I actually am rather late getting this review out. When I accepted this review, Columbia was still in business and the Avidyne panel was the only avionics offered on the 350/400 series of aircraft. The Garmin G1000 panel had just been announced and with it the Garmin Ready Pad was going to be included for the first time. So Cessna got to be the first production aircraft to include an option for the Garmin G1000, Beechcraft got to be the first to offer the integrated GFC700 autopilot with the G1000 and Columbia the first to include the Ready Pad which is really a remote data entry pad. Why do I bring up all this Garmin G1000 info in a review of the Avidyne panel version? You’ll read later on ;).
In the course of time between then and now, Columbia’s financial woes have given way to a new owner. Fortunately for aircraft enthusiasts, Cessna has bought up the Columbia facility and ensured that the Columbia 350/400 (now Cessna 350/400) will remain in production filling a bit of the gap between their popular high wing slower singles and their almost separate and distinct Citation series of jets. This also opens up Cessna to Columbia’s or should I say Lance Neibauer’s composite technology.
Now Lance Neibauer is someone I have been following since the mid 1980’s when he introduced a little two seat composite homebuilt that used the Cessna 150 engine. Imagine the economical operation costs of a 150 but with the ability to do 200 mph! It was a sexy looker too! This marked the introduction of the Nomex honeycomb and oven cured fiberglass concoction he had perfected that is not only incredibly lightweight, it is also fantastically strong and allowed for complex curves and shapes designers had only dreamed of.
The Lancair 200 became the 210 using the same Lycoming O-235 engine powering the Cessna 152 which is a preferable powerplant to the Continental used in the 150. But homebuilders wanted more power, so the engine size continued to grow with the 160-210 hp 320/360 establishing a much more prominent position in sales. The present lineup at Lancair includes the Legacy, which looks like the 360 but is using the even larger six cylinder IO540 or even 550 engine… or up to 350 hp WOW! Kind of like a ‘Vette for the sky. If your homebuilder budget is a little leaner, there is a fixed gear version of the Legacy called the FG utilizing the 320/360 series of engines.
Demand for a four seat aircraft pushed Lance into designing the Lancair IV, which has established its place as a true hot rod on the kitplane market. A pressurized four seater using a dual turbocharged powerplant capable of speeds no other piston single outside of military service has ever approached. You can even opt for a turboprop version which even pushes those speeds and altitude capability further, although the fuel burn places a limitation on range which the piston version can better.
Lancair’s desire to release a true certified version of its aircraft pushed into the development of the Lancair Columbia 300 which was a very different aircraft to the kitbuilt Lancair IV. No longer did the aircraft have the complex systems for retractable gear nor was it pressurized. In an early move, the certified aircraft division renamed itself to Columbia making itself a separate identity so that either division could operate independently of the other. Some of this reasoning was that insurance companies were wanting to rate the new Columbia 300 along with kitbuilt Lancair IV’s which is not a truly comparable aircraft.
While the fuselage looked very familiar to the Lancair IV, the wing and empennage was completely different to accommodate the low speed handling and stall speeds required of certified aircraft. The certification process was long and drawn out partly because of the FAA’s continued lack of understanding of composite construction (this is what killed the Raytheon Beechcraft Starship).
The Columbia 300 gave way to the all electric Columbia 350 (all electric meaning no vacuum pump instruments) which utilized the Avidyne glass panel displays. This timing was very close to the Cirrus lineup also going to an all Avidyne glass panel and while Cirrus had chosen the landscape mode for its displays, the Columbia 350 used what Avidyne calls its portrait mode. This puts the display as seen in the Cirrus on its side displaying the information in a taller and narrower fashion, much more like the EFIS displays seen in larger commercial aircraft. While the landscape display has taken its place in the marketplace as preferred, the portrait is actually a better layout for viewing approach charts and using the moving map arc mode. What is out in front of the aircraft is usually of more importance than what is at 90 degrees to each side.
