Back in the ’80s, when I was working on the ABC TV show Wide World of Flying, I flew up to Washington State to interview Ken Wheeler, designer of the Wheeler Express homebuilt, and fly his innovative airplane. In those days (1987?), the Wheeler Express was that rare machine: a four-seat homebuilt.
Like so many other homebuilt designs of the time, it was also a fixed-gear composite airplane, nevertheless possessed of near-retractable performance. Wheeler’s explanation of why he elected to design his airplane with fixed rather than retractable gear was interesting. “This is a homebuilt airplane, after all,” said Wheeler, “so ease of construction is important. Fixed gear is simpler, lighter and, in many ways, stronger. Whether you’re designing a homebuilt or certified airplane, retracting the wheels is almost universally more trouble than it’s worth. For most airplanes, this one included, it just makes more sense to leave the wheels hanging than to retract them.”
Lance Neibauer apparently felt the same way when he configured his first certified airplane, the Columbia 300. Though Neibauer had previously designed a number of fast, retractable homebuilts (including the world-beater Lancair IV and IV-P), he recognized that fixed gear was simpler to build, lighter, less maintenance-prone and, perhaps most important in this context, less expensive to certify.
The original Columbia 300 evolved to become the all-electric Columbia 350; later, Columbia added a turbocharged model—the 400. Today, the airplanes have been rebadged: the 350 as the Cessna Corvalis, and the top-of-the-line 400 as the Cessna Corvalis TT. Since Cessna acquired the model line nearly two years ago—its first low-wing piston singles ever—the company has made few changes to the basic design, but a few modifications were in order for model year 2009.
Despite their obvious style and speed, the original model 350 and 400 were light on payload, so Cessna addressed the airplane’s weight problem head-on. For 2009, a new composite, single-bottle oxygen system is mounted in the tail, replacing the former wing-mounted, metal containers, and that recovers a 25-pound payload increase.
Buyers also now have the option of deleting the formerly standard air-conditioning system for a credit and another significant improvement in useful load—about 75 pounds. That’s a total payload increase of 100 pounds over the old airplane.
The Corvalis TT sports a slick composite finish, and its main gear are carefully faired and tucked beneath the wings. Gull-wing doors that fold up and out provide ingress into a generously sized, automotive-like cabin.
A new cold-weather kit improves engine-oil temperatures for pilots operating the aircraft in frigid climates. For those same folks, Cessna has completed certification on an inadvertent TKS anti-ice system on the Corvalis TT, and is hard at work on the Corvalis (though that system wasn’t certified at press time). Rosen sun visors now are standard equipment. Finally, every Cessna Corvalis and Corvalis TT comes with a comprehensive FITS-based (FAA/Industry Training Standards) ground syllabus and five hours of flight training to bring new owners up to speed on the airplane’s systems.
Of course, the big news is that the Corvalis TT offers cruise performance more appropriate to a retractable than to a fixed-gear airplane. I flew a ferry-time-only 2009 Corvalis TT from Tom’s Aircraft in Long Beach, Calif., with product specialist Jade Duckart. Tom’s Aircraft Sales Manager Rich Manor explains that the new airplanes filled a gap in Cessna’s product line and expanded the company’s horizons in a big way. “The Corvalis line represents a major departure for Cessna in several areas,” says Manor. “Not only is it a low-wing airplane, it’s also an all-composite design with gull-wing doors and a side stick.
“Before the advent of the Corvalis models, we really didn’t have any entry in the luxury, high-performance single class,” Manor comments. “For that reason, we typically couldn’t even talk to pilots interested in a technologically advanced four-seater. Practically everyone recognizes the Turbo Skylane as an excellent airplane, but it was never intended to compete with the Cirrus and Mooney. The Corvalis models put us back in the game.”
Standard on the Corvalis TT is the SVT-equipped Garmin G1000/GFC 700 avionics panel. New owners also get five hours of training to familiarize themselves with the advanced systems.
