“The Speck of Incredible Speed”

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“The Speck of Incredible Speed” (July 2000)

I recently test-flew the Lancair Columbia 300 at Oshkosh.

First: My favorite part of aviation: The QUIET part. This might be the part where you wander silently through a gigantic old hangar, examining whatever aerial oddities might reside there. You could find Learjets, run-of-the-mill Cessna 172’s, or perhaps even a TBM Avenger from World-War-II! Maybe a old Beechcraft QUEEN-AIR, looking like a big huge fat Baron with gigantic reciprocating engines, and an interior that remands you of how hugely different the 50’s were from the present day! Maybe you will find a sleek new Baron, or the rare Piper Malibu. You never know what you will find when you snoop around in the gigantic old hangars left over from the 70’s, or the flight-lines out on the airport tarmacs… but the silent, solitary examination is arguably one of the most seductive and pleasant pursuits of aviation.. since almost every general aviation airplane in the country is at least 25 years old now, the examination of these planes is a time-warp as much as anything else. Also, you can examine the planes at your leisure with NO STRESS AT ALL, which is a bit different than when you are actually flying them!

On this hot, sunny day at an airport near Oshkosh, I was to report to the Lancair factory representative to test-fly the brand-new, all-composite, rivetless, fast, sleek, bulletproof, safe, far-flying, efficient Lancair Columbia 300… but I must as always show up at least 45 minutes early to indulge in my silent ritual of the “examination of the airplanes” mentioned above. I had never actually SEEN a REAL Lancair Columbia before… only countless pictures. The corner of the ramp reserved for Lancair was EMPTY! The customer previewing the plane before me was still in the air… they will be back soon, I was informed. Fair enough. That leaves my planned time to snoop. I wandered slowly out amongst the myriad General Aviation planes on the line… Mooneys, Cessnas, Piper, and Beech’s were all there parked in the grass, their thin, dull, wrinkled-and-riveted aluminum a testament to the 25 years of accident free faithful plodding each one of them had already delivered, both a testament to the manufacturing methods of 40’s, and the fact that even if something is old, it still works! The time warp as soothing as always, and soon I had wandered clear out to the end of the runway, far away from anyone else. Having wandered about a half-mile through the grass along the runway edge, I could barely hear the occasional engine or propeller from back at the ramp area. All was silent out amongst the parked airplanes by the end of the runway: A very quiet place indeed. Occasionally, a dull gray spec would appear in the sky and gradually grow larger as it slowly circled the field, easing into the traffic pattern which I could conveniently survey from my solitary nest of airplanes-in-the-grass. It would eventually resolve into some some Cessna or Piper angling for the runway, and come coasting smoothly and quietly in, the engine growling softly at reduced power, and the propeller “whop-whop-whopping” as it basically coasted through the air. When you are only 50 feet away from a landing light airplane, you can really HEAR the air. You hear it over the prop, and even a WHISTLING as the air moves over the wings and fuselage. A few moments later is the brief “SQUEAK!” of rubber on pavement as the plane touches down. Watching landings from right beside the runway is fun for the same reason watching the TV show COPS is fun: No matter what happens, it is SOMEONE ELSE that crews up! Har! Also, it is nice to get that unique perspective on the landing where you can see and hear and almost feel everything the craft is doing for your safe little perch. Adding this line to the paragraph 2 years later: May the pointless, useless, misplaced, idiotic, misguided paranoia associated with Sept. 11 never stop people from enjoying airplane-watching.

Well, after a watching a few dull gray specks moving slowly into the traffic pattern, I noticed something very odd: There was this bright SHINY SPECK! A SPECK OF INCREDIBLE SPEED! This speck was reflecting all the sunlight back to me for some reason, really GLINTING in the sun! But every general aviation airplane in this Country was painted in 1975, so the paint is always dull and non-reflective… how could this spec glint so brightly? And it’s speed was easily twice that of the others… he was SCREAMING into the pattern! You could tell that from watching the spec 3 miles away! What could I be seeing? Could this be it? Could this be my first-ever glimpse of a REAL Lancair Columbia? The craft arced onto final approach, it’s speed bleeding off until soon it was established on final at the same speed as any Cessna or Piper! The continuous curves in every direction and generous cuffed wing with the nose-so-trim-how-is-there-room-for-an-engine soon made the craft unmistakable: It could only be a Lancair Columbia 300. THe plane was as slow and quiet as any other as it glided past me with the familiar “whif-whif-whif” of the prop and touched down with a CHIRP and rolled away from me towards the ramp. My turn to fly now! I RAN through the grass past all the planes back to the ramp full of annoying people and commotion and noise to find the Lancair now stopped with the gullwing doors (DeLorean style) open and the factory test pilot and prospective customer climbing out. Sam Houston, the factory test pilot, being a big jovial fellow with a big white mustache curled up at the ends: The RED BARON STILL LIVES!

