For many of us, speed is the ultimate narcotic. Some pilots even regard it as an aphrodisiac that induces a level of pleasure unavailable from any other source. Well, okay, almost any other source.
Trouble is, speed is an elusive and expensive quality. It becomes more and more difficult to achieve as the envelope expands, primarily because drag multiplies as the square of speed. In general-aviation ranks, velocities in excess of the magic 200 knots demand progressively more sophisticated designs. Aeronautical engineers know there are only three ways to make an airplane fly faster. The first and least efficient way is to increase horsepower—least efficient because it may demand higher fuel capacity, which starts the domino chain of less payload, a higher gross weight, more horsepower, more fuel, etc. The second way is to reduce drag, by far the most efficient method of improving performance. The third is to fly higher in thinner air that offers less resistance.
In terms of ultimate speed, the Aerostar capitalized on all three principles. It was an aerodynamically slick design, intended to operate at high altitude in pressurized comfort with plentiful power. Accordingly, the final version of the Aerostar has reigned supreme as the fastest production, piston-powered general-aviation airplane in the world. The last of the Aerostars, Piper’s 700P and the Super 700 Aerostar conversions produced by the current owner of the type certificate in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, offer cruise performance at all heights quicker than anything else in the piston class.
Specifically, the Super 700 can blaze along at 225 knots at 10,000 feet, 235 knots at 15,000 feet, and 261 knots (more than coincidentally 300 mph, Mach .43) at 25,000 feet. The penalty for such speed is fuel burn on the order of 50 gph, but for Aerostar lovers, that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of blowing right on by any general-aviation airplane with pistons and even outrunning some turboprop King Airs, Cheyennes and Conquests.
The turbocharged Mooney Bravo assumed the production speed throne in the 1990s, turning in speeds of nearly 220 knots. Piper’s pressurized Malibu (and later Mirage) weren’t far behind, with cruise on the order of 215 knots.
Today, there’s a new contender for the title of fastest piston, production airplane. Lancair Certified Aircraft of Bend, Ore., received FAA type certification of its new, turbocharged Columbia 400 on April 16 at the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland, Fla. The 400 had been proposed for certification several years ago in parallel with the 300, but in keeping with the ancient Harvard business school adage “When the chips are down, the buffalo is empty,” the company ran out of money and market all at the same time. Today, Lancair is back stronger than ever and fighting for a share of the highperformance single market.
Pilot Journal flew the second production Columbia 400 on the last day of the Sun ’n Fun show, and preliminary indications suggest it will easily displace the Mooney as the quickest production piston airplane in the sky.
As one who has been fortunate to fly both new Mooney Bravos and Piper Mirages several times across the Atlantic and Pacific and log a few hours in the types, I can attest that the new Columbia 400 appears to be at least 10 knots faster than either of the others. Lancair’s crowded demonstration schedule at Sun ’n Fun didn’t allow time for an exploration of performance in the flight levels, but the numbers at lower altitudes suggest the 400 will have an easy time meeting its 219-knot spec at FL180.
Flying with Lancair’s Mark Cahill and prospect Dr. Bill Grider in the rear seat, we launched out of Winter Haven, Fla., vaulted directly to 11,500 feet, and Cahill set power at max cruise. The airplane was a customer production unit with a standard package of avionics. In keeping with the trend toward multi-talented instrument/navigation avionics, the Columbia 400’s panel offers the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra system, a two-screen unit featuring the EXP5000 primary flight display with an integrated, solid-state air data and attitude/reference, along with an EX5000 multi-function display for navigation awareness and systems instrumentation. The MFD includes virtually every parameter of aircraft system and engine performance, including percentage power.
As I relinquished control from the molded wood side stick to the STEC autopilot and we watched airspeed creep around the dial, Dr. Grider commented on the generous dimensions of the rear cabin, essentially the same 49 inches wide by 51 inches tall as the front buckets. The fuselage maintains roughly the same size and shape to the rear seat backs before beginning its taper toward the tail, so all four folks ride in the same comfort.
Flying in smooth air well above the afternoon cumulus, true airspeed stabilized at 208 knots on what was probably an ISA-plus-10-degree day. Extrapolated to FL250, the cruise number would be 241 knots. Lancair chief engineer Tom Bowen speculated that that actually sounded a little high under optimum conditions. Lancair has set the max cruise spec at 235 knots, a number it’s fairly certain it can meet or beat with every 400.
In the real world, unpressurized airplanes rarely venture to such rarefied heights. A more realistic operational cruise altitude might be 18,000 feet, where the Columbia 400 will offer a book spec of 219 knots. That’s about the same as Mirage and Bravo speeds for 25,000 feet, and the latter two models are both retractables.
