Flight Report: Cessna 400 Corvalis TT

On a warm Florida summer morning a couple weeks ago I stepped into AMS Aviation at my current home station of 2R4 in Milton and announced that I was there to get a ride in a Cessna 400 Corvalis TT. I think even the building itself went green with envy and those present helped me wait so that they could get a look at the plane when it arrived. I found out very quickly that they were right to be jealous!

Why was I getting a demo...was I thinking of buying? I wish, but I sure can't afford it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I write for AviationBull.com. I don't know. Cessna invited me. It wasn't long before Matt Tutton of Air Orlando touched down in N1198Z, a gorgeous white and blue airplane that appeared to have so little drag I was worried it wouldn't be able to stop on Milton's little runway.

I've been wanting to fly a Cessna 350 or 400 for a long time. It all started when I visited the Lancair Website. Their aircraft look great and have performance numbers that I couldn't believe. They were so far above anything in the certified aircraft market that I was skeptical. They boast that the Lancair IV-P can cruise at 330 mph...that's nearing VLJ speed! (Actually it's true. Lancair pilots love their aircraft and are the envy of the piston single market.)

Then, 10 or 15 years ago Lancair's founder, Lance Neibauer, decided to build a certified version of his aircraft. He formed what would become Columbia Aircraft and produced the Columbia 350 and 400. They were beautiful, fast aircraft that gave Lancair-like performance without the thousands of man-hours required to build your own airplane. Great idea!

The idea was so great that the company got some big investment. In 2007 Columbia inexplicably entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to Wikipedia, this was part of a purchase deal with Textron (Cessna.) I asked Matt about this and he said that Cessna had been eying Columbia for a long time. It's not hard to imagine why. Cessna made Columbia's aircraft their own and re-dubbed them the Cessna 350 Corvalis and Cessna 400 Corvalis TT. (Matt said that Cessna didn't really have to change much...the airplanes were already outstanding designs.)

The Corvalis 400 TT is truly a beautiful airplane. When you look inside you see a clean, roomy interior. The plane has always had a side stick - different than the Cirrus' side-yoke. There was no "getting used to" a side stick, it was perfectly natural. It was amazing how much panel visibility you get without a huge yoke in the way. I don't know why the entire aviation industry hasn't abandoned yokes yet.

Since this was Florida in the summer, I was worried about cooking the minute we closed the plane's doors. Not to worry though. As soon as we cranked the engine Matt turned on the air conditioning...a standard option from the factory. We were cool and comfortable for the entire flight.

Taxiing the plane was fun because it has a castoring nose wheel. I've heard several pilots badmouth this type of nose wheel, but it was easy to control. In fact, when I swung around for the run-up my brain tried to tell me I had a tailwheel. We pivoted practically on the spot.

Flying the Corvalis TT was characterized by three things: comfort, speed and power. There was a C-172 on downwind as we were departing. We overtook him without even trying. Pensacola approach was busier than usual and we were practically over the Gulf before I could get a hold of them. (Usually, I'm in contact by about 2 miles south of the field...even on a busy day.) We climbed up for a cruise altitude around 5500 and I dialed the power back a little to try to save Air Orlando a couple bucks. At low cruise power, we were doing 185 KIAS. Translate that to flying a bit higher and you know this plane can move! (Matt made it from Orlando to Milton in about 1.5 hours. He said it was kind of slow because he was lazy and took his time. Wouldn't it be nice to think of that as slow all the time?)

There was a line of cumulus clouds building between SW Pensacola and Milton on the way back. Climbing over them was effortless. The plane had so much power it was awesome. The interior was very comfortable. With the air conditioning keeping us cool, plenty of shoulder room and my seat set just right I didn't so much fly the plane as think about where I wanted it to go.

The Corvalis TT comes standard with Garmin's G1000 with synthetic vision. It was the first time I'd flown with it and I was impressed. This particular plane also had little silver boots on its wings and tail. They're the Thermawing System by Kelly Aerospace. It's an electrically heated wing anti-ice system. With a second alternator, the whole system only weighs 46 pounds. The system only reduces engine output by 1.7 horsepower. It's not approved for flight into known icing (FIKI,) but he suggested that he wouldn't really want to plan to take any piston single into known icing anyway. The Thermawing system has no de-icing fluid to add lots of weight and make a mess on your wing. It doesn't require hundreds of small openings in the leading edge of your wing to try and protect from corrosion. It sounds like a great system and is about the only option at the Cessna factory. Everything else on the plane is pretty much standard.

So, why didn't I sign up to buy one of these planes right then and there? Honestly, the price tag is what's stopping me. At well north of $600,000 it's too rich for my blood. Thankfully though, Matt told me that Orlando Air is having no problem finding people who can afford a great airplane. There are so many orders right now that if you bought one today, the soonest they could get you into a Corvalis TT is October. The bonus depreciation rules that congress has been approving for the last few years have definitely helped. Matt expects that similar rules will be passed for this year. Orlando Air is very experienced at helping businesses take full advantage of tax laws to make owning a Cessna 400 a great business move.

Considering all this, it's no wonder to me that these planes are selling like crazy!

I asked Matt why he sells these aircraft and not Cirrus SR-22s. He got a big smile on his face and started into it. He mentioned that the Cessna planes are designed to be very sturdy and safe. They're certified in the Utility category...at all weights. This means the basic airframe can take a lot more stress than most Normal category aircraft out there. He likes the Thermawing system better than Cirrus' weeping wing. He also likes the fact that Cessna doesn't mind taking its time. Cirrus was the first to get Synthetic Vision. Cessna waited because they looked at it and found some bugs. Cirrus is using Continental's new TSIOF-550 engine that approaches FADEC controls. Cessna hopes that technology reaches maturity, but wants to give it some time before they send their customers out with it. Flying right at the cutting edge to push the limits on performance or enjoying great performance until improved technologies are proven. Maybe that's the key difference between Cirrus SR-22 and Cessna 400 customers. I guess I need to fly an SR-22 now so I can compare.

I also took the opportunity to ask Matt about Cessna's LSA, the C-162 Skycatcher. He said it is also wildly popular. Flight schools are ordering them, private pilots are ordering them, and the plane is very popular among the future Sport Pilots who'd have issues getting a 3rd class medical. He admits that the plane won't hold much gas, but likes it's all metal construction, cockpit layout and avionics. He explained that he's worried some members of the LSA community aren't working all the bugs out of their planes before they send them to market. He said Cessna is taking its time with the Skycatcher because it wants to make sure the plane is perfect. If you're interested in a Skycatcher, you'd better get in line now. The next available delivery positions are for 2012. Good work Cessna!

I'd like to send out a big thank you to Matt from Orlando Air for taking my flying. I was truly impressed. The former-Columbia Cessnas are gorgeous, fast aircraft with a great pedigree. I'm looking forward to my next chance to fly one!