The first “high-performance” airplane I flew was a brand-new 1975 Piper Arrow II. With its businesslike green-and-black-and-white paint scheme (the color of money, you know) and that certain air that all retractable-gear airplanes had in my mind, I was smitten. And it was a nice airplane, though now that I think about it, it wasn’t all that different from the Warrior that I flew all the time. There was a little lever on the panel for making the wheels go up and down-that was cool-and there was an extra lever on the power quadrant for changing the pitch of the prop. It did go a bit faster than the Warrior, 15 or 20 knots or so, and there were a few other differences, but nothing that leapt out. I guess it just didn’t take much-a few extra knots and some levers to play with-to make me, or a lot of other pilots, happy.
High-performance singles have really come a long, long way since then, and one of the cream of the current crop is Lancair’s latest, the Columbia 350, which is about 50 knots faster than the Arrow, without, by the way, tucking the gear.
It was at the EAA Fly-In Convention at Oshkosh in 1993 that Lancair, then still just a kit company, announced that it would enter the production airplane game by certifying an airplane under Primary Category (Part 23 soon made more sense). Unlike most of the other companies that confidently announced similar plans that day, Lancair eventually succeeded at the endeavor. In 1997 the FAA issued Lancair a provisional certificate for the Columbia 300 (an offshoot of the company’s Lancair ES kitplane) and followed that with full type certification in the fall of 1998. Ramping up for production, however, was a battle for a small start-up manufacturer like Lancair, and the company had to shut down the line in 2001, following September 11th, while it looked for funding. It emerged with a new financing package that got airplanes rolling down the line again in January of 2003.
Just last year, it started delivering Columbia 300s again, all the while readying for certification and production of the new Columbia 350, an all-electric upgrade to the 300. In May of 2003, Lancair received certification for the 350, and in October it earned FAA approval for it with the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra primary flight display (PFD). Shortly thereafter, it began making deliveries of PFD airplanes. And, surprise, surprise, just as happened with Cirrus when it began offering the Avidyne PFD in the SR22, Lancair hasn’t sold a 350 without the flat panels since.
There are now around 120 Columbias flying, of which more than 30 are Columbia 350s-the model replaces the Columbia 300 in Lancair’s lineup. In 2003, the company delivered a total of 53 airplanes. It plans to deliver 140 Columbias in 2004 and 240 in 2005, with production growing to one a day by this fall.
A Kit HeritageWhile the Columbia is a certified airplane and has the papers to prove it, Lancair’s kit heritage is unmistakable in the airplane’s sleek lines. It doesn’t look like a traditional single; it looks more like a Detroit concept car of an airplane. With its long legs, rounded forward fuselage and high-aspect ratio wings, the 350 is cool looking and then some.
It is, of course, the design descendent of Lancair’s kitplanes. For many years before the company went into the certified airplane racket, Lancair, under the guidance of founder Lance Neibauer, made pretty kitplanes, fast ones, and always glass, too. Its early two-place all-composite 235 could cruise at around 170 knots behind a 115-hp Lycoming O-235 engine. The eventual evolution of Neibauer’s design, the turbine-powered carbon-fiber, pressurized Lancair Prop Jet, can motor along at 27,000 feet at better than 330 knots.
That’s impressive, but I’d argue that the numbers behind the Columbia 350 are even more remarkable because that airplane achieves its performance while also meeting strict FAA certification standards, standards that require it to, among many other things, stall at 61 knots or slower (57 knots is the number for the 350) and to handle well and predictably at very slow airspeeds. Speed is nice, we’d all agree, but speed without margins is no bargain in my book.
To meet the FAA’s standards, Lancair gave the Columbia a wing with a discontinuous leading edge, to move the stall inboard. It also limited up-elevator travel and installed a rudder that is limited in left throw under power-on stall conditions. Like the Cirrus SR22, the Columbia didn’t have to go through spin testing to satisfy the FAA. But unlike the Cirrus SR22, which was given credit for the ballistic whole-airplane parachute recovery system it packs, the Columbia 300 (and the 350) was certified as spin resistant, by demonstrating that it wouldn’t enter a spin even with pro-spin controls held in by the pilot.
