Now, if you've never been to Bend, well, you should go. Nestled in the heart of the snow-capped Cascades with a white water river (the Deschutes) running through downtown, Bend is a great mix of high-tech and high-style living with a heady blend of outdoor activities -- from mountain biking to rock climbing -- thrown in for good measure.
Just outside of town situated on the east side of the one-runway airport is the former Columbia plant, an attractive facility just a few years old. I showed up at the plant with Cessna's VP of Communications Bob Stangarone (not only my guide for the visit but my CJ2+ pilot for the trip from Wichita, as well). After chatting with Withrow about the challenges of the adoption process, I went on a tour of the plant with former Columbia employee and current Cessna Technical Marketing Specialist Doug Meyer.
One of the big lessons I learned on the tour -- and there were more than a few -- was that the former employees of Columbia were very proud of the airplanes they built. The 350 and 400 were fine airplanes before the transition, and they know it. And seeing the production process, as a collection of loose-draped sheets of composite material were turned into shiny, high-end flying machines, now with Cessna's name emblazoned across the tail, gets the point across nicely.
The employees I chatted with were all thrilled to be with Cessna. In part, that's thanks, as I said, to their employment picture improving immediately. But also it's because the change will allow them to put a lot more of their airplanes in the hands of pilots and do that without any of the compromises on service and support brought on by Columbia's financial woes.
The factory tour underscored something I already knew, that the former Columbia airplanes are very intelligently engineered. They are largely composite airplanes but make use of metal where it makes sense, like on the landing gear, where steel helps dissipate the heat generated by the brakes, or in the horizontal tail spar. Even the use of composites is smart, with lighter but much more costly carbon fiber used where it makes sense -- and its use is extensive -- and e-glass used in other places. Even the way the components are cooked is smart, with high-enough temperatures used in the cure, so unlike most composite airplanes there's no restriction on what color they can be painted. (Want to see more? Come along with me and Doug Meyer on the new Cessna Bend factory tour by checking out our photo gallery.)
Flying Cessna's Newest Model
After my tour I had a chance to go flying in the new Cessna 400, an airplane I'd never flown before, at least not one that said "Cessna" on it. But seriously, it had been a few years since I'd gotten the chance to fly the 400.
The airplane had only recently been introduced, and the Garmin G1000 cockpit was still a couple of years away. It was a great flight, a short cross-country hop from Westchester County down to Atlantic City and back. Well, short for that airplane anyway. In my subsequent flight report, I gave the airplane a very positive review.
As far as the airframe is concerned, it was, in nearly every regard, the same airplane it is today.
Since that time, I've started flying turbocharged airplanes on a regular basis, and I've come to appreciate more fully the value and challenges they offer. I've also gotten a lot of G1000 time in a wide variety of airplanes, so I was looking forward to seeing how Garmin's flat panels worked in Cessna's new piston flagship.
I won't go into a lot of detail, because this isn't a flight report on the newest Cessna but, rather, a story about how a couple of brand-new airplane designs (well, in aviation anyway, 10 years passes for brand new) fit into the scheme of things for their new owners, a long-established Midwestern company called Cessna.
As I taxied out in the brand spanking new airplane with Cessna Product Specialist Emily Watters in the right seat and Doug Meyer in back, I found I felt very much at home in the airplane, thanks in small part to my smattering of 350 and 400 time, but more because of all of the G1000 time I've gotten over the past few years. I think that a Cessna customer moving up into a 350 or 400 from a 182 or 206 will feel the same way about their transition.