In The Air: Cessna Grand Caravan EX

 - October 4, 2013, 2:50 AM
The $2.4 million Grand Caravan EX upgrades the venerable workhorse with an 867-shp PT6 and adds Garmin G1000 avionics and a Hartzell propeller with slightly rounded edges.

Ah, that new airplane smell.

Cessna demo pilot Rip Lee and I climb aboard the factory-fresh Grand Caravan EX and I glance over at the Hobbs meter: 4.3 hours total time. Airplanes don’t get much newer than this.

Cessna is selling the new, 867-shp version of its venerable Grand Caravan (675 shp) just as fast as it can build them, delivering 16 in the first quarter of this year alone, making it the company’s best-selling airplane for the period. “The production line is full,” a beaming Jodi Noah, Cessna vice president for single-engine aircraft, told an audience at this year’s EAA AirVenture. Noah said most of the aircraft sold so far were destined for the export market, to places like Africa and Russia, where the EX’s extra ponies help mitigate the absence of Western-standard runways and high/hot conditions.

Souped-up Grand Caravans are nothing new, but until now buyers had to go to the aftermarket to get one, from shops such as Blackhawk, Texas Turbines or Aero Twin. Last year Blackhawk received STC approval to replace the standard 675-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-114A with the more powerful 850-shp PT6A-42A. Aero Twin and Texas Turbines retrofit Grand Caravans with Honeywell TPE331s to achieve up to 950 shp. None of this comes cheap, with conversions costing as much as $750,000 when you factor in all the other equipment it necessitates, including new battery, propeller and pumps. Cessna decided to capture these dollars unto itself and blocked the aftermarket shops from obtaining Garmin G1000 avionics data associated with the 208B Grand Caravan.

Rather, it banked on the fact that customers would prefer aircraft equipped with the G1000 mated to a new P&WC PT6A-140 enveloped with a factory-fresh warranty. The EX was certified late last year.

It mates the engine to a new Hartzell propeller with somewhat rounder edges, new air induction intakes (nosegear cooling fairing), different flap settings, engine torque limiter and a new ease-of-maintenance features, including an easy-to-reach borescope port.

Previously, the nosegear cooling fairing on the 208B was available only with the 300-amp electrical option. It is now standard on the EX. Pilots used to have the choice of three flap settings on the 208B–10, 20 and 30 degrees. Now there are only two: takeoff (about 20 degrees) and landing (30 degrees). The torque limiter is a new addition for the EX. It limits torque to 2,500 foot-pounds and varies the level of toque with outside conditions such as temperature and pressure. It is not a Fadec or an EEC system and the pilot is still responsible for making the proper power settings.

As Lee and I are about to discover, the new engine delivers a 40-percent increase in the rate of climb, about 10 knots of additional speed, and a somewhat better specific fuel consumption from a more efficient compressor. While the new engine has a standard TBO of 3,600 hours, that can be increased to 6,000 hours or 12 years for specific conditions with FAR Part 121/135 operators. At 9,000 feet, Lee said he saw an average fuel burn of 390 pph at 180 knots. That’s only a few gallons more than the burn on the old 675-shp Grand Caravan and it buys you a lot. However, all that extra power means you also need to manage trim and approach speeds more carefully in the EX. Even in a leisurely descent, you can easily spank the barber pole.

Taking to the Air

As Lee and I taxi out of the mosh pit-like ramp at Oshkosh, I momentarily think about asking him to demonstrate a high-performance takeoff, but then realize the pink shirts in the tower are going to give us one anyway. The Notam governing operations during the week of AirVenture is diametrically opposed to the FARs. Lightly loaded with only three souls aboard, we rotate off in less than 1,000 feet, a little bit better than the 350-foot reduction in takeoff roll Cessna predicts for the EX; later on, we’ll be able to do a landing worthy of a carrier trap, stopping in less than 500 feet.

On climb-out, Lee engages the yaw damper, stays busy on the trim, and we speedily climb to 7,500 msl at 1,300 fpm and 115 knots. Once you push the nose over, speed builds quickly and we’re at 179 knots burning 416 pph with an OAT of about 12 degrees C. The Taws alerts us to the radio towers next the state prison and the Tcas picks up Team Aeroshell practicing in their T-6s over Lake Winnebago. We don’t need it on this July day, but in winter the 20-gallon TKS system could dispatch all but the most severe icing via its windshield nozzle and prop slinger. At minimum dispatch level of 11.7 gallons, the TKS system can provide protection for three hours and 45 minutes at normal settings and about 45 minutes in extreme conditions, Lee advises. Still, flight into icing in the EX is prohibited if an airspeed of 120 knots cannot be maintained. Unfortunately, the aircraft’s otherwise attractive panel is littered with other lawyer-driven missives, including “Do not take off with frost or snow on the aircraft.”

Despite this defacement, the three-screen Garmin panel is attractive and functional, part of a refreshed cockpit with plenty of shelf space for carry-on electronics and beverages. In back, the EX can be outfitted with the optional Oasis executive interior as in previous 208Bs. These posher interiors can add considerable weight–up to 600 pounds–over the commuter layout and pump up the price by $300,000. Our airplane has the standard nine-seat commuter layout and both the seats and quality of materials for this option have been greatly improved for the EX. Posh, no. Comfy, yes.

The extra engine power also means that, for the first time, a from-the-factory Grand Caravan can be equipped with amphibious floats. Wipaire expects to sell ten sets of its new $430,000 Wipline 8750s for the EX this year. The new floats have an improved main gear retraction mechanism, new oleo design, and an improved hull for better handling in rough water. Wipaire can also provide custom painting and interior installations.

Typically equipped, a wheeled Grand Caravan EX costs approximately $2.4 million. For that you get more performance and features in an airplane that remains true to its heritage for ruggedness and simplicity, qualities that will continue to serve its customers well, especially in less-developed markets.