Plastic Planes, Part Three: The Lancair Columbia 300

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Three all-new composite, four-seat, IFR singles are available on the U.S. market: The Diamond DA40 Star, the Cirrus SR-20 and the Lancair Columbia 300. Other than the composite materials from which they are made, each is different: Different powerplants, different equipment and different markets. AVweb's Dave Higdon managed to put the three through their paces all in the same week. In this second pilot report of a four-part series, he tackles the Lancair Columbia 300.

I'm often asked to sum up an airplane in one word. The problem is that most airplanes resist such a simple label. As a result, my responses usually trend toward "neat," "cool" and "fast," to "impressive," "heavy" and "demanding" or to "slick," "nimble" and "comfy." Of course, these choices explain next to nothing about the plane. So it was the afternoon after my morning flight time in Lancair's impressive Columbia 300, the hottest rod in a field of three all-new composite airplanes AVweb sampled during one week for this four-part pilot report. Friends and colleagues all sought a simple wrap-up on the bird; likewise, my editor asked the usual obvious so-what-did-you-think questions.

The word "impressive" kept popping out of my mouth, mainly because it's accurate. The Columbia 300 is an impressive piece of machinery: It's roomy, powerful, fast and features some clever human-interface touches that I'll discuss more fully in a moment. In fact, "impressive" is a valid description for the Lancair ES and Lancair IV I was allowed to sample B.C. before certification of the Columbia 300 earlier in the 1990s. The differences between the Columbia 300 and either the ES or IV, despite their many similarities, have their roots in the latter's homebuilt status. Since the Columbia 300 is a certified, production airplane, what you see in the factory demo machine is pretty much what everybody gets, unlike the vagaries of homebuilding. The Columbia 300's innovations and logical touches, delivered consistently from one unit to the next, are what make the machine more than a big, beefy airplane made of composites in someone's garage or hangar. And they are impressive touches.

However, my view of the 300's impressive traits comes accompanied by some caveats. For example, flying the Columbia 300 requires a dedication level somewhat greater than that with which less-experienced pilots would be comfortable. This is a distinction that would not necessarily apply to the other two plastic planes flown for this series, the Cirrus SR20 and Diamond DA40 Star. To be fair, Lancair doesn't bill the Columbia as an entry-level airplane. But for even a pilot of considerable-albeit-irregular experience, the 300 is one bird that could predictably get away, on the ground and in the air.

But the Columbia 300 could be the ideal, cost-effective choice for the serious flyer logging above-average hours each year, somewhere well above the 40-to-50-hours mark, regardless of how they're obtained. Pilots already flying or planning to fly something like a new or late-model Bonanza, Mooney Bravo, Commander 114B, or Saratoga may, however, find the Columbia 300 an attractive prospect. With its control feel and response being proportional to its size and horsepower, the Columbia 300 will certainly reinforce a sense of substance to its owners, despite lacking one of aviation's more testosterone-enhancing controls a landing-gear switch. Still, Lancair's offering delivers the same sort of high-velocity travel that makes those other all-metal machines so popular.

Power With A Purpose

From The Panel To Under The Cowling...

The Lancair Columbia 300's engine a TCM IO-550-N churning out 310 hp is one of the few similarities between it and conventional aluminum birds like the Mooney Ovation and Raytheon Bonanza A36. Just about everything else, even the panel, is a world apart from general aviation's traditions. And practically everything that distinguishes the Columbia 300 from the mainstream of general aviation also makes it generally like its kin in the brave new field of plastic airplanes: carbon-fiber/honeycomb-sandwich airframe structures; fixed gear; atypical stick-like controls. With obvious exceptions, the Columbia 300, the Cirrus SR20 and the Diamond DA40 Star all seem to spring from the same mold. And that brings up one other common trait: high efficiency. Where Spam Cans and Wichita Iron get 160 knots true or so out of some 300 horsepower, the Columbia 300 got nearly 190 during my flight.

