When 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.
The airport in Bend, Ore., where Columbia builds its impressive airplanes, is idyllic—in the shadows of the snow-capped Three Sisters mountains, and adjacent to horse farms with rolling pastures and white fences. And the planes Columbia churns out of the plant on the field’s east side are jaw-droppingly attractive—and that I felt even before I went for a mini-checkout with Columbia’s Emily Watters.
As Emily and I settled into one of the cleanest piston-aircraft cabins I’ve ever seen, I was reminded of a conversation I had a while back with Bob Lutz, previously Chrysler’s vice chairman and currently GM North America’s chairman. Over a couple Beck’s, and while he pulled a few drags from his ever-present stogie, we had discussed his automobile design principles. His comments about macro and micro design, regarding such cars as the Viper, applied as easily now to the design elements of the Columbia 400; the carbon and fiberglass 400 looks good from afar, and it looks good up close. Indeed, the design of the 400 and the G1000 system is terrific—buttons and switches click satisfyingly, and the high-quality cabin accoutrements are in the right places (except for that pocket way under the instrument panel; it doesn’t seem convenient for anything). One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered in my clashes and romances with technology is how rare it is to find sophisticated equipment executed with a commensurate level of style, ergonomics and logical knobology. And while the G1000 can definitely stand to be more intuitive, as has been said before, once you get the hang of it… But for fans of the Avidyne Entegra, Columbia still offers that system as an option in new 350s and 400s.
Apples To Apples, Or Apples To Oranges?
Right from the get-go, I found myself comparing aspects of the 400’s operation not to the airplanes I expected to be reminded of, but rather to the TBM 850 I had learned to fly for another story [Pilot Journal, March/April 2007]. This was largely due to the fabulous Garmin GFC 700 Flight Control System (FCS), which is integral to the airplane’s glass-panel G1000.
Taxiing out, I’d have sworn that the 400 had a steerable nosewheel, had I not known better, because the rudder had so much authority. Even with power way back and in a leisurely taxi, I never had to use differential braking to hold centerline until I made the sharp turn toward runway heading for my pretakeoff checks.
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.
As we approached Redmond Airport for an ILS and a few touch-and-goes, I started to groove on the speed brakes. I like them, and they do what their name says very well since the slick 400 tends to gather its steam with the nose pointed down. Some may say that if pilots in a plane like this plan their approach well, they won’t need the Precise Flight SpeedBrakes, which are deployable at any speed. Well, to those pilots I say, in many instances that may be true—I didn’t always need to use them—but sometimes they were a nice-to-have tool and other times, like when I was stuck behind much slower traffic in sequence at Santa Monica Airport with altitude yet to lose, they helped me keep my good spacing and were fine to keep extended through landing.
Landing—now here’s another little, perhaps nitpicky, issue I have with the venerable 400. The flaps are really quite effective, and with a takeoff flap speed of 127, they can come out early to help maintain a smooth approach profile. With full flaps selected, the 400 becomes almost Cessna-like in its nose-down attitude. But that’s fine; it’s the 400’s limited nose-up elevator authority that can be a smidge problematic; I’d really love just a bit more up elevator. As such, the 400 lands quite flat. I was a little concerned about landing nosewheel first, but I never came close to worrying about a tail strike.
Because I was “the decider” in this District of Columbia, I decided to see the autopilot fly the ILS coupled. It did so smoothly and precisely, with no hunting or switching back as it captured the final approach course and flew a seamless approach to my click-off point at decision height. Can you tell I really like this autopilot?
Later that afternoon, I launched again in Baby N452BS, this time with Doug, and I pointed south, planning to slide on in to Palo Alto Airport via the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Departing Bend, we climbed unimpeded in 15.5 minutes to our cruising altitude of 17,500 feet. At top of climb, Doug showed me his quiet cruise setting: 31 inches MP and 2,400 rpm, burning about 17 gph lean of peak. The book called this 85% power, and it trued us out to 195 knots. Dialing in 2,500 rpm, we gained only a couple knots, but the noise level increased markedly. At my preferred 2,400 rpm, with my Bose headset, the noise level in the 400 was remarkably low—I heard almost slipstream only.
On this cross-country flight, I had more time to fiddle with the G1000 and its READY Pad remote entry system. Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours “flying” the Falcon 900EX EASy Level D simulator at Flight Safety in Teterboro, N.J. The Falcon’s EASy system is a next-gen integrated flight deck whose flight management system (FMS) is controlled by what Dassault calls a Cursor Control Device (CCD)—a trackball, which moves a large crosshair over a graphical depiction of FMS functions, including flight plan, weight and balance, fuel load and performance data; it’s remarkably intuitive and very Mac-like. The READY Pad reminded me of the remote-entry CCD in the Falcon. I loved it, though I would have loved it more if Garmin located another “Enter” button closer to the knobs at the top of the unit. Regardless of my picayune desires, the READY Pad made control of both the PFD and MFD, and paging and flight-plan entry, a snap.
One of the cooler features of the G1000 MFD is the range ring. With 98 gallons usable and 106 total, the range ring was showing that we could fly all the way to Tucson, Ariz., a little less than 1,000 miles down the road, and land with a 45-minute reserve; so the 400 sure has legs.
We actually didn’t go to Arizona until a couple days later, to take the photos you see on these pages. The 500-mile flight from Van Nuys airport to Page, Ariz., took 1.8 hours, and on that flight, I finally sampled the 400 in the flight levels. Climbing through FL180, the Crew Alerting System (CAS) on the G1000 flashed “Vapor Suppression On,” to suppress fuel vapor. It’s required above FL180, and at FL230—ATC wouldn’t give us FL250—at 31.9 inches MP and 2,500 rpm, we were burning 16 gph lean of peak and scooting along at 212 knots true.
Whenever Doug and I climbed above 12,500 feet, we plugged into the Mountain High O2D2 electronic, pulse-demand, oxygen delivery system. Connected to the 400’s on-board oxygen system, the O2D2 rationed oxygen and sensed our inhaling, giving us only the toot we needed depending on cabin altitude. It worked great and kept us refreshed and headache-free during and after our flights.
Also keeping us headache free was the Avidyne TAS620 Traffic Advisory System. Last time I flew the G1000, it had the transponder-based traffic information system (TIS), which has limited coverage and wasn’t too helpful flying across west Texas. The Avidyne TAS620 is an active system based on TCAS technology employed by air-transport category aircraft. Though there wasn’t too much traffic in the high teens or low- to mid-20s where we flew, in terminal areas and busy airspace like in New York and Los Angeles, traffic systems like Avidyne’s are worth their weight in gold.
Though my final flight for this report was almost a week ago, as I sit to write, I still feel high and am now so spoiled from my three days with the fastest fixed-gear piston single in production. I’d really like to go to Scottsdale to visit a friend this weekend, and I’d really like to do it with the Columbia comfort and speed I became so accustomed to this past week. Columbia, take me away…
SPECS: 2007 Columbia 400