Although we doubt they would admit as much, the marketers of the new Columbia 300 must love other general aviation ads. What better foil for a company pitching a slick, new-age, all-composite airframe touted to be everything a Beech, Piper, Cessna or Mooney is not.
After years of complaints about nothing new in general aviation, the Columbia 300 from Lancair/Pacific Aviation Composites (PAC) truly is refreshing, even though its not nearly as radical as the market hype might suggest.
Our view is that if this model is successful-and we think it has genuine promise- because conceptually, its only a little bit new, goes a little bit faster and costs less than the standard issue high-performance airplane. Thats no mean feat. But PAC hasnt unbottled the genie here. Lancair-from whence PAC emerged-learned long ago that a big engine up front combined with attention to aerodynamics yields speed. The Columbia has a large cabin for a four-place airplane and slippery aerodynamics, but without the 310 horsepower IO-550 up front, a 190-knot cruise speed would be but a dream.
What PAC still has to prove, however, is that it can hang in long enough to make the transition to a production airplane company, turn out airframes without payload hobbled by overweight and develop a reputation for service and support. Its still too soon to judge any of this but thus far, we like what we see.
What It Is
First, the name: The Columbia 300 trades under the name Lancair and although it springs from a very successful line of kit-built speedsters, the 300 is being certified and built by Pacific Aviation Composite, a separate company funded by Asian capital.
The Columbia is among a few composite airplanes to have received type certification. The fuselage shell, wing and most control surfaces are a honeycomb sandwich of pre-impregnated or pre-preg fiberglass around a honeycomb interior.
Pre-preg fiberglass means the fibrous material is impregnated with catalyzed epoxy resin. The honeycomb sandwich is assembled in molds of the wing, fuselage and control surfaces. Air pressure fixtures clamp the layers together during heat curing. A thin wire mesh just beneath the skin provides lightning protection, heretofore a composite bugaboo.
Structural components such as ribs, bulkheads and spars are constructed in the same manner, although where additional strength is needed, such as in spars, carbon fiber is added to the honeycomb sandwich. The result is astonishingly strong.
The airplane is certified in the utility category rather than the less demanding normal category. When the wing was loaded to demonstrate compliance with strength requirements, it exceeded them. According to PAC, the whiffletree test rig ran out of travel before the wing fractured.
Stick and Rudder (Limiter)
With the exception of side sticks and a rudder limiter, the Columbias control system is conventional stuff. Ailerons and elevators are one-piece construction, with rods and bellcranks la Mooney.
The left aileron has a servo tab which decreases control force and likely contributes to the ease of control with the side sticks. Thanks to the servo tab, we noticed a slight break-out force to actuate the ailerons. This is initially disconcerting in turbulence, resulting in over controlling in roll. But after a few minutes, you get used to it and it becomes unnoticeable.
The rudder is also one-piece construction and is actuated by cables which run through plastic tubes, so there are no pulleys and little discernible control friction. One item you dont find on light singles is a rudder limiter.
In the wild old days, rather than trouble themselves with additional testing and design work to certify for spins, manufacturers merely slapped on a placard prohibiting spins. Not anymore.
Because of the increasingly strict FARs on spin resistance, the Columbia has a rudder limiter that snaps on when the power is above 12 inches of manifold pressure and after the stall warning has sounded for two seconds. The limiter restricts rudder travel to 6 degrees either side of center, rather than the normal 12 degrees.
This is effective in preventing spins, but has its own set of procedures should it fail. If it fails on, the airplanes crosswind capability is significantly reduced. If it fails off, dont stall the airplane with power and kick full rudder at the break or you may find yourself in a difficult-to-recover spin.
The Columbias trim system is all electric; no manual reversion. Roll and pitch trim are actuated by a coolie hat atop of the side stick. Rudder trim is actuated by a switch on the lower center panel, with a graphic display with blue and green lights showing the position of the trim tabs.
