February 1, 1994
By Thomas A. Horne
When it comes to general aviation aircraft sales, the United States is unquestionably the big league. While most of the aircraft sold in this country are of American manufacture, industry experts continue to perpetuate the idea that European manufacturers — Aerospatiale, in particular — are poised for a major invasion of the American market.
Given this atmosphere, it's very interesting to note that perhaps the most popular light aircraft in continental Europe are virtually unknown to American pilots.
These are the DR 400s, built of wood and fabric and manufactured by Avions Robin of Darois, France.
In production since 1967, more than 1,500 DR 400s have been sold — most of them to customers in France and Germany. In a pilot universe a fraction of the size of America's, that amounts to a large success. Because of their docile handling characteristics, speed, utility, and low cost of operation, they're especially popular with European flying clubs.
It's hard to mistake a DR 400. Take a drive through the French countryside and keep an eye peeled for one of that nation's 800 or so general aviation airports, 575 of which have a colocated aero club. Chances are, you'll spot at least one fixed-gear single with a canopy and a pair of wings cranked upward in mid-span. Those cranked wings are the DR 400's dead giveaway.
On closer examination, you'd see other trademark features. The huge forward-sliding canopy is certainly one worth emphasizing because it allows easy access to the four-seat cabin, makes for great cockpit visibility, and fits so neatly to the fuselage. The DR 400's wheelpants are also distinctive, if a bit baroque-looking to American eyes. The airplane's Dacron-covered wings and first-rate finish evoke a sense of the classic and are strongly reminiscent of Bellanca singles, North America's wood-wing manufacturer.
To have a firsthand look at the workmanship behind the airplane, we visited the Robin factory. It's a small group of buildings just off a highway west of Dijon and next to the Dijon-Val Suzon airport. Built by company founder Pierre Robin in 1957, the factory just might be the general aviation world's largest wood shop.
Here, Robin's 105 employees crank out two versions of its R3000 (an all-metal, four-seat, low-wing, fixed-gear single powered by a Lycoming O-360), the Robin 200 (an all-metal, two-seat trainer with an 118-horsepower Lycoming O-235 engine), and five versions of the DR 400.
One, the Dauphin 2 + 2, is powered by a Lycoming O-235 of 118 hp. The Dauphin 4 and Major are equipped with Lycoming O-320s rated at 155 and 160 hp, respectively. The Regent and Remo 180 (a glider tug that's very popular in Germany and Switzerland) are both powered by 180-hp Lycoming O- 360s.
When Pierre Robin first went into business, he capitalized on the success of a series of very popular wood-and-fabric French kitplanes designed by Edouard Joly and his son-in-law, Jean Delemontez of the nearby village of Beaune. These airplanes came to be known as Jodels — a contraction of the first syllables of each man's name. The first design, the 26-hp, single-seat D 9 Bebe (the "D" is for Delemontez) came out in 1946 and was soon the rage in postwar France. Like the two-seat models that soon followed, the D 9 sported a canopy and cranked wings. It didn't take long before Jodels were being manufactured under license to several firms across France.
There are conflicting views as to why Joly and Delemontez chose the cranked wings. One holds that Delemontez wanted to hold down the wings' bending moments at the fuselage juncture by making perpendicular wing attach points. The necessary dihedral is provided farther outboard on the wing, by the "cranked-up" portions. Another explanation is more prosaic and humorous: Delemontez' shop wasn't big enough to accommodate a full wingspan, so the outboard sections had to be installed later.
Robin eventually hired Delemontez and began building and selling the first of a new version of the basic Jodel design. This was the DR 100 (the DR stands for Delemontez/Robin), a three-seat version powered by a 90-hp Continental engine. Like all the Jodels, the DR 100 boasted cruising efficiency and low drag; it cruises at 105 KTAS and has a range of 520 nautical miles — not bad for such a small engine. The 160-hp Lycoming O- 320-powered, four-seat DR 250 came next and featured a 140-KTAS cruise and 680-nm range.
Robin's big breakthrough came in 1966 when he converted the DR 250 into a tricycle-gear airplane and upped the power to 180 hp with a Lycoming O-360 engine. Thus was born the DR 253, the immediate forerunner of the DR 400 series. The first DR 400s were basically DR 253s offered with a choice of engines.
