In the last decade, two of the biggest names in fixed-gear, high-performance singles have been Cirrus and Columbia. Everyone knows the story of Cirrus: A small homebuilt aircraft company in the wilds of the northern Midwest that has successfully converted to building production airplanes.
In contrast, Columbia was a small homebuilt company in the wilds of central Oregon that successfully converted to building production airplanes. The fact that Columbia went bankrupt last year might challenge the concept of the company as successful, but that may not be fair. Apparently, there’s never been a lack of customers. Two years ago, a devastating hailstorm that damaged some 80 semi-complete airplanes in Bend, Ore., may have helped precipitate the company’s end.
Now, of course, as practically everyone knows, Columbia has become a division of Cessna, and the former Columbia 350 and 400 designs now wear the mantle of the most successful company in general aviation.
|The Cessna 400 now comes standard with air-conditioning, which is digitally controlled (above) and can reduce cabin temps by 10 degrees in five minutes. The remote data-entry keypad (top) in the center console provides pilots with easier access to the G1000 system (middle).|
For its part, Cessna didn’t try to fix what it felt wasn’t broken. The new Cessna 400 is still built in Bend by most of the same people who constructed it under the Columbia banner, and it’s essentially the same airplane it was before the buyout.
In some respects, the Columbia 350 and 400 bring new technology to one of the oldest and most respected lines of piston products. The Cessna 172, 182 and 206 are essentially all-metal airplanes, built pretty much the same today as they were in the ’70s and ’80s. Cessna need make no apology for that—the three models continue to sell at or near the head of their respective classes. The all-composite, normally aspirated 350 and turbocharged 400 represent a new direction for Cessna (though composites are well represented in Cessna’s Citation line of business jets).
Cessna won’t say much about its plans for the Next Generation Piston (NGP) project now that the 350 and 400 are on board. The NGP was originally planned to be a modern, super-high-performance, high-wing, composite design with at least some family ties to the existing models. It will be interesting to see if Cessna’s plans for the NGP change; it may wind up becoming a very different airplane.
I recently arranged to borrow a new, ferry-time-only Cessna 400 from one of the most successful Cessna dealers, Tom’s Aircraft (www.tomsaircraft.com) in Long Beach, Calif. Owner and President Tom Jacobson says he stocks only the turbocharged Cessna 400 model, since that’s what virtually all of his customers demand in the Mountain West.
“The only major change in the transition from Columbia to Cessna has been that Cessna now includes virtually everything in the $620,000 base price,” Jacobson explains. “As with all the other piston Cessnas (except the upcoming 162 LSA), the Garmin G1000 glass panel comes standard. Now, the stock 400 also includes air-conditioning, four Bose headsets, speed brakes, TCAS, NEXRAD weather, TAWS and virtually everything else you could want except TKS. That’s the only option, and it’s not approved for flight into known icing, only inadvertent encounters.”
The total package is about as sophisticated an airplane as you’ll find among fixed-gear singles. These days, you practically take such exotica as the G1000, TAWS and TCAS for granted, and perhaps for that reason, the Cessna air-conditioning system stands out as a major innovation.
Poor climate control has long been a major complaint among aircraft buyers. Many people spend upwards of 10 to 30 times the price of a car for an airplane lacking any air-conditioning or having a marginal ventilation system worse than a Yugo’s. Airplanes that may be operated at temperatures of 35 degrees C at sea level and minus-30 degrees C at 25,000 feet a half hour later obviously need a very robust climate control mechanism. The 400 has one of the best I’ve experienced in a single-engine, piston airplane.
Operating through a dozen vents in the overhead instrument panel and door panels, the system draws air through six unobtrusive and relatively drag-free vents in the belly of the aircraft, flooding the cabin with cold air and creating an immediate illusion of cooldown. Technically, the system will reduce cabin temperature by 10 degrees C in five minutes and 17 degrees C in another five. The only downside is that the new Cessna system adds about 70 pounds to empty weight.
Inside the cabin, accommodations are as plush and comfortable as you might expect from a $620,000 machine. The front office is 49 inches wide and tall enough to house a Lakers’ center (who’d more likely be flying a Citation). The big windows give the cabin a bright, airy feel, perhaps a little too bright, since no one has yet figured out how to mount sun visors.