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 the tab is, but has a quick reference by color once the tab is back to the takeoff position. Very clever.
In keeping with the need for speed, the airframe surfaces are smooth as silk. This means flush fuel filler caps similar to those used on Lancair kitplanes. Although we havent heard of many problems with Lancair kits, flush caps have proven problematical because they allow water migration into the tanks. This will bear watching for airplanes left out in the rain, which we suspect most high-end Lancair kits are not.
Fuel capacity is a generous 98 gallons usable, with 3 gallons unusable per side. The fuel is carried in a wet wing, between the spars, so its reasonably well protected in a crash and quantity doesnt affect the center of gravity.
The fuel lines from the tanks run to the selector valve under the center of the fuselage, in front of the forward wing spar. From a crashworthiness standpoint, the lines are exposed for only a few feet in front of the spar.
The fuel valve has a selector handle which forms the forward portion of the armrest between the front seats. Its shaped to make it clear to which tank the valve points, making it one of the better designs weve seen from the human factors standpoint.
The Columbia has conventional Fowler flaps with settings for takeoff and approach (12 degrees) and landing (40 degrees). To meet certification requirements, the flap extension speeds are painfully slow for an airplane which cruises at over 180 knots.
Approach flaps can be deployed at 129 KIAS with full flaps at 119 KIAS. This means large power reductions are necessary to slow down after a descent, requiring advance planning or, better yet, installing the optional speedbrakes.
Down and Welded
To most pilots, high performance means retractable gear and we suspect many of these guys wouldnt be caught dead owning an airplane unless the gear folds up. On that count, the Columbia scores low on the macho scale, with its fixed tubular steel gear.
Due to the one-piece wing, the gear attachment to the fuselage is well aft, with the legs extending forward. The nose gear is free swiveling through 120 degrees. In flight, a key and cam arrangement centers it. Taxiing requires differential braking, of course.
PAC plans to introduce a retractable gear version of the airplane-as well as turbocharging-sometime in the future. But no one seems to expect more than about 15 knots of additional speed from stowing the wheels. Meanwhile, we like the idea of not having to lug around the weight of a gear retraction system while still being able to outrun most of production singles in the sky.
Where the Columbia departs most radically from the norm is in its interior and panel layout. PAC obviously had a clean sheet and, with few exceptions, theyve filled it creatively. The instrument panel is stunningly free of clutter, with no bulky yokes to block the view of the panel. The panel itself is dominated by the Avidyne Flight Situation Display, an optional add-on.
We found the switches to be well placed and well labeled with the exception of the circuit breakers, which are located low on the left cabin sidewall in front of the pilots seat.
For an airplane thats otherwise thoughtfully designed, this is a significant oversight. The panel is difficult to see and the labels almost impossible to read without head down motion bound to induce vertigo when you can least afford it. In general, the interior is of the sort youd expect to see in an airplane which targets the Cadillac/Lexus owner. The Columbia 300 has a leather interior, teak control sticks and an attractive and functional three-point restraint system.
The cabin feels surprisingly roomy, even though its physically small and the headroom is a bit tight for a tall person. Fit and finish of the prototype was surprisingly good, given that most weve seen have that duct-tape, tapped out look. We suspect production models will be even better. Kudos to PAC on this count.
Buyers can order the Columbia 300 with three avionics options. The standard IFR airplane costs $286,000, which includes an Apollo (UPS Aviation Technologies) SL30 navcom, SL70 transponder, GX60 GPS, SL15 audio panel, Stormscope and S-TEC System Thirty autopilot with altitude hold. The premium IFR package raises the price to $299,700 and includes dual SL30s, SL70 transponder, GX50 GPS, SL15 audio, Stormscope, AlliedSignal KCS 55A HSI System and a KI 256 Flight Director.
There are a number of additional options, notably the Avidyne 10.4-inch Flight Situation Display, which is essentially a multi-function display. As technology changes, this relatively large screen should be usable for datalinks, live ground-based radar and other such wonders.
