What pilot doesn’t like to play the “dream plane” game? If money were no object (or at least a lot less of an object than it normally is), what jaw-droppingly cool airplane would you stick in your hangar? I know, it’s hard to pick just one. So we pilots tend to get greedy when playing the game by picking a small fleet of airplanes optimized for our favorite missions. I mean, as long as you’re playing make-believe why not go for the gusto?
One guy who doesn’t have to play “What if?” for lack of resources is John Hendricks, founder and CEO of the Discovery Channel. His latest high-winged ride is the stuff of which aeronautical dreams are made.
Hendricks, who fell in love with the West when he was a kid, bought West Creek Ranch in Gateway, Colorado, some years back after his new ideas in cable TV programming paid off in grand fashion. The ranch is beyond spectacular. To the south and north red and yellow cliffs rise thousands of feet, and serpentine river canyons run throughout the lands, green bands of life flowing south and west. It’s a land, says Hendricks, that makes it inescapably clear that “you’re living on a real planet.” And a spectacular planet it is too, no matter which way you turn your head at West Creek.
Its beauty aside, the western range and plateau lands demand respect from pilots, and flying there can push man and machine to their limits, sometimes beyond. With its lofty heights-MEAs of 10,000 feet and higher are the norm-rugged terrain and fast moving weather (some of the most extreme in the lower 48, for sure), the canyon lands of western Colorado and eastern Utah hold risk in one hand and reward in the other. About three-quarters of the lower 48 terrain higher than 10,000 feet is in Colorado, which has more than 50 peaks 14,000 feet or higher, and summer thunderstorms and winter blizzards can move in fast, wreaking havoc with the best laid plans of the small-plane pilot. The mountainsides are littered with the broken shells of flying machines come to harm.
Yet this is where Hendricks learned to fly 10 years ago, going through the paces with Deanna Strand, owner and operator of Strand Aviation in Grand Junction. Strand, who grew up flying with her father in the Tetons, has been running her flight school for 20 years. She and the instructors who work for her specialize in teaching how to stay alive flying in the mountains, stressing the importance of respecting the limitations of the machine while understanding the special demands of the country.
Like many operators, when Hendricks went looking for an airplane, he came to the task with a very specific wish list. Topping that list was the need to safely get into and back out of the strip at West Creek. The thick and cushy bluegrass runway runs 2,600 feet, with a short approach from the east and a more leisurely departure path to the west through a comfortably wide-so long as the engine keeps running-valley toward Gateway, a tiny canyon land berg on the Dolores River.
As you might guess, his choices quickly narrowed to a couple of turboprop singles, the Pilatus PC12 and the Cessna Grand Caravan. Hendricks is not the first operator to noodle over that choice. While the PC12 is pressurized, a lot faster and very roomy, the non-pressurized Caravan is very spacious in its own right. Moreover, its large windows, high wing and ability to be happy flying slowly around and through the red rock canyons and dramatic spires of the area while carrying six or seven passengers in corporate comfort make it an ideal sightseeing airplane. It’s also an ideal platform for the 20-minute trip to and from Grand Junction (GJT) Airport, the airport where Hendricks hops on or hops off his NetJets Gulfstream G200.
Hendricks also planned to use his new airplane to commute from Grand Junction or West Creek Ranch to his ski retreat in Utah, roughly a 90-minute flight. While the Caravan doesn’t have ski tubes, it can be so outfitted, though when you have your own lodge, as Hendricks reminded me, you usually keep the skis there.
But the most unlikely part of the profile turned out to be one the Grand Caravan excels at, carrying Hendricks and his family from western Colorado to their home north of San Diego. The flight takes about three-and-a-half hours in the Caravan, which sounds like a lot compared with the G200, but Hendricks points out that it’s not a straight comparison. For starters, the trip from West Creek to Grand Junction (to hop aboard the G200) takes an hour or so by car. And on the other end, with the Gulfstream, Hendricks would be looking at going into much-less-convenient Lindbergh downtown instead of Montgomery Field to the north, which is much closer to Hendricks’ home. Being able to use Montgomery can cut as much as an hour off the total trip time. All told, the Caravan is actually a little faster door to door than the G200. (Obviously, the 270-knot PC12 would be a terrific airplane for regular jaunts to SoCal from Grand Junction.)
So the choice was made. A Caravan it was. Now, what to do with that Caravan.
An Oasis in Back
With more than 1,500 airplanes sold over the years, the big single-turboprop Caravan is a phenomenally successful airplane, but it’s only been in the past few years that Cessna realized the potential of the big PT-6-powered single as an executive transport. Through an STC arrangement with Cessna, Yingling Aviation, located across the field from the airplane maker at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport, installs custom executive interiors that rival those in many bizjets. Customers make their order for the interior directly with Cessna. Since 2003, Yingling has completed 38 Oasis Caravans for customers in several different countries in North America, Europe and Africa. The standard Oasis Interior adds about $250,000 to the cost of the Caravan.
