AUGUST 2010 The more you think about it, the more the economics of the Cessna 206 make sense. Unlike some of the airplanes, such as Otters and Caravans, that ply the same missions as the 206 does, the Stationair is a true light airplane. It is powered not by a turboprop but by a conventional six-cylinder piston engine. Yet it's remarkably capable. If you leave out some fuel, it can carry six adults, counting the pilot, and if you leave off some more fuel, it can carry a goodly amount of bags on top of that.
That's the story of the 206, getting things done and making money in the process. Whether carrying commuters from Seattle to the islands, hauling fish in Alaska, transporting patients in the Outback of Australia or delivering food and medical supplies to indigenous people in the mountains of Ecuador, the 206 is a utility airplane in the true sense of the word. It's not an overstatement to say that it is still in production solely because of its utility. Like any smart company today, Cessna is not in the business of building products for which there's not a demand. The 206 earns its keep.
I got the chance recently not to simulate how an airplane gets used but to actually use it that way. In this case, the 206 story coincided with my need to make a trip out to Tempe, Arizona, 1,000 statute miles from Austin, Texas, to pick up my son from college. Austin to Phoenix in the summer is a brutal drive, five days counting packing and loading. And because I had to help my son pack and move all of his dorm room furnishings, some of which were quite bulky, my Turbo Cirrus wasn't much better of an option than my station wagon was.
On the other hand, the Turbo 206, with its big rear double doors and capacious cargo area, would be perfect for the mission.
I called fellow central Texas resident Chris Lee of Cessna and asked what the chances were of getting a Stationair for the trip. I was thrilled to learn that he could, in fact, get his hands on a new T206 with the Garmin G1000 integrated avionics package.
A History of Hard Work
Utility has been at the heart of the 206 story since it was born nearly 50 years ago.
Actually, "born" is an oversimplification. The beginning was complicated. The 206 was the end result of Cessna's attempt, with some false starts, to have a wide-ranging product line that gave every kind of light-airplane pilot a Cessna to love.
The airplane, which started life as the U206, U standing for utility, never attracted a wide audience as a personal airplane. The faster 210 had a solid hold on that market. The 206, on the other hand, offered a little more room, a little more power and a better useful load compared with the 182. And the 206 cost less to buy and maintain than the 210.
Over the years, there were surprisingly few versions. There was, of course, a turbocharged 206, one with a different door configuration and even a couple of stretched spinoffs, the seven-seat and eight-seat 207 models.
The 206, like nearly all Cessna piston singles, was equipped with Continental six-cylinder engines throughout most of its production life. The naturally aspirated model was equipped with the Continental IO-520A, and the Turbo model featured the TSIO-520-C, which was rated at 300 hp. Unlike with some Cessna models, the turbo version of the 206 was available nearly from the start.
Cessna built almost 6,000 206s from 1964 up until the company halted its piston production in 1986, an impressive figure considering that during that time Cessna built tens of thousands of airplanes that competed for customers with the 206.
Then and now, many 206s were operated by small air-taxi companies. My family's FBO, as a matter of fact, operated a 206 for years on a Part 135 certificate ferrying workers out to Catalina Island off the southern California coast. It was an airplane that truly did just about everything you could reasonably ask of it while asking for very little in return.
That much has not changed with today's 206.
When it became clear that Cessna was going to restart production of its piston lineup some 15 years ago, there was much talk about which airplanes would be revived and which would be left to history as Cessna modernized its airplanes and streamlined production. The 206 was a surprise winner of that process, one of only three piston models to make the cut.
Casual observers often incorrectly state the level of improvement to the Cessna lineup that took place when the company relaunched production. The new 206, like the 172 and 182, was certified under Part 23, a far more stringent set of standards than the old Car 3, under which the original airplanes had been approved.
The 206 has been upgraded in literally dozens of ways. There are better seats, better belts, improved ventilation, nicer upholstery — which, as you know if you've ever owned an old Cessna, is a big deal — more reliable fuel systems, more redundant electrical systems, tougher paint and much more. Today's Cessna piston singles are simply built to be tougher, safer and more durable than the great old airplanes they succeeded.
One of the biggest changes is the new power plant — well, after 12 years of production, I guess we should stop calling it new. The Lycoming TIO-540-AJ1A in the Turbo produces 310 hp loafing along at its maximum rated prop rpm of 2,400. There are a few good things about a slow-turning prop. In fact, creating airplanes that were quieter was a prime goal for Cessna from the day it began to plan its re-entry into the piston marketplace. The big Lyc helps a lot with noise, and the three-blade McCauley constant-speed prop helps keep things quieter too, especially around the airport.
Because I usually fly by myself or with one other person, I don't often do weight and balance calculations. But in the case of this flight, both Chris and I did a number of them to make sure we were within limits. Let me say that the trip from Austin to Phoenix looked easy. The trip back, with an extra passenger and a couple of hundred pounds of computers, textbooks, clothes and assorted other stuff, including a mini fridge, would be a challenge. It would not be a challenge for most small single-engine airplanes. It would be impossible.
