Looking down on the Bend, Ore., airport from 2,000 feet AGL, the ramp at Columbia Aircraft resembled an air show in progress. There were airplanes everywhere. My quick count came up with 63 Columbia 350s and 400s waiting for delivery to their new owners. That’s probably $30 million worth of airplanes. There was little question that Columbia was back from the brink, big time.
Columbia Aircraft (formerly Lancair Certified Aircraft) is perhaps representative of an industry that’s been in turmoil for the last quarter century and has only begun to emerge from its downward spiral in the last four years. The American general aviation industry cranked out an amazing 17,811 airplanes in 1978, then dropped to fewer than 1,000 in 1994 and recovered to 3,500 last year. In fact, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association reports that billings for the first quarter of 2006 were the highest in history.
Columbia, the newest major manufacturer in the industry, is riding the crest of the upswing. The company’s normally aspirated 350 and turbocharged 400 have emerged in the last two years as the airplanes to beat. Though the Cirrus SR22-G2 is still the best-selling airplane in the world, the Columbia 400 claims the title of fastest production piston airplane.
While the 350 is Columbia’s entry-level model, there’s nothing entry-level about the airplane itself. It features all-electric systems (with either an Avidyne Entegra or Garmin G1000 two-screen glass panel), composite construction, side-stick controls and enough extra goodies to make a Gulfstream captain envious.
The Columbia 350 flies behind a Continental IO-550 engine, basically the same mill used on the Lancair IV, except derated to 310 hp. That means the engine can pull 75% of 350 hp (the equivalent of 263 hp), roughly 85% of the derated power.
The airplane I flew at Bend with factory check pilot Scott Fordham was one of six 350XLs to be delivered to a company based in Long Beach, Calif. By the time you read this, iFly will have launched its managed-access program, which allows members to fly new Columbia 350s without the hassles of ownership.
From the moment you step up to a 350, it’s clear this is a new-generation airplane. Designer Lance Neibauer has always been a free thinker, and he says he tried to incorporate as many innovations as possible into the production airplanes without compromising certification efforts. “The Columbia models were derived loosely from the Lancair ES homebuilt,” says Neibauer. “You obviously design airplanes a little differently when you know they must be certified. The Columbia 350 and 400 pushed the technology about as far as possible, consistent with the time and expense of certification.”
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