After all of the “new” airplanes I have flown for evaluation since the mid ’90s, it sure is refreshing finally to report to you on one that really is new and exciting through and through, and not just updated with high-tech avionics or new leather trim. In fact, strip the panel clean of radios, replace the leather seats with mesh, and the Lancair Columbia 300 still would be worthy of being called really new.
The Lancair Columbia 300 is a four-place, single-engine, fixed-gear airplane powered by a normally aspirated, 310 hp Continental IO-550-N engine driving a newly designed, three-bladed prop. Its roots date back to 1984, when Lance Neibauer launched his kit-built Lancair 200. The evolution of the kit Lancairs ultimately led to the development of their first certified airplane, the Columbia 300. The Lancair stable also includes a recently-released turbo-charged version of the Columbia 300, which has been dubbed the Columbia 400.
I had very little knowledge of this plane prior to my day to fly, but it was pretty and obviously fast. Anytime I look at a plane I have never flown, I try to study its features and guess how it will fly. Just sitting on the ramp, you know this bird is different. It stands tall on its fixed landing gear. The wing height is about the same as the Commander 114′s. The smooth finish of the entire airplane is nothing short of gorgeous. Not an offending rivet anywhere, because the Columbia airframe is all composite, featuring high-temperature e-glass/epoxy fuselage and wings with carbon fiber reinforcements. The wing surface was so smooth and shiny it looked like an ice lane finished off for Olympic curling. The airplane gets a 100% UV protective coating, then is painted with 100% UV protective paint. Skin and/or paint repair is not a difficult process, I was told. It’s also quite resilient.
John Bryan, sales rep for Lancair Mid-Atlantic (336-751-5894), was my host for this report and his first trick was banging his keys on the wing surface with no resultant marks. The airplane is 100% lightning protected, with a layer of mesh embedded in its skin. The airplane also is very strong. One proof is that it is approved for operation in the utility category, at gross weight and at any flap setting.
Carbon fiber is also used in the spar caps, top and bottom, fuselage, and engine mount attach points. The ailerons, flaps, horizontal stabilizer, elevator, rudder, cabin doors, and cowling are made entirely of carbon. The craftsmanship in assembly of all the pieces is exceptional. The wing match to the airframe is tight and smooth, even though the wings are designed to be removable. The upper cowling is joined to the lower cowling by a few screw-fasteners and a “piano-wire” that runs the full-length of the cowling. This provides a beautifully matched upper and lower cowl. I watched a mechanic remove and re-install the upper cowl and it was quick and easy: loosen the fasteners and slide out the piano wire on each side to open it up, and reverse the process to reattach. The lower cowl revealed that no cowl-flaps exist on this plane. Hmmm, 310 horsepower in a steep climb and no cowl flaps? Note to self: watch the CHTs.
This slick wing has a span of 36 feet. The wing tips are swept up to provide a “winglet” effect. But the apparent wing area sure looked small considering the 3,400 pound gross weight of the airplane. Note to self: small, slick wing, heavy plane; probably means high sink-rates and hard to slow down. This plane sported optional wing-spoilers, which made me feel better about being able to slow it down. The wing is supported by dual spars and the fuel in each wing is protected between those spars with a “crush-zone” in front of the tanks. Fuel capacity is a total of 106 gallons, of which 98 are usable.
The outboard section of the wing has a different chord line from the inboard section. It almost looks like an extended leading-edge cuff. Additionally, the inboard leading edge has a stall-strip. Lancair obviously is determined to make sure that, while the inboard section is stalling and buffeting, the outboard section continues to offer full roll control. Note to self: beat the crap out of this plane in the stall series.