Like the Cirrus, the Cessna 400 utilizes a molded side stick, angled inboard at about 40 degrees. Side sticks may look exotic and futuristic, but they’re fairly easy to use (as long as you only fly with your outboard hand). Of course, another major benefit of side sticks is that they improve crashworthiness and open up the space directly in front of the pilot and copilot. Your outboard hand falls easily to rest on the stick, and you adapt quickly to the new system for controlling roll and pitch.
Cessna’s 400 isn’t the most maneuverable airplane in roll, but pitch forces aren’t that noticeable. Electric roll and pitch trim is available on top of the stick in the form of a Chinese-hat style pipper. The airplane seems disproportionately heavy on the lateral axis, one good justification for the excellent Garmin GFC 700 autopilot. The 400 is an impressive cross-country machine, with excellent comfort and creditable speed, even down at breathable altitudes. The small wing (141 square feet) and relatively high gross weight result in high wing loading that helps provide a smooth ride in turbulence.
The airplane is built hell for stout with lots of touches that allude to strength over and above certification limits. The wing has two main spars rather than only one. The bucket seats are the proven 19 G/26 G variety designed to protect the buckets of pilots and passengers. Ailerons utilize three hinges, and flaps are mounted with four. The 400’s utility-class certification boosts G-limits from 3.8 to 4.4, attesting to the composite 400’s strength.
|The Cessna 400 features molded side sticks, freeing up cockpit space in front of the pilot and copilot.|
The Cessna 400’s speed has been a subject of some debate, and when the airplane flew as a Columbia, there was some question as to whether it or the retractable Mooney Acclaim was faster. Perhaps as a partial result, Mooney created the Acclaim Type S with a top speed of 242 knots, surpassing Columbia’s highest spec. Now that the airplane has shed the Columbia name, Cessna no longer bothers to fuel the speed debate; instead, it simply claims that the 400 is the fastest, fixed-gear, production piston single on or above the planet. With a top speed of 235 knots at 25,000 feet, that’s almost unquestionably true, and no, I haven’t personally seen it. I have, however, flown the Mooney Acclaim Type S at FL250, and the airplane turned in a sizzling 239 knots, so the Cessna 400’s claim of 235 knots certainly sounds reasonable. [Read Bill Cox’s article on flying the Acclaim Type S (Plane & Pilot July 2008) here.]
Of course, if you were determined to push the 400 that hard, you’d need to accept a fairly high fuel burn to keep the engine cool and happy, probably at least 22 gph. With 102 gallons aboard, you’d be limited to about four hours plus reserve at high cruise. That’s worth about 920 nm between pit stops. At reduced power settings, Cessna claims a range over 1,100 nm.
Empty weight on the airplane I flew was just below 2,600 pounds against a gross weight of 3,600 pounds, so payload after full fuel was 400 pounds. If that sounds a little low, consider that it’s about the same as you’d find on the Mooney Acclaim Type S or Cirrus SR22-G3 Turbo. Also, remember that there’s no requirement that you fly with full fuel on every flight. Leave 40 gallons in the truck and you could load four middleweights or three standard folks plus baggage and still fly for two hours.
Stalls are mostly nonexistent, with aileron effectiveness preserved right down into the break. Such easy control is reassuring at low airspeeds. Last year, when the airplane was still a Columbia, I was hired to fly formation for two days of brochure photography all over the Southwest, and the 400 proved a stable, easy mount as it flew 20 to 30 feet from the photo ship, no matter what the speed.
Cessna publishes a takeoff/landing distance of roughly 1,300 feet, but I’d bet the airplane can beat that with a little effort. The 400 certainly isn’t a STOL machine, but it should present no problem operating consistently from 2,000-foot strips with a smooth surface.
The 350 and 400 were designed from the outset as cross-country airplanes, and they do that job with comfort and style. The 400 is unusually quick for a fixed-gear design, probably appropriate considering its lineage with the Lancair IV. Designer Lance Neibauer has been creating fast airplanes for a quarter century, and the current Cessna 350 and 400 are perfect examples of what can happen when you turn loose an innovative, fresh-thinking homebuilt designer on a production design.
To learn more about the Cessna 400, visit www.cessna.com.
SPECS: Cessna 400