Similarly, where corrosion and fatigue are factors to fight in conventional aluminum airplane designs, they pose far less of a threat to the plastic planes. And where more and more other planemakers are starting to adapt the technology of graphics displays in available avionics, the Columbia 300's optional panel is dominated by a huge AvroTec/Avidyne multi-function display (MFD) centered in the cockpit, with the radios conveniently relegated to a console directly below where the pilot's hand would rest. This panel, in fact, is the first production, initial implementation of the much-awaited "Highway In The Sky" (HITS) concept jointly developed by NASA and the Small Aircraft Manufacturers Association.

On the strength of that 310-horsepower engine, the 300 can carry an adult in each of its four seats, fuel enough for a flight of 600 nautical miles, and a goodly load of luggage. Runway pavement passes by quickly as the 300 accelerates to 70 knots, where getting it off the ground becomes possible. And if altitude is safety, the 300 gets safer faster than most; climbs exceeding 1,500 fpm are within easy reach.

But commanding this capability takes a bit more attention and effort than the 300's composite cousins. One reason is the Columbia 300's high cruise speed. Another is its slippery nature and resistance to slowing and descending a tough job simultaneously. Fundamentally, though, the Columbia demands that the pilot put a little more effort into control inputs to overcome its natural stability, and that stability comes across to some pilots as a heavy feel in the side-mounted yoke.

But, we get ahead of ourselves. Let's take a walk once around the airplane before we put it to work.

...Fleetness Of Wing Makes All That Power Pay Off...

Speed and stability go best together when served in balanced portions, and there was soon to be no question in my mind that the Columbia 300 has plenty of both. But none of this was obvious walking up to the factory demonstrator. The long, thin wing, big cabin windows and streamlined, fixed landing gear look no less racy on the Columbia 300 than similar implementations on the Cirrus SR20 or Diamond DA40 Star. But on closer examination, the 300 gives up some of its mystery. Big, thick window frames, the heavy structure of the gear particularly the castering nose wheel the bulk of the fuselage structure and the size of the tail surfaces all seem matched to an airplane of considerable capabilities.

The preflight inspection matches the other planes flown for this series in access. All of the must-see, must-touch stuff easy to get at except the engine oil dipstick: The 300 sits just high enough for at least one 5-foot 9-inch writer to need a boost to check the oil. And getting up the step and onto the wing also took some reaching for me. Once up on the wing, the step down into the left seat is something of a stretch, thanks to the high cabin door frame. Given a little time and practice, the process would undoubtedly become easier for anyone 5'-10" or taller; under 5'-9", and you may want to consider one of those little collapsible stepstools offered in some aviator catalogs.

Starting the injected IO-550 is vintage TCM. Your pushing, pulling and boosting is soon rewarded as the engine lights off and, hinting at its muscles, its throaty exhaust settles to a rich baritone. The doors latch easily and solidly; you can have you occupants fasten and check their belts as the engine warms and the needles edge into their green arcs. Soon, the time comes to release the parking brake and taxi on an arc out of our parking spot. But the 300 resists moving in the desired direction. Time to talk about steering by differential braking for a moment.

The Columbia 300, like the Diamond DA40 and Cirrus SR20, sports a castering nose wheel that requires differential braking to steer. On most airplanes the Grumman singles and numerous kit designs, for example the geometry makes changing the nosewheel heading relatively easy. Not so the 300.

Our bird came to its parking spot from a left-hand turn and it stopped with the nosewheel pointed about 30 degrees left of center. To clear the planes parked near us, however, we needed the 300 to leave its space in a right-hand arc. Only after rolling several feet in the wrong direction did the nosewheel start to center and, finally, point to the right. Obviously, thinking ahead will help, as will familiarity. The ultimate solution would be to check to see whether the nosewheel sits straight and nudge it toward the desired direction of taxi, if you already know during the walk-around. Doing so could save the proud owner an embarrassing or expensive moment some other time. Once rolling, though, directional control almost matched other planes with differential-brake steering. The big exception came in reversing a turn: Again, more advanced planning and some extra room was needed.