Although the wing is 36 feet in span, the length of the fuselage is only 25 feet. I expected this “short-coupling” might make this plane require more rudder work in the bumps. We’ll soon see, because this is a windy, bumpy day. The preflight also revealed that there is no cabin-adjustable rudder trim. Note to self: plan on a heavy right foot. The area of the elevators looked too small. I immediately wondered if I would have to keep a high speed and/or some power on flare-out, so as not to run out of elevator authority, a la the Beech Musketeer, T-tailed Piper, Bellanca Viking crowd. Note to self: watch the speed and power on the landing so as not to bang the nose by running out of elevator. I wondered how the plane would handle in a stiff crosswind, especially since the nose gear steering is free-castering, with no direct pedal linkage. I would find out. Another observation is that the cabin doors are substantial. The construction, hinges and pistons and latches, spoke volumes that this door system is no cheesy set-up, which also speaks well for the cabin structure to which they are mounted. The baggage door is 27 inches at its widest point and offers good access.
Climbing into the pilot seat needs no more effort than any other typical low-wing aircraft. Once seated, the fit and feel is very similar to sitting in the driver’s seat of a Volvo S60. The room is comparable, seats are comfortable, and the luxury is definitely there. The impeccable quality of the exterior definitely carries through to the inside. The interior width is 49 inches, so shoulder room is ample. Headroom is another story. Although I didn’t bang my head in turbulence, I did brush the headset strap occasionally when looking for traffic. Lancair might want to look at squeezing another inch out of that headliner.
The layout is very pilot-friendly. Directly in front of the pilot is a panel section with the primary flight and navigation instruments. Just below that, a sub-panel contains all of the normal lighting and accessory switches. Also on this sub-panel is the light-bar indicator and power switch for the electric aileron and elevator trim system. The view of this panel is completely unrestricted, because the flight control is a “side-stick,” mounted on the forward sidewall of the cockpit.
This particular airplane was very well equipped. In addition to the standard UPSAT IFR stack, it had a second multi-function display (MFD), a second SL-30 NAV/COM, S-TEC 55 autopilot system, Bendix/ King KI 256 flight director system with the KCS 55A H.S.I., Stormscope (which displayed on the MX-20), and speed brakes. The empty weight, as equipped, was 2,340 pounds, leaving 1,060 pounds for people, fuel, and baggage. As equipped, along with the platinum engine option, the out-the-door price for the 300 I flew was about $353,000. The models are changing, however. All production aircraft from now on will be called 350s and will be all-electric, with dual independent electrical systems, dual alternators and battery buses, a VM 1000 engine monitoring system and the option for FADEC. The all-electric airplane will also allow for an electric anti-icing system, which will heat the wings, horizontal and vertical fins, and prop.
Time to go flying
The heavily constructed cabin doors closed with a resounding “thunk” and the pneumatic door seals made an exceptionally tight fit with no wind noise. The door handle is very positive in its latching. There is no way this door is going to open unless you want it to open, and there is a light on the annunciator panel warning if the doors are not latched properly.
Firing up the Continental is an easy task, resulting in an ego boosting, throaty growl. Both the intake and exhaust are “tuned,” which is how they get the 10 of the 310 hp from the IO-550. The engine is already derated from 350 hp, so its TBO of 2,000 hours should be attainable with proper operation.
Taxiing is a breeze. Even without direct nose-wheel steering, it’s a simple matter of applying a little power and gently pressing on the brake pedal for the desired direction. While moving down the taxiway with a direct crosswind of about 15 knots, I was actually able to get the airplane to turn gently just by adding rudder only, with normal taxi power of 1,000 to 1,200 rpm. Flaps are recommended for take-off and the best setting is to lower them until they match the full downward deflection of the ailerons. Fuel must be either on the left or right tank and the selector is very positive in its operation. If the selector is not positively locked in either position, a warning light on the fuel gauge comes on to advise the pilot.
On the top of the pilot’s side stick there is a “coolie hat” that controls the electric elevator and aileron trims. Move the hat fore and aft and you get elevator trim. Move it left or right and you get corresponding aileron trim. The trim indicator is a series of little lights in a cross pattern. They light up progressively as trim is moved in any direction. Very easy to use. I centered it for take-off.
I had never flown a side-stick and was a bit concerned as to how I would adapt. After lining up with the runway centerline, I carefully applied power for my first take-off. The acceleration was immediate. I was surprised that, with all the power available, I was quickly able to drop my feet off of the brakes and use the rudder for directional control, even with a crosswind from the left.
