The need for speed — Flying the Columbia 400

Well, it took awhile.

Ever since Sun ‘n Fun 2005, I had been lusting to fly the Columbia 400, touted as the fastest production recip available today. Problem is, they’re selling so fast that Aero Sport Inc., the Columbia dealer for the state of Florida, has difficulty keeping a demonstrator in inventory. In the end, a compromise was worked out: We’d fly an owner’s airplane, based at Aero Sport’s facility on the St. Augustine airport.

First impressions are vital. As I walked through the front door of the FBO, I was immediately confronted with cleanliness, an excellent layout and friendly staff. Were I an airplane owner or prospective buyer, I could easily conclude this was a place I would receive TLC for my bird and professionalism in my dealings.

I was met by Randy Schuette (shoo-ette) whose business card simply states “Business Development.” Translation: he sells, markets, demonstrates, and coordinates with customers, the factory and the distributor.

As we sat down to brief before the flight, the president of Aero Sport, Michael Slingluff, stuck his head into the office. “I know Randy’s going to give you chapter and verse,” he said, “but I’d just like to say that of all the new airplanes we’ve represented, Columbia has the fewest teething problems of any. Every new airplane typically has its initial shakedown problems, but they’re practically nonexistent with any Columbia we’ve received.”

GAN: Randy, time for that chapter and verse. How about a few words on the history of Lancair, which just changed its name to Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp., and the models offered?

Schuette: The original Lancair model 300 was designed by Lance Neibauer as a kit plane, but later certified. He started the Lancair Co. in 1994 in Bend, Ore. The 300 is no longer in production, but is still supported, of course. Right now we offer the Columbia 350 and 400, which are both certified in the utility category and which are built from carbon fiber.

GAN: What’s the difference?

Schuette: Both use the 310 hp Teledyne Continental 550 engine, but the 400 has dual turbochargers and intercoolers, so it’s a lot faster at altitude than the 350. It’ll clock 235 knots at its service ceiling of 25,000 feet and the turbochargers will deliver 85% power (264 hp) all the way up to that altitude. It also has a larger fin and rudder, plus a ventral fin to make it spin resistant.

The base price difference is $75,000. The airplane we’ll fly today is owned by a local doctor who makes regular trips to Miami.

GAN: I haven’t seen any mountains around Florida lately. Why would the good doctor pay an extra $75,000 to commute to Miami when a Columbia 350 would do the job for him? Aren’t the speeds about the same at low altitude?

Schuette: No, even at 8,000 or 10,000 feet, the 400 is appreciably faster. But who knows what facet of an airplane turns somebody on? In the doctor’s case, he wants to go fast and high to get above most of the GA traffic.

GAN: So which model do you sell more of?

Schuette: Right now, the 400 is outselling the 350. Since certification, about 45 Columbia 400s have been delivered.

GAN: What would a well-equipped 400 list out at?

Schuette: Base price is $475,000. If you added built-in oxygen with speed brakes, EMAX engine monitoring, satellite weather and air conditioning, you’d be somewhere near $527,000. If you don’t need A/C, you could pull out $22,500.

GAN: The aircraft has the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra glass cockpit as standard equipment. Where does the buyer get trained on that?

Schuette: Dual Garmin GNS 430s, including communication, navigation, GPS, transponder and an S-TEC 55X autopilot also are standard. We always send one of our instructors to the factory with the customer to take delivery, work off any squawks and make sure the buyer is completely at home and safe in the aircraft by the time he gets back.

GAN: How about conversion training?

Schuette: It’s a requirement. It takes about two and a half to three days, based on the FITS standard. That includes ground school on all the systems and about five or six flight hours. Obviously, it’s insurance-rate driven.

TIME TO FLY

As we approached the Columbia 400, I could already see this wasn’t going to be a ho-hum walkaround. The outer one third of the two-spar wing panels (the horizontal stabilizer also has two spars) are staggered forward so that the inboard wing section stalls first while the outer third is still flying with attendant pushrod-assisted aileron control.

On top of the one-piece wing are optional speed brakes. Dual hinges on the ailerons provide redundancy and a servo on the left aileron reduces control loads to the stick at high speeds.

Wing tanks are wet and contain 98 gallons of combustibles. Landing and taxi lights are installed on the left wing leading edge. Air intakes on the cowl are larger than those of the 350 to supply the turbochargers with adequate air. The Hartzell scimitar three-bladed propeller can be electrically anti-iced.

