in the form of obtaining a new pilot certificate or rating.
Mayo says Take Flight collects data on every student who walks through its doors. The school currently has 211 students. The average number of hours to earn a private pilot’s license at the school is 48 hours, versus about 70 as the nationwide average. To keep its student’s flight hours low, Take Flight has created a structured program honed over the past seven years that is 100 percent results-oriented.
It turns out that if you focus on results, and can deliver on your promises, students will be willing to pay more, Mayo says.
“I had a guy come in the other day who’d left another flight school with 75 hours in his logbook, and he hadn’t soloed yet,” Mayo recounts. “I know from experience that his 75 hours at that other school is probably worth about 18 hours of quality training experience. We immediately put him in our syllabus to get him up to speed, again focused on results. There’s no advantage to me having a student taking 70 hours to get their license. I need to get them in and get them out—and when they leave here they will be a knowledgeable, safe and competent pilot because that’s what we train them to be.”