Used Aircraft Guide

August 2015 Issue




Columbia Crashes: Lost Control

As we would expect from an airplane as slippery as a Columbia, runway mishaps and botched go-arounds are the most popular way for its pilots to make it into the NTSB wreck reports. The good news? The reports aren’t littered with Columbia augers. On the other hand, the FAA registry lists less than 700 in service, and that includes the Columbia and Cessna 400 models.

Feedback Wanted: Pilatus PC-12

For the November 2015 issue of Aviation Consumer, our Used Aircraft Guide will be on the Pilatus PC-12 turboprop single. We want to know what it’s like to own these planes, how much they cost to operate, maintain and insure and what they’re like to fly. If you’d like your airplane to appear in the magazine, send us any photographs (full-size, high-resolution) you’d like to share to the email below. We welcome information on mods, support organizations or any other comments. Send correspondence on the PC-12 by September 1, 2015, to:

Columbia 300/350

A certified and speedy four-seat, fixed-gear composite born from the Lancair IV homebuilt. You can pick up an early steam gauge model for a modest $150,000.

What do you get when you mate a sleek and efficient composite airframe to a high-output Continental engine, advanced avionics and an ergonomic interior? Sales—and lots of them. This is evident by Cirrus Aircraft’s success with its SR22. That was the premise behind the original Columbia 300/350, the normally aspirated versions of the company’s flagship Columbia 400, and later Cessna Corvalis series.

Speed was important when the Columbia first hit the market, but the airplane’s greatest initial appeal probably had more to do with not being made of metal or wearing a Beechcraft, Cessna, Mooney or Piper label. It was one of the new-generation singles, spawned by NASA’s AGATE (advanced general aviation transport experiments) program and promised growing small aircraft use in inter-city transportation. Incidentally, the concept also brought forth the Cirrus SR20 and SR22, which proved far more popular. In fact, as of June 2015, Cirrus delivered 6000 aircraft in its 16-year production run. But despite the sales domination, a Columbia 300 or 350 will outrun a Cirrus SR22 by 10 knots or so, and it arguably has more ramp appeal because there just aren’t that many, by comparison. Still, the Columbia does have some disadvantages. Although both the Columbia 300 and earlier SR22s have identical empty and maximum gross takeoff weights, according to the Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest the 300 gives up 150 pounds in full-fuel payload to the SR22, because its tanks are larger. It’s a little more sensitive in loading, too, and lacks the Cirrus’ airframe parachute system. More on weight and balance issues in a moment. And, of course, Columbia is no more, having long been acquired by Cessna during Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

Homebuilt genes

Founded by Lance Neibauer in 1981 as a producer of composite homebuilt aircraft kits, Lancair fielded its first offering in 1985. The kitbuilt Lancair 200, powered by a 100-HP Continental O-200, quickly grew popular and was followed by higher-horsepower versions of the same basic two-seat airframe. In 1990, Lancair began developing a four-seat model, coming up with what is perhaps the company’s most popular kit, the Lancair IV, a retractable-gear screamer. A fixed-gear version soon followed, known as the Lancair ES. Those two kit-built four-seaters served as a foundation for the LC40 model, also known as the Columbia 300. But before the LC40 model arrived, NASA launched AGATE in 1994, which was designed to breathe life into a deflated general aviation market. Huge liability claims had rendered the industry unprofitable a decade earlier, although the higher-end market for turbine-powered aircraft was doing okay, if not thriving. In fact, the only bright spot for piston-powered GA was in the homebuilt, experimental market, where liability issues were minimal.

We can think of worse places to be than the Columbia’s front office, top. Those are Avidyne Entegra screens in the portrait configuration.

Lancair had become a prominent player in that market, and NASA, among others, encouraged development of an FAA-certified aircraft. In 1993, Lancair spun off a new company, Pacific Aviation Composites USA (PAC), in nearby Bend, Oregon, to manufacture certificated aircraft. The first Lancair LC40 prototype flew in July 1996; a certification prototype followed in early 1997 but the 310-HP model wasn’t certified until 1998. That same year saw Cirrus obtain FAA approval of its SR20, with “only” 200 HP but with an airframe parachute and much more of an organization behind it. The Cirrus product took off, soon followed by the 300-HP SR22 in 2000, providing real competition for the LC40-550FG, as the 300 is formally known.

The turbocharged Columbia LC41-550FG/400 came out in 2000 also featuring a glass cockpit developed in part on NASA’s own Columbia 300. That same panel was incorporated into the 300 airframe/engine combination, which became the LC42-550FG, or Columbia 350, type certificated in March 2003.

Wooden control grips house a cooley hat trim switch and the command switch for optional speed brakes, below.

But financing issues plagued PAC. After September 11, 2001, its certified-airplane production ceased while the company sought investors. In January 2003, manufacturing resumed after Composite Technology Research Malaysia (CTRM) bought a controlling interest in PAC for over $50 million. By 2006, CTRM became interested in selling its share of the company.

In July 2005, Neibauer had sold his interest in the kitbuilt models and PAC became Columbia Aircraft. Despite having what most owners felt was a good product, Columbia couldn’t overcome what many perceived to be an unsteady history. That reputation, plus withering competition from Cirrus, forced Columbia into bankruptcy in 2007, culminating with its acquisition by Cessna in November 2007.