...On Takeoff, Climb And Cruise

Finishing the pre-takeoff checks went quickly we needed some of that time for the Windows NT-based software in the AvroTec/Avidyne MFD to load and then the time arrived to launch from Winter Haven (Fla.) Gilbert's Airport Runway 22. With power to the max, the Columbia surged ahead with enthusiasm once the brakes were released, rushing down the runway with a sense of urgency uncommon to even most other similarly-powered machines I've flown. A few seconds later, the 300 lifted off and my hands quickly dialed down the power to 2,400 and 25 inches. As we climbed and crossed the intersection with Gilbert's Runway 11/29, the panel instruments showed us more than 200 feet up and gaining altitude at about 1,500 feet per minute. Since we launched our test bird carrying nearly 600 pounds of adult males and more than 80 gallons of fuel into a sky dotted with scattered cumulus and so hot that density altitudes ran about 2,000 feet higher than actual, it was pretty clear to me that all that power works well.

As we continued the climb, it quickly became evident that rudder trim would ease my workload the torque and P-factor of this big four-seater kept us climbing to the left right toward the Orlando Class B to the east. With the east edge of Tampa's Class B just to our west and Orlando's off to the east, we opted for the safest exit and headed due south between the inverted wedding cakes. But even that presented a problem for us: About 40 nm south of Gilbert is a large restricted area which was hot, that day, to boot, and far too close for the 184 knots true the 300 gave me when we leveled at 6,500 MSL. At three miles a minute, something needed changing, either speed or heading. With only a few minutes to go, it seemed prudent to do both and sample some of this big bird's slow-speed traits.

Wrist Wrestling: Trim Is Your Friend

Control Feel Befits The Columbia 300's Mission...

To be sure, the Columbia 300 responds with a simple flick of its side-mounted yoke. But making that flick happen takes muscles more like a wrist wrestler, particularly when reversing a turn or bank is concerned. Of course, there are good reasons why the Columbia 300 has the heaviest handling characteristics of our three plastic planes. For one, the ailerons' geometry favors stability, resisting easy displacement from their neutral, in-trail position. That stability only increases as the airplane reaches the higher limits of its speed range. At the same time, the amount of stick movement needed to initiate, correct or stop a roll goes down and thus, the perceived effort declined as the need for change also lessened.

As you might expect, then, the control inputs needed to displace the ailerons were greatest at the plane's lower speeds, such as when slowing for descent and for pattern work. The feel of the ailerons closely matched that of the elevator, however; a bit of control pressure harmony that seems appropriate. These observations aside, three factors make the so-called "heavy" feel of the Columbia 300 a non-issue for me.

First, this really isn't an airplane for weekend jaunts around the pattern or short hops to a favorite airport hangout, any more than is a Beech Bonanza or Cessna Centurion, although people do fly them that way. Instead, the Columbia 300 is a muscle-bound traveling machine, and both pilot and autopilot should appreciate its resistance to unintended maneuvering.

Second, the Columbia 300's trim system offsets any tendency to wear out your wrist if used to its best effect. And using the trim particularly the pitch trim is as much a key to making the 300 perform as its pilot desires as trim is in any other heavy airplane. Again, the Bonanza and Cessna's six-cylinder singles come to mind particularly the 182, which will wear out many non-body-building pilots who don't use pitch-trim.

Finally, on the heavy-weight claims, anyone serious enough about their flying for this machine to make sense will likely quickly adapt and forget about the weight in the side sticks as enjoyment of the Columbia 300's great control authority and harmony grows over time.

In fact, this is one smart-handling bird. Slight pressure on the stick starts the 300 toward a new heading and pitch angle; arrest the roll input and the 300 halts the roll in a blink. Reversing 45-degree banks took a bit more time and effort than its lighter, slower plastic kin, but there was no question that the bird responded to what I asked of it. And with the oomph of 310 ponies on tap, the only real limit on your ability to manage complex three-dimensional situations is the speed of your particular mental processor: You do need to think a few more miles ahead of this bird than most four-seat, fixed-gear singles.

