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.