Sizzle sells. If that sizzle is an all-composite fixed-gear single with a modern panel thats faster than most retractables, it sells well. Just ask Cirrus. That sizzle is the premise behind the Columbia (ne Lancair) 300/350, normally aspirated versions of the companys subsequent flagship, the turbocharged Columbia 400. The 300/350s slippery airframe and the large-displacement Continental up front combined for 185 KTAS at 10,500 feet MSL when we first flew an early 300 10 years ago. A lot has happened since then.
Speed was important when the Lancair/Columbia first hit the market, but the airplanes 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 NASAs AGATE (advanced general aviation transport experiments) program and promised growing small aircraft use in inter-city transportation. The concept also brought forth the Cirrus SR20 and SR22, which proved more popular.
The good news is a 300 or 350 will still outrun an SR22 by 10 knots or so, and theyre still rare enough to attract a crowd on many ramps. The bad news is-although both the Columbia 300 and SR22 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. Its 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 been acquired by Cessna during Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
Founded by Lance Neibauer in 1981 as a producer of composite homebuilt aircraft kits, Lancair fielded its first offering in 1985. The kit-built Lancair 200, powered by a Continental O-200 of 100 HP, 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 companys 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 home-built, experimental market, where liability issues were minimal.
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 wasnt 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 NASAs own Columbia 300. That same panel later was incorporated into the 300 airframe/engine combination, which became the LC42-550FG, or Columbia 350, type certificated in March 2003.
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 kit-built models and PAC became Columbia Aircraft. Despite having what most owners felt was a good product, Columbia couldnt overcome what many perceived was 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.
We count some 575 Columbia 300, 350 and 400 models in the FAAs registration database as of fall 2008. Cessna now produces the models as the Cessna 350 (normally aspirated) and Cessna 400 (turbocharged), and says it will add an additional 150 copies to the fleet before 2009 arrives.
Despite the literal flock of Cirrus and 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.)
Because of its composite construction, the airframe comes with some limitations. For example, the type certificate limits exterior colors-the same basic limitation is
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 wed 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.
With the exception of side sticks and a rudder limiter, the Columbias control system is conventional stuff: Anyone familiar with a Cirrus will feel right at home. Ailerons and elevators are one-piece construction, incorporating rods and bellcranks, 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 we flew an early 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 over controlling in the roll axis. Our pilot got used to it after a while .
The Columbias rudder also is of one-piece construction, actuated by cables running through plastic tubes. No pulleys are used, and theres 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 test pilot thought was clever is the airplanes roll and pitch trim system: Its 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 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 UPSAT avionics 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 400s 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. Continentals 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, according to the Bluebook.
In keeping with companys emphasis on speed, exterior airframe surfaces are smooth as silk. Among other things, this means flush fuel filler caps similar to those used on Lancair kitplanes, which have proven problematical on other types. Basically, flush caps dont do as good a job at keeping water out of the tanks, something to bear in mind if your airplane will be left out in the rain. Fuel capacity is a generous 106 gallons total, with 102 usable, carried in a wet wing, between the spars, so its reasonably well protected in a crash and quantity doesnt affect the center of gravity.
Fuel lines 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 valves selector handle 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 human-factor designs weve seen.
The wings include conventional Fowler flaps, with settings for takeoff and approach (12 degrees, with a 129 KIAS limit) and landing (40 degrees, limited to 119 KIAS). To meet certification requirements, the flap extension speeds are painfully slow for an airplane cruising at over 180 knots, which means either large power reductions are necessary to slow down after a descent, the pilot really needs to plan ahead, or both. Some individual aircraft may be equipped from the factory with optional speedbrakes, or they may be added in the field. While we generally can do without speedbrakes, theyre not a bad idea on the Columbia models.
To most pilots, high performance means retractable gear and we suspect many 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 but self-centers in flight. Taxiing requires differential braking, of course, as it does with Cirrus models and many others. While overheated Cirrus brakes have caused fires and at least one airworthiness directive, were not aware of any similar problems among the Columbia fleet.
The Columbias clean-sheet-of-paper approach to instrument panel design resulted
in one stunningly free of clutter, at least when compared to earlier, more traditional designs. As with the Cirrus, there are no bulky yokes to block the panels view. Our flight tester found switches were well-placed and labeled, with one exception.
That exception involves the circuit breakers, which are located low on the left cabin sidewall in front of the pilots seat. The panel is difficult to see and the labels are almost impossible to read without a head-down motion bound to induce vertigo when you can least afford it.