...Stalls And Slowing Down...

Stall breaks in the Columbia 300 proved to be the most pronounced of the three new composite four-seaters, as you might expect with the weight of that big engine and prop out front. Keeping the ball centered with rudder proved to be no problem, however, which helped me keep from falling off on a wing during the deepest stalls. Again, though, with so much aileron authority, keeping the wings level was work but not a real challenge.

While the Columbia 300 resists slowing as much as anything flying, one feature Lancair installed into the factory demonstrator helps with a pilot's poor planning: speed brakes. In the Columbia 300, they're a joy to use in those tough maneuvering challenges of slowing and descending simultaneously. While speed brakes are not now available on factory production airplanes, Lancair is working to have a Precise Flight certified on the 300 and the forthcoming turbocharged 400. Combine its high inertia with its strong control authority and harmony and you have a machine that should be of tremendous comfort flying approaches in the toughest IMC conditions.

We had nothing but popcorn clouds scattered across a clear-blue Florida sky, but there was enough turbulence to keep me watching and correcting my attitude and altitude as we flew the downwind leg for Gilbert's Runway 4. The rate at which the west wind drifted us east on the downwind provided me with ample evidence that negotiating Runway 29 would be immensely easier but hardly as much fun or as educational. With crosswind runways a relatively rarity these days and single strips the rule, sticking with Runway 4 offered me a chance to push the 300's crosswind capabilities. Runway 4, here we come.

...And Traffic Pattern Work

After adding most of the right rudder available, the 300 stopped drifting and descended to the downwind line flying as straight as a Kansas section line. This should be easy, I thought. After slowing to 120 knots and adding the first notch of flaps, the Columbia slowed further, allowing me to apply the second notch. At the turn to base, we were down to 90 knots and slowing. While turning the corner, I ran the engine up to max rpm and managed my descent with power alone, letting the pitch trim system keep the Columbia 300 locked on 80 knots, perhaps a bit slow for my fellow fliers but a comfortable number to see how easily the Columbia can squeeze into small strips. Using slight power changes to manage my glide, my hands worked quickly through the subtle movements needed to hold the wings level, the nose straight and my touchdown spot dead in my sights. As the threshold approached, I added nose-up trim and reduced power almost in unison. Adding more nose-up pitch with the stick rewarded me with a left-gear-right-gear-nose-gear touchdown just off the Runway 4 centerline. Flaps up to one notch, trim back to takeoff position, power up for the tough-and-go, and the 300 roared ahead for our second try at the runway.

Although my plan involved taking advantage of a change to Runway 29, traffic behind me and queueing up for 29 made another approach to 4 the smarter option so, back we went. And this time, it was me providing some of the unusual aspects, with a little help from the crosswinds. Rolling out on final 300 feet high and 20 knots fast gave me a chance to slip the big bird while smoothly reducing power and adding flaps.

The left crosswind on Runway 4 made it easy to slip nose left, right wing down. The threshold appeared to rise toward us too quickly, but a glance at the airspeed indicator affirmed that we were, in fact, slowing from 100 for 90, then 85, then 80, as we arrived over the pavement. A gentle rudder kick straightened out the bird and she touched down straight, both mains first.

Columbia Cabin A Thing To Behold

Little Sits More Than A Reach Away And Lots Within Armrest Reach

With its commanding climb, cruise and control capabilities, the Columbia 300 offers pilots much from the best of all possible worlds, more than any other aircraft in its class of fixed-gear, four-place singles. Actually, it beats several retractables of equal power. But speed and inevitable price comparisons aside, none of these available production airplanes new or out-of-production quite matches the space, ergonomics and human-factor touches built into the Columbia 300. Take the lowly fuel-tank selector, for example. Lancair's designers placed the control exactly at the end of the leather-clad center-console armrest, where you need not even move a forearm to swap tanks. And to help you keep your eyes in the scan, the company heeded an FAA request and put an indicator light in each tank gauge so you need not even look at the valve control to confirm which tank is in use.


