Cessna is on the verge of delivering its first Corvalis after it took the high-end piston single out of production nearly two years ago. We recently had a chance to fly a developmental copy of what will become the new model, the Corvalis TTx, and to Cessna’s credit, the airplane is not new in name only. It incorporates a host of improvements; not the least of these is a new Garmin G2000 avionics suite. When Cessna delivers the first new Corvalis, which it hopes to do later this year, it will likely be the first airplane with the next-generation Garmin avionics installed. That is just the beginning of the changes too.
An Eventful History
Launched in the mid-1990s and certified in 1998 by design originator Lancair, the Corvalis was originally known as the Columbia, after the river that flows through northern Oregon but, interestingly enough, not through Bend, the beautiful central Oregon town on the eastern flank of the Cascade range where Lancair was headquartered and where the airplane was manufactured until 2009.
Regardless of the geographic liberties behind its name, the Columbia was well received and critically acclaimed. A very fast, comfortable and technologically advanced four-seat single, the fixed-gear Columbia was a modern approach to the high-performance single in very much the same vein as Cirrus, though with significant differences. It was slightly faster, had no chute, boasted extensive carbon fiber construction (something Cirrus has since matched) and was considered by some to be even sexier than the SR22, against which it directly competed (and still does).
The subsequent story of the Columbia would be an eventful one, to say the least. From freak hailstorms to changes in ownership to economic downturns to disastrous production mistakes, the airplane seems to have lived through a century’s worth of upheaval in a decade’s time. During its time with the airplane, Lancair improved the model continuously and added a turbocharged version, the Columbia 400, that at altitude boasted top speeds in excess of 230 knots.
The aforementioned hailstorm, which badly damaged dozens of airplanes on the ramp in Bend, was the final blow to a program and a company that had faced an uphill battle to remain solvent. Cessna purchased the program out of bankruptcy in November 2007, not knowing that a global economic downturn was around the corner.
The factory in Bend — I visited it twice, once when it was Lancair’s and again a few years later when Cessna was running the show — was an unusual place in my aircraft manufacturing experience, in that there was no riveting going on. Moreover, under both companies, the factory was a study in the art of aircraft manufacturing, a place where skilled workers took great pride in each and every airplane they were producing, in part because they were essentially building them by hand. Cessna renamed the airplanes the Cessna 350 and 400 (for the normally aspirated and turbocharged models, respectively), spruced them up and began selling them.
Unfortunately, before too long the downturn struck, and Cessna was forced to make the hard decision to close the Bend plant. Shutting it down was something that, with piston sales lagging and excess capacity at its Independence, Kansas, plant, likely would have happened anyway, because it’s a sad fact of business that it’s hard to support keeping a distant plant in an out-of-the-way location operating in difficult economic times.
After closing Bend in 2009, Cessna’s plan was to build components for the Corvalis at its TAM plant in Chihuahua, Mexico, and assemble the airplane in Independence. After assembly, individual Corvalises would get avionics and electrical systems, paint and interior, meaning that the majority of the labor would still be done in the United States. It was a plan that took an unexpected turn for the worse.
The event that precipitated the production halt was both dramatic and completely unanticipated. While on an acceptance flight, a seven-foot section of wing skin of a newly manufactured Corvalis delaminated, creating a large fuel leak. Fortunately, the airplane remained flyable throughout the event, there was no fire, and the airplane was landed without incident. The FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive grounding seven airplanes (none of which had been delivered).