Airplanes, like people, often start out being one thing but as they age, they become something else entirely. And so it is with Cessna’s now-venerable Caravan that began life as an unglamorous box hauler that few would ever see on the ramp in daylight. It then became a niche utility airplane for the bush, capable of hauling not just the fisherman, but their camp and a couple of boats, too. Of late, it’s finding yet another niche as a short-haul commuter airplane.
Cessna is finding plenty of buyers in that latter role, but it would also like to reinvigorate another niche it enjoyed during the 1990s: the Caravan as a semi-luxe personal hauler with a nice interior and virtually no limitation on what the family can haul on vacation or the executive can take along on a regional business trip. The market Cessna lives in bears little resemblance to that into which it launched the Caravan in 1985. Even the company that originally caused it to be launched, Federal Express, has changed its name.
Coming up on the end of its third decade in production, Cessna has more competition not just from the Quest Kodiak and Pacific Aerospace’s P-750, but from its own used models (some 2500 have been built) and from other cheap, used airframes that clog the market.
Yet the Caravan endures because it does something other airplanes don’t do as well. It hauls a lot stuff in a big cabin at acceptable if not exceptional speed and with reasonable direct operating costs. It’s also about as easy to fly as any turboprop you’re likely to plant your pants in. When Federal Express—now FedEx—convinced Cessna to develop the first Caravan, a single-engine turboprop with a big fuselage made perfect sense to fly boxes from its spokes out into smaller airports. When that contract reached its end, Cessna saw a market for a similar airplane with a longer fuselage, windows and seats and thus was born the Grand Caravan. It has two fuselage plugs—one each fore and aft of the wing for a total length of 41.6 feet compared to 37.6 for the short Caravan 675.
Neither airplane has changed much since they first appeared on the market. The biggest change, other than the fuselage stretch, was a larger engine for the Grand Caravan in 1994, the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-114A, a 75-HP upgrade over the 600-HP straight 114. The 114A was also fitted to the original 208 and makes it an excellent floatplane, which is a capability the factory doesn’t offer for the Grand Caravan. Cessna’s business leader for the Caravan, Lannie O’Bannion, told us that through the mid-1990s until about 2000, the Grand Caravan enjoyed some success as a heavy-hauling personal airplane or flying bus for business transport. But lately, sales have shifted sharply offshore where the airplane can be configured with up to 14 seats for the commuter role. O’Bannion and Cessna believe there is strong market growth in this segment, especially in China, Russia and India where a lack of developed road infrastructure represents a potentially profitable niche for an airplane that can haul a lot over short distances—say 200 to 300 miles. Of the 100 or so Caravans coming out of Cessna’s Wichita, Kansas, plant, three quarters go to foreign markets, a reversal from the airplane’s early days. Although Kodiak is a competitor, Cessna may enjoy an edge because of its global marketing experience.
The airplane has been improved in increments since its 1985 introduction, but it hasn’t seen radical changes during the production run, other than the engine upgrade with the larger Grand Caravan in 1990. O’Bannion says the Caravan was conceived as a payload airplane and it still is that.
Before flying a demonstration model, we went over the numbers with Cessna’s Rip Lee, a demo and delivery pilot. Useful load on the airplanes vary by the type of equipment they carry, but there are three basic configurations: the windowless Cargomaster variant, the aforementioned commuter configuration and an executive, luxury transport version equipped with what Cessna calls the Oasis interior, which is built and installed by Yingling Aviation.
Max takeoff weight for the Grand Caravan is 8750 pounds against a basic empty weight of around 5240 pounds. The useful load is about 3545 pounds, typically, for a pod-equipped 208B. (The cargo versions carry more weight, but less volume.) One thing that gives Caravans flexibility is that they carry a lot of fuel, but don’t necessarily need it to complete the typical mission. With 332 gallons capacity (2224 pounds) and a typical burn rate of about 52 GPH (350 pounds), the Caravan is a 5.5-hour airplane, with reserve. Typically, commercial operators trade the fuel for revenue payload, but for those who don’t, a Grand Caravan can carry 1300 pounds-plus, with the tanks full. That’s six or seven people and all the baggage they want.
Lee took us through some loading problems using the Caravan’s iPad app, which shows that the airplane has a generous 25-inch CG range. You can’t quite load with abandon, but almost. There’s a giant cargo door on the left side of the airplane, but no dedicated baggage compartment. Most of the airplanes come out of the factory with the underbelly baggage pod. Made primarily of Kevlar, it’s a $63,450 option. “There’s no performance penalty, so there’s really no reason not have it,” O’Bannion said. The pod has four bottom-hinged doors, each a loading station and each placarded with a weight limit, typically between 250 and 310 pounds.
The CG tends toward the forward edge of the envelope. With full fuel, two pilots and baggage up front, it’s out of the forward limit. But to bust the aft limit, you have to work at it. There’s an optional tail stand for max effort loading, but that’s only because passengers enter through the rear airstair door, and the more rotund ones could tip the loaded airplane.