The Lancair Columbia 300 took its place in the record books when Erik Lindbergh recreated his grandfather’s historic Atlantic crossing in 2002. Those fortunate enough to hear Erik speak at the AVSIM FanCon in Seattle this year, got to hear first-hand what went into that historic flight.
The twin turbocharged Columbia 400 followed soon afterward and again records were being broken. Mooney and Columbia have been duking it out for the title of fastest production single engine aircraft and both have managed to better all but just a couple of twin piston engine production aircraft ever produced. They are in fact faster than some of the turboprop twin aircraft, so that is an impressive task indeed. If the site is still up there is a collection of communication transmissions between a Columbia 400 and ATC where the Columbia 400 is being asked to slow down for a Learjet, all the while capable of maintaining its spacing with larger and faster airline traffic in the approach pattern. The controllers are frequently asking if this is a small jet, a twin or turboprop, many display surprised expressions when they are told this is a fixed gear, single engine piston aircraft.
Eaglesoft is the brainchild of Ron Hamilton. A quick search of AVSIM’s file library will reveal that Ron was quite a sim enthusiast himself and contributed a very large number of repaints for many popular sim aircraft in years past. I happen to know that Ron got into the payware development business as a result of Abacus’ Corporate Pilot Cessna Citation X not being further developed into the newer versions of the sim. He wanted a Citation X and, well, if no-one else was going to do it than why not him?
What a learning curve he was in for, but just take a look today at what he has been able to accomplish in just a few years time. By assembling a team of some of the best 3D graphic designers, gauge programmers and flight dynamics editors we have all watched Eaglesoft establish itself very well in the sim marketplace with an impressive lineup of corporate jets and general aviation aircraft.
On the heels of Eaglesoft releasing its Cirrus lineup of Avidyne Entegra equipped singles, they followed with the release of the Columbia 400. Utilizing their programming expertise learned for the Cirrus’ landscape Avidyne’s, a new set of gauges was programmed in the portrait mode. While this might sound like a simple task of changing a few lines of code, I can tell you this is much more work than most think.
Eaglesofts’ relationship with Mindstar and its Garmin G1000 simulation has also opened the door for a future version of the Columbia that will include the Garmin G1000 display and from what I am told, it will include the ready pad. While Eaglesoft has stated that they do plan to release a Garmin version of the Columbia, the real aircraft will be a hold your breath kind of thing as we watch Cessna take the reigns of Columbia and continue with production of the now Cessna 350/400 as a move up single in its lineup. Considering the amount of programming it will take to accomplish this, it is unreasonable to have any expectation of this being a free upgrade for existing owners.
Installation and Documentation
Eaglesoft's lineup of aircraft all utilize Flight1’s downloadable wrapper. Anyone that has ever used this system knows it is a relatively simple system to download and purchase from. For re-installations, it is also one of the most user friendly systems out there. You do have to use the red airplane iconed wrapper for reinstallations as well as original purchase, but in the case of a reinstallation, you just press the “press here to reinstall” button and you will be asked to locate your key file saved with your original purchase and enter the last four digits of your credit card used for purchase.
Documentation is a point in which I used to have to scold Eaglesoft. Now they have always included some nicely written manuals which were usually divided into separate pdf files which could be found in the documents folder within the folder for the aircraft itself. You used to have to know this, but now there are provisions in the installation for desktop shortcuts to the manuals. If you are unable to find the answer to your question within these files you will find that questions asked on Eaglesoft's own support forums get answered rather quickly.
Did I just mention their support forum? This is a high point with any of Eaglesoft’s aircraft. A very well laid out support forum where you can find the aircraft and sim version you are using and usually someone else has already asked the question for the issue you need help with. Many times these are answered by members of the development team themselves. You do have to register on these forums and Eaglesoft will be a bit picky about what internet email address you use to identify yourself with.
