Winnebago On The Water: Cessna Caravan on floats an all-terain RV
by Thomas Haines, AOPA – This article has been republished with permission of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Anyone else flying by might think the slash in the dirt is just a dusty path in the canyon, but it’s a target for Wally Fisk as he wracks the Cessna Caravan on floats around and lines up for the mile-high strip. “Uphill, on a sideslope, with a dogleg in a box canyon,” is how he describes the runway on his ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “I probably have more landings on that runway than any other in the Caravan,” he recalls. “It’s a great backcountry airplane.”
A floatplane in the Black Hills, miles from any lake? “It’s quite a juxtaposition,” he says with a laugh.
The oddest places
You hear that a lot among owners of amphibious Caravans, the floatplane showing up in the oddest places. The floats that cause the already big single-engine turboprop to tower over others on the ramp are there to add to the utility, not focus operations on water. Fisk and several other owners take their ultimate recreational vehicles everywhere—land and sea, often piled high with gear and game.
At his ranch, Fisk pulls a tractor with a lift up next to the Caravan’s double cargo doors on the left side and slides out his two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which seem to accompany him everywhere—except those trips where he takes four dirt bikes instead, for off-road experience. That suggests the Baja Peninsula in Mexico where he and friends and family go from time to time, stopping at dirt strips along the way, unloading the bikes and checking out the local sights. Hours or days later they return to the big Cessna, load up, and move on.
Like a Winnebago towing a trailer, the Caravan is a family fun machine with loads of versatility. Few who use them recreationally install fancy executive interiors. Instead, they preserve the payload for people and gear, often removing seats to accommodate moose, fish, kayaks, or whatever you might need for the next adventure. The standard interior includes two pilot seats and eight passenger seats—usually three bench seats for two down the right side, and two single seats opposite on the left side, but there are many configurations available. Few recreational users have all the seats in at once. With one bench seat out, the back becomes a cavernous area for carrying gear. In addition, the floats each contain large storage lockers capable of carrying 300 pounds of stuff.
“Everybody feels safe in it,” Fisk says. “It’s fairly quiet, air conditioned, bright and airy.” Even people nervous about flying seem to get comfortable in the Caravan. “In the Caribbean, we always land on runways to avoid the salt water, but with the floats, it’s a great confidence builder for passengers. You know you have options.”
Fisk made the move from a de Havilland Beaver on floats to the Caravan when he became uncomfortable taking the smaller airplane out of a small lake located next to a cabin he owned in Wisconsin. “The Beaver will get off the water quicker than a Caravan, but it won’t climb. The Caravan uses a bit more water, but it really climbs.”
Fisk’s hangar neighbor at Anoka County-Blaine Airport in Minnesota, Jim Fox, agrees. Fox takes his Caravan into and out of small lakes in Canada frequently, and remote runways as well. “It’s a great bush plane. You can get it into about any runway,” he reports. Sitting on a pair of Wipaire’s Wipline 8000 amphibious floats and with the usual Wipaire gross weight increase, maximum weight tops out at 8,360 pounds. Under maximum conditions, it can land over a 50-foot tree in less than 2,000 feet; a landing lane of less than 1,100 feet with clear approaches will do just fine; reverse thrust on the prop shortens those distances.
Fox’s 1992 model was once owned by Sam Johnson of S.C. Johnson, the company that makes the cleaning products. Fox has owned it five years and considered buying a TBM 700 turboprop first. “But then I looked at my missions and realized how much I fly to lakes,” he says, noting his cabin on an Ontario lake. He also owns an Extra 300, a V-tail Bonanza, and a Cessna 185 on amphibious floats or wheel skis, depending on the season. “I use all four regularly,” he reports, with the Caravan mostly a family hauler. He takes it from his Minnesota home base to visit family in Phoenix, Arizona, for example. “No regrets buying that airplane. It’s very stable, a fun stick-and-rudder airplane. It can do a lot.”
Farther down the ramp at Anoka, mutual buddy David Reynolds owns an amphibious Caravan with a pedigree. It was once owned by singer, songwriter, and author Jimmy Buffet and still sports the parrot head on the tail. “Our bird was the star attraction one night when we were at a club in St. Croix,” Reynolds reports, “with couples lined up paying to have their picture taken with her, with the parrot on the tail. We donated the money to charity.” The trip was just one of many memorable ones for him and his family. From the Dominican Republic to Churchill, Manitoba, to see the polar bears, the decade-long relationship between family and airplane has spanned the continent. “The Oshkosh seaplane base is an easy day trip during the show,” he says. “You can put a whole bunch of stuff in it and get 150 knots. You can actually go someplace in it.” Most smaller seaplanes are more for knocking about the neighborhood.
Reynolds admits the airplane causes quite a spectacle. “When you land an amphibious Caravan and walk away, you look back and it’s the coolest one on the ramp. There is a certain pride in ownership. It’s the one that everyone stops to look at. It’s a pretty special deal.”
Indeed! A bicyclist recently did a double-take at an amphibious Caravan tied down on the AOPA ramp in Maryland. He swung his bike around and pedaled up on the ramp for a look, gawking up at the giant bird—the top of the floats chest-high, the tail more than 17 feet tall. An average person can walk around underneath the fuselage. Toeholds on the outside of each hull allow one to climb up on the floats and then there are ladders to climb into the cabin. Each pilot has a door. There’s a passenger door on the aft right side and the double cargo doors on the left side. Six big windows down each side give everyone a good view. The pilots sit forward of the struts and the wing, providing visibility all around. One can’t help but smile at the wooden paddle strapped to the inside of the float, wondering just how helpful that would be in maneuvering the beast on the water.