Not My Dad’s New AirplaneOutwardly, there are not a lot of differences between the new 350 and its predecessor. Check out the panel, though, and you’ll see why Lancair says that this is the airplane it wishes it could have built in the first place, had the requisite technologies been available at the time.
One of the most important improvements resulted from leaving something off the airplane: a vacuum pump. Instead, the 350 has a dual electrical system with a pair of batteries and a pair of alternators and regulators, all of which are smartly connected to allow continued operation of the system should any of the components fail. The essential bus-the one that feeds the PFD-can be fed from either system, as can the avionics bus. The loss of a vacuum pump-and vacuum pumps are prone to failure-in IMC and the resultant spatial disorientation are often the last problems a pilot has with an airplane. In the 350, such a loss of critical avionics capabilities is a very unlikely scenario indeed.
There’s a long list of available options for the 350, too. Technically, the PFD is an option, though it’s one that everybody is getting, along with the Avidyne EX5000 multifunction display. Owners can also opt for a Mode-S based traffic alerting system, speed brakes, built-in oxygen, weather datalink and electronic engine monitoring. The airplane I flew for this report was decked out with all of the above, and buyers will soon have the option (possibly by the time you read this) of adding Continental’s Platinum version of the IO-550, electro-expulsive anti-icing, and air conditioning.
Now, sitting on the ramp the 350 looks as though it might be a tight fit, but the opposite is true. The interior is huge, at least by conventional standards-50 inches at its widest point-and the headroom and shoulder room are excellent. The back seat area is easily large enough for full-sized adults, and the baggage area has plenty of room for a week’s worth of bags. The airplane’s sportscar styling notwithstanding, the Columbia 350 is designed to allow adults to travel in comfort.
I went flying in the Lancair 350 with the company’s VP of marketing, Mark Cahill, who had flown it out to the East Coast from Oregon two days earlier. If you’re a pilot, the first things that you notice when you sit down in the 350 are its flat panels, a PFD in front of the pilot and a multifunction display (MFD) in the middle of the panel. It seems like the PFD is situated slightly to the right of the pilot, and you get the sense that the displays in the Columbia are in the portrait (vertical) orientation because panel space is limited, and the deep glareshield adds to that effect. Even the navcoms are placed less than ideally, with one GNS 430 on the console between the seats and the other on the panel. That’s one advantage of flat-panel displays, however: because they’re so well integrated, panels can get smaller and still have greater capability than their steam gauge predecessors.
There are probably two kinds of pilots, those who like steering by differential braking and those who don’t. I fall into the former camp. Although I learned to fly in airplanes with nosewheel steering, it now seems ponderous and mechanically overcomplicated to me. Steering by brakes, on the other hand, is responsive and elegant. The downside is, of course, if you lose one brake, you can only steer in one direction. If you’re going fast, that’s definitely not a good thing, so a good pre-taxi and pre-landing check is to make sure you have pressure in both pedals.
After a quick tour of the panel, we taxied out for 34 at White Plains (HPN). It was a cool day, we had half tanks and it was just Mark and I onboard, so we were light, around 2,900 pounds, 500 less than max takeoff weight. I expected a short takeoff roll, and I wasn’t disappointed. Let’s face it, you bolt a 310-hp engine on the front of an airplane with an empty weight of around 2,300 pounds and you’re going to go up in a hurry, and we did. The climb performance, as you might expect, is excellent, better than 1,200 feet per minute at max takeoff weight (under standard conditions at sea level).
It strikes me as odd that there’s so much skepticism about the cruise speed of this airplane, but there is, so the first thing we did was climb to the optimum altitude, around 7,500 feet, and check out the numbers. Lancair advertises a cruise speed of 190 knots, and our cruise speed, according to the Avidyne air data computer, was flickering back and forth between 190 and 191 knots.
That’s fast, but it does come at best power, which puts around 19 gallons of 100LL through the IO-550 every hour. Still, with 98 gallons usable, the range of the 350 is nothing short of phenomenal. With full tanks (and hopefully a relief device) you can fly almost 900 nm (no wind) with reserves; at best economy-and, hence, slower airspeeds-that figure exceeds 1,200 nm (though why anyone would choose to do that is beyond me). With full, or nearly full, tanks and a relatively light load, the 350 will make short work of many regional trips that would require a fuel stop for most other airplanes in its class.
