Corvalis TTx

Cessna’s flagship single enjoys a new beginning.

Cessna Corvalis TTx

Cessna Corvalis TTx

Cessna Corvalis TTx

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).

Clearly, there was some unknown problem with the composite construction of the wing section. Because fabrication had recently been moved to Cessna’s facility in Chihuahua, Mexico, where since 2006 the company has been building wiring harnesses and sheet metal components for its Citation product line, it was natural to presume there was something wrong with the composite process, that some variable had unintentionally been introduced since production was moved from Bend.

To its credit, Cessna immediately owned up to the problem (though the severity of the event was not widely known), took the Corvalis out of production (a call that probably was not made solely by the manufacturer) and went to work first trying to figure out what had gone wrong and, second, fixing the problem.

Right away the problem looked to be more systemic than the result of a single manufacturing flaw. While there were no known discrepancies in any of the handful of airplanes that had been built from the Mexico components, Cessna took the extraordinary step of destroying all of the airplanes that originated at the TAM plant. It was Cessna’s way of erasing any doubt about the quality of the Corvalis, which had previously enjoyed a sterling reputation.

At the same time Cessna set out to understand what had gone wrong, which it quickly did. The issue had to do with the environmental factors in the new plant and the sensitivity of the composite materials used in the construction of Corvalis components to changes in humidity, temperature and particulate matter, conditions that were apparently ideal at the Bend plant but were out of tolerance at TAM.

Cessna made, it says, “considerable investment” in systems to both control and monitor the environmental conditions in the plant, creating a system whereby the production process is regulated by green, yellow and red lights that indicate whether conditions allow production to continue, call for corrective action or require that production be halted. Cessna says it believes the new system will allow it to produce parts with great ­reliability. It is approaching the process, a former Corvalis program leader told me, systematically and with great patience, the only goal being getting it right.

New Name
The process has taken longer than Cessna had thought it would. Part of its effort was a rebranding. In Lakeland, Florida, in 2011, Cessna announced the launch of the TTx, the successor to the previous Corvalis, which had been called the TT. The project, much to Cessna's dismay, took more than a year longer than it anticipated.

Still, the vision of the new model was the driving force. It would be equipped with the new Garmin G2000 touch-control, integrated avionics suite. Accented with carbon fiber and sporting a new modern interior design, the TTx brand would signal a fresh start for the Corvalis.

For the record, on a flight plan the airplane is now designated the T240, in place of COL400. While Cessna is calling the model “TTx” in much of its marketing material, the company says that it is still a Corvalis. (That latter name, by the way, is a deliberate misspelling of the city in eastern Oregon that is home to Oregon State University.) The airplane, in case you haven’t noticed, has had a lot of names.

The TTx will technically be a new airplane, since it will be built under an amended type certificate, which doubtless made Cessna work hard to comply with the latest revisions of Part 23. It also gives customers the assurance that the airplane has been gone over with a fine-tooth comb, which was also part of Cessna's plan.

Upgrades
Regardless of the name or hardware or software changes, the Corvalis TTx is still a Corvalis, and all of the defining features that made it a star — the sleek lines, gull-wing doors, sports-car styling and powerful performance — remain in place. As far as the paint scheme is concerned, the colorful postmodern look on Cessna's demo airplane was intended to be eye-catching at an airshow, and it is at that. It is also, I might add, done not with transfers but with paint. The TTx can actually be painted a variety of colors, some of them quite dark by traditional composite standards. The reason you can't use dark colors on composites is because dark colors retain heat, which will weaken the composites. Cessna is confident that with new processes and materials in place, it will be able to paint the TTx in a wide variety of colors — OK, not black, if anyone was interested in going really dark. This will allow customers to come up with paint schemes that are completely one-off, something that Cessna hopes will inspire its customers, for many of whom the TTx will be a purely personal airplane.

The fresh start was in evidence when we flew the new TTx for the first time out of Cessna’s flight-test development center at Wichita’s Midcontinent Airport on a blisteringly hot summer day with Cessna chief pilot Kirby Ortega. How hot was it? It was 108 degrees F in the shade. At 4,500 feet, it was ISA+27. That’s how hot it was.

So this is a good time to mention that the TTx comes standard with factory air conditioning, which allowed us, after startup, to brief the flight on the ground, call for clearance and taxi, take off and get to altitude in a cockpit that was comfortable enough — it would have been unbearable, I know from experience, without the air. Air conditioning might seem like a luxury to you, but on a day like that, it’s pretty darn close to being a necessity.

The biggest change is to the panel with the replacement of the G1000 suite with the all-new G2000 avionics package, which Cessna calls Intrinzic. G2000 is the next generation of Garmin avionics, and it is very closely related to the G3000 and G5000 glass cockpits under development for installation into a number of jets, including the HondaJet, the Learjets 70 and 75, and a quartet of Cessnas, the M2 CitationJet update, the Latitude, the Longitude and the Citation Ten. Indeed, the G2000 suite is closely related to Garmin's GTN panel mount navigators and even its portables, all of which share a common philosophy of shallow menus, a highly graphical user interface and easy expandability.

In the Corvalis the G2000 suite is set up with a pair of widescreen 14-inch displays, a PFD and a fully reversionary MFD, along with a touch-screen controller, the GTC 570, which is located on the pedestal below and between the two displays, so it can be operated by either the left seat or right seat occupant. The GFC 700 autopilot control panel is on the glareshield, which I believe is the ideal place for it to be so that the pilot operating it can stay heads-up while controlling it and so that the autopilot functions are effectively segregated from the rest of the panel controls.

Speaking of the autopilot, the TTx is the first Cessna with ESP, Garmin’s envelope protection utility, including protection against overbanking, excessive rate of descent, excessive airspeed, hypoxia and more. ESP is a major improvement in terms of safety.