Start-up is Pratt & Whitney simple: Battery and fuel boost on, hit the Start switch, and slip the fuel condition lever into Low Idle when the gas generator (NG) speed passes 15 percent. At 52 percent NG, flip the starter off and you’re ready to go. Taxiing on land requires a bit of finesse, as the two nose gear are castoring. Tap brake and rudder to start the turn and opposite to stop it. On water, the reverse thrust of the three-blade prop means you can stop and, if you’re game, even back it up—the envy of other seaplane pilots who are always moving when the engine is running.
In the air, the big Cessna handles like a, well, big Cessna. One challenge is the site picture on landing, as your seat bottom is some seven feet off the ground. If you’re used to the picture from a 182 and you think it’s time to flare, it’s probably too late. Most amphibious models are equipped with a gear warning system that alerts “gear up for water landing” when configured for landing and no gear extended—or vice versa.
The pilots we talked to flight plan for 145 to 150 knots, even though Cessna says the amphibious model will cruise at 162. Plan on the 675-shaft-horsepower turboprop burning 400 pounds per hour of fuel—about 58 gallons. Fisk says he burns about 380 pounds per hour but notes the math is easier at 400, and then he’s not surprised. You can get the fuel burn much lower by going high, but people who own floatplanes generally prefer sightseeing altitudes to cruise altitudes. Most report 5,500 feet as a typical cruise altitude, and 1,000 or lower when conditions permit.
With 332 gallons of usable fuel, endurance can stretch more than six hours—great for some back-country missions. However, most prefer to trade some of those hours for payload, adding to the usual full-fuel payload of just less than 1,000 pounds for older models without deicing systems or radar.
Corrosion is a key consideration for anyone looking at a Caravan. Airplanes used on salt water must be fanatically cleaned and cared for to slow down corrosion. Fox advises finding a shop that will be fair. Because the Caravan is sometimes used in commercial service, shops want to maintain it like an airliner. “Stay involved,” he recommends, or expect bills that might better suit a passenger-carrying, pressurized airplane.
Amphibious Caravan owners seem to agree that for those looking for efficient, high-speed transportation from paved runway to paved runway, there are better choices. But when the mission includes a variety of landing surfaces, friends, and family—and the pilot has a nose for adventure—the strut-festooned amphib is the go-to choice.
CESSNA 208 CARAVAN AMPHIBIAN
Base Price: 1998 model approx. $1.2 million to $1.9 million
Powerplant | Pratt & Whitney PT6A-114A, 675 shp at 1,900 rpm
Recommended TBO | 3,500 hr
Propeller | McCauley three- blade, 106-inch diameter
Length | 38 ft 11 in
Height | 18 ft 2 in
Wingspan | 52 ft
Wing area | 279.4 sq ft
Wing loading | 29.9 lb/sq ft
Power loading | 12.38 lb/hp
Seats | 10
Cabin length | 17 ft 4 in
Cabin width | 5 ft 2 in
Cabin height | 4 ft 3 in
Empty weight (varies) | 5,200 lb
Max gross weight (with Wipaire upgrade) | 8,360 lb
Useful load | 3,160 lb
Payload w/full fuel | 902 lb
Max takeoff weight | 8,360 lb
Fuel capacity, std | 335.6 gal (332 gal usable) 2,282 lb (2,258 lb usable)
Oil capacity | 14 qt
Cabin capacity | 254 cu ft
Float baggage holds | 300 lb, 23 cu ft
Takeoff distance, land | 1,101 ft
Takeoff distance over 50-ft obstacle, land | 2,102 ft
Takeoff distance, water | 1,919 ft
Takeoff distance over 50-ft obstacle, water | 3,015 ft
Rate of climb, sea level | 1,110 fpm
Cruise speed/range w/45-min rsv, std fuel (fuel consumption) @ max cruise, 10,000 ft | 162 kt/790 nm (355 pph/53 gph)
Max operating altitude | 20,000 ft
Landing distance over 50-ft obstacle | 1,935 ft
Landing distance, water | 1,045 ft
Limiting and recommended airspeeds
VX (best angle of climb) | 90 KIAS
VY (best rate of climb) | 107 KIAS
VA (design maneuvering) | 150 KIAS
VFE (max flap extended) | 175 KIAS
VLE (max gear extended) | 175 KIAS
VLO (max gear operating)
Extend | 175 KIAS
Retract | 175 KIAS
VMO (max operating) | 175 KIAS
VS1 (stall, clean) | 75 KIAS
VSO (stall, in landing configuration) | 59 KIAS
Extra: Yep, the tail of an amphibious Caravan is taller than a tractor-trailer.
All specifications are based on manufacturer’s calculations. All performance figures are based on standard day, standard atmosphere, sea level, gross weight conditions unless otherwise noted.
In 2013, Cessna introduced the amphibious Grand Caravan EX, the first time the longer 208B was available on floats. The EX sports an 875-shaft-horsepower PT6 and sits on a set of larger Wipline 8750 amphibious floats, which are now standard on new 208s as well—replacing the Wipline 8000s. With the new floats, maximum takeoff weight jumps to 8,750 pounds. Expect to pay about $450,000 for the new floats, including installation by Wipaire. —TBH