The French aviation industry is amongst the oldest in the world. National interest, state organised flying clubs and subsidies, gave rise to a wealth of small manufacturers. Even when these aircraft companies became State-owned and were re-organized on a regional basis in the 1950s, the number of novel designs in the light aircraft marketplace was far greater than in the U.K. or Germany, for example.
It was in 1972 that Pierre Robin and Jean Délémontez (of Jodel fame) came together to design the Avions Robin DR400 four-seat cabin monoplane. This was to be produced by the Robin concern, and used a wing design that was straight out of the Jodel ‘playbook’, with heavily cranked outer wing sections. Just like the vast majority of Miles Aircraft designs, it was mostly built of wood. This type of construction has many advantages, in that there are no prominent joint lines between metal panels (the wooden structure is covered with polyester fabric, then ‘doped’ and painted), no rivets, of course, and the natural sound-absorbing and vibration-damping characteristics of wood mean that the aircraft is remarkably quiet in flight. The large amount of dihedral on the outer wing panels has other benefits; if you release the controls in flight, the aircraft tends to ‘weathercock’, back into a ‘wings level’ attitude. In this respect it is rather like very early aircraft such as the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c, which had impressive inherent stability.
The DR400-180 Régent model is powered by a four-cylinder Lycoming O-360-A3A of 180hp, driving a two-bladed Sensenich propeller. The low-drag wing, wooden construction, carefully spatted undercarriage, economical engine, and 120kts cruise all combine to give an maximum touring range of 900 miles. This makes for a fine ‘family’ aircraft, and the innocuous handling means that the DR400 is also suitable as a club/instructional machine.
A delightful Avions Robin DR400-180 Régent, G-LARA, is shown here at Cotswold Airport, Kemble, Gloucestershire, with some dark clouds looming in the background. This pretty machine has been owned for nearly 20 years by Kenneth and Catherine Gallaway, and G-LARA has carried them far and wide!
Sadly, after passing through many owners – Centre Est Aéronautique, Avions Pierre Robin, Constructions Aéronautiques de Bourgogne, APEX Industries, CEAPR - the production of the DR400 family ceased in 2008 (CEAPR never actually produced aircraft, just spares). There is, understandably, a very strong second-hand market for these fine aircraft (a total of over 1,200 of the various models were produced), with the cost of a 1988 model, for example, ranging from £24,000 – £56,000, at 2011 prices.
The one major snag with the DR400 was that EASA was compelled to issue an Airworthiness Directive, AD: 2011-0076, regarding engine failure in DR400 aircraft, caused by the break-up and ingestion of parts of the air filter, due to the capability of said filter to be inadvertantly installed upside down during servicing.
The really good news is that a new company called Finch Aircraft, of Dijon, France – comprising mainly ex-Dassault personnel – has re-instituted production of the Avions Robin designs, with detail improvements and modernizations. Once more, you can buy a new DR400-180 Regent, in the U.K., from the Robin specialists Mistral Aviation Ltd (about £155,000 plus tax). Pretty soon – following certification – the ECOFLYER DR400 with the Centurion TAE diesel engine (capable of running on Jet A-1 or automotive diesel) will be on the market. The DR400 certainly has a bright future ahead of it!