Columbia is working on electrically heated thermal panels for the wings and tail feathers toward receiving certification in September.

This will not allow owners to fly into known ice, but could save the day for those who inadvertently get into icing conditions.

Accessed by an external door on the left side of the fuselage behind the cabin is the baggage compartment, stressed for 150 lbs. But if you really want to haul a load, the rear two passenger seats can either be laid flat or removed, converting your 400 into an airborne SUV.

Before boarding the aircraft, I asked Schuette whether Columbia had considered retracting the landing gear on the 400 for extra speed. “As you know, everything’s a compromise,” he said. “We’d pick up a few more knots, but at the expense of weight, cost and insurance. Columbia is looking at it, pressurization too, but in the end it’s going to be the customer that decides value versus price.”

Settling into the left seat, I was impressed not only by the quality of the furnishings, but by the ergonomic perfection of the layout. The clamshell doors are held open by snubbers to keep the cabin cool while taxiing. When closed and locked, activation of a switch introduces air into door seals, which reduces air noise in cruise. On the wooden side sticks are buttons for elevator and aileron trim. Directly in front of the pilots are the Entegra screens, vertically mounted to maximize space and between them, the standby artificial horizon, airspeed and altimeter, should the electrons go South. To the left of the pilot’s screen are standby steam gauges for the engine parameters. Mounted on a central pedestal are the Garmin GNS 430s, transponder and S-TEC autopilot. The only critique I could come up with only concerns people built as close to sea level as I am. With the seat far enough forward to get full authority on the rudder pedals, the door handle ended up between the door and the seat back, making it difficult to open and close without sliding the seat back.

I’d heard somewhere the 400 was difficult to start. We had no problems with a conventional start procedure and were soon taxiing to the runway. After engine run-up, I set 11° of flap for takeoff, set trim one notch light above neutral on the panel-mounted “cross” indicator and we were good to go.

“Go full throttle, you may need some right rudder and start unloading about 65 knots,” Schuette instructed.

In less than no time we were off and climbing at best rate speed of 106 kts and bumping 1,500 fpm ROC after picking up the flaps. If I used any rudder I wasn’t conscious of it. Even with the nose-high attitude, visibility was excellent. Climbing through broken clouds with full throttle and 2,500 rpm to 10,500 feet, we leveled off for a speed run. Leaving rpms at 2,500, throttle and mixture were adjusted to render 85% power (high speed cruise). With an OAT of 8° C, true airspeed worked out to steady on 203 knots. I had no doubts whatsoever we could reach 235 kts TAS had we tried a run at 20,000-plus ft. Fuel burn was 25 gph.

As with virtually all glass cockpits, features such as terrain avoidance, weather, traffic and collision avoidance are either part of the system or can be added, consistent with the depth of your wallet. The Avidyne panels are no exception. Diagnostics for engine monitoring are available with the optional EMAX system to keep you on top of any developing trouble.

Time to try the speed brakes. “Just leave the power where it is, pop the brakes and stuff the nose down,” advised Schuette. As I hit the switch, two squarish, scissor-like projections popped up on the top of either wing accompanied by a mild buffet, very little trim change but a dramatic reduction in air speed as we started down at better than 3,000 fpm rate of descent. Breaking off the descent as we entered the yellow arc on the airspeed indicator, we had lost several thousand feet. The idea in keeping the power up is to prevent thermal shock cooling of the engine. Cylinder head temperatures had dropped a mere 20°.

How about stalls? We did one clean and one with full flaps. Thanks to the wing design, full aileron control was available throughout, which also made slow flight on the edge of a stall a breeze.

Landing was almost anticlimactic. For a high performance aircraft, the Columbia 400 is well behaved throughout all airspeed parameters with no surprises. Drop 11° of approach flap at 127 KIAS and the rest (40°) on approach. No gear lowering to fret about.

We held about 80 knots on final and 70 knots over the numbers (stall is 59 kts in landing configuration). A satisfying chirp of the tires and we were on our way back to the hangar. With turbocharged engines, it is necessary to observe a “cool-down” period before switching off, in our case keeping the rpms at or below 1,200 for about 10 minutes.

During this period I was able to reflect upon what a truly amazing aircraft this is. State of the art, wide and comfortable cockpit and cabin, quality furnishings, performance and safety plus, great visibility, air conditioning, oxygen if I want to top the weather, all at a fair price. What more could I ask for? I could ask to grow another six inches so I could reach the door handle!

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