Of course, for carrying more than a couple of average sized occupants, you’ll need to leave out some fuel. With a full fuel payload of just over 500 pounds, the lightest possible Columbia 350 will be able to carry exactly three average-sized 170-pound passengers with no bags. Leave some fuel out, and you’ll be able to take bags or a fourth passenger on reasonably long nonstop trips.
As I said, the PFD in the 350 is in portrait format, which I went in thinking I’d like better than the landscape (horizontal) format of the PFD in the Cirrus SR22, the airplane that I usually fly. As it turned out, I came away not liking the portrait arrangement as well, though it’s hard to say how I’d feel about it after five, ten or 25 hours flying behind it. I did, however, immediately like the vertical orientation on the MFD, because it lets you see more real estate out ahead of you, which, after all, is the direction that we’re most often headed in.
The one really nice addition to the Avidyne Entegra PFD is a flight director. As implemented on the Columbia 350, the flight director is a visual display of flight profile as commanded by the autopilot. A remote switch allows the pilot to select from among four autoflight modes: hand flying, autopilot, autopilot with flight director, or hand flying with flight director. When hand flying, the idea is to nest the aircraft reference symbol into the command bars, which makes smooth hand flying easy.
The transition into the PFD-equipped Columbia was a piece of cake, thanks to my nearly 50 hours in the SR22 with a nearly identical PFD. Even though the orientation of the displays is different, you have all the same buttons and knobs with all the same functions. I’m also pretty familiar with the Garmin 430s, and with the IO-550. I felt as though I could have hopped in the airplane solo and safely flown off.
It’s not likely to be so easy for pilots who aren’t already as familiar as I am with the systems in the airplane. New owners need to take factory-authorized training before they’re given the reins to their new set of wings. The training, Lancair says, typically takes eight to ten hours of ground school and five to seven hours of airwork. It’s conducted at Lancair’s Bend, Oregon, headquarters, though, and Bend is a scenic town with lots of fun outdoor things to do, so it’s not a bad place to be holed up for a while.
Now, there’s been a lot of debating among pilots between Lancair’s approach to cockpit ergonomics (a sidestick) versus Cirrus’s (a side yoke) and Diamond’s (a conventional stick). Now that I’ve flown all three airplanes, let me just say that the salient point is that they’ve all-thankfully-gotten the yoke out of the way of the panel; in my mind, how they’ve done it is secondary.
That said, I really like the Columbia’s sidestick, which feels like a little stick mounted on the sidewall of the cockpit (because it is). It’s smooth, elegant and nicely proportioned. Of course, when you’re flying an airplane like this, you’re going to let the autopilot (in this case, the ubiquitous S-Tec 55X) do most of the work. Still, when you’re hand flying it’s great to have a nicely harmonized and responsive airplane on the other end of the stick.
The handling qualities of the 350 are nothing short of superb. From steep turns at higher speeds to flight on the ragged edge of the stall, the airplane is responsive and predictable. It’s easy to set up a stabilized approach in the 350 and just as easy to fly it around the pattern. The airplane I flew is outfitted with speed brakes, so that made planning the descent easier, but I’d have no qualms about flying the airplane without the blades.
The couple of landings I made in the 350 impressed me. Mark suggested that I land it in a slight nose-up attitude, which made for a very solid, jet-like touchdown. The next time around, I flared the airplane slightly above the runway and let the airspeed bleed off, and we easily made the first turnoff on HPN’s Runway 34, about 1,700 feet down, with just a bit of braking. It’s not an airplane that needs a lot of runway.
With the 350, Lancair has itself one of the premier single-engine four-place transportation airplanes available. If you’ve been paying attention to how Lancair does things, you might have guessed that the company already has a few new models in mind, and you’d be right. The turbocharged Columbia 400 is due to be certified soon, and Lancair hints at retractable and pressurized versions of the 400 in the future. Such an airplane could cruise at 250 knots or more.
But for the time being, Lancair is committed, it says, to getting Columbia 350s out the door. Based on my experience flying the 350, this focus will doubtless transform, one by one, a lot of patient customers into happy pilots.