Also available is a basic avionics package which we didnt consider appropriate for an aircraft of this price class, although an owner wishing to build his own panel might prefer this choice. We were advised that these prices are good for the first 70 airplanes, at which point the price is expected to increase 5 percent.
Thirty years ago, designers paid little mind to crashworthiness. Even shoulder harnesses are a relatively recent innovation. The Columbia 300 scores well on safety and crashworthiness, in our view, with good seatbelts, a crushable structure and energy-absorbing foam seats. But were not fond of the Columbias gullwing doors, which are hinged at the top and open upward. They look sporty but an inadvertent opening in flight or an accident which inverts the airplane on the ground are concerns. Further, gullwings expose the interior to rain during entry and exit and theyve never struck us as being as structurally robust as conventional doors. To its credit, PAC has addressed these worries as well as can be expected. The doors have a redundant latching system designed to keep them closed in flight and theres a door ajar light.
Only time in service will tell if the annunciating system will wear or can be mis-adjusted so that it gives false warnings or fails to warn. The draft POH warned of a door departing the airplane and hitting the tail if it opens in flight. That should be enough incentive to latch the door.
Should the airplane come to a stop inverted, theres an emergency lever on the top center of the cabin to pull the hinges out of both doors, allowing them to be pushed out. For the rescuer, theres also a lever on the underside of the aircraft, with a placard telling how to pull the lever and get the doors open.
Its likely that most inverted situations will mean the airplane is on its top and one wingtip, so one of the doors will open without extraordinary effort.
The placard does tell a rescuer what to do if the airplane is balanced on the top, precisely inverted, although uneven ground may defeat any attempt to open a door. As a back-up, a crash axe under the front of the pilots seat gives the occupants a tool to chop their way out of the airplane.
In a test, a small person from the factory was locked in an inverted fuselage and given instructions get out. She retrieved the axe and battered her way out within a minute. With an unconscious pilot, we doubt the axe could be reached by a rear seat occupant nor is wielding a crash axe within the confines of a small cockpit easy. We also wonder how long it will be before an owner takes the axe out for just a minute and never returns it, despite it being required equipment.
As far as surviving an impact, some composite kitplanes have been known to splinter on impact, giving rise to concern about occupant survival. We were told that the sophisticated honeycomb of the Columbia is likely to crush progressively, absorbing loads, rather than shattering.
Further, all seats have a cushion of hard foam which absorbs a vertical load progressively. The three-point restraint system has inertia reels with the shoulder belt attached to one side of the lap belt. The panel is as far forward as possible and the glareshield is well padded. The biggest benefit is the absence of a control wheel in front of the pilots, a chronic source of injury in crashes.
Aft CG Problems
The Columbias useful load is anticipated to be about 1200 pounds, which should allow a good mix of people and fuel, although well watch to see if the weights of airplanes actually coming off the line allow for that payload. Gross weight is 3400 pounds with a maximum landing weight of 3230 pounds. That means that just over 28 gallons of fuel will have to be burned following a gross weight takeoff before a landing may be made. This, combined with a maximum zero fuel weight which varies with CG, means that the pilot will have to pay attention to loading. Few single-engine owners are familiar with the zero-fuel weight concept, which means that any additional weight above a certain minimum must be fuel only.
The baggage area is cavernous, with three separate zones that must be considered in figuring center of gravity. The maximum baggage allowable, no matter how divided, is 120 pounds. In working several sample weight and balance problems, we noticed that its quite easy to load the airplane out of the aft CG limit.
With just two 200 pounders, 50 pounds of baggage and full fuel, the airplane we flew was loaded at the center of the CG range. With four 200-pound occupants and 120 pounds of baggage, the same airplane was over its landing weight without any fuel. It was also more than 2 inches aft of the CG limit.
