Looking down from 25,000 feet, I can see the Channel Islands to the northwest and Mt. San Jacinto guarding Palm Springs to the east. Directly below, the 26-mile-wide Catalina Channel rolls on toward Southern California with barely noticeable swells on this severe-clear winter day. To the west, the morning sky is almost totally transparent, so clear I could probably see Hawaii if the Earth were flat.
Today, I'm privileged to occupy the left seat of a Cessna TTx, a fourth-generation rework of what began life as Lance Neibauer's homebuilt Lancair ES. The follow-on airplane was Columbia Aircraft's certified Columbia 350/400, then, a devastating hailstorm and the 2008 recession caused Columbia Aircraft to file for bankruptcy. Cessna, looking for a Centurion replacement, acquired all rights and introduced the third iteration, Cessna 350 and 400. Now, Cessna has sorted out the problems of the past, redesignated the new version the T240 and launched Cessna TTx 4.0.
The airplane is certainly one of the most sophisticated singles in the sky, and it was, for a time, the fastest production, piston airplane above the planet. (Reintroduction of the Mooney Acclaim has returned the legacy brand from Texas to the position of fastest piston model. The TTx is still the quickest fixed-gear single, however.)
The carbon-fiber Cessna TTx is in a price/performance class Cessna hopes will make it an ideal step-up airplane for the company's Mustang jet, and that's not as big a leap in performance as you might imagine.
|Luke Scott and Shane Reese at Camarillo Airport prior to our photo flight over the Malibu shore.|
At $799,000, the TTx is a big investment, but it comes standard with virtually every option you can think of—features you might more normally associate with turbine equipment. The panel features the innovative, touch-sensitive Garmin G2000 system, with the Garmin Touch Controller for input. Synthetic Vision is standard as are speed brakes, air conditioning, dual batteries, an inflatable door seal and a rudder hold feature for climb.
The cabin offers uncommon comfort, and while there's no airstair door, the TTx provides an unusually generous cockpit, 48 inches across by 49 inches tall. At 5'9", I'm something of a shrimp, so headroom is sumptuous, but with the seat properly reclined, even a 6'3" pilot would have little trouble fitting into the TTx's plush, semi-supine, Corinthian leather seats.
Like the Mustang jet, the TTx is very much a checklist airplane—not that difficult to fly, but crammed with high-tech features and innovations you might not expect on a piston-powered aircraft. If you're normally inclined to use the rote CIGARSER (Controls, Instruments, Gas, Attitude, Runup, Security, Emergency, Radios) checklist, you may need to readjust your thinking for the TTx.
The panel comes standard with the Garmin G2000 touch-screen system.
Flying with a side stick may be new to many non-military pilots, but Cirrus has been using one for 16 years. In theory, a side stick is a great idea, contributing to better crashworthiness, easing entrance/egress and freeing up all the space in front of the pilot and copilot. The idea was to make roll and pitch maneuvers a matter of laying your forearm on the side cushion and simply flicking your wrist to control pitch or roll.
It turns out the theory may be slightly better than the application. The seat isn't vertically adjustable, so you can't control your shoulder-to-elbow/rest dimension except with cushions. That means you may need to have your forearm off the armrest when you're using the side stick. Control pressures aren't that light, either, and there's less mechanical advantage with the short-throw stick, so it takes more muscle than you might use on a joystick or yoke.
Also, it's a minor point, but for the 90% of pilots who are right-handed, there's no practical way to fly the airplane with your right hand—unless you fly from the right side. (At least, there's no breakout force as there is with the Cirrus, a spring-loading system that returns the side stick to neutral when pressure is released.)
We departed Long Beach and headed out over the water to clear the Class B airspace surrounding LAX. I was flying with Rich Manor, president of Pacific Air Center in Long Beach, Calif., one of Cessna's largest dealers. Manor specializes in the sale of Caravans, but he also deals in the company's piston products.
