What do you get when you take Paul Bunyan out of the nort woods, force him to part with Babe the blue ox, exchange his wool shirt, boots and blue jeans for an Armani suit and bring him to a trendy cocktail party? A great-looking guy with muscles that fill the sleeves of his suit, who curses, spits on the floor, drains the entire punch bowl and, after offending everyone, staggers out with as much of the buffet as he can carry.
Fortunately for Cessna, airplanes dont behave like humans, so when it decided to dress up one of the most successful back country, dirt strip, beat-it-up-and-haul-
anything airplanes in history, the result turned out to be refined, classy and welcome anywhere. Plus, its easy to fly and has a potty.
The original model 208 Caravan of the early 1980s was targeted at the operators of the aging DeHavilland Canada Beavers and Otters that hauled great loads at leisurely speeds. With avgas increasingly difficult to get in remote areas, the Caravan was equipped with a reliable Pratt and Whitney PT6 that fronted an airframe which, on wheels or floats, would carry a big load at twice the speed of a Beaver.
Cessna was rightfully nervous about introducing an expensive, new airplane in a cratered market, but it soon discovered a ravenous market in the overnight package business.
The wildly successful 600-SHP 208 and 208A was stretched via fuselage plugs ahead and aft of the wing and the power upped to 675 SHP, creating the 208B. For some time, the 208Bs that left Cessna with seats rather than configured for cargo werent particularly attractive, just places to park bodies for commuter airline operations.
But a little at a time, Cessna found that individuals were asking for personal Caravans, at first for the straight 208 on amphibious floats. The thought was to put in a more attractive interior-which Cessna had been doing in twins and jets for years-and see if buyers would drop over a million bucks for a Caravan. They did.
Eventually, the Caravan line came to include four offerings: the Caravan 675 (208 with the 675-SHP engine); Amphibian (208 with 675 SHP on amphibious floats); Super Cargomaster (208B configured for cargo) and now the Grand Caravan (passenger 208B). It competes with the PC-12 and Socatas TBM line, which weve reviewed recently.
Cessnas gussied up Grand Caravan has proven so popular, that of the 80 sold in 2007, only a few were cargo haulers. Demand is so strong that Cessna is stoking up the assembly line to turn out 120 in 2008.
Details and Numbers
Current price of the Grand Caravan ranges from about $1.9 million for a generic version to $2.2 million decked out. One reason Cessna has been successful selling turbines is because of its reputation for service. Cescom, a computerized maintenance record service, is included for one year with the purchase price. The Altair Data Acquisition System and turbine tracker records engine parameters for precise monitoring. It allows for hot section inspections to be performed on condition instead of at 1800-hour intervals and boosts engine TBO from 3600 hours to 4000 hours.
Beyond the formal service arrangements, anyone who can work on turbines can work on a Caravan; Cessna has service centers all over the country and there are so many operators of Caravans that an individual owner will probably never have to
worry about breaking down out of reach of maintenance. Purchase of the airplane includes training for a pilot and mechanic at FlightSafety.
The top of the line, 10- or 11-place interior for the Grand Caravan, with club seating, potty, personal viewing screens and sound systems, is marketed as The Oasis and is installed by Yingling Aircraft. It adds 621 pounds to the airplane but yields a strikingly attractive, roomy and comfortable cabin, approaching the quality of the interiors of Cessnas jets.
The airplane we tested weighed in empty at 5597 pounds, leaving a useful load of 3188 pounds on a max gross of 8750 pounds. In its literature, Cessna publishes an unrealistic standard empty weight of 4237 pounds. Decently equipped, with the cargo pod, the Grand Caravan will realistically weigh about 5000 pounds.
As with most of the Grand Caravans ordered, our trial airplane had the cargo pod. Each of the four sections of the pod has its weight limitation placarded clearly on its door. (The composite pod weighs about 110 pounds and exacts less than a 10-knot cruise penalty.)
With all of the usable 332 gallons of fuel (2224 pounds) equally split between wing tanks, we could put 964 pounds in the cabin and baggage pod. Loaded with full fuel and just a single pilot, the airplane is at the forward end of the CG. At gross weight with four 200 pounders in the forward-most seats and the remaining 164 pounds of stuff in the forward section of the baggage pod, the airplane is out of CG forward, so some homework has to be done before assigning passenger and baggage spots.
Fuel burn moves the CG slightly aft; when our lone pilot burns fuel down to 500 pounds, the airplane is almost dead center in the envelope. The airplane has a long CG range, but the Oasis interior uses all of the cabin, meaning care must be taken in loading.
Launching with a full bag of gas allows a cargo-podded Grand Caravan to take a pilot plus four over 1000 miles VFR, at max cruise power with a 45-minute reserve. The occupants will need oxygen to do the trip, however. NBAA range, IFR, with a pilot plus four is about 850 miles at max cruise. With 10 people averaging 170 pounds, along with 50 pounds of baggage each, theres payload for enough fuel for a 1:45 flight at 10,000 feet with 45 minute reserve, or about 285 miles in still air.