The route is right around 800 nm on the airways. In most light airplanes, including the 206, this necessitates a stop. And with the 40 knots of headwind that was forecast (accurately, we would learn) to be on the nose from the west, few light airplanes could make it nonstop. For us, setting down in the west Texas town of El Paso for fuel was a good plan.
As those of you who have flown through Texas know, as you fly west, the terrain rises as the west Texas plains become the trailing end of the Rockies. It's here where a turbocharged airplane shines, especially in the summer, where very high temperatures pair with high altitudes to rob any airplane of a goodly percentage of its aerodynamic and thermodynamic performance. At least with a turbocharged engine, you can fight one of those enemies.
Managing the turbo in the 206 was easy enough. Garmin created a round-dial gauge presentation for the manifold pressure and tachometer with easy-to-see-and-interpret green, white and red arcs. The engine temp gauges are, likewise, easy to keep track of. Even operating on a couple of very hot days, it was easy to keep the temps within range. The cowl flaps, which I'm still not used to using as part of the engine management routine, help tremendously in that regard.
The flight out to Phoenix with just Chris and me was easy, if rather uncomfortable, though through no fault of the airplane. Four hours in moderate chop will get to most people, and by the time we made El Paso, Chris and I were both a little green.
We flew out at 10,000 feet, which was a compromise altitude. We got higher true airspeeds than if we'd stayed lower, and the wind wasn't howling quite as badly at 10,000 as it was at 14,000. At 10,000 we were consistently seeing right around 160 knots true at 30 inches and 2,400 rpm burning between 17 and 18 gph. The top speed of the airplane is said to be 178 knots at 17,000 feet, an altitude where the wind was nearly 100 knots with a headwind component of around 70 knots. We were happy at 10.
The roomy interior of the 206 is beautiful, with attractive headliner and carpeting and big, upholstered, cushy leather seats — the seats also happen to be incredibly strong, meeting the FAA's 26G crashworthiness standard enacted only after the original Stationair was out of production.
The panel is also gorgeous, something that's easy to forget after seeing so many G1000 and G1000-based panels. I've lost track of how many G1000 models I've flown, around 20 or so, and what strikes me about the panel is its suitability to every platform. The G1000 is just as much at home in the Cessna 206 as it is in the Cessna Mustang.
Hot, High and Heavy
For the flight back, as I said, Chris and I spent a lot of time crunching numbers, seeing just how much weight we could bring and where we'd have to put it.
Before we left Austin, Chris removed the rearmost two seats, a job he gave himself half an hour to complete and needed just five minutes, thanks to the quick-release mechanisms Cessna cleverly installed realizing that many folks, like us, would need more space for stuff than for people.
The big selling point of the Stationair, in addition to the six seats, of course, is the big double door in back. I'll let the accompanying photographs tell the major portion of the story, but suffice it to say that, when you're trying to load bulky items, the doors are nothing short of a godsend, and Cessna has cleverly engineered a safety measure to keep the flaps from being extended full when the back door is open, to keep them from being damaged.
Both Chris and I thought that in order to make weight, we'd have to leave off fuel, which would require us to make two fuel stops on the way back. In addition to three grown people, our baggage load was around 170 pounds. Happily, when we took a final look, we realized that we could top off the tanks — the max takeoff weight is 3,600 pounds — and likely make El Paso and then Austin nonstop.
As luck would have it, we had another headwind, albeit very light, on the way back, though the air wasn't quite as choppy as it was on the trip west. We flew at 11,000 feet, which, based on the reports we were hearing of turbulence and winds aloft, was an ideal altitude. The airplane was packed, but it handled very similarly to when it was light, as Chris told me it would.
I found that out coming into El Paso when the tower controller cleared us to land on Runway 08 when we were a couple of hundred feet agl on short final for Runway 22. The go-around to a left base was easy, with the 206's controls being nicely harmonized and only mildly trucklike. The one caveat: You learn to use the elevator trim. And like many 206 drivers, I prefer the old-fashioned manual triwheel to the electric trim. It's faster and gives you better feedback.
An hour later we were heading out of El Paso, elevation 4,000 feet, temperature nearly 100 degrees, filled with 100LL and all the stuff we'd previously packed in there. As you might have guessed, we used a lot of runway and the airplane didn't climb in a spectacular fashion, but it did climb steadily. Before too long we were at 11,000 feet, enjoying the much cooler air and heading home.
As evening approached and we were nearing Austin, we ran into an area of buildups. We dodged them using the XM Weather to get the big picture, which we confirmed with our eyeballs and Center's weather. We got a little wet, no worse. I find it interesting that the fancy glass G1000, which was anathema to back-country pilots early on and which is wildly embraced by them now, clearly adds not to the 206's glamour but to its utility.
In the end, the trip was a huge success. During the course of 12 hours in the air, I got to see the Cessna 206 do what it does best: haul a bulky load long distances and, when necessary, at high altitudes.
And these days, it does it in high style too.