We accelerated quickly to 70 knots and the Lancair was definitely ready to fly. I gently eased the side stick back and we left the runway smoothly. By the time I reached the end of Rowan County’s 5,500 foot runway, I had adapted to the side stick. It is that easy. I started looking for the gear switch. Whoops…it’s a fixed gear airplane, remember? Doesn’t feel like one. Also, by this time, I had accelerated to 115 knots and, with full power, we were climbing at 1,200 feet per minute. (Our take-off weight was pretty close to gross.) Nudging it to the best rate of climb speed, 106 knots, we pegged 1,500 fpm. I decided to shoot right up to 7,500 feet, to do a cruise speed check and get that out of the way so I could do some real flying. The air was quite bumpy, so precise climb rates were a little tough to obtain, but at a cruise climb setting of full throttle and reduced rpm to 2,500, we were easily doing 1,000 feet per minute at 110 knots indicated. Passing through 7,000 feet at the same settings, the climb rate was 750 feet per minute.
Leveled off at 7,500 feet (and finally in smoother air), I advanced the prop to the maximum 2,700 rpm and left it at full throttle for a high-speed cruise check. The Lancair indicated 165 knots, which worked out to a true airspeed of 185 knots. Leaving the throttle at full and reducing the rpm to 2,500, I now had a more realistic cruise setting of around 75% and saw an indicated speed of 160 knots, which worked out to a true airspeed of 176 knots. Pitch the nose over and, at 23 inches and 2,500 rpm with 170 knots indicated, you get a nice easy 500 fpm cruise descent. I can see that this airplane is an honest three-mile-a-minute cruiser. Leaned to 50° rich of peak EGT, the indicated fuel flow at this 75% power was 17 gallons per hour. This airplane offers some serious flexibility in choices for fuel load versus cabin load versus mission ranges for IFR or VFR. Even with a reduced fuel load, you can easily go 500 nautical miles with conservative IFR reserves, and pack the cabin full of people and/or stuff.
But I’d had enough of straight and level cruise flight. The first order of the day was a series of steep 720s, to get warmed up. At cruise power, I rolled into a 60° bank. The 300 was rock solid and didn’t want to waver at all. It’s a slick airplane and I expected to have to work on altitude hold, but the elevator required little stick force and keeping it nailed was easy. I rolled from the first 720 directly into another one in the other direction and, with only about 15 minutes of prior “side stick” time, I was still able to anticipate the required pressure to keep the altitude where it belonged during the transition.
Next on the list was some slow flying. I got it down to 70 knots in level flight with no flaps selected, and 55 knots with full flaps. I tried to force the stall and only got an aggravated airplane with some rumbling. It never broke over on a wing. Even when I forced the stick back to the stops, I only got a shudder. The Lancair is equipped with a “rudder limiter,” which limits left pedal deflection when the stall warning is active and you are carrying more than 12 inches of manifold pressure. I heard its cam kicking in and out during my power-on stall attempts, but it was never a factor in my maneuvering.
Power off, I punched some rudder into the “stalled turn.” The only reaction was that it wanted to roll slowly in the direction of the rudder, but it was still 100% controllable. Only when I stomped on the left rudder pedal with full right aileron was I able to get it to misbehave, with an expected break-off to the left, but as soon as I eased up slightly, the adverse reaction quit and the plane was instantly and fully controllable. I did not have to do a pronounced nose drop to recover from this “stall;” recovery from the cross-controlled situation just required reducing the aileron and rudder inputs, still keeping the stick full back against the stops. The Lancair’s stall, or “anti-stall,” characteristics reminded me of the STOL Rallye aircraft I used to fly in the ’70s, and that airplane required a much thicker wing with leading edge slats to do what the Lancair does. The Lancair simply does not want to stall, in the traditional sense.
Aileron forces were much heavier than the elevator forces. In fact, this level, or lack of level, of control harmony is obvious throughout all flight regimes, a situation that was more of a surprise than a problem. The Lancair looks like something that should be an air show performer rather than a traveler. As such, I figured the ailerons would be light and snappy. Instead, they are quite firm, but this plays out well in cross-country flying, where it sits rock solid with minimal control input to correct for any roll deviations.