The airplanes systems are Cessna simple. The fuel system has the selectors overhead, keeping the connection to the fuel valves in the wings as direct as possible. Normal operation is to keep the selector for each tank on, with the pilot shutting one off temporarily in the event of fuel imbalance. While we dont like overhead panels due to crashworthiness issues, the wide cabin means the selectors are well inboard of the crew seating positions and shouldnt be a real hazard.
We like that the fuel cells are positioned well out in the wing, away from occupants and are protected by the fore and aft wing spars. Flight controls are cable actuated. Due to the long span flaps, the ailerons are small enough that much of the roll control is through spoilers that activate individually when the corresponding aileron reaches 5 degrees up deflection.
Power is provided by a PT6A-114A derated to 675 SHP, driving either a Hartzell composite or McCauley aluminum, full-feathering propeller. Most Grand Caravans are sold with the longer, heavier McCauley propeller due to unsatisfactory performance reports on the Hartzell.
The dual-bus, 28-volt electrical system is powered by a 200-amp starter generator (300 amp optional) with the customers choice of lead acid or Ni-Cad battery. In keeping with the simple-is-good design philosophy, the battery can be removed from the airplane in about 30 seconds so it can be taken indoors and kept warm rather than requiring a preheat system.
Dual inverters are an option for AC power. The only hydraulic system in the airplane is for the brakes. Even the inertial separator for the turbine inlet is manually operated. The Grand Caravan is approved for flight into known icing using boots on the wings, tail, wing struts, main gear struts and forward end of the cargo pod. TKS known icing protection is about to be offered.
The Look Over
With the high wing, draining the wing fuel drains to sample fuel is a challenge. However, they dont normally need to be accessed as theres a reservoir drain on the left side of the cargo pod. The engine cowling halves unlatch quickly and swing open to reveal the entire engine room, making inspection and maintenance access easy.
The fuel filter has a flag to indicate if its full and bypassing; oil is checked via the dipstick and brake fluid level via a sight gauge. The only out-of-the-ordinary preflight item is to check the vortex generators on the leading edge of the flaps. The combination of the long span, Fowler flaps with vortex generators and gurney strips on the trailing edge produce a full-flap stall speed of 50 knots indicated or 61 KCAS.
There are four cabin doors, including one for each crew seat, both of which arc
open against the engine cowling to allow access to the nose of the floats in the amphib version. The aft, left cabin door is a floor-to-ceiling cargo door-the upper half clamshells upward and the lower half opens sideways to allow a forklift to drive directly to the opening. Opposite the cargo door on the right side is a passenger airstair door, necessary because of the height of the fuselage above the ground.
To gain the left seat, you fold down the two-step ladder hinged beside the seat. Theres a handle above the aft side of the pilots door to aid in standing in the door to look over the upper surface of the wing and fuselage. This is an essential part of cold weather preflight to check for frost or snow.
Inside, theres ample room for any pilot. We heartily applaud Cessnas decision to provide a five-point restraint system for the crew seats, a serious commitment to occupant protection. Theres a lot of flail area for the front seats in a crash and although we prefer side sticks rather than yokes for occupant protection, these are impractical for the 208, in our view.
All passenger seats have three-point restraints and all seats meet the more rigorous impact requirements developed in the 1980s. The main landing gear is designed to withstand and attenuate impact loads by snapping off rather than transferring the load to the fuselage. This reduces the risk of flipping the airplane.
The pilot seating position is higher than on almost any other single, leading to a concern regarding perceived flare height. But that proves unfounded, as the visual picture is so similar to other Cessna singles.
The avionics package for the Grand Caravan has recently changed. At NBAA 2007, Cessna announced that the 208 series would be equipped with the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit as used on everything from the 172 through the Mustang. Its been a popular installation and we anticipate it will work well on the Caravan as it has on the other models. Three 10-inch displays are to be used for the presentation, which will be integrated with the GFC 700 autopilot.
The Grand Caravans power quadrant is slightly unconventional in that an emergency power control is installed to the left of the power lever. It allows the pilot to manually restore power should there be failure of any pneumatic signal to the fuel control unit. As with most turboprops, theres an RPM control, so the pilot has a choice of engine RPM in climb and cruise for comfort and vibration. Cessna favored simplicity here, rather than using a single power lever or FADEC.
Starting is conventional, using either internal or external power. We think the external power plug should have been located further aft, rather than forward of the wing strut, for protection of ground crew. Compared with some of the other single-engine turboprops, the checklist is refreshingly short, so getting away from the ramp doesnt take long.
Taxiing is unexpectedly easy. The direct nosewheel steering is so smooth and responsive that using a wheel brake in a turn is rarely needed. Idle power is high enough that it takes some Beta to keep the taxi speed reasonable. The high seating position, good visibility and height of the wings makes maneuvering this relatively large airplane on a crowded ramp a piece of cake. If needed, you can simply allow the lofty wing to pass above the wingtips of smaller airplanes.