Admittedly, the sample airplane had a 2337-pound empty weight and only a 1063-pound useful load, but even adding another 100 pounds of useful load keeps things tight against the CG limits for the pilot wishing to fill the seats with real-world passengers.
We discussed the CG concerns with the PAC staff and were told that they expect production airplanes to be lighter in the aft fuselage than the prototype. This could be easier said than done and is reminiscent of 35-series Bonanzas, many of which carry lead bricks in the nose to compensate for an aft-tending CG. Well be interested to see the weight and balance on production airplanes coming off the line. We recommend the purchase of the user friendly weight and balance plotter from American Aeronautics (800-FLYINCG), which calculates loadings on airplanes with zero fuel weights and maximum landing weights in a matter of seconds.
Flying the Columbia is conventional in every way. Well, almost. Getting into the cabin requires a somewhat awkward dance across those leather seats-ladies, lose your high heels. But once in, seating position is comfortable and visibility adequate, if not excellent.
Start and run-up are ho-hum and even without a steerable nosewheel, taxi control is brisk and positive. For run-up, the back-up fuel boost pump is set to the armed position. A fuel pressure sensing switch turns on theback-up boost pump and activates a red fuel light on the annunciator panel should the engine-driven fuel pump fail and fuel pressure be lost.
Once in the air, the switch is turned off. Otherwise the back-up boost pump is only used for priming prior to start and vapor suppression on hot days or high altitudes. The system seems flexible but has some subtleties which will have to be studied carefully by the pilot in order to handle the failure of the engine-driven fuel pump in all conditions.
During takeoff, we found no need for brake tapping after applying power. Rotation at 70 knots indicated and a climb at best rate yielded well over 1000 FPM at a comfortable deck angle. Recommended cruise climb speed-20 knots faster-gives better vis on the nose but still allows a kilofoot of climb.
We did notice uncomfortable tail wagging in turbulence and we would like to see a yaw damper certified for this airframe, to match its $300,000 price tag. As mentioned, aileron break-out force causes a degree of overcontrol in turbulence, which, with the induced yaw, is mildly aggravating until you adjust. We got comfortable with the ailerons but couldnt stop the tail wobble in turbulence.
The side stick controller requires but a few minutes to master. The stick gearing is appropriate, roll control is light and positive without being twitchy and the stick-force-per-G gradient feels absolutely linear. Chief Engineer Dieter Kohler told us that the stick position is such that its almost impossible to load 4Gs on the airframe. Having had to work hard to get 3Gs, we agree.
The coolie hat trim works intuitively with only minor excursions in the wrong axis. Should the trim system fail, holding constant control pressure will be wearing on the pilot and will demand a landing before long. The downside of the side stick is the inability to change hands. It also means the autopilot is a must on long trips. Other than the tail waggle, we find little to criticize in handling at any speed from stall to well into the yellow arc. Pitch control is satisfactory, although it does take a healthy pull to induce more than 2Gs. The designers have managed to match good maneuverability for a passenger airplane with adequate stability in pitch. The airplane stays where its put and returns to trimmed airspeed without much delay or hunting.
Stalls are a non-event. The elevator up travel is limited enough that theres never a true break. We suspect its not possible to spin the airplane from a power off, 1G entry and the ailerons and rudders remain fully effective throughout what passes for a stall.
Columbia demo pilots delight in having the newly exposed roll and turn the airplane rapidly while flying with the stick all the way aft and the stall warning blaring. Adding power to above 12 inches of manifold pressure was supposed to activate the rudder limiter, but it didnt work on our flight. The check pilot mentioned that the system was triggered by throttle position, much like a landing gear warning horn. As with any gadget, be ready for it to malfunction.
At 10,500 feet, full throttle and 2500 RPM (about 65 percent power) we recorded a true airspeed of 185 knots at a weight about 500 pounds below gross. PAC hopes to deliver 190 knots at gross weight and it looks like theyre in the neighborhood.