Back down in bumpy air, I wanted to see how the 300 handled turbulence. It was an interesting ride because, although it was bumpy, it wasn’t uncomfortable. Instead of getting banged around, the airplane felt more like it was riding on cobblestones. It sounded like it was getting pounded, but didn’t feel like it. Again using the Volvo S60 analogy, the Lancair rides the bumps much like a sport touring car instead of a big lumbering sedan. I was very impressed at how the S-TEC 55 flew the 300 in turbulence. I turned it on just to see, expecting it to be behind the plane on this rough day, but the autopilot was right there and handled the rough air very well.
Touch and goes
Back in the pattern, I set up for a normal approach and landing. Full flaps selected and 80 knots on final felt very good. I carried a little power, but reduced to idle during the flare and squeaked it on, much to my surprise. I expected at least the first one to be a laugh-getter, especially with a 15-knot crosswind directly from the left. I was also pleasantly surprised at how much elevator authority there was through the touchdown, with no power applied. The diminutive size of the elevator, noted earlier, tricked me into thinking it would give out early. Getting the plane to track properly on the runway during rollout also was a non-issue.
The next time around, I flew a slightly higher profile, descended across the threshold completely power off, worked the flare as long as I could — and the 300 touched down nicely before I ran out of elevator. For the third approach, I dragged it in with some power, for a short field effort and at a slower speed, and again the arrival was very predictable. By this time, I had realized that I was thoroughly enjoying flying the plane and had totally forgotten any observations about aileron heaviness or awkwardness of the side stick. And, more than once on landings, I briefly panicked because I suddenly thought I had forgotten the gear. The Lancair 300 just doesn’t behave like a fixed-gear airplane.
After a full stop landing, I did a maximum effort takeoff. All the wind was from the left, and with full power, takeoff flap setting, and a 93-knot best angle of climb speed, we reached 600 feet above ground at the end of the 5,500 foot runway. For my next trick, I performed a 180°, power off approach and landing, which worked out pretty well. I then climbed above the airport and tried a steep spiral, engine out approach, where I had my first real problem. During the final phase, I got pretty tight and things were happening fast at the 100-knot speed I needed. My base leg was actually in a tail wind and it was obvious I was going to overshoot the centerline. By this time John was starting to claw his way out of the plane, so I opted to go around. Flaps full, spoilers out, steep bank, and all I needed to do was to give it full power and we were up and going immediately. No need to hurry on the spoilers; you can even take off with them, if you want to. The plane cleaned up nicely and we were climbing quickly.
On my second attempt it worked out better, but when I rounded out onto final the flare and float were way too long. Hmmmm. The third time was the charm. I moved my aiming spot out, so I could get the speed down from 100 during the bank to no higher than 80 on the short final. The moral to all of this, of course, is to get comprehensive training throughout the entire envelope of the plane. At the start of my familiarization, I was just working to get the feel of the 300. By the final few landings, I was really racking it around and learning what it would do and how it would react to envelope-pushing maneuvers. And this only took one morning, with no formal lesson plan.
Much has been written about the Lancair, mostly in reference to its excellent cross-country performance. The Lindbergh flight, this past May, certainly was a bit more than the typical $100 hamburger run, for example. John offered to let me take it on a trip for evaluation, but I wanted to fly it, not cruise it. And, for all that has been said here, I have just scratched the surface about the Lancair 300, 350 and 400 series airplanes.
I can’t help but believe that these planes are going to put a world of hurt on some of the competitive “new” airplanes, many of them far more expensive.
And I got to thinking about what makes many of the “new” airplanes “new,” and realized that, compared to the Lancair, suddenly almost everything “new” seemed “old” again.
Guy R. Maher has been actively involved in aircraft sales, type-specific training, and multi-media production since 1972. With more than 12,500 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters, he currently flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on aircraft operational and flight safety issues for legal proceedings.