Normal takeoffs are done with 20 degrees of flap-power is set just below max torque and allowed to drift up to redline. Tracking the centerline is easier than on any piston single, in our view. The nosewheel steering is effective, but not overly sensitive and the rudder gives smooth response to control inputs. The engine is canted slightly to the right to offset P factor and torque, which is further helped by the drag of the radar pod on the right wing.
Raise the nose at about 73 knots and liftoff comes shortly thereafter. Standard-day, sea-level ground roll at gross weight is 1385 feet and climbing at Vx-83 knots-allows clearing the requisite 50-foot obstacle within 2500 feet.
We have noted that Grand Caravans operated by Tropic Air and Mayan Island Air in Belize, with commuter airline seating and 16 souls aboard, routinely operate from
the 1700-foot strip at Belize City. While not a STOL airplane, the 208B can easily use almost every public airport in the U.S., paved or otherwise. When operating on grass or unimproved surfaces, you pull the inertial separator handle out to reduce the risk of FOD to the engine. This increases the takeoff run by about 3 percent.
After takeoff, flaps are reduced to 10 degrees at 85 knots and retracted at 95 knots. Vy is 104 knots with 110 to 120 knots for cruise climb. Initial rate of climb is about 950 FPM. Torque and ITT must be monitored in the climb and you push up the power to hold max torque until max ITT limit is reached in the high teens.
We climbed to 9500 feet for our relatively short flight, where oxygen wouldnt be needed, although operators tell us they tend to run the airplane in the 11,000- to 15,000-foot range for the best compromise between passenger comfort and operating efficiency. They told us they flight plan for 160 knots and 330 to 340 PPH on cargo pod-equipped airplanes and about 10 knots faster for those without pods. At max cruise power, we observed a cruise speed of 161 knots true, where the book called for 163 knots. Our fuel flow was 315 PPH, well below the 349 PPH in the POH.
Power changes dont require noticeable changes in rudder input as in the TBM 850 and Pilatus PC-12, nor the constant use of rudder trim with power changes those aircraft require. Accurate maneuvering of the 208B is easier than in any other airplane we have flown. While the controls are not so light that youd want to toss the airplane around, they are well harmonized.
Cessna has managed a compromise between responsiveness and stability thats almost unmatched in general aviation. Theres a small pitch change with flap extension and retraction, but compensating requires minor effort. The first 10 degrees of flap can be deployed at redline, 175 knots. Slow flight below 75 knots with full flaps requires constant aft control force as thats the extent of the up trim authority, at least at the forward CG for our flight.
Control forces are never more than moderate with stick-force-per-G appearing linear. Published clean stall speed is 63 knots, yet we observed the break to occur at 72 knots, which was puzzling. Vso is 50 knots (61 calibrated, meeting the max single-engine stall speed requirement of the FARs).
Setting up best glide speed of 95 KIAS at idle power and then feathering the propeller gives you the feeling of being abruptly shoved back into the seat as the drag of the windmilling prop suddenly disappears. From 10,000 feet AGL, the 208B will glide about 22 miles.
We made some of our landings on a narrow, 2400-foot strip with a displaced threshold. Approaching at 80 knots, with full flaps and carrying about 500 pounds of torque, subtle power corrections were easy and all that was necessary to nail the approach path. Power is pulled to idle just prior to flaring nose high, just as in a 172. The drag of the prop works to prevent floating as long as the flare is entered on speed. Without prior experience in the 208B, we were easily able to land and stop in half of the available runway.
ILSs are flown at almost any speed the pilot wants. The ability to extend 10 degrees of flap at redline and 20 degrees at 150 knots means you can smoke up to the middle marker at 170 knots, idle the power and progressively deploy the flaps, something the freight dogs have been doing for years.
During the last approach on our flight, the flaps failed to extend, so we shot an ILS at 110 knots, transitioning to 100 knots over the threshold for a routine landing. It just meant a higher deck angle on the ILS and a little more runway for rollout. Our impression of the flying qualities of the 208B didnt match our expectations that it would fly like a big 172. It doesnt. Its actually easier to fly and more stable in turbulence. From a strict handling point of view, we suspect that we could solo a new student in fewer hours in a 208 than in any of the current general aviation trainers.
As a personal airplane, the Grand Caravan is slower than the other single-engine turboprops, but a third cheaper than the TBM 850 and PC-12. Its not going to get up above the weather, yet it burns significantly less fuel per seat and its simplicity means that it will probably be ready to go on short notice more reliably than any other airplane on the airport.
Besides, during the week it can carry the board of directors in great comfort to every single plant site and then take the entire tailgate party, as well as the grill, to the little airstrip near the football field, all in style without even breathing hard.
Rick Durden is anAviation Consumer contributing editor. He lives in Michigan.