Columbia 400

Columbia 400 Michael Rosing

"Columbia 2536 Tango is cleared to the I69 airport, direct Hagerstown VOR, then as filed, maintain 4,000, departure on 134.15, squawk 0510." I have gotten that same route clearance many times in my P210 and to take the measure of the new Columbia 400 I would run it out and back over this familiar 320-nm route (to and from Clermont Airport in Ohio) to see how much its speed would change the life of a pilot flying one of the "old fashioned" high-performance singles. It would also be a prime time to enjoy the complete Garmin G1000 package, including the autopilot, which is brand new in the Columbia and makes the 400 a truly integrated airplane. We'll fly the flight and then talk about some details.

Columbia regional sales manager Keith Martinich was the demo pilot and the Columbia is a simple enough airplane that we got it going without much fanfare. The Columbia G1000 installation includes the keypad mounted just ahead of the center armrest and fuel selector, and this was used to input the four waypoints for the flight plan as well as for frequency management. I think this keypad is going to be extremely popular because it is a much more straightforward method of data entry than we have been used to.

With the clearance obtained, the flight plan in the G1000 and the code in the transponder, the final step before takeoff was to have the autopilot ready to take over. The departure was on Runway 27, with the VOR straight ahead, so the heading bug was set on 270. The altitude select was dialed to 4,000 feet and those simple acts had it ready to go. No arming necessary. Just selecting an altitude arms the system. All the autopilot controls are an integral part of the G1000. There is no separate autopilot control head.

Keith said to rotate at 80 knots, which is a little higher than the 64-74 knots recommended in the Pilot's Operating Handbook. They now have a vernier throttle in the airplane and one use of it shows why this was done. By enthusiastically screwing the throttle in, you apply the power in a completely smooth fashion. Sometimes pilots who are not used to turbocharged engines get a little surge during power application and that does not happen here. The sidestick in the 400 is really nice and the liftoff forces are light, but not so light that you get a pitch bobble. The takeoff run seems a touch on the long side and rotation was beyond the point on the runway where my P210 lifts off at 75 knots.

At 400 feet I engaged the autopilot and pressed the flight level change (FLC) button, which told the G1000 to maintain the airspeed that existed when the button was pressed. That was about 120 knots (110 is the best cruise climb speed for rate) and at about 2,000 feet I moved the airspeed target to 140 knots, where the airplane climbed better than 1,000 feet per minute. Full power is used in climb with a fuel flow of 38 gallons per hour. Instead of staying with heading, I pressed the nav button and the autopilot was joined with the flight plan.

We were next cleared to 12,000, the filed altitude, so I just cranked in 12,000 and the climb continued. The controller then asked us to hustle through 7,000 feet, so I selected a lower airspeed with the FLC nose-up button for a better climb rate.

There was a front-like weather disturbance over the mountains and it appeared that 10,000 feet might be below the clouds so, with permission, we leveled there. That didn't last because ice started forming. The clouds above looked not too thick and 12,000 was soon approved and the airplane, ice and all, climbed strongly to that level, which was between layers. A lot, over a half-inch, of ice had formed in a short while. This airplane didn't have Columbia's ice protection system (not approved for flight in icing) installed, so I didn't get a chance to try that and had to wait for the ice to sublimate before seeing the true cruise potential.

The available ice protection system is called E-Vade. It uses heat conducting graphite foil applied to the leading edges of the wings and horizontal tail. Driven by an independent 100-amp alternator operating at 70 volts, it has dual heating zones to melt and shed ice. The leading edges get continuous heat and the shed zones, behind the leading edges, get cycled heat. One switch activates the system and no further pilot action is required.

I estimated the airspeed loss from ice on this flight to be on the order of 10 knots and that turned out to be correct. The true started out at just over 190 and, after the ice was gone, the true was 202 knots. The mixture was adjusted to 50 degrees rich of peak turbine inlet temperature and the fuel flow was 25.3 gallons per hour. The clouds went away and we enjoyed a nice ride on to I69. One thing I did note was that the attitude indication on the G1000 shows the airplane a bit nose-up while cruising. I used the keypad for all frequency changes and that worked well. I did find myself using my left hand for frequencies because you can see the pad better than when using your right hand. A little familiarity with the location of all the buttons would cure that.

Columbia has a new environmental control system, including A/C, but it was not working properly on this airplane, so I can't report on how well it does work.