Over the years, Robin consistently tried to move away from wood- and-fabric models but found them too popular to discontinue. He tried a number of innovative designs, including the HR 100/285, a four-seat, all- metal retractable with a 285-hp Continental Tiara engine, a 120-gallon fuel capacity, a cruise speed of 168 KTAS, and a range of up to 1,260 nm. It was built between 1974 and 1978 and was one of the very few Tiara- certified airplanes in the world. An all-composite two-seater, the ATL, was built from 1984 to 1990 with hopes it would kick off a generation of new, low-cost European trainers. From 1987 to 1989, Robin even built a Porsche/PFM 3200-powered DR 400 glider tug for the noise-sensitive German and Swiss markets. In fact, Robin built and sold a bewildering number of different and clever designs — some 32 in all.
But the market wanted DR 400s — period. Of the approximately 3,300 airplanes the company ever sold, some 2,600 were variations on the traditional Jodel design. To this day, the DR 400 is living proof that Robin's wood wings won't die; it outsells the company's current line of metal airplanes by ten to one.
A DR 400's life begins when the man in charge of Robin's wood works, Daniel Coulaud, goes to Brussels, Belgium, to choose among the logs imported from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Based on his intuition and experience, he picks the best Douglas fir, Oregon pine, or Sitka spruce. Coulaud's choice is critical. After the wood is cut, it will take a year to cure. Only then will he know if it passes muster as aircraft grade, acceptable to Robin standards. By the way, all of Robin's wood is given rot-proofing and anti-fungus treatments.
It takes about 1,200 man-hours to build a DR 400, and most of the work requires the skill of dedicated craftsmen. It's a process that's long on expertise and short on tooling. Saws and templates, glues, clamps, and sanders are the stock in trade on the DR 400 line, not rivet guns and a whole lot of power tools. Spend a little time in the assembly areas, and you'll see that the workers take great care and pride in practicing their somewhat old-fashioned art.
While we were there, two brand-new DR 400s rolled out the factory doors. One was a Regent — the 180-hp version with side windows that extend to the baggage area. The other was a Dauphin 4, the O-320-powered, 155-hp model with the less expansive side windows.
The Regent was due for immediate delivery to a customer in Lille, France, but weather delays dictated a temporary postponement — long enough for a sample flight.
Inside and out, F-GLKJ was top of the line in all respects: Paint, fit and finish, cabin comfort, and, perhaps most important, the cockpit's complement of equipment. An annunciator panel with eight warning lights is standard, as is the anti-glare, tinted canopy. The cockpit lighting controls are conveniently located just below the copilot's glareshield. In addition to a modest set of Bendix/King avionics, this Regent had a Garmin GPS100 receiver and a Sigtronics intercom system.
There are dual, push/pull-type throttle controls, which give the left-seater a choice of flying hands. The dual control sticks give a sporty look — and feel — to the airplane's handling. Sorry, yokes are unavailable on any of the DR 400s.
Before starting a Robin, you have to make sure that the fuel selector is positioned properly. With the selector in the off position, the starter button is covered by the selector's flange. This is a safety feature intended to help prevent fuel starvation.
Preflight and runup are completely conventional, and for takeoff, flaps are set at 10 degrees, or a tug to the first detent, using the manual flap handle. About the only hurdle an American would face is reading the airspeed indicator with its primary markings in kilometers per hour and its zero reading at the 6 o'clock position on the gauge's face.
Getting from Robin's ramp to the Dijon-Val-Suzon runway is also unconventional. After carefully checking traffic, you cross a highway and then meet up with the taxiways. As you sit there waiting your turn, drivers zip by, apparently well conditioned to the sight of airplanes nosing onto the shoulder, engines at high idle.
Target speeds would be familiar to any pilot used to flying American equipment. After applying full power, rotate at 54 KIAS, then climb out at 70 KIAS (VX) or 81 KIAS (VY). Soon, we're cruising at 2,500 rpm and 2,000 feet, indicating 130 KIAS. True airspeed worked out to be just under 140 KTAS. That's about 10 KTAS faster than a Piper Archer, an airplane with the same engine and comparable weights.
At this setting, the book says the Regent burns 10.2 gallons per hour, which would give a Regent with a standard, 50.2-gallon fuel capacity a 75-percent-power cruise range with IFR reserves of about 570 nm. Because our particular airplane came with an optional 13-gallon auxiliary fuel tank (installed beneath the baggage compartment), we could fly 637 nm and still be legal for IFR.
The DR 400 makes a wonderful touring airplane for pilots and passengers alike. Outstanding visibility is the primary impression, made possible by the low windowsills and the extra window area above the glareshield. This enhanced forward visibility is new this model year and comes thanks to a lower firewall. Previous models had taller firewalls designed to accommodate the Porsche/PFM 3200 engine. This design change also gives the cowling a narrower, sleeker look and yields an extra knot or two in cruise.