The most recent major change to the Caravan (in 2008) is the Garmin G1000, customized for the airplane, and the addition of known-ice TKS as an option. The airplane began life with pneumatic boots but Cessna concluded that TKS is just a better performing system. Freight dogs flying around the Midwest during the winter would probably agree.
There is a weight hit. In this airplane, the TKS carries 20 gallons of fluid and fully charged and ready, the penalty is about 130 pounds. All surfaces are protected, including the struts, and there are prop slingers and a windshield bar. As are most PT6 installations, the engine is equipped with a manually controlled inertial separator that routes any ice-contaminated air around the turbine inlet.
The overworn cliché is that the Caravan is really nothing but an inflated 182 and although that overstates the case a little, it’s not far off dead center, either. This is definitely true of the airplane’s systems. The fuel is stored in two wing tanks feeding a central header. Two valves in the overhead turn it on or off, and there is a crossfeed feature to balance the load.
Control circuitry is similarly Skylane-like, with cables, but in addition to conventional ailerons, the Caravan also has top-wing spoilers which assist roll rate when the ailerons reach 5 degrees of up deflection.
Electrical power is delivered through a dual-bus 28-volt electrical system with a standby alternator that normally runs in hot standby mode. Speaking of standbys, the G1000-equipped Caravan has the usual backup AI and pitot-static instruments mounted dead center under the multi-function display.
Seating options are varied. For the offshore market, the cabin has up to 14 seats, but that’s limited to nine in the U.S. The Oasis interior can be configured with club seating, row seating or some combination of the two. For those flying the airplane more than an hour or two, there’s a potty seat option in the last row by the door.
Like most new airplanes today, the Caravan has an options list, but it’s not extensive. The G1000 is standard, but TKS, air conditioning, radar, an oxygen system, the cargo pod and an HF radio are among the bling you can add to the invoice. Typically equipped price, says Cessna, is about $2.3 million on a base of $1.99 million.
Cessna’s Rip Lee told us there’s a five-day-long training program to prep a pilot to transition into the Caravan, but we’re having trouble understanding what the trainee does for the other 4½ days. Yes, the airplane is that simple and easy to fly. The largest training barrier isn’t the airplane itself, but the G1000. If you’re G1000 current, the only other challenge for a piston driver would be learning the engine management and that’s mostly limited to starting it.
Once you flip on the battery and turn on the starter motor, all you need to do is move the fuel condition lever to normal when the engine Ng value reaches about 14 percent. Once the fire is burning, turn off the starter and you’re done. You do have to watch for a hot start, as is true of any turbine.
For such a big airplane, the Caravan taxis precisely and since the pilot’s eyes are nine feet above the runway, the visibility and situational awareness are superb. With the G1000’s needs attended to, the rest of the pre-takeoff consists of a propeller governor check, setting the flaps and checking the trim. There aren’t any real killer items on the checklist.
With three aboard, we were well under gross weight, but even with 675 horsepower, the Caravan doesn’t quite push you back in your seat. Acceleration is business-like to a rotation speed of about 70 knots and an initial climb of just under 1000 FPM. At that point, most pilots would turn the airplane over to the Garmin GFC700, but we hand flew it to altitude.
“Altitude” in a turbine usually means the flight levels, but not in a Caravan. It’s perfectly happy in the 8000- to 12,000-foot range, and going higher helps neither the speed nor the fuel burn much. Lee told us he climbs into the teens or 20s only for weather or a tailwind. Checking the POH performance tables shows why. At 12,000 feet, the airplane trues at 167 knots on 306 PPH. At 20,000, the true drops to 164 knots of 268 PPH. That’s a fuel savings of 5.7 GPH and may hardly be worth it.
The Caravan’s full-flap stall speed is a surprisingly low 48 to 50 knots, variable with weight. Stalls and slow flight are, again, not much different than a 182. It takes a determined tug to get the nose high enough to actually get the burble and a break. The slow stall speed led us to believe you could fly approaches at 65 or 70 knots, but Lee recommend 90 knots, slowing to 80 over the threshold. Pulled back to flight idle, the Caravan will come down and slow down at the same time, so much so that it really wants a gust of power to arrest the descent for the final setup. We suspected that being so high above the runway would complicate judging the flare, but it didn’t seem to. We chirped the wheels smoothly on the first try.
While Cessna is enjoying great success selling the Caravan as a short-range commuter, Lannie O’Bannion said the company would like to get back some of the sales it saw 15 years ago as executive and business transportation. “We know who the buyers are,” he says. “The challenge for us is to just get the airplane in front of them.” In our view, the Grand Caravan certainly has the chops to do the business mission, as long as buyers don’t get too hung up on the lust for glamour. If they do, Cessna will happily sell them a Citation.