Cessna, after offering the 300 and 350, now produces a single version of the once Columbia 400, the TTx. It’s powered by a Continental TSIO-550-C six-cylinder, fuel-injected, twin-turbocharged engine with dual intercoolers—boasting a 235-knot maximum cruise speed. It has Garmin’s G2000 Intrinzic touch avionics suite and a price of around $800,000.

DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION

Columbia aircraft put into service since the mid-1990s, few all-composite piston airplanes actually have received type certification. Because it was certified under the relatively new FAR Part 23, some features, systems and limitation may not be familiar to pilots steeped in, for example, all-metal airplanes of an earlier era. For the Columbia 300/350, the fuselage shell, wings and most control surfaces are a honeycomb sandwich of pre-impregnated—or “pre-preg”—fiberglass around a honeycomb interior. “Pre-preg” means the fiberglass cloth is impregnated with catalyzed epoxy resin. Air pressure fixtures clamp the layers together during heat curing, while a thin wire mesh just beneath the skin provides lightning protection and enables IFR certification, heretofore a composite bugaboo.

Structural components such as ribs, bulkheads and spars are constructed in the same manner. Where additional strength is needed, such as in spars, carbon fiber is added to the honeycomb sandwich. The result is a strong, light airframe, certificated in the utility category instead of the less-demanding normal category. In fact, when the wing was loaded to demonstrate its strength, it exceeded FAA requirements. One of the changes from older certification rules contained in Part 23 is an airframe life limit. The Columbia models’ limits are 25,200 hours, which should be enough. (If you plan to fly one more than that, call us.)

The Columbia stands tall on its gear, which has a castering nosewheel to help save weight. The gull-wing doors have a redundant latching system to help keep them closed in flight.

Because of its composite construction, the airframe comes with some limitations. For example, the type certificate limits exterior colors—the same basic limitation was imposed on Cirrus models—and major repairs “must be accomplished by an appropriate FAA certified person qualified to perform maintenance on composite aircraft structure.” The wizened IA caring for your Skylane and whom you routinely include on your Christmas card list may not qualify.

Other limitations in the type certificate include a maximum operating altitude of 14,000 feet without an FAA-approved oxygen system installed, or 18,000 feet with one. Presumably, this applies even when a non-approved portable system is carried, though we’d be surprised if operators strictly adhered to it. If one wants to climb higher in a Columbia, the 400 is approved for up to FL250. Additionally, maximum zero fuel and minimum flying weights apply. The new TTx has the BiO2 four-place oxygen system.

Systems

With the exception of side sticks and a rudder limiter, the Columbia’s control system is a conventional design. Anyone familiar with a Cirrus will feel right at home. Ailerons and elevators are one-piece construction, incorporating rods and bellcranks, à la Mooney. The left aileron includes a servo tab, which decreases control force and likely contributes to the ease of control with the side sticks. When Aviation Consumer flew an early Columbia 300 as the type was being rolled out, we noticed a slight break-out force to actuate the ailerons. We felt it initially disconcerting in turbulence, resulting in overcontrolling in the roll axis. Our pilot got used to it after a while.

The Columbia’s rudder also is of one-piece construction, actuated by cables running through plastic tubes. No pulleys are used, and there’s little discernible control friction. But it does include an item not usually found on light singles: a rudder limiter. Because of the increasingly strict FARs on spin resistance, the limiter snaps on when power is above 12 inches of manifold pressure and after the stall warning has sounded for two seconds. The limiter restricts rudder travel to six degrees either side of center, rather than the normal 12 degrees.

This is effective in preventing spins. In the wild old days, rather than go to the trouble of performing additional testing and design work to certify for spins, manufacturers merely slapped on a placard prohibiting spins. Not any more.

One thing our evaluation pilot thought was clever is the airplane’s roll and pitch trim system: It’s all-electric, with no manual reversion, and actuated by a coolie hat atop the side stick. Rudder trim is controlled by a switch on the lower center panel, with a graphic display of blue and green lights showing trim tab position. Prior to takeoff, the various switches are moved until the trim lights show only green. Once a trim tab has been moved from the takeoff position, the respective light turns blue so the pilot can see not only how far off center it is, but has a quick reference by color once the tab is back to the takeoff position.

A major difference between the Columbia 300 and the 350 is avionics and gyro power. The earlier 300 models had dual vacuum pumps. Standard equipment included steam gauges in front of the pilot, with a rack of UPS-AT avionics (pre-Garmin units) for talking and squawking. A pair of Avidyne multi-function displays (MFDs) were available options; when installed, they were positioned right-center in the early panels.

All that changed when the 350 came out, using the 400’s systems and panel. For one, it was an all-electric airplane, with a dual bus, dual alternator/battery electrical system eliminating the twin vacuum pumps in the Columbia 300. Continental’s FADEC (full authority digital engine control) engine management system, employing a single lever to control power, mixture and the propeller, was available as an option.

All Columbia 300s are 14-volt airplanes. The 350 started out that way, but the company went to 28-volt systems in 2005, beginning with serial number 42501.

Columbia 300/350