"When Russ Meyer revived the Cessna piston line in 1997," Manor commented, "we really had nothing that could compete in the high-performance single market. There was the Stationair, but it was never intended to compete with airplanes that evolved to become the Cirrus SR22T, the Piper Matrix and the Beech G36 Bonanza. Cessna's own NXT design was planned to fill that void, but when Cessna purchased the Columbus line, they bought a ready-made, certified entry into that market. There wasn't much reason to pursue the NXT."
With its low-wing, gull-wing doors, side-stick controller and 48-inch-wide cabin, the TTx is indeed a different kind of Cessna. The original Columbia line included a normally aspirated model 350, but Cessna discontinued the normally aspirated model shortly after acquiring the type certificate. They quickly discovered the turbocharged 400 was by far the most popular model.
As the airplane evolved, Cessna chose the name Corvalis to distinguish it from the other piston models and later switched to the TTx designation (for Twin Turbo).
Those twin turbos optimize performance at high altitude, and getting there is a fairly quick process. The ascent doesn't take that long with full power available all the way up. I was using a cruise climb of about 130 knots for better over-the-nose visibility and still recording a vertical speed of 1100 fpm. Like the Aerostar, Mirage and several other high-speed models, the TTx loses little performance when you accelerate to 20 knots above Vy. Even with two brief steps to accommodate ATC, we were level at 25,000 feet in a half hour.
Today, I'm theoretically "flying" the airplane with help from Garmin's remarkable AHRS-based GFC-700 autopilot and complying with ATC directions while Rich tunes the mixture for max performance.
In this case, "max" is considerable, if at a price. If you're looking for sheer, unbridled speed, you came to the right place. Speed alone might be a challenge for pilots more accustomed to bouncing along in the bottom two miles of sky at 2 ½ miles a minute. Make the speed 3 ½ miles a minute, however, and pilots may need to work to keep their brain out in front of the airplane. In our case, after the airplane had accelerated to its quickest true airspeed, the air data computer on the Garmin G2000 suggested we were truing about 220 knots. I've seen as much as 225 knots on previous flights in earlier versions of the TTx, so 230 knots wouldn't surprise me at 25,000 feet, max aft CG and optimum temperature.
|The Cessna TTx features high-visibility lights on its wing.|
The 235-knot cruise speed Cessna brags about may well be possible, but it's a top speed, not a viable cruise number. Remember, the TSIO-550C Continental has a critical altitude of 25,000 feet. That means the engine can still develop full power at its service ceiling.
If you're really in a hurry, you may be able to see the advertised max cruise, but not for very long. You'll be burning 25-27 gph, so you can expect endurance after the climb at well under three hours plus reserve.
Never mind, 220 knots at 50 degree LOP settings is still a creditable speed for a production piston single or twin, faster than everything except the Mooney, and you'll only be burning 17 gph, depending on temperature. At 220 knots, the leaner mixture increases endurance to 4.5 hours plus reserve and extends range to nearly 1000 nm.
Back in the days when there were literally dozens of retractables on the market, it would have been inconceivable that a fixed-gear aircraft could cruise within five to 10 knots of the fastest retract. Today, the TTx is quite simply the most efficient fixed-gear, production single.
Traditional wisdom suggests some models can benefit 10-12% by retracting the wheels. That has always been something of a two-edged sword, however. Hiding the gear adds to price and serviceability costs along with complexity and empty weight. It may also compromise fuel tank quantity and location, and demand a thicker, less aerodynamic wing to enclose the wheels.
Also, retracting the wheels doesn't offer as much advantage at high altitude as it does down low. Tom Bowen, former VP of Engineering at Columbia and Cessna, and now VP of Engineering at Mooney, says drag becomes less of a factor up high, and retraction may be more trouble than it's worth. "Computer modeling on the early Columbia 400 suggested retracting the gear would have provided an improvement of 18 knots at sea level," Bowen explains, "but only half that amount at 18,000 feet and a mere five additional knots at 25,000 feet." Also, Columbia/Cessna did an exemplary job of designing the gear legs and wheel pants to minimize drag.
