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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
In keeping with Lancair’s original 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 homebuilt, which have proven problematical on other types. Basically, flush caps don’t 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 it’s reasonably well protected in a crash and quantity doesn’t 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 valve’s selector handle forms the forward portion of the armrest between the front seats. It’s shaped to make it clear to which tank the valve points, making it one of the better human-factor designs we’ve 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, they’re not a bad idea on the Columbia models.
To many pilots, high performance means retractable gear and we suspect some wouldn’t be caught dead owning an airplane unless the gear folds up (that crowd generally wouldn’t own composites, either). 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 brakes on earlier Cirrus models have caused fires and at least one airworthiness directive, we’re not aware of any similar problems among the Columbia fleet.
The Columbia’s 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 panel’s 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 pilot’s 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 you’d 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 it’s 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 we’re positive a few years of use will take its toll on older airplanes, the results can’t be as bad as older offerings from the Big Three. Early in the Columbia 300’s production, three avionics options were available. The standard IFR package included an UPS-AT 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. These avionics are considered dated by today’s standard, we should note. Rip all of that out for a generous aftermarket glass retrofit, new navigators, a better autopilot, plus ADS-B and you could be looking at an investment that nears $100,000. Buyers of early models should keep this reality in check.
The third original option was a basic avionics package appropriate only as an interim solution until an owner obtained 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 400’s all-glass panel, based on the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra primary flight display (PFD) and using dual Garmin GNS430 navigators. Technically an option on the 350, it was one nearly every buyer selected. A major difference between the Columbia’s 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 Cirrus.
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, we’re 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 they’ve 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 there’s a door ajar light.
Should the airplane come to rest inverted, there’s 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, there’s also a lever on the underside of the aircraft, with a placard telling how to pull the lever and get the doors open. It’s 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 backup, a crash axe under the front of the pilot’s 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 to 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 it’s 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 airplane’s POH to see how it stacks up on your typical missions.
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 shouldn’t 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 shouldn’t be a problem, either. Which leaves general airframe and systems issues as the 300/350’s only real maintenance bugaboo, of which we can’t find much evidence. A search of the FAA’s 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. The 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. We’re preparing a comparison article on the two systems for a future issue.
Also, there’s 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.
In December 2010, a Cessna 400 being flown by an FAA test pilot at the factory developed a fuel leak which was later determined to be related to the wing skin disbonding from the main spar. The issue produced an AD which only applied to one 350 on the production line and seven 400 models, also on the line.
Speaking of the assembly line, at the time, Cessna’s former CEO Jack Pelton said the company would invest money in Columbia’s Bend, Oregon, 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.
Still, in 2009 Cessna closed the Bend, Oregon, plant and moved production to its Independance, Kansas, location. The bright side? Among the big changes for existing Columbia owners was gained access to Cessna’s full parts and service network.
Any early fears Cessna would fail to honor its support commitments have proven unfounded. To date, Cessna has earned high marks from Columbia owners on its product support efforts, even if there was some early uncertainty.
I purchased my 2004 Columbia 350 after flying rental planes from the local FBO. With only ten hours of complex time, I was a little nervous about transitioning to a much faster, all-glass platform. However, with several days of training, the transition went very smoothly.
Flight characteristics are smooth, and stalls are a straightforward mush with aileron control after the inner part of the wing is stalled. Takeoffs and landings are as expected with a slippery 310-HP plane. On approach, energy and speed management is important as the low wing will float a long ways if too fast. However, a relatively small elevator requires carrying enough speed and/or leaving the speed brakes deployed to give enough nose-up control in the flare. This is particularly the case when CG is at the forward limit.
I fly primarily business trips of 300-700 miles. The plane flies best at around 10,000 feet and I generally cruise at 165 knots at 65 percent power, while burning 12.5 GPH lean of peak. A typical two- to four-hour flight is easy and comfortable in a well-designed cabin. The side stick (as opposed to a side yoke) is a nice design and makes hand flying fun. The design also opens up space, which makes the cabin feel bigger. At six feet one inches tall, I have plenty of head, shoulder and leg room. With its low wing and lots of windows, air conditioning is a must as the cabin heats up fast on the ground and the gullwing doors do not allow you to easily hold the door open while taxiing.
The Avidyne PFD/MFD, dual Garmin GNS 430W navigators and the S-TEC autopilot have been problem-free and create seamless automated flight support functions. The XM WX satellite weather, traffic alerting, lightning detection, plus the ability to look at METARs and forecasts while cruising along provides a great addition to situational awareness, in a very intuitive arrangement.
My operating costs have been reasonable, and there haven’t been any real surprises or major inspection requirements except the 1000-hour inspection, which requires rebuilding the speed brakes, in addition to other systems requiring attention. I’m a happy Columbia owner/pilot.
Luke C. Peterson Lake Elmo, Minnesota
I bought a Columbia 350 in November 2003. My airplane was the 15th delivered. It had the Avidyne avionics package, including Ryan TCAD, plus air conditioning. Upgrades include a Garmin GNS430W and revising 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., that’s 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 went nowhere when the company folded.
John Stubbs via email