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Cessna Caravan Perfected?
Cessna Caravan Perfected?

If you had listened to critics sounding the death knell of the turboprop some years back, you might have thought that the Cessna Caravan would be a museum exhibit by now. Competing, as it seemed to be, against every imaginable kind of airplane—jets, turboprop twins, pressurized singles, even piston singles—how could Cessna´s big nonpressurized turboprop single possibly maintain its momentum?

The answer is, it just has, and it´s done it by penetrating into every imaginable utility market, and then some. As it turns out, the Caravan lineup wasn´t really competing with anything. It was the other way around.

Today the airplane is more popular than ever. FedEx, Cessna´s biggest Caravan customer, operates about 260 Caravans, the Super Cargomaster model, done up with baggage compartments in every nook and cranny. And the airplane remains a mainstay in the developing world as a go-anywhere people and freight hauler, in coastal regions as a carryall water taxi, in the outback as a rugged-minded air ambulance and with special missions operators worldwide.

And thanks to its voluminous cabin and fancy optional Oasis interior (which Cessna sells in partnership with KICT neighbor Yingling Aviation), the airplane has become a hugely successful private transportation tool. It´s a turboprop single with a light bizjet-size cabin that excels at flying regional hops while giving the folks in back a fine level of comfort. And it can carry them into just about any kind of landing strip you could imagine, from remote Alaskan outposts to a grassy strip on the Vineyard. The executive market is not a little niche. Cessna says it accounts for a big percentage of Caravan sales.

Despite the Oasis option, until now the cockpit of the Caravan was lacking the kind of flat-panel avionics system that is standard in just about every production airplane you can name, even Cessna´s own basic four-seater, the 172 Skyhawk.

Not too long ago, when everybody began to realize that flat-panel avionics systems would become available for just about every class of airplane imaginable, there were some who thought that utility airplanes—cargo haulers, bush planes, remote air taxis and the like—might take a decade or more to come into the digital fold, if they did at all. Those predictions seem silly today.

When it comes right down to it, flat panels have it all over steam gauges in just about any conceivable application. They´re more durable, more cost-effective and more easily replaceable, key factors to fleet operators because they mean less down time and more profit.

So to the surprise of no one, when Garmin looked to upgrade the Caravan, it went with the Garmin G1000 integrated avionics suite, a decision that makes G1000 standard in every single-engine Cessna airplane (except the SkyCatcher, which will have a new and different Garmin flat-panel system).

And G1000 is a brilliant addition for the Caravan. As you can see from the accompanying photograph, there´s no sense that the G1000 system was shoehorned into an existing panel. It looks like it was born there. The scale of the displays, three 10.4-inch LCDs, is just right for the panel, and the backup instruments, switches and the flight guidance panel are all conveniently and logically located in the clean layout.

Of course, this is helped tremendously by having the engine instruments on the MFD. Especially for start-up and takeoff, having the clean, intuitive graphical displays right there in front of you makes managing power and temps on the big PT6 a breeze.

In addition to the skillfully executed engine instrumentation, the G1000 solution in the Caravan includes two huge improvements over the airplane´s previous functionality, the integration of the excellent Garmin GFC 700 autopilot and the addition of WAAS.

As we´ve been saying about it since its introduction, the GFC 700 is a revolution, and these days when I get a chance to fly another airplane into which it´s been adopted, I´ve pretty much stopped being surprised by its silky smooth performance and widebody bizjet features. So as I´d expected, the integration in the Caravan is very nicely done. The flight guidance panel—the same unit as in the Mustang light jet—sits directly above the MFD, in easy reach of a pilot flying from either seat. And the addition of WAAS to the system gives Caravan pilots a whole new level of precision—including WAAS approaches with vertical guidance down to ILS-like minimums.

In an airplane such as the Caravan, one that gets flown by a single pilot, often in demanding conditions, there´s no doubt that all of this adds up to greatly increased safety and capability. Adding to that is the MFD, which offers a wide variety of standard and optional safety utilities. Standard fare includes Garmin´s SafeTaxi airport diagrams, its terrain and obstruction database, and Garmin FliteCharts electronic approach charts. Options include XM Weather, Jeppesen electronic approach charts, L-3 Stormscope, TAWS, the Bendix/King KTA 870 active traffic system, among others. The result is twinjet avionics capability in a turboprop single.

The 2008 Grand Caravan comes standard with the Garmin G1000 integrated avionics suite with three 10.4-inch LCDs, two primary and one center-mounted multifunction display, with the GFC 700 digital autopilot with panel-mounted flight guidance panel. Also standard are dual AHRS, dual air data computers, integrated Garmin audio system and more. Available utilities include Garmin´s SafeTaxi runway diagrams, terrain and obstruction database and FliteCharts. Options include the TKS icing protection package, air conditioning, built-in oxygen system, Garmin GWX 68 color weather radar, XM satellite weather, the Bendix/King KTA 870 active traffic system and more. All specifications are for an airplane without the cargo pod. Figures are from the manufacturer and are for standard conditions unless noted.

Ice Off

The other big improvement to the airplane is one that the passengers might not even notice (other than aesthetically, that is), the switch from pneumatic boots to TKS "weeping wing" ice protection.

With the addition of TKS, the Caravan gets a lot of additional protection, and some hidden benefits, too.