This is an unfortunate consequence of the times we live in. Eaglesoft has probably learned its lessons harder than most having had its website and forums hacked into and seriously damaged a number of times. Ron and Fr Bill will be the most vocal about defending this initial sign up step since it is probably them that had to do much of the damage control. Their present system is a much more secure system protecting them and the users themselves from losing all this valuable customer driven support.
A Reviewers Perspective
• Exterior Modeling: Bob Hayes is Eaglesoft’s 3D modeler and this last year we also saw Owen Hewitt come onto the team. Both have established themselves as top of their field modelers and this Columbia 400 is no exception. The smooth exterior lines, fluid animations, tasteful reflectivity of the exterior surfaces all make for a visual delight as you move around in spot view or use any of the included FSX external camera angles.
This isn’t just the FS9 version ported over to FSX, it is a full FSX SP1/SP2/DX10 compliant model utilizing FSX features. BTW, when you first load up the Columbia 400, the configuration manager will show as a popup 2D panel in the upper left hand screen and allows you to tie down the aircraft, place the pilot and luggage in the plane, as well as some preflight items… remember to set this page correctly to start the engine, otherwise the people on the support forum will know you didn’t read the manual.
• Virtual Cabin: The interior 3D model, or virtual cabin, is also a beauty to behold. I use a TrackIR4Pro so when I get into a virtual cabin I can really take a look around by getting into spaces that might be difficult to manage with keystrokes or a hat switch. Many of the developers also use this tool so that they can catch things that might have been missed in the earlier development stages.
Let’s face it, with the payware landscape the way it is out there, the bar has been moved up so users expect more than they did just a few years ago. This model won’t disappoint and if you are a VC junky, as many simmers are, you are going to enjoy flying this in the sim.
Now some like them, others don’t. I found some of their early work hard to read with certain screen resolutions, I have also heard others say their panels look like they were finger painted. I personally don’t mind the way they did it, although I do find them interesting and distinct. What they do do is blend well with the VC, so if you are switching between the two you aren’t faced with a stark comparison.
The Avidyne displays are a rather complex animal and do cause a noticeable drop in frame rates. If you are running a computer that barely gets default FSX aircraft usable and stutters with the default Garmin G1000 displays, you might want to wait for your next computer for this title.
Even with a fast computer I did notice that, like the Eaglesoft Cirrus Avidyne displays, the map display on the MFD will at times give a slow fill for information with items popping up on the display all of a sudden. I think a 512MB graphics card or higher may improve this. I know users with larger graphics cards than mine who report less problems. The standalone Flight1 FS Avidyne add-on does seem to do a better job at this but alas the FS Avidyne package does not have an option for the portrait display orientation.
• Night Lighting: Fr Bill Leaming wrote the book (actually white paper) on gauge/interior lighting effects in MSFS and Eaglesoft is one of the few developers you will find utilizing this knowledge. Not only will you find delightful night lighting effects with individual dome and instrument lighting, the lighting has an element of variability to it so you can turn it up, down or off. This allows users to find just the right mood for their night flying, although after reading that last sentence I suspect some readers will be krinkling up their eyebrows wondering, just what is he talking about anyway!
• Sounds: The Eaglesoft team recorded this sound set from an actual Columbia 400. The quality of these recordings is very good, so I can’t imagine anyone not being anything but pleased with the sounds. A look at Eaglesoft’s product page to see who is on their team and you will notice that Aaron Swindle is their sound programmer.
• Flight Dynamics: I don’t have any time logged in a Columbia aircraft so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge or perspective to go from. I have flown the Cirrus which also uses the sidestick. However, I do have a personal opinion about this latest rage of advanced avionics, glass panel sidestick aircraft and that is they are designed more to be flown by the autopilot than the pilot and this is usually confirmed with any conversation I have with pilots flying them.
The pilot handles the takeoff and landing with the autopilot doing most of the rest of the flying. This is perfect for the sim because a large number of simmers do exactly the same thing. I found the aircraft to be enjoyable to sim with, very responsive to user input and capable of performing to book numbers. Rob Young moonlights as Eaglesoft’s flight dynamics engineer in addition to the work he does for RealAir. You may remember Rob from the Fly simulator days, he was one of the first to really nail spin characteristics in any PC simulator.
