Sunday, October 1, 2006
Finally Ready For Its Closeup
|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.|
As with the Piper Malibu, which was regarded as revolutionary in 1984, not everything on the Columbia was new. (At the Malibu introduction party, designer Jim Griswold admitted to me, “In fact, there wasn’t anything really new on that airplane. It was all known technology that no one had ever utilized before.”) The original Columbia 300 was also a collection of better ideas that hadn’t been fully utilized before. Construction is all-composite, a method previously employed on a few homebuilt airplanes, but not generally accepted in the industry.
To ease a person’s access to the cockpit, the airplane incorporates fold-up gull wing doors, a concept previously employed on the Socata Trinidad/Tobago/Tampico. Like the Cirrus aircraft, Columbia planes utilize flat-panel PFD/MFD displays, originally by Avidyne. Side sticks are mounted for roll and pitch control, freeing up panel space directly in front of the pilot and copilot. Climate control is by rheostat—at last! Even if you understand the technical challenges associated with air-conditioning in general aviation airplanes, it’s always been a little incomprehensible that a typical $300,000 airplane has environmental systems comparable to those in a 1950 Ford.
The idea was to offer an airplane with a glass at least three-quarters full. Taken collectively, the Columbia’s features make it technologically superior to the vast majority of general aviation aircraft.
The Columbia 350 is an all-electric airplane, with no vacuum or hydraulic systems. It features separate wire routings, batteries, alternators and regulators with full crosstie capabilities. There are no vacuum-driven instruments to fail because there’s no vacuum system installed. Overall, the Columbia 350 is about as futuristic an airplane as any that you’ll find on the market.
If there’s a downside to so much innovation in a single package, it may be that old pelican pilots feel a little lost climbing into a Columbia for the first time. (New-generation aviators, brought up in the age of computers, will probably feel right at home.) The familiar round gauges are gone—most of them, anyway. Like every manufacturer that has embraced glass panels, Columbia offers three two-inch backup instruments on the far left. The side stick feels comfortable, but unfamiliar at first. You can’t help thinking the airplane check-out will be short—the Columbia flies conventionally—but systems familiarization will require more time.
In fact, the adjustment process isn’t nearly that tough. The side stick falls readily to hand (though don’t try flying it with your right hand from the left seat), the PFD/MFD digital instrumentation becomes familiar faster than you’d imagine, and switch and system controls are located logically.
The Columbia makes friends quickly. Push the power up for departure with the flaps set at the 12-degree takeoff position, and the big Continental rushes you down the runway for liftoff in less than 1,000 feet of runway. With 310 hp on tap, the airplane scores an easy 1,200 fpm uphill, and even without a turbo out front, you’ll typically see an 8,500-foot cruise altitude in less than 10 minutes.