Plastic Trainer

FTLComm - Winnipeg - Friday, June 28, 2002
A Winnipeg flight training centre is using some modern, Canadian made composite aircraft to train its pilots.

When we spotted the five of these birds parked at the training centre's hangar from a distance they looked similar in design to the Beechcraft trainer or Piper's Tomahawk but the sleek design clearly indicated that unlike Beechcraft and Piper this was a "plastic" aircraft.

The use of composites in airframes has been around for a long time and when you consider that with aviation being a year shy of a hundred years old it is understandable that engineers and aircraft designers have tried some interesting materials to make things fly.

Most early aircraft were made of sticks with paper or doped fabric. Wood was used right up until the present in many designs as it is lighter and stronger than most metals and has the ability to remember its shape after being deformed from stress. During world war two aluminum skinned aircraft were pretty much the standard for construction. Some small aircraft continued to be made with steel frames and painted cloth but complete aluminum formed pieces allowed designers to create strong and aerodynamic airframes.

Composites, fibreglass, kevlar and carbon fibres used in an epoxy matrix we popularised by Burt Rutan and his designs and techniques made it from home built aircraft to whole aircraft such as Beechcraft's Starship and a large number of parts on the Harrier.

But the rigours of training pilots to fly require a very sturdy aircraft able to be maintained easily for the many hours it will have to endure and the many hard landing that will be almost standard operations so most flight schools have used aircraft like the Cessna 152, Piper's Archer, and for Canada's military pilots their first aircraft was the Beech Musketeer All metal all tough aircraft that have steadily risen in price to the point that in the 1980 Cessna stopped production even though it was selling the most aircraft of this type.

It was not only the airframes that grew in price but also the power plant. Aircraft engines are the most severely regulated and controlled devices made and the design for an aircraft engine has changed little since the 1930s.

The unusual aircraft you see here is not really unusual at all but went into service nine years ago. It is the London Ontario made Diamond International Katana. Not only is it made of composite (plastic) materials but it is powered by Bombardier Rotax engines. 110hp versions of the same sort of two cycle engine found in a Ski-doo. These are inexpensive engines that must be overhauled or replaced after 1,000 hours of service (just over a 100,000 miles of travel).

Diamond has been churning out these trainers by the thousands and is now the largest manufacturer of this type of aircraft in the world. There are several variations of the basic two place trainer with two versions of Rotax engines and one with a conventional Continental aircraft engine.

They also have a four place version which has similar performance to a Cessna 172 and are in the process of certifying a diesel powered light twin engine machine.

The Diamond Katana trainer cruises at about 110mph, but stalls at a mere 42mph can carry twenty gallons of fuel and two medium sizes pilot/passengers. (Fuel and passengers are limited to 640 pounds) The aircraft needs a little more than a thousand feet of runway to land and take off and its airframe is certified and safe only to a speed of 160mph.

It certainly is a departure for what most of us know of as an aircraft and if you want to find out more go to Diamond's web site and check out the details.