In spades. By any measure, the Corvalis TT is now one of the strongest performers in the class. It features a turbocharged, 310 hp Continental TSIO-550-C, the same basic displacement engine that powers the Cirrus SR22-G3, Mooney Ovation 3 and Mooney Acclaim Type S—beyond the displacement comparison, however, this is a dramatically different engine. The turbocharged Corvalis TT is obviously serious about performance, sporting a slick, clean composite finish as smooth as Murano glass. The main gear are carefully faired and tucked elegantly beneath the wings in the optimum position. In short, there’s very little hanging out to contribute drag and subtract speed.
With the improvements in the 2009 models, specifically aimed at increasing payload, the Corvalis TT features the greatest payload in its class. At 3,600 pounds gross, the turbocharged Corvalis TT is certified with a maximum takeoff weight that’s 200 pounds heavier than the normal-breathing Corvalis.
The basic airplane comes in full froth, with few options even available (though, as mentioned above, you can delete air-conditioning). Our test machine was a standard-equipped example, priced at the base $635,000. Empty weight checked in at 2,558 pounds against a 3,600-pound gross. With the 102-gallon tanks topped, that left us with only 430 pounds of payload, enough for two folks plus baggage or three semi-lightweights.
Lack of payload is a common complaint among high-performance singles, but it’s not always a critical one. Many pilots who buy airplanes in this class know, going in, that the carry limit will be two full-sized folks plus baggage, and they’ve already made peace with that situation. (I’ve been flying a four-seat Mooney for 20 years, and I’ve filled the seats no more than a half-dozen times.)
Fortunately, most missions don’t demand full fuel, and departing with 60 gallons in the Corvalis TT still provides two-and-a-half hours of endurance plus reserve. That allows a 500 nm range, even at breathable altitudes, while boosting payload to 682 pounds, just over four folks’ worth.
If there’s any consolation for the low payload, it may be that the cabin is almost automotive in comfort. You step down off the wing and settle into the seat without some of the typical acrobatics of other low wings. The gull-wing doors fold up and out, à la Mercedes 300SL, and leather straps on each side help pull them back down to camlock in place.
Once you’re ensconced in the tuck-and-roll front buckets, space is more akin to that of an Audi than a typical general aviation airplane. The Mooney Acclaim Type S definitely has a slight advantage in cruise speed, but for many pilots, comfort counts for quite a bit. The Corvalis TT scores better in cabin room, a 4x4-foot enclosure with plenty of elbow, hip and legroom.
The Corvalis line features side sticks that are something of a mixed blessing. On the positive side, they open up the space directly in front of both pilots and allow ready access to all controls and switches. Conversely, roll response with the short throw of the stick inputs to the control rods is heavier than with the mechanical advantage of a yoke with cables and pullies. In a similar sense, you can’t simply rest your forearm on the armrest and steer the airplane with a flick of your wrist. Control forces aren’t oppressive, but the airplane does demand some minor muscle in maneuvering.
From the moment you push the throttle forward for takeoff, it’s apparent the Corvalis has something extra under the hood. The big Continental pulls like a team of Clydesdales, devouring runway with almost automotive enthusiasm. Manifold pressure limit is 35.5 inches, and that’s adequate to maintain sea-level power all the way to the airplane’s max altitude of 25,000 feet.
Continental’s twin turbos manifest maximum effect by maintaining power as the airplane climbs above 5,000 feet. Expect 1,200 to 1,300 fpm in climb, 1,500 fpm when flying light. That means you can usually expect to see two-mile altitudes less than eight minutes after takeoff.
The reality of turbocharged operation is that most pilots still prefer to fly in breathable air most of the time. A turbocharger provides the flexibility to ascend to the mid-teens or even the low-20s flight levels if there’s a need, but most pilots prefer the bottom 12,000 feet of sky. The Corvalis TT’s quoted max cruise speed of 235 knots is certainly an attractive number, but it’s only attainable at a fairly hostile 25,000 feet at high cruise, pouring almost 20 gph through the engine.
