Thursday, June 1, 2006
Battle of the four-seat speedsters
Contrary to what many people think, there’s little to support the idea that general aviation’s glass is half empty. Examine the last dozen or so years of aircraft development. In that time, at least six single-engine, four-seat airplanes—all capable of cruising near or even well above the magic 200 knots—have emerged.
2. Columbia 400
It should come as no surprise that the second-quickest machine in our survey also comes from Lance Neibauer. Columbia Aircraft, formerly known as Lancair Certified Aircraft, currently lays claim to the world’s fastest piston, production single.
Columbia airplanes and Neibauer’s homebuilt models do share certain similarities, but the 400 is very different from the Lancair IV—most of the differences relate to the fact that it’s FAA certified as a normal-category aircraft. The 400 uses a 310 hp twin-turbocharged version of the Lancair IV’s 550-cubic-inch Continental engine. The Bend, Ore., company advertises the airplane’s max cruise speed as 235 knots at 25,000 feet, 230 knots if you settle for 18,000 feet. Even 230 knots makes the 400 the world’s fastest piston, production machine, and remember, Columbia realizes its speed with all three main gears down and laminated.
A top-of-the-line 400 sports an electric operating system (with dual batteries and dual alternators), a huge front cabin, an optional Avidyne Integra PFD/MFD avionics display, a Thermawing deicing system and enough goodies to make a Gulfstream pilot envious.
3. Mooney Bravo
The Mooney Bravo took life in 1989 as the TLS, short for Turbo Lycoming Sabre. (North American objected to the Sabre appellation, so Mooney changed the name to Bravo in 1995.) By any name, the new airplane represented a significant break from Mooney tradition.
The new model was the company’s first departure from engines of 220 hp or less. Mooney had always prided itself on delivering maximum speed on minimum horsepower. Out front, the Bravo’s large Lycoming TIO-540 delivers an impressive 270 hp. With only 3,368 pounds of stretched Porsche-Mooney body trailing behind, the airplane manages to blaze along at nearly 220 knots at FL250. Until the advent of the Columbia 400, that was enough to earn it the title of fastest, piston four-seater in the sky.
Even in stock trim, a Bravo can fly coast-to-coast eastbound in a relatively easy day. My wife and I did exactly that in 1994 when we piloted a new Bravo from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla., in slightly over seven hours (including a fuel stop in Dallas) at an average speed of 300 mph, a point-to-point speed record. Sure, we did have some tailwinds on the westward flight, and the return trip took longer, but we demonstrated what was possible.
4. Mooney Ovation
The Ovation features a significantly derated Continental IO-550, turned all the way down to 280 hp, and the result is Mooney’s fastest normally aspirated airplane. It’s also one of the company’s all-time best-selling machines, with an engine TBO that just might make the advertised 2,000 hours.
The Ovation shares an essentially identical fuselage and wing with the Bravo. After a major switch from a three-blade to a two-blade prop a few years back, the current Ovation cruises at 190 knots under ideal conditions. With the standard 89 gallons aboard and a reduced power setting, fuel burn on the Ovation drops to as little as 13 gph. That allows range to increase to a whopping 1,550 nm. Add the STC’d, 30-gallon Monroy tanks, and max range under ideal conditions can approach 2,000 nm.
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