Fuel burn is about 16 GPH so with 98 gallons usable and two or three people in the airplane, 1100-miles plus is a reasonable still-air range. Lean it back aggressively by running lean of peak-thats doable, given the engines tuned induction system-and we suspect an eight hour endurance is not out of reach.
Cabin noise level is what you expect in a high-performance airplane: Slightly too loud. Bose ANR headsets are an option with the airplane and you need them. Thus far, no one has truly solved the cabin noise problem, PAC included.
In approaching to land, the Columbia has a Mooney problem: High descent speed but a low flap speed. Again, planning the descent is a must. The visual picture on final is expansive and the nose doesnt block it when in the landing flare. Slow speed control is crisp, despite the seeming lack of leverage with the side stick.
A major unknown with the Columbia is how well PAC will support it. Initially, buyers will not only come to Bend, Oregon for three days of ground and flight training, but the purchase price will also include school for a mechanic.
Such programs for mechanics have been common for turbine aircraft and were happy to see it in a piston airplane. The average mechanic can handle the TCM IO-550 but dealing with a composite airframe wont be as simple. Speaking of the engine, its a variant of the powerplant used in the Mooney Ovation and has earned a good service reputation. The Mooney version is de-rated to 270 HP, by dint of RPM limiting.
The warranty is expected to be two years or 740 hours for the engine, prop and moving parts; three years for the avionics through Apollo/UPS and five years or 900 hours for the airframe.
For the first few years, the inevitable service bulletins and ADs will be covered under warranty. When asked what the company intended to do with regard to paying for ADs out of warranty, PAC says it doesnt know yet. PAC will be using a technique on repairs for the Columbia which has worked well on the Lancair kitplanes. The user simply e-mails digital photographs of the area which needs repair to the factory. The answer comes by e-mail or phone consultation with both sides looking at the photos.
Theres risk in buying any newly certificated airplane and the Columbia 300 is no exception. When Cessna, Piper , Beech and Mooney were developing new types, the rule of thumb was to avoid the first year of production so as to allow the engineers to figure out what they had done wrong and allow the production guys to marry the parts without mistakes.
Pacific Aircraft Composites wants to do it right up front but theyve never built a production aircraft, although Lancair has a rep for quality kit parts. We suspect there will be inevitable problems with the early models but PAC appears determined to correct these quickly. On paper, the airplane appears to be an excellent value but, alas, this is still a moving target. We dont yet know how fast the production models will go and what the actual payloads will be.
But one thing appears certain: Although it doesnt rewrite the laws of aerodynamics, the Columbia represents a solid, incremental improvement in value, performance and safety when compared to current models, in our view.
If the conventional competition is, say, the Mooney Ovation, the Columbia is slightly faster, carries a bit more and costs significantly less. If the next-gen competition is the Cirrus SR20, the Columbia wins handily on speed and payload, but not cost. But Mooney and others have been delivering and supporting airplanes for years; PAC now has to prove it can do the same.
Our chief reservation is the Columbias aft-tending CG, which shouldnt be acceptable in a new airplane. The accident history has shown that if pilots are given the slightest opportunity to load out of CG, they will. We think this needs to be fixed, forthwith. Minor issues-the reliability of the rudder limiter and poorly designed breaker panel-are hardly showstoppers but need attention.
Nothing weve seen or heard suggests that PAC wont forge ahead and deliver production airplanes, fixing problems as they go.
We think the Columbia is a worthy addition to the single-engine market and if PAC takes care of business, it will make its mark.
Also With This Article
Click here to view the Columbia 300 Checklist.
Click here to view “So Where Are the Airplanes, Exactly?”
Click here to view “Columbia Crash: Pilot Error Likely.”
Click here to view “The Columbia’s Not-So-Fast Company.”
-by Rick Durden
Rick Durden is an aviation attorney, writer and owner of a Piper Aztec.