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.|
Fifteen years ago when I flew with Lance Neibauer in the then-new, world-beater, prototype Lancair IV, I reported that stall characteristics were “a little abrupt.” In contrast, the stall on the Columbia 350 is practically nonexistent. Just for fun, I tried a full series of stalls: dirty and clean, power full on and full off, wings level and banked to 45 degrees. No matter what I did, the airplane refused to get mad at me.
In fact, for the power-off checks, I brought the side stick straight back to the aft stop and held it there for a full 30 seconds. The Columbia responded with little more than a gentle hobbyhorse pitching up and down with no tendency to roll off on a wing. It was apparent I could have mushed all the way to the ground under good control.
At the opposite end of the envelope, Columbia lists the 350’s max cruise under optimum conditions as 191 knots. That’s obviously with everything against the stops, and while most pilots don’t buy fast airplanes to fly slowly, the rising cost of avgas is causing many of us to rethink our attitudes about using high cruise. A more likely scenario would involve a 60% to 65% setting that would net more like 170 to 175 knots in exchange for about 14.5 gph.
Because the 350 carries 98 usable gallons, range is substantial, especially at reduced power settings. Using the setting above, you could plan on six hours plus reserve between pit stops, worth probably 1,000 nm. That means a pilot with a need to travel the lower U.S. from coast to coast could probably do so in one long day with a single fuel stop, especially if flying eastbound with prevailing westerlies. Service ceiling is 18,000 feet, so the airplane can easily manage 15,000-foot cruising altitudes if necessary. At even lower power, Columbia suggests the 350 can range 1,300 nm nonstop.
The 350 maneuvers easily, but don’t let the side stick delude you into expecting F-16 response. Control forces are heavier than you might expect, though unless you’re flying tight formation, you won’t have reason to complain. The concept is that you can merely lay your forearm on the side rest and simply move your wrist to roll or pitch the airplane. In fact, you’re more liable to need your entire arm, but forces aren’t so heavy that you’ll notice them in normal operation.
Following the flight at Bend, I spent about 25 hours in a Columbia 350 with passenger Rachel Youngberg for an extensive three-day formation photo shoot over the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. The airplane proved a capable formation mount, relatively easy to slide into position a few feet from the photo platform. Better still, it was an imminently comfortable machine in which to spend 12 hours a day.
Landings are undemanding and satisfying if you’re simply awake. Ninety knots is the normal approach speed, and Columbia recommends short-field speeds of no less than 80 knots with a full 40 degrees of flaps. Judging the flare isn’t much of a challenge. The airplane eases onto the ground with a minimum of fuss, especially if you use the twin technique of powering down at the flare rather than coming back to idle at the key position.