I do question the effectiveness of the speed brakes though. In the video I have of flying the Columbia 400, I observed the speed brakes being deployed on descent with minimal power changes, in the sim I found the speed brakes to bleed off speed quite quickly and either requires very judicious use of throttle or cycling them on and off. I will probably track down the entry in the cfg file and modify it to my personal taste.
OK… let’s go fly it now!
In my usual review style, we are going to take a little flight so I can talk you through and show pictures of how I enjoyed this aircraft in the sim. I am going to make a recommendation for an additional product out there too.
If any of you are familiar with Flight Video Productions, you know they make videos of actual flights usually taking an hour or so to watch. I mentioned one of their films in my first review here at AVSIM for VoxATC, where I made the return flight for their Malibu Meridian flight from Seattle’s Boeing Field to Bellingham, Washington. Their most recent video features the Columbia 400 with the Garmin G1000 avionics. While the avionics suite is from a different maker and each have their differences, the flight in whole can be duplicated with the Eaglesoft aircraft and Avidyne displays.
The flight is from the Columbia factory in Bend, Oregon to Portland International and returns to Sun River, a popular resort just a few miles south of Bend. What you will really enjoy, is the stellar performance of Columbia’s then manager of sales support, Emily Waters. She will walk you through the pre-flight, then talk you through all the flight operations and never misses a beat, nor misses a call from ATC during it all.
Her knowledge of the Columbia and use of the Garmin G1000 is impressive to say the least. She had a total of eight cameras on her during the flight and she flew like she was demonstrating the aircraft to just you. It is one of those opportunities to watch a real professional doing what they do best… and great flying too. Emily spoke at my aviation club a few months ago, bringing a Columbia 400 for the event. She is as impressive in person as on the video.
I also have the FSGenesis mesh and landclass, MyTraffic X, UTX and FEX installed. I am still using Active Sky 6.5 in FS9 and I didn’t upgrade to the latest version for FSX. While ASv6.5 can work in FSX and was used for this flight, I have stopped using it with FSX since it proved to be too much to handle along with VoxATC X. I didn’t use VoxATC X with this flight since at the time, I had found that running all three together was a recipe for a bad night simming… or should I say trying to sim. This did allow me though, to match up weather on my simming flight with the weather encountered on the lovely Ms. Waters’ flight.
I let FSX’s flight planner make up the IFR low level flight plan for me and it gave me 12,000 feet, coincidentally the altitude Emily planned although upon getting her clearance she was given 13,000 by Seattle Center. If you have the video, you will also notice FSX ATC assigned me the ILS to 28L, Emily was vectored in to the ILS for 10L despite the quartering tailwind, I doubt you could even force the ATC in MSFS to do that.
For the return trip on the video, Emily will request the RNAV runway 18 into Sunriver (S21) which is an entertaining approach. I recommend you get the video and this Eaglesoft Columbia 400 and try that one for yourself.
Eaglesoft has another winner to add to its list of winners. Eaglesoft did make the choice to make FSX only models rather than merely port over the FS9 version. This has bothered some simmers and they have voiced that opinion on the forums, I find this group to be a rather squeaky and loud minority.
Eaglesoft did offer a limited time frame discount for previous FS9 customers. As evidenced in the screenshot forums and other postings there is a larger majority of simmers that do appreciate the extra work that has gone into making this an enjoyable FSX designed aircraft. I do think there are still users out there like myself, that are keeping both FS9 and FSX on their computers and Eaglesoft might consider a "buy both - pay 50% for the second" kind of offer in addition to making that limited time offer available to individual purchasers of either version. I do like this plane and it will remain in my hanger, although it is not my first choice for flying.
What I Like About The Columbia 400 For FSX
What I Don't Like About The Columbia 400 For FSX
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