Another guy was standing around the airplane fidgeting and shuffling his feet, obviously wanting to talk to someone about something, and asked me if I was next to fly. He wanted to ride in the plane before placing his order, but had not booked a time slot to fly the plane. No problem! Hop in the back while I fly! He won’t get to FLY the plane but he can still ride int he back to see what it is like. After introductions all around, we hopped up into the plane and belted in. The instrument panel was very, very scarce and simple: the basic flight instruments, a handful of gleaming new radios, and a nice big moving map that does as much on one clean computer display than an entire cockpit-full of gauges on a Boeing 747 from the 80’s. Perfect.

The cockpit gives you that “comfortably in command” feeling they talk about in those Buick ads. You sit pretty high, not buried “in the machine” like I am in my Corvette. Instead, with the Columbia you get
a the feeling of sitting up straight and high, with the airplane (and indeed the whole world) below you . . . sort of like sitting way up in a T28, or driving an SUV or minivan. You are on
I top of everything with visibility beyond excellent, and all the cockpit looking up at you for you to survey with a downwards glance. Ditto the taxiways, runways, other parked planes, dude with the lit-up-wands guiding you to park, etc. Pulling up to the ramp, you are DEFINITELY “comfortably in command,” looking down at everyone and everything around the plane, with no qualms concerning visibility or situational awareness of stuff/people around the plane.The engine hopped right to life as I hit the starter and away we went, Sam letting me taxi to get the feel of the free-castoring nose-wheel with differential braking as we taxied down to where I had been watching 30 minutes before. I had assumed my “Mister Data” from Star Trek mentality the moment I met Sam before boarding, saying things like: “I confirm that I have control of the aircraft.” and “I shall now engage the starter, please confirm the prop areas is clear.” and “I shall now go to 2000 rpm and look for RPM drop as I check the magnetos.” and “I confirm a 25 RPM drop on the left magnetos”. Things like that. That is the way I talk in those situations, and it works very well: Nobody gets surprised, and nobody assumes anything. Everyone knows exactly what is going on… it only takes a few extra sentences but avoids all confusion and screw-ups that normal people will fall into, which often winds up with 2 pilots both telling the FAA after the fact “But I though =>HE<= was was supposed to lower the landing gear!”

After the run-up, I told Sam in my “Mister Data from Star Trek” tone: “OK, YOU have control of the airplane for takeoff”. But Sam demurred! “You do the whole flight” he said. WOW! They only have ONE prototype at this point, and they are letting a customer fly it from start to finish! Pretty trusting! So on with the power, onto the runway, full power, and away we went! On this HOT day, with 1/2 tanks of fuel, myself (skinny), and two rather heavyset guys on board, the takeoff acceleration was still brisk indeed, and the climb sprightly. We were at 7,000 before I was even clear on I where all the engine instruments were. We blew past a Cessna like he was flying backwards. Passing other planes in flight often involves a slow, creeping, gradual pull-ahead, but not here.
In cruise flight (about 220 mph, 8000 feet) I tried to stall it hard, but could not. The plane is so heavy and solid, and the sidestick so tiny with so little leverage (you are, in fact, maneuvering a 3200 lb airplane with a joystick no bigger than you little CH-Products flight-stick) that you simply run out of physical strength to pull the airplane back harder than 3 or 4 G’s. Seeing as how the plane has gone to 11 G’s in testing, the old fear of breaking the airplane in flight pretty mush disappears… unless you are Arnold Schwarzeneger you physically will not have the STRENGTH to break the plane! Yanking the little sidestick back to the aft stop (low speed) or the limit of my strength (hi speed) mercilessly in all flap/power/speed combinations, I could not make the plane misbehave for the life of me. That solid machine bucked and bronc’d and shook and vibrated like a mechanical bull with a crazed gorilla going medieval on the horizontal stabilizer, but it would not drop a wing or fall through or anything else. It just bucked and shook, with the ailerons still adequately effective, until I finally eased off the stick and hopped on the power. It handled almost just like the Berkut canard plane (a Long-EZ on steroids) in that respect: The FOREplane on a canard plane WILL STALL, but the ailerons and the main wing still work, so you still keep most of your lift and control authority. Ditto the Columbia: The main wing is stalled, but only over the inner half of the wing!!! The outer half with the ailerons (and huge leading-edge cuffs) is still flying! So you keep all your control effectiveness while the stiff little plane firmly kicks and thrashes, making you WELL aware that you are out of bounds.