Stalls were basically nonevents, with the nose (vigorously) bobbing a few times before pitching slightly over. Airwork was the most fun, with control pressures well balanced and superbly responsive. If the ailerons seemed a tad heavy, the shortcoming is easily overshadowed by the enjoyment of flying with a stick — and the view outside.
Soon, we're at the Beaune airfield, on downwind at 80 KIAS and one notch of flaps. For best results, fly base leg at 75 KIAS, then apply full flaps — a 45-degree deflection — and hold 65 to 70 KIAS on final. (Incidentally, there is very little attitude change with flap extension and, therefore, no requirement for great gobs of retrimming.) Bleed off airspeed to 65 KIAS on short final; time your flare and touchdown properly, and the book says the DR 400 can stop in as little as 820 feet.
Subsequent takeoffs and landings proved the DR 400 simple and straightforward to fly. Though some may look odd, Robin airplanes fly very well. A few times around the patch and you're a pro. On the return to Dijon, a crosswind kicked up, but minimal control corrections easily dealt with the problem. The airplane has demonstrated the ability to handle crosswind components of up to 22 knots.
While the Regent may be the fire-breather of the DR 400 family, the Dauphin 4's big strength is its flexibility in serving as both trainer and a VFR touring aircraft. At a base price of approximately $106,000, the Dauphins are by far the best selling of the DR 400s. A bare-bones Regent goes for about $115,000. These prices are based on an exchange rate of 5.9 francs to the dollar, current as of December 1993 but subject to constant change.
Depending on the flying club, a DR 400 rents for between $85 and $95 per hour — wet. At this writing, French avgas sells for $5 per gallon.
Even so, dedicated fans, an adept sales force (the director of domestic sales, Michel Pelletier, knows all 575 aero club presidents and makes a point of staying current on their families' goings-on), and an efficient product support organization ensures that customers stay happy — and keep buying more.
Avions Pierre Robin was sold in 1988 to the Compagnie Francais Chaufour Investissement (CFCI), a conglomerate with interests in Reims Aviation, which has a long history of building Cessnas under license, and Centrair, a manufacturer of high-performance sailplanes. The new company, under President George Megrelis, continues the tradition of attempting to distance itself from its Jodel roots.
The current emphasis is on marketing the all-metal, four-place R3000 in the United States (where it's already certified), as well as Europe, and obtaining U.S. Primary-category certification of the all- metal, two-seat R 200. American base prices of the R3000 and R 200 are projected as $125,000 and $77,000, respectively.
Two other projects are also in the works. One is to resurrect the R 2160, an aerobatic two-seater that was briefly sold (in 1982 and 1983) in the North American market through a Robin distributorship in Canada. This airplane, like the R 200's precursor — the HR 200 — was designed with the help of Chris Heintz, a former Robin staffer who moved to Canada and began selling kitplanes. Heintz now heads up the Zenair line of kitplanes, which includes the recently introduced Zenair CH 2000, a strong candidate for certification in the Primary category (see " Zenair CH2000: Zen and the Art of New Trainers," December 1993 Pilot).
Robin is currently in the process of setting up a distributor network in the United States — something the company's never had. The goal is to sign up enough distributors to begin selling R 2160s by the end of this year. There are no plans to bring the DR 400 to the U.S. market.
An R3000 airframe powered by an FAM (France Aero Moteur) engine is in the prototype stage. This airplane uses a six-cylinder, 185-hp, electronic-ignition, fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, three-liter automotive engine derived from components from Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo. It's received French certification and is essentially the same V-6 engine that powers the high-performance Renault Safrane automobile.
The FAM 200 project is intended to replace the Porsche/PFM 3200 engines that were used in the DR 400 glider tugs. Like the Porsche engine, the FAM is quiet enough to meet strict noise standards. As it now stands, DR 400s exported to Germany and Switzerland must be equipped with specially designed exhaust systems with large mufflers and other noise- quashing engine modifications.
Through all this, DR 400s continue rolling out the door. In effect, DR 400 sales have been financing the company's other design efforts for two decades. For the sake of the airplane's charm, performance, and popularity, let's hope that Robin's new management doesn't forget who brought them to the dance — and what pays the bills.
For more information, contact Avions Robin, 1, Route de Troyes, 21121 Darois France; 33 80 44 20 61.
All specifications are based on manufacturer's calculations. All performance figures are based on standard day, standard atmosphere, sea level, gross weight conditions unless otherwise noted.
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
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