Last year at AirVenture, Cessna rolled out its latest Caravan, and it is the most powerful Cessna-built 208 yet. The new model will maintain its 208B designation, but it will give operators a great deal more power, thanks to a new Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine — the PT6-140 — which Pratt developed expressly for the EX. After a quick certification test program, Cessna earned FAA approval for the big bird early in the new year (2013). We recently had the opportunity to fly the EX out of Cessna’s flight-test facility in Wichita, Kansas, and got to see just how much good the new engine does for the airplane, the airframe of which is essentially unchanged from the previous model.
The Caravan formula is legendary, and for good reason. Customers keep lining up for it because the airplane makes them money. With the Caravan, you get the brawn of a PT6, the economy of a single-engine airplane, the ruggedness of a Super Cub and the simplicity of a 185, all rolled into one gargantuan utility machine that can hold a prodigious combination of cargo and passengers.
The Caravan is unpressurized — it’s not about raw speed, for which you need to fly high. Rather, it’s about good speed, with great performance in every other area. It’s not that you can’t fly the Caravan at high altitude — you can; its ceiling is 25,000 feet — but it isn’t made for it. The airplane is used mostly for trips that are just a few hundred miles, and its ability to dispatch quickly compensates for its modest speed on most missions. It more than makes up for it on trips that originate from a small airport instead of a big, busy one, allowing easier access for package companies and close-in delivery at the destination. FedEx has operated hundreds of Caravans over the years for just this purpose.
While the new model boasts numerous enhancements to the Garmin G1000 avionics suite, the interior and the ice protection system, the EX is really all about the engine, a model that Pratt & Whitney developed by working hand in hand with Cessna. The goal was to create an engine that not only put out a lot more power — nearly 200 extra shaft horsepower, compared to the original Grand Caravan — but that could also make use of the original engine mount and cowling. Consequently, the EX looks nearly identical to the previous model. The fuselage, wing, window arrangement and landing gear are all identical or nearly identical; the only real change is the prop, which is a slightly modified version of the same Hartzell metal prop used before.
The healthy addition of power does wonders for the 208B, including giving it sufficient power for amphibious floats (for the first time on a production Caravan). At least one float maker, Wipaire, is working on the STC for amphibious floats for the EX.
The new engine brings a lot more power, and this does good things all around for the Caravan. This is no surprise, as higher-power Caravan engine mod packages have been around for some time, clearly proving the point that more power brings better runway performance and a much greater rate of climb while costing just a bit in fuel efficiency. With the EX, the increase in power is nearly 20 percent, and the attendant improvements in rate of climb, takeoff distance and cruise airspeed are true to form, around 20 percent or better.
Arguably the most noteworthy enhancement is the Caravan’s improved climb rate, which has increased very substantially from just under 1,000 fpm to over 1,300 fpm. While there is a slight increase in maximum takeoff weight due to the approximately 60 pounds the new engine adds to the airplane, the payload is identical. While this might seem like a wasted opportunity, it is anything but. With its greatly improved performance, the EX will allow operators doing business in hot, high or otherwise challenging environments to carry much larger payloads while maintaining required dispatch margins. This means that charter operators will be able to depart from mountainous airports in the summertime without leaving off a lot of fuel, which will allow them to fly flights they otherwise couldn’t while also eliminating fuel stops on some longer trips.
The previous Grand Caravan needed almost 2,500 feet of runway to take off at max weight. The EX needs just over 2,100 feet to clear a 50-foot-tall obstacle, an improvement of around 20 percent. Landing speeds are nearly identical, though in beta the prop (the same size — 106 inches — as on the previous airplane) does get you slowed down noticeably faster, as there’s more power to put into getting stopped. Make sure your seat belts are snug.
Improved takeoff and climb performance will matter most to backcountry operators and also to float operators, to whom increased performance means so much more than it does to landplane drivers, as water takeoffs on isolated lakes surrounded by terrain are every bit as exciting as they sound. More power equals greater margins and peace of mind. As far as the speed is concerned, it also means quicker trips to close-in destinations, which are key missions for the Caravan.
For the past several years, a number of engine-retrofit suppliers made a good living putting more powerful engines in the Cessna Caravan. While that business will doubtless continue, Cessna’s introduction of a higher-powered Grand will change the competitive landscape and prompt some operators to buy a new Caravan instead of retrofitting an existing airplane with a larger aftermarket engine. The fact that only Cessna can work with airplanes outfitted with the G1000 cockpit, which has been standard since 2008, gives Cessna additional clout.
And with the cost of the EX set around $150,000 more than the original Grand, there will be some strong arguments to be made that if you need a higher-powered Caravan for what you do, a new EX is the way to go. The aftermarket engine mod shops, from Blackhawk to Texas Turbines, will likely continue to see good business as their value proposition in remaking existing Caravans with run-out engines into like-new Caravans with boatloads of power remains strong. That said, the cost-benefit analysis has shifted, with Cessna’s new higher-powered Caravan becoming a player in the argument.
Another factor is increased payload, though the Caravan’s payload was already so great that many operators were already running out of space before they ran out of weight — a nearly unheard-of issue for owners of small airplanes. The useful load is 3,737 pounds and the full-fuel payload (fill the tanks and this is what you have left) is 1,491 pounds.