The engine that helps Lancair achieve these numbers is a turbocharged variant of the powerplant employed on the Columbia 300 and all-electric 350, the Continental TSIO-550C. As on the two normally aspirated models, the engine is rated for 310 hp, but AiResearch turbochargers and twin intercoolers provide a critical altitude of 23,000 feet, the maximum height at which the airplane can maintain sea-level power. This means pilots who elect to operate at the Columbia 400’s top height will experience strong climb into the flight levels and will actually need to reduce power to set max cruise.
Out on the business end of the airplane, Lancair has mounted a different rotating airfoil than that used on the 300 and 350. It’s a semi-scimitar Hartzell prop, a three-blade design with a relatively short 78-inch diameter, with fat blades configured specifically for more grip in scarce air.
Aerodynamically, the wing is the same as on the normally aspirated models, but the tail had to be revised to provide better control in thinner air. At high altitudes, a given control deflection has less effect, so Lancair enlarged the rudder and modified the horizontal for better control.
“On normally aspirated airplanes,” comments Bowen, “power-on spin entries become more benign as you climb higher because you’re losing power and slipstream. With a turbo, you’re making the same horsepower and generating the same slipstream at high altitude. For that reason, we redesigned the 350’s single-piece elevator to a two-piece unit on the 400 for more control. The two-piece elevator enjoys more deflection for better control at high altitude and in the landing flare.”
Other changes are designed to emphasize the airplane’s high-altitude talents. Onboard oxygen will be standard, with enough O2 to keep four people healthy at 23,000 feet for three hours. By early summer, Lancair plans to introduce a fully automatic, thermostatic, climate control system that will combine heating and air conditioning for a comfortable cabin on the ground at sea level or 23,000 feet above it.
Inevitably, the 400 is a heavier airplane than the 300 or 350, so gross increased from 3,400 to 3,600 pounds. The first hundred extra pounds are dedicated to intercoolers, turbochargers, oxygen bottles and other accommodations for high-altitude flight, but the other 100 pounds pay for itself. Payload with a full 98 gallons of fuel onboard works out to about 510 pounds, the same as most other big-bore, four-seat singles. Off-load 30 gallons and you could carry the fourth person.
As the new holder of the title as fastest production, piston airplane, the Columbia 400 should easily beat the airlines over longer-stage lengths than you’d imagine, possibly even transcontinental distances. Even at economy cruise speeds, the 400 should manage coast-to-coast trips in one day with a single fuel stop. Considering all the inefficiencies of airline travel, door-to-door time may actually work out in Lancair’s favor between, say, Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Fla.
As Lancair tries to catch its breath after the long financial haul to certification, we can’t help but wonder about the next airplane from Lancair founder Lance Neibauer and company. Specifically, when will we see a retractable version of the Columbia 400? Neibauer’s world-beater homebuilt, the Lancair IVP, is, after all, a 290-knot airplane, albeit with the benefit of 350 hp rather than 310, and you know someone at Lancair must be at least in the concept stage of designing a retractable. Contrary to what you may think, the IVP homebuilt is a very different design from the Columbia. In fact, it’s unlikely a retractable Columbia would even use the same fold-the-feet-into-the-belly retraction mechanism.
Estimating pure speed increase by retracting the wheels is a tough job, considering that other factors rarely remain the same. Retractables typically feature a higher gross weight than fixed-gear models, often add a constant speed prop to complement the drag reduction and may even sport additional horsepower. Take a look at the comparison chart, which shows four general-aviation singles that have gone retractable and what happened to cruise as a result. The Sierra and Arrow both added constant-speed props in the translation from fixed gear to retractable, so cruise increase may not be representative.
In all four cases, the airplanes in question are normally aspirated and probably score their best cruise at 7,000 to 8,000 feet MSL. While this doesn’t tell us much about what would happen on a turbocharged model if we retracted the wheels at high altitude, Bowen feels putting the wheels to bed might yield a 12- to 15-knot speed improvement in the thick, draggy air at low altitude. Lofted to the flight levels, Bowen would expect a 10-knot speed increase in the thinner air. That would boost high-altitude performance to nearly 250 knots. The engineer also commented that increasing power to the maximum 350 hp would certainly boost climb but wouldn’t make any difference in cruise, as the Columbia 400 already pulls max cruise horsepower from the 263-hp Continental TSIO-550C. Go configure.
Lancair’s new airplane should find special favor in the Mountain West and other places where pilots need airplanes to match their mountains. Turbos can offer special value even from sea-level airports, however, especially in places such as the Northeast where winter weather can climb three miles high. With a price of admission just under $500,000, the market for the new Columbia 400 may not be huge, but it’s a safe bet Mooney and Cirrus won’t leave Lancair’s challenge unaddressed for long.
For more information, contact Lancair Certified Aircraft at (541) 318-1144 or log on to www.lancair.com.