The airplane has speed brakes and they are useful. With no landing gear to extend, approach flaps are all there is and they can't go down until the airspeed is at or below 129 knots. Without speed brakes you'd have to pull the throttle all the way back to slow rapidly. Approach flaps get the nose down a bit to enable better traffic viewing. Full flaps go out at 119 knots and word from the right seat was to come across the fence at 85 knots. That was done, the landing was okay and the airplane rolled rapidly by the turnoff that I usually make in my airplane after an 80-knot approach. The Columbia POH suggests an approach speed of 85-90 knots, which would consume even more runway. The speed usually given for a normal approach is 1.3 Vso, which would be 76.7 knots in this airplane.

I have flown Columbias with four different demo pilots and every one of them offered some advice on final. The first said, "Don't try to land it like a 150." Keith said something about landing it fairly flat.

To me, the takeoff and landing characteristics are normal, but in demonstration flying they have apparently had pilots do strange enough things to call for a word of caution and some extra knots. The somewhat longer ground runs on takeoff and landing are what might be expected in an airplane with less wing area than airplanes like single-engine Cessnas. Even at the same weight and stalling speed, more margin might be desired in the airplane with less wing area.

The trip from Hagerstown to I69 took one hour and 42 minutes. That's faster than I have ever done it in my airplane and was a block-groundspeed yield of 188 knots, even though we had a period of airspeed reduction caused by the ice. Fancy. The wind aloft was light and only by flying the return trip would we get an average.

On departure from I69 some slight runway roughness was more noticeable in this airplane and, because it was warmer and we had more fuel, the takeoff roll to the 80-knot Vr was noticeably longer.

The original plan was to vault up to 17,000 feet for the trip back but, alas, the necessary oxygen paraphernalia was not on board. So when I checked in with the center I had to tell the controller that we needed 11,000 for a final altitude. There is a built-in oxygen system, though its capacity wouldn't handle a long flight at high altitude with more than one occupant in the airplane. The fact that there were no oxygen masks in the airplane, and but one cannula, suggested to me that higher flying is the exception rather than the rule, though Keith did say that a lot of owners do operate the airplane in the Flight Levels.

Keith told me that a flight manual restriction against operating lean of peak was being lifted, with agreement from Continental, so the plan was to experiment with this on the way back. I had tried this on a previous Columbia 400 flight and didn't like the way the engine seemed to stumble when lean of peak. Keith assured me that this one would not do that.

The G1000 installation in this airplane has an elaborate leaning page that gives word on what is going on with all six cylinders and both turbochargers. With the turbine inlet temperatures about 50 rich (they are never exactly the same) and with the power set for maximum cruise, at 11,000 feet the true was 199 and the fuel flow 24.7 gallons per hour. Leaning the TIT through peak and back to the lean side of peak, about 50 or 75 degrees lean, and without moving the throttle, the fuel flow dropped to 17.8 gallons per hour and the true airspeed to 189 knots. The engine was as smooth lean of peak as it was rich of peak. Then we tried it rich of peak at the 17.8 gallon per hour fuel flow and the true airspeed was about 10 knots lower than it was in lean of peak operation at the same fuel flow. Since all this lean of peak business started, I have tried it in a lot of airplanes, a previous Columbia included. This is the first airplane in which I found both smooth operation and a substantial fuel savings.

Much of this advantage comes because of the induction system on this series of Continental engines. It does a much better job of getting an even and abundant supply of intake air to each cylinder.

So, at non-oxygen altitudes the 400 is a 200-knot cruiser if you burn more fuel and a 190-knot cruiser if you burn less fuel. These speeds translate to the 235 knots at 25,000 feet that is advertised, though lean of peak it would be more like 225. The airplane has 98 gallons of usable fuel, so at the higher fuel flow it would be just under four hours to dry tanks, where lean of peak it would go five and a half hours. That is a substantial difference.

The trip back took the same time as the trip over, so the round-trip block groundspeed was 188 knots. The G1000 said that the airplane had averaged 183.1 knots over the total 4,605 miles that it had flown. My P210, which I cruise at 75 percent power, rich of peak, on about the same fuel flow as the Columbia when lean of peak, has averaged 152.2 knots over a lot of miles, so it's safe to say that the Columbia is a good 30 knots faster even when cruised at non-oxygen altitudes. The round trip took a total of three hours and 24 minutes. The best my airplane has ever done is four hours even, so speed does make a difference.