The 190 kt (220 mph) cruise is reached quickly, and the plane comes down fast enough without power if you are willing to build up a good bit of speed (mid-yellow arc) in the descent (I AM!), or if you bring down flaps and want to come down with low IAS but MEGA-VERTICAL SPEED, … full flaps +nose down a LOT = 105 KIAS and over 2,000 fpm descent. Bottom line: Aim the nose down in that heavy sleek machine without flaps and you come down like a bowling ball. Aim it down with full flaps and you float down like you are hanging from a parachute. There is only one way to get the plane down in a nice, regular descent though: PLANNING. WELL in advance of your destination, ease that power back and let it slip on down. If you wait until the last minute, there will be no way to get down with any style or grace at all: all that weight and inertia packs a lot of energy and there is very little drag to dissipate it, so you must PLAN THOSE DESCENTS from a ways out if you want to make the whole flight smooth.(Note: a nice steep hard turn can bleed off extra energy in a pinch).

The big guy in the back wanted to see how the plane “handles turbulence,” so we dropped down to 2,000 AGL a ways out from the airport. We were ripping along at near-full power (240 mph) at 2,000 feet on a HOT summer day through those thermals and the plane hardly stuttered. It was a nice solid little HOP as we hit each rising column, purely a comfortable vertical bump with no side effects or control issues. No yawing or slopping around like a V-Tail, no loose equipment banging around like an airliner. Just a solid BUMP as the plane tracked perfectly. As always, I wanted to go lower just because I love hi-speed lo-level in turbulence – it makes me feel like Luke Skywalker buzzing the Death Star in Star Wars. But, alas, safety concerns always keep me from indulging myself in this little flight of fancy, so we kept it to 2,000 AGL and settled for the somewhat-smooth ride we got there despite the thermals.

Pattern entry is no problem. Blow into the pattern entry at 200 KIAS (WHEEE!!!!), and a nice steep turn into downwind (NO, I’M NOT GONNA STALL IT AT 200 knots!) bleeds you down to Vfe and with the flaps out the plane is just as draggy as a Piper Archer and is handled just as easily, though the speeds are a LITTLE bit higher all around. Landing is a snap. In ground effect the weight, lift, drag, etc., all add up to a nice flare without power, a comfortable float (you don’t float all day, and don’t drop in either) … the hang time in the flare is “just right” while the plane eases comfortably on along to touch down in a comfortable attitude. It was my first landing in the plane and it was almost a squeaker. The first of many to come, obviously.

We taxied in and I INSISTED that Sam take the controls as we approached the handful or people and planes parked around on the ramp… the free-castoring nose-wheel is fun to master with all the swinging tight turns and fluid taxiing that it allows, but I do not want to try to fine-tune it when surrounded by other airplanes and people, thank you. We shut down and got out, with the customary whine of the gyro spinning down and sweat on your clothes wherever the seat was. De-Riguer for summer flying to be sure!

Just SEEING that shiny sleek thing next to the dingy, faded, wrinkled old aluminum planes (singles or twins) is an eye-opener, to say the least. The composites allow the plane to be curved on all axis at once, unlike metal which cannot be bent that way. The Columbia sits higher than the Cessnas and Pipers to ground-clear its generous prop, and the smooth shiny egg-shape towering over the tired old aluminum cylinders of the other planes makes it look like a spaceship that just flew in from Planet-X … and the performance bears that out! I put down my deposit, and am now selling X-Plane as fast as I can to pay the bill for the rest of the plane when it comes!

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