The Oasis interior is clean and tasteful. Reclining top grain leather seats slide forward and side-to-side to maximize comfort and cabin space, and hi-gloss wood veneer cabinets, including a three-drawer refreshment center, give the look of luxury. Two folding writing tables, one on either side, with leather surfaces provide a solid work area. And there’s a belted potty seat (a nice feature for a 180-knot airplane with a nearly-1,000-nm range).
Hendricks’ airplane has a number of options, including, as you can see in the accompanying photographs, gold-plated hardware. There are vinyl runners to protect the carpet during ski season, plug-in LCDs for watching a DVD or catching up on the progress of the trip, and a Bose Aviation Headset X for each seat. The seats themselves are next-generation models, with a lower profile at the top and around the sides, which adds up to a more spacious looking and feeling cabin.
While the Oasis interior for the Grand Caravan can be outfitted with as many as 10 seats (including the two up front), Hendricks’ airplane has just eight total seats. The seat alongside the potty has been omitted in favor of a storage area, and one of the front-facing forward seats has been left out, too, to provide room for a couple of very important non-belted passengers, the Hendricks’ hounds, who are regular travelers in the 208B.
Other options not likely to be noticed by the passengers but appreciated by the pilot include leather-wrapped yokes, a two-channel Pulselite recognition kit, an exhaust deflector and single-point refueling for those quick turnarounds. What you don’t see is a cargo pod bolted to the bottom of the airplane. While a pod does provide a lot of extra cargo space, it’s hard to love the look. Hendricks early on decided he didn’t need the extra capacity and he hasn’t been sorry.
Of course the most noticeable feature of Hendricks’ tricked out high-country hauler is the paint. The striking black-and-red scheme-which is hands down the best looking 208B paint job I’ve seen-was done by West Star Aviation at Grand Junction, which has an extensive completions shop of its own.
Hendricks’ Caravan is unlike any other in the world, so it only follows that its panel should be something special, and it is. There is no factory PFD option for the airplane yet, though I’d wager that that situation will change soon, so Hendricks opted for the colorful and capable Chelton Flight Systems EFIS flat-panel LCDs for the left side. The dual “tube” system features head-up display-style symbology, a virtual 3-D presentation, TAWS and highway-in-the-sky fly-through boxes for guidance. There are loads of other instruments, including dual Garmin GNS530s, a Bendix/King autopilot and multifunction display and, perhaps most importantly, dual cup holders. Yingling was in charge of the avionics installation.
I hadn’t met Deanna yet, though we’d spoken on the phone several times. Still, I figured it was a pretty good bet that the purposefully striding woman with the Caravan keys in her hand was likely to be her, and I was right. It was just barely six a.m. as we headed across the West Star ramp to the unmistakable black-and-red behemoth waiting for us on the ramp. Deanna had already preflighted the airplane, so we climbed aboard, fired it up and taxied out for a little early morning aviating. It was cool out and we were light, so we gave back about 9,000 feet or so of the 10,500-foot Runway 11/29 had to offer and turned right toward the higher ground off to the south and then west.
As we headed toward the ranch over terrain onto which it would be impossible to gracefully deadstick in an 8,700-pound glider, the appeal of the famously reliable PT-6 became abundantly clear. There is the occasional logging road or rough cleared patch of ground, but that’s as good as it gets.
After we’d flown for 20 minutes or so, Deanna pointed out the ranch, which I didn’t see right off, and then the runway, which I saw right away. We descended to roughly pattern altitude and overflew the strip, checking out the new, larger sock as we went. Deanna told me that the west runway, the favored direction, often has a light tailwind even when the sock is limp. We made the tight turn in the canyon, and headed downwind. Onto base, you descend below a small ridge rising off the southeast end of the strip, and fly the outflow of the alluvial fans that lead conveniently to the runway end. We were a little fast over the ground on final-that little tailwind was indeed there that morning-and we touched down several hundred feet down the runway before Deanna gave the prop just a little touch of beta and we were stopped and backtaxiing with plenty of bluegrass to spare.
After photos, Deanna and I headed back to Grand Junction the long way in the Caravan, an airplane that many have said flies as easy as a 182. After flying the 208B a bit, I think that comparison does the Caravan a disservice. It may look big and boxy, but it’s not even remotely truck-like in its flying manners. It is, in short, one of the best flying airplanes I’ve ever had the chance to handle. With the Oasis treatment in back, it sure is comfy, but I’d never willingly give up a front row seat in this airplane for one without a yoke. Heading back to Grand Junction, we followed the Colorado upstream, flying low and enjoying the sights. What a blast.
When we got back to GJT, the Cherokee Six, a pretty good back-country airplane in its own right, was parked on the ramp at West Star near where Deanna dropped me off, and she complimented me on it. So to be polite I offered to trade airplanes with her, maybe not for good but at least for a couple of weeks. On behalf of her boss, she graciously declined the offer.
Oh well, maybe next dream.