Plane & Pilot
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

District of Columbia


A turbocharged manifestation of desire


District of ColumbiaWhen you fly different-make and -model airplanes, it can be hard to keep them straight in your radio calls. I’ve called a TBM, flying at FL280, a Cirrus. I’ve called a Diamond Star a Cessna, and I’ve called a Warrior a Husky. Usually, I catch myself immediately and correct my call, but there are times in life when calling something, or someone, by the wrong name can be hazardous to one’s health. A radio call generally isn’t one of them. That’s why I’ve decided to call any airplane I’m pilot-testing, “Baby.” So last week, when I was just getting my feet wet with a 12-hour-old Columbia 400, after botching a few radio calls, the airplane thence became Baby N452BS, and that’s no bravo sierra.

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The last thing I did before lining up for departure was punch the 400’s Go Around button (located on the center console by the Vapor Suppression, Backup Fuel Pump and flap switches). This brought up the autopilot’s Flight Director. The Garmin GFC 700 autopilot—a rather sophisticated attitude-based, all-digital, dual-channel and two-axis (pitch and roll) flight-control system—was still off. I then bugged runway heading, engaged Heading mode and used the Vertical Speed button to increase my initial climb angle to 11 degrees from Go Around’s default setting of seven degrees. After takeoff, my plan was to fly the flight director, and when stabilized in climb, engage the autopilot and select another terrific feature that both simplifies procedure and enhances safety, Flight Level Change (FLC), which, in a nod to the fresh-in-my-mind TBM, is in reality an indicated airspeed hold.

Rate-based autopilots, like certain S-TEC and Bendix/King models, get their cues from a turn coordinator and have no airspeed hold function. The potential hazard, which won’t bite you unless you’re not paying attention, is that the autopilot can stall the plane as it attempts to hold a vertical speed the airplane can’t maintain. With the jet-reminiscent FLC feature, that won’t happen. Shortly after Emily and I were airborne and motoring our way to 11,500 feet, I selected FLC to hold 130 knots indicated, like in the TBM, and the climb rate worked out to an acceptable figure for vertical penetration, forward visibility and engine cooling.

As we climbed to 11,500 feet, I left all engine controls full forward—the 400 requires no engine manipulation on climb—all the way to FL250, and that was pretty cool. On the other hand, once in cruise, the turbocharged Continental TSIO-550 does seem to be pretty temperature sensitive, and an attentive eye needs to be kept on the G1000’s turbine inlet temperature scale (1,630 seems to be the operative number to stay below). The double blower system in the 400 will make its max power all the way up to FL250, but as I’ve always felt since I got a taste for flight-level flying in nonpressurized piston aircraft, most pilots won’t opt to strap on a relatively uncomfortable mask and climb above FL180 (save for compelling tailwinds) in lieu of cannulas, which are legal for use to but not above 18,000. In the three-day course for transition to the Columbia 400, high-altitude flight concerns and potential physiological effects are covered in the classroom, though pilots don’t receive a high-altitude endorsement, which is only required for flight above FL260, so in this case, it doesn’t apply anyway.

As we went through our drills and I became more conversant with the 400 and the G1000, Emily told me about how the engine can potentially flood and choke if a pilot ham-handedly shoves the throttle forward from a low-power setting. We had just wrapped up stalls, which were uneventful and predictable, and steep turns—the 400 tracks like a slot car hugging the track, in its groove before it spins out. The 400 isn’t light on its pushrod controls, and it’s not going to be the plane a pilot picks to flick around in the air for the fun of it, but for going places, it’s in a league of a very few.

Throughout this training flight, and later when I headed to Los Angeles via San Francisco with Columbia’s Doug Meyer, the automotive-like environmental-control system did an admirable job supplying either heat or cool, air-conditioned air to maintain a comfortable cabin temperature. It was truly a set-it-and-forget-it system.

Now, back to the engine—back in level flight and with the throttle back near idle and the mixture full forward, Emily instructed me to floor it, so I did, and instead of the engine getting real loud, the cabin got real quiet as the engine flooded and went tango uniform. This was a demo in what not to do if or when going missed or going around. The 400’s 310 hp Continental appreciates a smooth touch.




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