Overall, though, the interior is of the sort youd expect to see in this class of airplane. It has leather seating, teak control sticks and an attractive and functional three-point restraint system. Our tester reported a cabin feeling surprisingly roomy, even though its physically small and the headroom is a bit tight for a tall person. Fit and finish were good, at least in a new, immature model. And, while were positive a few years of use will take its toll on older airplanes, the results cant be as bad as older offerings from the Big Three. Early in the Columbia 300s production, three avionics options were available. The standard IFR package included an UPSAT SL30 navcom, SL70 transponder, GX60 GPS, SL15 audio panel, Stormscope and an S-TEC System Thirty autopilot with altitude hold. The premium IFR package included dual SL30s, SL70 transponder, GX50 GPS, SL15 audio, Stormscope, AlliedSignal KCS 55A HSI System and a KI 256 Flight Director. The third option was a basic avionics package appropriate only as an interim solution until an owner obtains a custom installation. As noted above, some buyers also opted for dual MFDs.
When the 350 and its all-electric panel rolled out, gone were the steam gauges. In their place was the Columbia 400s all-glass panel, based on the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra primary flight display (PFD) and using dual Garmin 430s. Technically an option on the 350, it was one every buyer selected. A major difference between the Columbias FlightMax installation and the same PFD in contemporaneous Cirrus models was its orientation: Columbia aircraft have the display mounted with the long axis vertically, in portrait mode, rather than horizontally as in the offerings from Duluth.
The Columbia 300/350 scores well on safety and crashworthiness, in our view, with good seatbelts, a crushable structure and energy-absorbing foam seats. That said, were not fond of gullwing doors, hinged at the top and opening upward, common to Columbia and Cirrus models. They expose the interior to rain during entry and exit and theyve never struck us as being as structurally robust as conventional doors. Columbia doors have a redundant latching system designed to keep them closed in flight and theres a door ajar light.
Should the airplane come to rest inverted, theres an emergency lever at top center of the cabin interior to pull 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 should open without extraordinary effort. The placard tells 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. 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. Both Columbia models have a maximum gross takeoff weight of 3400 pounds, same as the Cirrus SR22. With a basic empty weight of 2250 for both the SR22 and the Columbia 300, the only real difference in loading the two is full-fuel payload and how it all gets balanced. Meanwhile, the 350 weighs a bit more-2300 pounds empty-so its useful and payload is down about 50 pounds compared to the other two airplanes.
Also, the Columbias come with a maximum landing weight of 3230 pounds. That means just over 28 gallons of fuel-or roughly an hour at takeoff settings-will have to be burned following a gross weight, full-fuel departure before a landing may legally be made. This, combined with a maximum zero fuel weight which varies with CG, means the pilot will have to pay attention to loading, perhaps more carefully than with other models. 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.
In working several sample weight and balance problems with an early 300, we noticed its quite easy to load the airplane out of its aft CG limit. For example, with four 200-pound occupants and 120 pounds of baggage, the same airplane was over its max landing weight without any fuel. It was also more than two inches aft of the 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. Admittedly, our sample airplane was heavy-it had a 2337-pound empty weight and only a 1063-pound useful load.
Before signing on the dotted line for a used Columbia-or any aircraft, for that matter-run a few weight and balance problems using the candidate airplanes POH to see how it stacks up on your typical missions.
Despite all-composite construction, Columbias have relatively simple systems. For example, the 310-HP, top-induction, Continental IO-550-N has been around a few years and mechanics should be familiar with it. The tubular-steel fixed landing gear and castering nosewheel shouldnt pose any Herculean maintenance challenges, either.
Any chronic avionics or panel-related problems should have been sorted out long ago, leaving only the occasional in-service issue to arise. Given the number of shops now familiar with the Avidyne Entegra product, getting quality avionics service shouldnt be a problem, either. Which leaves general airframe and systems issues as the 300/350s only real maintenance bugaboo, of which we cant find much evidence. A search of the FAAs service difficulty report (SDR) and special airworthiness information bulletin (SAIB) databases came up with only seven SDR entries. Six of them involved engine, magneto, prop deicing boots or turbocharger issues. Only one-involving loose main-wheel attach bolts-could be attributed to the airframe itself.
