Columbia puts its airframe through punishing test: New CEO donatesLindbergh’s plane to science center

In his first air show appearance as CEO of Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp., Wan Abd Majid turned over the keys of “The New Spirit of St. Louis,” the Columbia 300 Erik Lindbergh used to recreate his grandfather’s historic flight, to the St. Louis Science Center, at this year’s Sun ‘n Fun.

“We’re so happy that the ‘New Spirit of St. Louis’ is coming home,” said Gregg Mayniak, vice president of the science center.

The airplane will become part of the science center’s flight education program. It will be displayed in a building that was used as mission control for Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. That same place was used as mission control for SpaceShipOne’s successful bid to win the $10 million X-Prize in 2004.

In other news, the company reported that it recently completed fatigue analysis on a Columbia airframe equivalent to 25,000 flight hours at loads exceeding the plane’s Utility Category certification levels.

The test was the result of a “once-in-a-lifetime” hail storm that hit the company’s Bend, Ore., headquarters last year, damaging a number of airplanes sitting on the ramp. After repairs, the FAA allowed the company to deliver the planes, but required Columbia to perform a fatigue review, according to Tom Bowen, vice president of engineering.

The 25,000 hours of testing — equivalent to 123 years of aircraft life for a plane flown 200 hours a year — involved applying a load spectrum to the airframe 20%-40% greater than what is required of a normal category airframe, he said. “As far as we know, no other personal aircraft airframe, composite or aluminum, has ever successfully completed such an exhaustive and severe fatigue testing program.”

It seems that no matter what the engineers devised, “the airplane didn’t care,” he added. In fact, a steel structure that was designed to hold the airframe broke during the testing, but not the plane.

“One thing we always hear at air shows is ‘how will these plastic airplanes hold up?'” Bowen said. “Now I can show them this, or just smile and say, ‘just fine.'”

Columbia, which underwent a corporate restructuring just weeks before Sun ‘n Fun, is concentrating many of its efforts now on Lean Manufacturing and Lean Enterprise improvements. A number of employees were furloughed, but are expected to be recalled soon once tooling is upgraded and process improvements implemented. During this time, Columbia continues to deliver about four aircraft a week.

Columbia manufactures the 350 and 400, billed as the world’s fastest certified piston single.

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