The solution for longer range and better economy, of course, is lower power settings, and I'd bet that's what most TTx pilots will select. After all, an extra 10-15 knots of cruise becomes less significant as a percentage of total speed if you're already crossing country at 200 knots or better. At 50 degrees lean-of-peak settings, you can use 71% on the TTx and see 185 knots at 12,000 feet, 208 knots at 18,000 feet and a theoretical 224 knots at 25,000 on a relatively miserly 16/17 gph.
In an age when auto manufacturers are introducing lane-holding and automatic braking systems, Cessna's ESP (Electronic Stability Protection) system provides a semblance of aviation equivalents. Automatic wing levelers and autopilots aren't new. Mooney had a primitive semi-full-time version on its 1960s vintage airplanes called "Positive Control." The gyros maintained continuous wings-level flight unless you depressed a button on the left yoke. There was no pitch sensor, so while the wings were level, the airplane could seek its own pitch attitude.
That system wasn't a big hit with pilots. Many owners (including this one) simply taped down the button, so that Positive Control was disabled unless you removed the tape. Others pried the button out of its cradle in the left ram's horn so PC would never engage in the first place.
Cessna's ESP is predictably a half-century more sophisticated, and while it's not a full-time autopilot, it's a full-time monitor of practically every flight mode. It's designed specifically to provide an automatic assist to pilots in a variety of scenarios, from constraining speeds near redline or approaching stall, to resisting excessive bank angles and even helping to avoid CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) scenarios, one of the continuing killers in VFR-to-IFR accidents. ESP is coupled to the Terrain Warning System, and will warn if you're approaching high terrain ahead with the usual announcement of, "Terrain." If you insist on holding your course with ESP engaged, however, you'll hear an announcement, "Autopilot Engaged," and the airplane will make an uncommanded automatic turn away from the high terrain.
The system also takes command if you're dumb enough to exceed conventional pitch and roll limits. (The TTx is certified in the utility category, but it's not aerobatic.) Try to overbank past about 55 degrees, and the side stick will push back—hard. I didn't try it in pitch mode, but I'd imagine you'd feel resistance from ESP with anything more than 20 degrees nose up or down.
Though it's not exactly on point, the Cessna TTx even provides a bit of electronic technology that auto makers have offered for 30 years—a keyless lock system. You can unlock the pilot's side door with the push of a button on a remote.
Max takeoff weight on the TTx is 3,600 pounds, and Cessna lists the airplane's basic operating weight at 2,600 pounds. The good news is the TTx comes pretty much fully equipped at that weight—Garmin G2000 and G700 autopilot, air conditioning, synthetic vision—all the goodies most folks buy most often. That makes the math fairly simple. Useful load is 1,000 pounds. Subtract 612 pounds of fuel, and the bad news is you're left with only 388 paying pounds for people and baggage. That's two good-sized folks with toothbrushes plus full fuel.
Except, you're prohibited from flying at gross weight with full fuel. Like some other airplanes in the class, the TTx has a maximum zero fuel weight, in this case 3,300 pounds, intended to minimize the load on the center section. In other words, if you plan to depart at the maximum takeoff weight of 3,600 pounds, you're required to carry a minimum of 50 gallons of fuel in the wings.
Perhaps more than coincidentally, that leaves exactly 700 pounds—the max payload allowed. If you needed to fly with the four full seats—680 pounds of people on board—you could pump 53 gallons into the tanks.
There's also a maximum landing weight of 3,420 pounds. This means if you depart at gross with just over 50 gallons in the wings, you're required to burn down at least 30 of those gallons before landing. Remember, this is only at gross weight. If you're flying at lighter weights, the situation becomes more manageable.
Landing handling is so predictably benign, you'd be hard-pressed to embarrass yourself too badly. The TTx isn't a short field airplane—takeoff and landing distances are each about 1,200 feet—but ground handling with the non-steerable nosewheel is exemplary.
With Mooney back in the hunt for the high-performance, four-seat buck and Cirrus still reigning as the overall sales leader, the Cessna TTx will have its work cut out for it. It has the advantages of a big cabin, excellent avionics and safety technology that's practically automotive.
Keep in mind, however, there's no backup camera.