Cessna’s big utility turboprop single is a capable and all-around solid performer.
by Matt Thurber

The Cessna Caravan has been in production since 1984, and earlier this year I had my first opportunity to fly the single-engine utility turboprop from Textron Aviation’s private airport—Beech Factory Airport—in Wichita.

My demo pilot was Terry Allenbaugh, the perfect pilot to show me the Caravan’s capabilities. During his early flying career, Allenbaugh flew one of the first Caravans, Serial Number 8, for Mission Aviation Fellowship in Ethiopia. Although he has flown all the Citations and King Airs, Allenbaugh returned to flying the Caravan as a sales demonstration pilot two years ago, and he is an enthusiastic proponent of the big single-engine turboprop.

While it’s common to be told the Caravan “flies just like a heavy 172,” the airplane is not simply a stretched and beefed-up version of any Cessna single. The configuration may be similar—there aren’t many options when it comes to designing a tricycle-gear single-engine turboprop for rough field operations—but the Caravan employs many features found on larger airplanes.

The strut-braced wing has massive flaps that extend to 70 percent of each wing’s length. Spoilers mounted inboard of the ailerons improve low-speed handling. Elevator trim tabs have dual actuators. A pressure fuel system is optional and typically installed on float-equipped Caravans. The pressure port is mounted on the cargo pod near the left landing gear leg, and it is far easier to use that for refueling than to try to climb onto the wing to reach the fuel caps.

The EX’s 867-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-140 has a 65-amp backup alternator for the standard 200-amp starter-generator. A 300-amp starter-generator is optional, as is air-conditioning. This Caravan is equipped with the optional four-blade Hartzell propeller; both the three- and four-blade props are reversible, helping to shorten ground roll by about 10 percent. When the prop is feathered, it nearly doubles the Caravan’s glide ratio, to 13:1 from 7:1, according to Allenbaugh.

This Caravan is fitted with optional larger tires with more plies and lower tire pressure for unimproved airfields. The nose gear might look like a typical single-engine Cessna air-oil strut, but the majority of the shock absorbing is handled by the spring steel nose gear, another nod to the airplane’s rough-field capabilities.

Caravans are approved for flight into known icing when equipped with the TKS ice-protection system. The TKS tank holds 20 gallons and provides 3.5 hours of normal anti-icing operation or 45 minutes at the high-flow setting. The propeller has its own TKS slinger ring, which helps protect the nose of the airplane. The windshield also is protected with a TKS spray bar. The TKS system is much cleaner looking than the deicer boot system found on earlier Caravans, which had boots mounted on almost every forward-facing surface.

The Grand Caravan EX’s 340-cu-ft cabin offers loads of flexibility, with seating configurations available for up to 14 occupants. Search-and-rescue (SAR) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment is easily mounted in roll-on, roll-off style on the floor’s seat tracks.

SAR operations are enhanced by the Garmin G1000 avionics suite, which offers the option of a full set of customizable search patterns that can be flown by the autopilot. The Garmin displays can also accept video input. Among other avionics options are weather radar and high-frequency radio as well as military radios.

The large cargo door on the aft left fuselage allows loading of up to four standard pallets, and many operators are flying their Caravans with dual passenger-cargo configurations. The optional belly cargo pod is also a popular choice. The aft baggage compartment in the cabin carries 31.5 cu ft and up to 320 pounds, while the cargo pod’s maximum cargo weight is 1,090 pounds and has a volume of 111.5 cu ft.

For aerial survey work, the Grand Caravan can be fitted with up to two 22- by 22-inch ports with floor support. The ports are spacious enough for medium-format cameras, although they will accommodate large-format camera systems.

For medical transport, the Grand Caravan can carry up to four gurneys for casualty evacuation or two patients on air-ambulance stretchers offered by a variety of manufacturers. Other available special-mission configurations allow parachute operations, training and float operations. With Wipline 8750 amphibious floats, the Grand Caravan EX’s maximum cruise speed drops to 164 from 185 knots and maximum range to 813 from 912 nm. Useful load with floats is 3,162 pounds, down 405 pounds from the nonfloat-equipped Caravan’s 3,567 pounds.

“The mission depends on the payload,” explained Robert Varriano, technical solutions manager for Textron Aviation. For ISR-type operations, the Grand Caravan can fly at loiter speeds for five to six hours. “It has a great useful load to be able to do that.” Medevac flights are typically shorter because the Caravan is not pressurized, so the range capability is more than sufficient.

With a full load of fuel—2,246 pounds—the Grand Caravan can carry a payload of 1,286 pounds. For an ISR or SAR mission, the Caravan can fly as slowly as 90 ktas at 2,000 feet while burning 290 pph. At higher altitudes, fuel consumption drops even lower, and loitering at 14,000 feet, the engine burns 240 pph while propelling the Caravan at 103 ktas. At these fuel consumption levels, loiter times of more than six hours at low altitude and almost eight hours at high altitude are possible, even allowing for a generous reserve.

The Grand Caravan’s flexibility shows in how little runway it needs (or water, typically 2,000 feet for a water takeoff). At sea level on a standard day, at the maximum takeoff weight of 8,807 pounds, the turboprop leaves the ground in just 1,355 feet, with 2,095 feet needed to clear a 50-foot obstacle. In more challenging conditions, 6,000 feet and ISA +20 degrees C, the Caravan’s ground roll is 2,765 feet and takeoff distance 4,395 feet. Taking off in the same conditions with 500 fewer pounds of payload (8,300 mtow) requires a ground roll of 2,355 feet and takeoff distance of 3,690 feet.

“The great thing about the Caravan,” said Varriano, “is that because of its multiple uses, most things are optional so if you’re cargo hauling and you don’t need to have a lot of equipment on board, you can make it as light as possible so you can maximize your cargo. But at the same time if you need to be in inclement weather or doing things that you need to have some more information, you can load up the airplane with all sorts of equipment.”