There are a handful of Airworthiness Directives (ADs) pertinent to both the 300 and 350 models. Most recent is AD 2008-06-28, now in its first revision, applying to Avidyne primary flight displays (PFDs) by serial number and may require incorporating new limitations when certain conditions involving incorrect attitude, altitude, and airspeed information for the PFD or backup instruments exist.
Meanwhile, AD 2007-07-06 applies to all Columbia models and requires repetitive inspections of aileron and elevator linear bearings, and control rods, for foreign object debris, scarring, or damage to prevent a jammed control system. This is probably the most onerous AD affecting Columbias.
Another AD, 2006-25-08, requires deactivation of Kelly Aerospace Thermal Systems Thermawing Deice System (also known as E-Vade) if installed on Columbia 350s (and 400s). Some owners are opting to remove the Thermawing system and have TKS installed.
Also, theres AD 2005-02-01, which applies to 300 and 350 models and requires revising takeoff chart distance values in the Airplane Flight Manual (AFM). Post-certification flight testing revealed takeoff distance values could not be duplicated and were as much as 65 percent shorter than required. Finally, AD 2004-06-09 requires inspecting 300 and 350 models fuel pressure transducer for evidence of chafing. A compliance kit may be installed to terminate the AD.
Once Cessna took ownership, a major unknown with the in-service Columbia fleet created by ongoing financial uncertainty was resolved. At the time, Cessna CEO Jack Pelton said the company would invest money in Columbias Bend, Ore., plant, ensure existing owners are looked after and keep making the two aircraft models under the name Cessna 350 and Cessna 400. “The Columbia models are a good fit with our existing product line,” Pelton said in a news release at the time.
“We plan to make significant investments in Bend, in people and operations, to bolster customer satisfaction and business profitability. We will continue to improve quality, reliability and performance as we strive to deliver customer value and fulfill our commitments,” Pelton added. Among the big changes for existing Columbia owners is access to Cessnas full parts and service network.
So far, any early fears Cessna would fail to honor those commitments have proven unfounded. To date, Cessna has earned high marks from Columbia owners on their product support efforts, even if there was some early uncertainty. Given Cessnas long track record of customer support, we see nothing at all here to alarm a potential Columbia 300/350 buyer.
Ive owned my Columbia 350 since November 2003. My airplane was the 15th delivered. It has the Avidyne avionics package, including Ryan TCAD, plus air conditioning. Upgrades include a Garmin 430W, and revising to version 7 the Avidyne PFD/MFD. I also upgraded to a 406 ELT.
I consistently cruise at 9000 to 11,000 feet and get around 11.5-12.0 GPH at max economy. Depending on altitude, weight, etc., thats usually about 160 to 170 KTAS. There is a Delta of about 8 to 10 KTAS between cruise at maximum power vs. max economy.
The airplane never did do 192 KTAS, no matter how hard the factory tried; too much extra gear creating drag. Also the wheel pants, baggage door and passenger doors could be adjusted better to reduce drag and this would, I believe, get me a few knots. Columbia at one time made some noise about a program to reduce excess drag, but that initiative when nowhere when the company folded. Maybe Cessna will do something.
I took delivery of my 2005 Avidyne-equipped Columbia 350 in November 2005, at the factory in Bend, Ore. Prior to purchasing the Columbia, I had owned a 1972 Cessna 310Q for about 17 years, flew it for about 3600 hours, and thought I would own the plane forever. In the summer of 2005, I received a postcard announcing a 235-knot, single-engine, fixed-gear plane and decided to go for a test flight. As it turns out, the plane Columbia brought over to my FBO was a 350. I flew it, loved it and bought one.
Now three years later, I could not be happier. Its a dream to fly. I always looked at the Cessna 310 as a way of getting from point A to point B. The 310 was like flying an SUV. The same trip is now fun. The 350 is like flying a sports car. My fuel consumption in the 310 was 40 gallons per hour. My 310 had undergone a Colemill conversion and had 300-HP engines, so it was a very fast 310. The 350 burns 14 gallons per hour and is faster.
The 310 was costing $20,000 to $25,000 a year in maintenance. Maintenance on the Columbia has been for minor squawks-an EGT probe here and there, a speed brake which would not retract, a magnetic compass needing to be reglued to the windshield-really nothing major. The cost of annualing the 350 is 1/20th the cost of the last few annuals in the 310.
The 350 is beautiful, reliable, and fun airplane to own and fly. I feel very fortunate that I have one and would not trade it for the world.
Steven M. Kirsh