Fallout from last year's devastating hail storm at the Columbia factory in Bend, Ore., has yielded some encouraging information. After the storm, Columbia did some structures testing that convinced the FAA the planes were safe to repaint and ship to customers. But the FAA also wanted the long-term durability of the hail-pummeled airframes put through a full fatigue analysis. An airframe was dotted with more than 200 simulated hail strikes that were inflicted with twice the force of the actual storm. The company's vice president of engineering, Tom Bowen, told the press at Sun 'n Fun that the airframe was put through the equivalent of 25,000 flight hours at loads greater than the utility category in which it is certified. "The airplane didn't care," Bowen said. "This test should unequivocally quell any lingering misconceptions that somehow a composite airframe is less durable than an aluminum one."
In fact, the steel testing equipment started to break down before the end of the ordeal. "As far as we know, no other personal aircraft airframe, composite or aluminum, has ever successfully completed such an exhaustive and severe fatigue testing program." The test approximates 123 years of aircraft life if the plane was flown an average of 200 hours a year.