So does the complete G1000 system. I have never flown a light airplane that is so well integrated and that also has things like a complete dual and redundant 28 volt electrical system. One of the systems will run everything in the airplane, and when the ice protection and A/C are installed they get another, dedicated, alternator and electrical system.

The Columbia is a good ride, too. The wing loading is high for a single and in enthusiastic turbulence over the mountains it gave a good account, though I did find one bump that ranked pretty high on my all-time list. No yaw damper is included and it does not need one. No rudder trim is included and it does need that.

The comfort level is great, too. With Bose headsets it's like being in a jet. The general feeling of the airplane is solid, like a much bigger and heavier airplane. It just feels good. With the G1000 they were able to raise the bottom of the instrument panel a bit for more front-seat legroom and tall guys will find plenty of headroom. Everything in and about the airplane exudes quality.

The panel is clean in appearance and while all the requisite switches are there, they don't clutter. The standby instruments are two-inchers and are mounted to the left of the G1000.

I expected a lot from the integration of the autopilot into the G1000 and it is truly all there, as a part of the total system. With separate autopilots I always think in terms of interpreting the information from the navigators and instruments, and then telling the autopilot what to do with the airplane. With this system, the autopilot is clued into everything from the start and pressing the appropriate G1000 buttons gets the desired result. You fly the airplane through the autopilot. It does doglegs in a flight plan perfectly. When the controller calls and gives you direct to the destination, tell that to the G1000, and the autopilot (in the nav mode) makes a snappy turn and tracks to the destination.

Coupled approaches are beautifully intercepted and flown as well.

The airplane flown for this report, N2536T, is equipped with a complete Garmin G1000 system including an automatic flight control system. It also has the Avidyne (formerly Ryan) active traffic advisory system, an approved terrain awareness and avoidance system, and XM Weather. The engine is an upgraded Platinum series from Continental. The only option not included is ice protection, called E-Vade, which would add 42 pounds and $24,500 to this airplane. The Columbia is covered by a three-year, 900-hour, whichever occurs first, warranty. Performance is from the manufacturer and is for maximum weight in standard conditions at sea level except where noted.

I used the flight level change feature for all climbs and descents, and it does a great job, even in up- and downdrafts over the mountains. If vertical speed mode (which it and a lot of other autopilots have) is used, the airspeed will vary. But that is not the way we fly. In FLC mode, airspeed is held constant and the vertical speed varies with the ups and downs, as it should. The Columbia is one tough Utility Category airframe, with a positive limit load factor of 4.4 Gs and a maneuvering speed of 158 knots, so even in the bumps while descending I had the FLC on 158 and there it stayed as the vertical speed ranged from barely down to 1,500 feet per minute down. For more descent rate, the speed brakes can be used.

Then there is all that other stuff that we have come to know and love, such as an active traffic system, an approved ground prox and complete XM Weather. Jepp charts will be available for viewing sooner rather than later. There is an airspeed limitation with altitude (above 12,000 feet) that used to be on a placard. It is now automatically computed by the G1000.

You remember how, when asked what equipment was in an airplane, we would rattle off a long list of KLNs and KXs and GNSs and KFCs? Now, G1000 covers it all. Ads in Trade-A-Plane will certainly get shorter.

Columbia production is at one airplane a day and most are currently 400s, which brings an almost $100,000 premium over the normally aspirated 350. Who buys the airplane? A lot of new pilots as well as experienced pilots, especially twin owners who want to step away from some expense with no performance penalty. Some nonpilots are buying the airplanes and hiring someone to do the flying for them.

At the end of a nice day with it, I rather felt like I had flown a G1000 to I69 and back. It was part of a fine airplane that is propelled by what is probably the best and most advanced turbocharged piston engine that we have ever seen for this class airplane.

Now that what is going to be the ultimate in avionics for quite a while is in place, what might Columbia do to provide a next level? Retracting the landing gear probably would not be worth the added weight and expense. I'd like to see a minimum of two pounds of pressure in the cabin, which could probably be easily done. That would get the airplane up into the mid-teens, above the low-level traffic and below the turbines, without any oxygen requirement. Someone asked me if I could come up with one word to describe the G1000 Columbia 400. I thought about "neat" and "cool" and "complete" and "integrated" and "fast" and "pretty." Then I dismissed them all and decided on "airplane," because the Columbia 400 is truly what an airplane should be.


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