Range is slightly lower on the EX, but full tanks will get you 832 no-wind nautical miles down the road. So, it’s unusual to have to top them off. On a typical 90-minute to two-hour flight, you can carry an airplane full of passengers and a lot of bags. Some operators will occasionally use the EX for longer flights than that, but it’s not a jet.
The slow speed of the Caravan, when compared to faster, pressurized turboprop singles and light jets, has always been the biggest built-in tradeoff for the airplane’s native strengths of great lifting power and ample space. However, the EX is the fastest Caravan yet. With a true airspeed of right around 195 knots, the EX is about 15 knots faster than its predecessor. With the big cargo pod below, that top speed drops by as much as 10 knots, but it’s still up to 15 knots better than the previous Grand with the pod. Bottom line: The EX is significantly faster than last year’s model.
This means that the Caravan EX is a much better approximation of a transportation airplane than ever before. And realistically speaking, when you’re looking at a 150 nm flight, the difference between a light jet and a fast-enough turboprop like the Grand Caravan EX is minimal, while the cost savings are potentially great. Moreover, the size of the EX interior puts the cabins of most light jets to shame. On longer trips, the greater speeds and higher ceilings of light jets obviate most of the Caravan’s advantages. From Boston to Teterboro, the 208B makes sense. From Boston to Atlanta? Well, not so much.
I had the pleasure of flying the EX with Cessna flight test engineer Bob Rice, who was the flight test engineer for the original Caravan back in 1982. It was an exceptionally hot day, with an inversion layer that kept the temps sky high. While it was just Bob and me in the airplane, over 1,000 pounds of test equipment in the back made us heavy. Glancing back at the rows of big black and orange boxes wired up to collect every imaginable kind of data, I knew there was no way my flying would escape close scrutiny. We were loaded up pretty good, within a few hundred pounds of max weight. In the case of the Caravan EX, there was no cause for concern. It is a beast.
At the same time, the Caravan is a pussycat to fly. Bob helped me through the start sequence using the Garmin G1000, which has been extensively customized to work with the new PT6 in the EX. Until you get used to the procedures for firing up a turbine engine, starting the Caravan might just be the hardest part of operating the airplane. Despite the gobs of power available, the EX flies like any other Caravan, albeit with more capability.
**INSIDER INFORMATION **
The interior of our factory test bird was unfinished, but the completed article is gorgeous. The airplane photographed for this story was outfitted with the executive interior, dubbed the Oasis interior. It has become the bestseller for Cessna, which, like other airplane companies, has found that buyers will more often than not opt for the very best. The Oasis is just that, with comfortable and highly adjustable seats available in soft leathers. There are great fabrics, a lot of natural lighting, LED illumination for when it gets dark, and available air conditioning. It’s also quiet, with noise levels in the back comparable to or quieter than you’d find in a light jet. Part of the reason for that is the prop is turning at 1,900 rpm.
Taxiing in the Caravan EX is easy, though you do need to be mindful of the tremendous wingspan of the bird — 53 feet — when maneuvering around other airplanes. You sit really high in the Caravan, and at the same time, it’s easy to get into and back out of tight spots — like on Cessna’s development ramp — with a combination of nosewheel steering and differential braking.
Taking off from Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport (KICT), the temps were scorching, but the EX didn’t seem to care. Rolling in the power, we were off in less than 1,500 feet. The EX’s ability to perform under hot and high conditions is one of its main selling points, and it’s an important one. While we were certainly hot that day — with temperatures higher than 105 degrees on the ramp — we weren’t very high (KICT is just under 1,400 feet elevation). But in the mountains, when it’s hot, the addition of power will work like a charm to give operators the kinds of performance and margins they need to get medical supplies to villages in Ecuador, to zip out of short dirt strips in the Australian outback when it’s 104 degrees F in the shade, or to touch gear on the dirt on Martha’s Vineyard with a load of beach goers on a sunny summer day. Power works wonders.
On our two-hour test flight, Bob and I toured some short-field Kansas destinations, and the lesson was pretty much the same at all of them: The Grand Caravan EX is a Caravan. Speeds in the pattern and on departure are close to the speeds on previous models — in fact, they’re not much different from speeds in the company’s piston hauler 206 Stationair.
At cruise in the mid-teens, it was still really hot — 79 degrees F at 6,500 feet — but we were able to hit 180 knots true at near max continuous cruise while burning just over 400 pounds of jet-A per hour. Our airplane was equipped with the big pod, so it was already faster than previous Caravans with a pod. Without the pod, you’d be looking at 10 to 15 knots of additional speed.
Heading back into Wichita to land, the approach controller asked us to keep up our speed to follow light jet traffic. So we did, maintaining 150 knots indicated until a short left base to 19L. With full flaps and that big prop providing a huge spinning speed brake up front, we were able to slow to landing speed and touch down on the numbers, getting stopped in less than 1,500 feet. The airplane’s ability to do just what you ask it to is remarkable but will come as no surprise to longtime Caravan fliers.
The only difference with the EX is you do have something extra — about 200 shp of extra power, that is. This infusion of Pratt & Whitney goodness gives EX operators better takeoff and landing numbers, better hot-and-high performance, better rates of climb and better cruise airspeeds, all with the Caravan’s legendary easy flying manners.
Cessna is already delivering the Caravan EX, and it has started a joint effort to produce the model in China, solely for the Chinese market.