In the last decade, two of the biggest names in fixed-gear, high-performance singles have been Cirrus and Columbia. Everyone knows the story of Cirrus: A small homebuilt aircraft company in the wilds of the northern Midwest that has successfully converted to building production airplanes.
In contrast, Columbia was a small homebuilt company in the wilds of central Oregon that successfully converted to building production airplanes. The fact that Columbia went bankrupt last year might challenge the concept of the company as successful, but that may not be fair. Apparently, there’s never been a lack of customers. Two years ago, a devastating hailstorm that damaged some 80 semi-complete airplanes in Bend, Ore., may have helped precipitate the company’s end.
Now, of course, as practically everyone knows, Columbia has become a division of Cessna, and the former Columbia 350 and 400 designs now wear the mantle of the most successful company in general aviation.
|The Cessna 400 now comes standard with air-conditioning, which is digitally controlled (above) and can reduce cabin temps by 10 degrees in five minutes. The remote data-entry keypad (top) in the center console provides pilots with easier access to the G1000 system (middle). |
For its part, Cessna didn’t try to fix what it felt wasn’t broken. The new Cessna 400 is still built in Bend by most of the same people who constructed it under the Columbia banner, and it’s essentially the same airplane it was before the buyout.
In some respects, the Columbia 350 and 400 bring new technology to one of the oldest and most respected lines of piston products. The Cessna 172, 182 and 206 are essentially all-metal airplanes, built pretty much the same today as they were in the ’70s and ’80s. Cessna need make no apology for that—the three models continue to sell at or near the head of their respective classes. The all-composite, normally aspirated 350 and turbocharged 400 represent a new direction for Cessna (though composites are well represented in Cessna’s Citation line of business jets).
Cessna won’t say much about its plans for the Next Generation Piston (NGP) project now that the 350 and 400 are on board. The NGP was originally planned to be a modern, super-high-performance, high-wing, composite design with at least some family ties to the existing models. It will be interesting to see if Cessna’s plans for the NGP change; it may wind up becoming a very different airplane.
I recently arranged to borrow a new, ferry-time-only Cessna 400 from one of the most successful Cessna dealers, Tom’s Aircraft (www.tomsaircraft.com
) in Long Beach, Calif. Owner and President Tom Jacobson says he stocks only the turbocharged Cessna 400 model, since that’s what virtually all of his customers demand in the Mountain West.
“The only major change in the transition from Columbia to Cessna has been that Cessna now includes virtually everything in the $620,000 base price,” Jacobson explains. “As with all the other piston Cessnas (except the upcoming 162 LSA), the Garmin G1000 glass panel comes standard. Now, the stock 400 also includes air-conditioning, four Bose headsets, speed brakes, TCAS, NEXRAD weather, TAWS and virtually everything else you could want except TKS. That’s the only option, and it’s not approved for flight into known icing, only inadvertent encounters.”
The total package is about as sophisticated an airplane as you’ll find among fixed-gear singles. These days, you practically take such exotica as the G1000, TAWS and TCAS for granted, and perhaps for that reason, the Cessna air-conditioning system stands out as a major innovation.
Poor climate control has long been a major complaint among aircraft buyers. Many people spend upwards of 10 to 30 times the price of a car for an airplane lacking any air-conditioning or having a marginal ventilation system worse than a Yugo’s. Airplanes that may be operated at temperatures of 35 degrees C at sea level and minus-30 degrees C at 25,000 feet a half hour later obviously need a very robust climate control mechanism. The 400 has one of the best I’ve experienced in a single-engine, piston airplane.
Operating through a dozen vents in the overhead instrument panel and door panels, the system draws air through six unobtrusive and relatively drag-free vents in the belly of the aircraft, flooding the cabin with cold air and creating an immediate illusion of cooldown. Technically, the system will reduce cabin temperature by 10 degrees C in five minutes and 17 degrees C in another five. The only downside is that the new Cessna system adds about 70 pounds to empty weight.
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