I have been fascinated with airplanes all my life. As a kid, I used to look up in the sky on sunny summer days and see Cessna Skyhawks buzzing high above the city. I have built a number of radio-controlled model airplanes. I finally got my private pilot certificate in 2001. Like the majority of private pilots, I’ve spent plenty of time in Cessnas, including the 150, 152, 172, 177 and 182.
A good friend of mine purchased a 182, so I was lucky to be his copilot for quite a few flights over the years. The 182 is a very nice IFR platform. Stable and reliable, but it feels heavy.
Since I have spent so much time in Cessnas, I know them inside out, and I can land these suckers on the numbers at will, even in strong crosswinds, which I find to be a nice challenge. The downside of Cessnas is that they are relatively slow with regards to their fuel burn. I also dislike the tall instrument panel which blocks much of the forward view. However, it must be said that Cessnas being ubiquitous means that there is a wide choice of used ones for sale, and good bargains can be had. Actually, if you are on a budget and need a 2+2 airplane with decent cruise speed, you might want to take a look at a fixed gear Cessna Cardinal (177) manufactured between 1975 and 1978. With their 180Hp engine and constant speed propellers, they cruise at 130 knots with a reasonable fuel burn.
Back to the DA20. This airplane has its roots as a motorglider. The high aspect ratio of the wings (average chord vs length) and its low drag airfoil makes it an excellent glider. Compared to a Cessna which falls from the sky like a rock when not under power, the DA20 has a 11:1 glide ratio which allows it to glide further distances. This means that you might have a better chance of making it to the runway should the engine quit on base or final, compared to a Cessna.
The pilot and passenger sit ahead of the wing. This, combined with the bubble canopy and low panel make for an outstanding view above, below and in front of the airplane.
The aerodynamic shape of the DA20 makes it very efficient in the air. This is why it can cruise at more than 130 knots, with a small 125 HP Continental engine, fixed propeller and fixed gear.
Compare that to a Cessna 172 SP with 180HP with wheel pants which cruises at 120 knots, at a significanly higher fuel burn rate.
DA20s have a castering nosewheel. You turn by applying differential braking. It doesn’t take long before you get accustomed to this. Secondly, the airplane is controlled via control sticks which are connected to the ailerons and elevator via pushrods, which offer direct control and much better feedback than the cable and pully assemblies of Cessnas. With the stick between your legs in front of the seat, you feel like a fighter pilot. DA20s also have a relatively high idle speed of about 1000 rpm. Any lower, and the engine has a tendency to sputter and die. Someone told me that since the propeller is made of composite materials and is thus lighter than the metallic ones on Cessnas, they have less inertia. That’s all fine and dandy, but at 1000 rpm, the airplane has a tendency to accelerate while taxiing, which forces us to apply the brakes. Needless to say, using the brakes for turning and keeping a reasonable pace on the taxiways means that the brake pads have to be replaced more often than on a Cessna.
As a pilot accustomed to the 172, which has very effective flaps and which drops altitude and speed rapidly when power is reduced, I was surprised by the DA20. First of all, in the downwind leg, do not hesitate to pull the power all the way to idle and hold the nose up in order to slow down sufficiently to be able to drop a first notch of flaps, otherwise it will take forever to slow down.
Secondly, slow down to 65 knots and watch your airspeed like a hawk, applying power only as needed to adjust the glide slope. Drop the second notch of flaps on short final. You will be rewarded with a nice flare and touchdown. Since the DA20 has low wings, it has a stonger ground effect than a Cessna, and as such it can float for several hundred feet before setting down on the runway if you came in too hot.
There are two important downsides to the DA20 which I decided I can live with. The first one is that due to the composite structure, the aircraft is not IFR certified. If you regularly fly long cross country flights and need to fly through bad weather, this is not the airplane for you. In fact I believe that any serious IFR pilot should consider an airplane with an autopilot, as this device considerably lowers the pilot’s workload. The second downside of the DA20 is that it can only carry up to 44 lbs of luggage, roughly two backpacks containing your pajamas and toothbrushes. If like me you travel light, then no problem. Otherwise, a DA40, Cherokee, 172, 177 or Grumman American Tiger might be better suited to your needs.
Another minor thing to consider. While the fuel burn of the DA20 is significanly lower than say, a 172 at the same speeds, maintenance may not be cheaper though. Skyhawks being so ubiquitous means that spare parts are readily available at a reasonable price. Every aviation mechanics knows its way around Skyhawks, which cannot be said of DA20s.
And one last annoying thing. Only a precious few instruments are backlighted, among which the floating compass, radio and GPS. The other instruments (airspeed, attitude, altitmeter, vertical speed indicator, heading indicator (gyro) and the turn coordinator are not, and are only lit by a feeble light originating from the back of the pilot’s head. A quick fix is readily available though, many pilots have installed a battery powered led strip light on the underside of the glare shield.
Recently I flew a DA20-C1 over the multicolored fall foliage of the Eastern townships in Quebec, accompanied by a spectacular scarlet sunset. It was a sweet evening, without turbulence, alone in the sky, everything was quiet in the cockpit, despite the 140 knots ground speed indicated by the GPS. Life is good.