The good news is that you don’t have to fly high. If you elect to ascend to the middle sky, the Corvalis TT still offers good speed under friendlier conditions. In our case, we strapped on the masks and climbed to 17,500 feet, the highest VFR altitude, and watched the TAS climb to an eventual 213 knots, 3.5 nm a minute. That’s more than half the speed of a typical VLJ at a quarter of the purchase price and probably a sixth of the operating cost.
Forget the 235-knot spec; even at 213 knots, you could easily transit the lower United States in less than a workday with only one fuel stop. This airplane could easily beat door-to-door airline time over substantial distances if you needed to fly to destinations not served by a major-hub airport.
Fuel burn on our flight was about 18.5 gph at the max cruise setting, so our fuel supply would have allowed four hours’ endurance plus reserve, worth an easy 850 nm and then some. Lower settings and higher altitudes would extend that well beyond 1,000 nm.
Like the old Cessna T210, the Corvalis TT thrives on long-distance cruise. The airplane is stable as a table and loves to stretch out and fly to the far horizon. Using reduced power settings, the airplane will log up to 1,250 nm at a sitting. With contoured seats, a copious interior and good soundproofing, both the Corvalis models should make good platforms for owner/operators.
Cessna has fully embraced the Garmin G1000/GFC 700 integrated avionics glass panel, and that system now graces the panel of both of the former Columbia airplanes. Synthetic vision is the latest avionics miracle, and it re-creates the view ahead so accurately, you’d think you were peering through a forward-looking TV screen. (I flew the latest iteration of Garmin’s Synthetic Vision Technology recently in conjunction with the Sun ’n Fun Air Show, and the artificial depiction of the lakes around Lakeland, Fla., was so accurate, it was missing only the boat wakes.)
The Cessna Corvalis TT joins the Cirrus SR22-G3 Turbo for top fixed-gear honors among the big-cabin four-seaters. Diamond may be introducing its DA50 Super Star in the near future, expanding the class to three models. It should be fun to watch the sales competition between three of general aviation’s most successful companies.
3 Expert G1000 Tips • By Joe Shelton
1. SET UP AND USE THE G1000 BY USING A LOGICAL FLOW.
The G1000 has so many buttons and features that preparing it for flight can be a challenge. There are two things you can do to simplify the process. First, only use the right bezel on the PFD and the left bezel on the MFD. By ignoring the outside bezels—with the exception of the MFD’s FPL button—almost all of the controls you need are contained in the center of the panel. Second, use a flow like a reverse letter W to set up the G1000. Start with the MFD’s FPL button to create or select a flight plan. The flow will then follow along the MFD’s soft keys from right to left, up the MFD’s left bezel, setting altitude, autopilot, heading and NAV frequencies; checking the avionics switch panel; down the PFD’s right bezel checking each of the settings; and finally across the PFD’s soft keys and ending at the bottom left of the PFD.
2. MAKE VOR CHECKS SIMPLE.
For a VOR check, you could select each VOR separately and center the CDI to check the VOR radial. But for a quicker and easier VOR check, set the #1 and #2 NAV to the same frequency and turn on both bearing pointer needles. You’ll easily be able to see if both needles indicate the same position. Then use the radial values and differences that the needles show to document the check. If you find that they’re different, then you can determine the precise difference by pressing the CDI button to select each VOR, and then manually center the CDI for each.
3. USE THE G1000’S SCHEDULER FOR REMINDERS.
The G1000’s Scheduler function allows you to set four different alerts/reminders. Enter the text of the reminder and then set the time as either periodic, one time or event. These are useful for such things as remembering to change fuel tanks, check fuel consumption, check oxygen consumption, check weather, etc. You can also enter an event for reminders like VOR checks, upgrading the G1000 navigation data, annual inspections, etc. The final field on each scheduled item tells the time remaining before the alert is activated.