While boots have their strong points and are the obvious choice for some airplanes—Cessna puts them on its Mustang light jet—they have real limitations in other settings, especially on an airplane like the Caravan with so much surface area and so many appendages (landing gear, cargo pod, wing struts).

Boots work, as you know, by inflating—they´re powered by an engine-driven pump—and shedding any accumulated ice. As such, they are deicing and not anti-icing devices. Historically, there´s been a great deal of controversy over when and how often the boots should be cycled. The current thinking on the subject is, early and often. But the fact is that boots don´t do anything for areas they don´t physically cover. With the TKS system, the fluid seeps rearward with the airflow, protecting airframe components downstream, including the windshield and cargo pod. TKS can´t replace pre-takeoff deicing on the ground, but it´s more effective than boots at protecting the airframe against some forms of inflight icing, like freezing rain and freezing drizzle.

In contrast to boots, the TKS system—which is also certified for flight into known icing on the Caravan—works by seeping a glycol-based fluid out of tiny pores on a machined titanium leading edge, as well as through a prop slinger. The airflow streams the fluid back, coating the surface area of the airplane and preventing ice from forming or adhering. The outflow of fluid off of the prop protects the windshield and cargo pod. According to Cessna—I didn´t do any ice flying in the Caravan I flew—the system works very well at keeping the airplane ice free.

Including the wing, tail and wing strut leading edges, plumbing and dual pumps, the TKS system weighs only about 75 pounds installed, which is close to a wash when you remove the boots and attendant hardware. The downside is that the fluid is heavy. With the 20-gallon tank full, you´ve got an additional 184 pounds on board. The good thing is, handling that kind of weight increase is doable for a Caravan. Moreover, since icing is a seasonal issue for nonpressurized airplanes, operators won´t have to tanker a passenger´s worth of glycol around with them in the summertime. And with this airplane, finding a place to put a 20-gallon TKS fluid tank was easy: in the pod. For those few Caravans sold without a pod, Cessna is developing what it calls a "blister," to be located on the belly of the airplane solely to house the TKS tank. Of course, for airplanes that operate in tropical and hot and dry climates, there´s no need for the system, an option at around $ 77,000.

But for those operators who do face icing challenges, TKS represents a real change to the Caravan. Is TKS superior technology to boots? It really depends on the airplane. But that said, in the case of the Caravan, it´s clearly the better choice, and Cessna has enthusiastically embraced the technology.

Flying the G1000 Caravan

There are, as you might know, three different Caravan models, with the Grand Caravan, a 4-foot stretch version of the original, being the most popular for personal, corporate and charter use. The airplane I flew was a preproduction Grand Caravan with a lot of brightly colored, heavily wired test equipment in back, but with enough room still for myself, Cessna engineering test pilot Scotty Jurgenson in the right seat and Cessna´s media relations manager Pia Bergqvist in back.

I´m not the first to say it, and I won´t be the last, but flying a Caravan is very much like flying a really big, really powerful 182, except that it flies even a little nicer than the Skylane. With its Pratt & Whitney PT6 up front putting out 675 horsepower, the Caravan with its humongous, high-lift wing is no speed demon, but it climbs impressively, even at high weights.

We were light, and it was a bit gusty as we lined up on KICT´s Runway 1R and prepared to head out to the west to play. One of the things that G1000 brings to the Caravan, graphical engine indications, came in immediately handy as I set the power and we began to roll. After having put in a little too much juice, which Scotty promptly pointed out, it was easy to see where to come back to, simply by bringing the power indication back into the green range on the tape.

The Caravan was the eighth airplane I´d flown with a G1000 panel and the fifth with the GFC 700 autopilot, and I expect that list to keep growing. While I´m not an expert in the system yet, it sure felt familiar, and I thought about how the system was turning into a standard of sorts in airplanes from light singles to jets, something the aviation industry has never really had (though King´s Silver Crown stacks of the ´70s came awful close). With G1000, even if you´re new to the airplane, you´re not new to the panel, so the transition will be easier, as it was for me in the Caravan, and you can concentrate on learning to fly the airplane instead of spending your time learning which buttons to push.

As I said, I found the autopilot integration very pleasing. Even though the Caravan is a big airplane with a big wing, lots of lift and a ton of power, the autopilot drove it around the sky very smoothly. I was impressed. And the use of the flight guidance panel, as in the Mustang, makes using the GFC 700 extremely intuitive.

I won´t go into a lot of detail on flying the G1000 Caravan, as we´ve written extensively about both the airplane and the avionics suite before, except to say what Cessna has already figured out. Once Caravan pilots get a sniff of the flat-panel goodness that is G1000, they´re going to want it.

The G1000 Effect

One of the real benefits of the G1000 avionics suite isn´t felt by the operator but by the company that puts Garmin´s immensely popular flat panels in its airplanes. Mooney came right out and said at Oshkosh a couple of years ago that the introduction of the G1000 in their airplanes might have saved the company. Many others have reported immediate and steep sales growth once they had G1000 in the cockpit.

But how could the same thing happen with the Caravan, an established, already successful and somewhat specialized airplane? I wouldn´t have thought so, and neither did Cessna, until it happened, that is. Once the company launched G1000 at the NBAA Convention last fall, orders went through the roof and Cessna had to briefly stop taking fleet orders for fear of not being able to build enough airplanes fast enough. The end result: Cessna plans to build more than twice as many Caravans in ´08 as it did last year.

Not bad for an airplane that was supposed to be long gone by now.

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