Artist's conception of what the full-blown HITS instrument panel will look like. Lancair expects to install it in the forthcoming turbocharged Columbia 400.

Similar to its two plastic-plane kin, the 300's flap switch is actually shaped like a flap and the position of each detent closely matches the actual flap position it selects. Clever. Ditto the placement of the electrical circuit breakers, which are mounted in rows on the left side of the cabin, arranged in order of importance. Cleverness in design ergonomics extends to the avionics stack, mounted within easy reach in the center console, where they don't have to compete for space with that huge multifunction display.

And what a display. As big as most notebook computers, the optional AvroTec/Avidyne MFD can be configured in several different ways to reflect the flying ahead VFR, IFR, approach, en route, cluttered with details (like that restricted area mentioned earlier) or devoid of all detail save your active route and waypoints. Next year, Lancair expects to also offer an AvroTec/Avidyne display for all the primary flight instruments offering true HITS navigation imagery as shown on the turbocharged Columbia 400 earlier this year at EAA Airventure. Like I said before: clever.

But it's something of a pity that the display uses Windows NT software and a relatively slow processor in its current incarnation. Waiting for the system to boot up before taxiing felt like waiting for a 10 meg Web page to load over a 300-baud modem, and only slightly better when we returned and waited for the screen to tell us it was safe to turn off the avionics master switch. Company pilots later told me they shut off the system hot with no trouble ... not something I'd want to do on the Pentium III I'm using to write this.

Aside from that boot-up-boot-down complaint, the panel delivered everything a serious pilot should ever want, from the IFR GPS, two-axis autopilot, even a Stormscope option for the heavy IFR user.

A Bargain Bird?

Let's face it, piloting something as capable, hot and muscular as the Columbia 300 delivers some kind of ego boost to the typical pilot's psyche. Indeed, for many buyers, that baddest-and-biggest balance alone will tilt the decision. But making a sound, practical decision about your real needs (versus equally-real wants) may lead you in another direction. No question that the Columbia 300 is (choose one): a bargain compared to a Bonanza and Saratoga, both in price and speed; a fair savings compared to an Ovation, which pretty much matches the 300's speed; and a decision worth weighing against the Mooney Eagle, which comes within a couple of knots, nearly matches in full-fuel payload, but wins out in fuel efficiency.

Remember the difference in numbers, product support, service, and the like. The Bonanza and Saratoga do offer seating for six but useful loads restrict that seating potential. And that makes deciding between a Columbia and a Cirrus something tougher. If 30 more knots and reduced fuel efficiency are worth 50 percent more money to the buyer, then there's only one outcome possible: The Columbia 300 wins.

If 160-plus knots and 40-percent-lower fuel bills work for you, there's still a payload question to answer because the Columbia 300 wins that contest flaps down. Ask yourself a series of realistic, tough questions: How often will the payload difference matter? How often can it be resolved by carrying less fuel? Realistically, how often do any of us actually use the full-fuel cruise range of our planes?

But standing on its own, there's no doubt the Columbia 300 represents a great departure in high-performance personal airplanes, thanks only in part to its carbon-fiber composite airframe. It's comfortable, well-designed and has as much speed as any naturally-aspirated single on the market.

Lancair's engineers gave it lots of interior room, good control harmony and precise handling, plus a great panel. Those engineers could have done the same in metal. But then, it wouldn't have the advantages of corrosion and fatigue resistance, easy reparability or those gorgeous rounded, sleek, sexy lines something akin to a female bodybuilder showing off.

And in metal, it just wouldn't have been a Lancair.

Editor's Note

This AVweb Pilot Report on the Lancair Columbia 300 is the third in a four-part series on three new-production, all-composite IFR single-engine airplanes. In addition to the Columbia 300, AVweb has flown the Diamond DA40 Star and the Cirrus SR20. AVweb will conclude this series with a wrap-up piece in two weeks. Stay tuned!