The widescreen displays on the G2000 allow you to effectively double or triple the number of displays in the cockpit, because you can create windows within the displays. For example, on the MFD during an RNAV approach to nearby Hutchinson, Kansas, we could see the Jeppesen approach chart (geo­referenced with the airplane icon clearly shown), the moving map with integral flight plan, engine instruments and other systems annunciations, including groundspeed, flap position, time to destination and more. It’s brilliant.

The PFD, which features Garmin’s SVT synthetic vision display, is just as wide but shows less information. There is a pop-up window on the lower left side of the displays for traffic, and it’s nice to have, especially since it’s larger, and therefore more useful, than the similar pop-up window on G1000.

FIKI
The other big change embodied by the TTx is flight into known icing (FIKI) approval, a process that Cessna had been heavily engaged in prior to the production shutdown. Not only did we not need ice protection on our ISA+27-degree flight that day, but it also wasn't yet available. Cessna does expect it to be ready for initial deliveries, scheduled for the end of the year. The new FIKI system will be a TKS fluid dispersal system, just as on Cessna's turboprop single Caravan and the Corvalis' main competitor, the ­Cirrus SR22. The system on the TTx will have similar capabilities to its competitor's, which is to say impressive ones. The FIKI system will have more than two hours' capacity at normal flow rates and will allow for deicing of the wings, windscreen, prop and tail surfaces. In addition, there are ice lights and integrated monitoring of the system on the G2000.

Interior Dialog
The X factor with the new Corvalis might very well be the interior. Cessna went to great lengths to give the ­Corvalis the kind of sleek and hyper­modern appearance that its main rival has been banking on for some time now, and which works.

Over the past year or so Cessna has figured out that having great performing high-value airplanes isn’t enough anymore. Airplane customers demand great style in their airplanes too. So from its biggest jets to its single-­engine lineup, Cessna is giving them what they’re asking for. In the TTx that translates into great fabrics, carbon fiber trim, standard air conditioning, new cup holders (situated in a cutout that used to be dead space underneath the console), better carpeting and leather-wrapped sidesticks. You can even remove the rear seats for that station wagon effect and load mountain bikes or large bags in the back.

As I said, Cessna went beyond the basics in its reconstitution of the Corvalis, which is evident too in its decision to replace the mechanical standby gauges with the L3 Trilogy standby, a product we love. Trilogy gives you attitude, airspeed and altitude in one easy-to-interpret instrument that provides its own backup AHRS and air data computer on top of that. And right next to the Trilogy standby is another great feature, a built-in pulse oximeter, so you can regularly check your pulse and oxygen saturation stats without having to hunt for where the gadget went. It’s always right there in the panel.

The overall effect is a cockpit so clean, so elegant, that it looks as though the airplane were built around it and not the other way around. The engine/prop controls are a case in point. The three push controls — throttle, prop and mixture — butt up against the panel, where you have the go-around switch and the speedbrakes, allowing the pilot to manage both of these functions without having to hunt for them.

The same is true of the touch-screen controller, which, with its large, raised bezel, is situated so your hand just falls to it with no reaching or stretching required. Even in bumpy air the required movements are easy and natural. If the touch-screen controller were to fail, there’s a dedicated hard-button controller on the glareshield next to the autopilot controller. There are some functions that some pilots might regularly perform there. Kirby says he likes the touch-screen controller and winds up using it almost exclusively in his flying the TTx.

Corvalis Flying
Regardless of what you call the airplane, Cessna's high-end carbon fiber speedster remains an absolute pleasure to fly, and none of its characteristics have changed in that regard. I have dozens of hours flying the airplane, so my flight in the ­Corvalis on that exceptionally hot summer afternoon wasn't to discover how the airplane flies — I already knew that — but more to see how it feels, how the new avionics, interior and, very importantly, air conditioning contribute to the experience.

Heading out of ICT we got a VFR clearance to 4,500 feet toward Hutchinson, where we’d fly a couple of approaches to get the feeling and flavor of G2000 and how well it fits in the Corvalis. As I’ve said before, G2000 is a quantum leap over G1000, a system I’ve flown in dozens of different airplane models. The differences are not just in the way you control the system, with a touch-screen controller (not a touch-screen display), but in the way the architecture of the system is laid out. Instead of using chapters and pages to navigate around the system, an approach I always found clumsy, with G2000 you revert back (again and again) to a home page before going to your new destination. It’s a kind of hub and spoke system for avionics, maximizing efficiency and minimizing unnecessary motion. The other big change is that everything is graphical, so instead of having to read the fine print to figure out what the next step is toward inserting a new flight plan leg, for instance, you simply touch the leg you want to modify and follow the simple, pop-up directions placing the new waypoint either before or after the existing one, and you’re on your way.

We flew to Hutchinson through the light chop of a hot, late-summer afternoon, flew the RNAV approach, flew the missed and marveled at the level of automation available through G2000 and the GFC 700 autopilot. The autopilot flew the proper entry to the LPV approach and then automatically guided us down the glidepath. For the missed, you simply hit the “go around” switch and the V-bars come up, and guidance to the missed segment is automatically loaded into the flight plan. Then we were on our way back home.

As always it was great flying the Corvalis — I love the sidestick, the smooth control response, the good visibility and the great performance. I couldn’t be any happier that it’s on the road back to market or any more impressed by the kind of commitment that Cessna has made to the product. Flying the Corvalis TTx, in fact, made me long to take an extended trip in one again, which is where the airplane shines. With 102-­gallon fuel capacity, built-in oxygen, world-class avionics and even available satellite communications, it’s an exceptionally well-equipped personal transportation machine, one that has again raised the bar for the level of safety, comfort and capability that customers have grown to expect from a top-of-the-line single-engine airplane.