AIN Special Reports

Pilot Report: Grand Caravan EX

 - October 7, 2017, 11:01 AM
(Photo: Matt Thurber)

The Cessna Caravan has been in production since 1984, and earlier this year I had my first opportunity to fly the single-engine utility turboprop from Textron Aviation’s private airport—Beech Factory Airport—in Wichita.

My demo pilot was Terry Allenbaugh, the perfect pilot to show me the Caravan’s capabilities. During his early flying career, Allenbaugh flew one of the first Caravans, Serial Number 8, for Mission Aviation Fellowship in Ethiopia. Although he has flown all the Citations and King Airs, Allenbaugh returned to flying the Caravan as a sales demonstration pilot two years ago, and he is an enthusiastic proponent of the big single-engine turboprop.

While it’s common to be told the Caravan “flies just like a heavy 172,” the airplane is not simply a stretched and beefed-up version of any Cessna single. The configuration may be similar—there aren’t many options when it comes to designing a tricycle-gear single-engine turboprop for rough-field operations—but the Caravan employs many features found on larger airplanes.

The strut-braced wing has massive flaps that extend to 70 percent of each wing’s length. Spoilers mounted inboard of the ailerons improve low-speed handling. Elevator trim tabs have dual actuators. A pressure fuel system is optional and typically installed on float-equipped Caravans. The pressure port is mounted on the cargo pod near the left landing gear leg, and it is far easier to use that for refueling than to try to climb onto the wing to reach the fuel caps.

The EX’s 867-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-140 has a 65-amp backup alternator for the standard 200-amp starter-generator. A 300-amp starter-generator is optional, as is air-conditioning. This Caravan is equipped with the optional four-blade Hartzell propeller; both the three- and four-blade props are reversible, helping to shorten ground roll by about 10 percent. When the prop is feathered, it nearly doubles the Caravan’s glide ratio, to 13:1 from 7:1, according to Allenbaugh.

This Caravan is fitted with optional larger tires with more plies and lower tire pressure for unimproved airfields. The nose gear might look like a typical single-engine Cessna air-oil strut, but the majority of the shock absorbing is handled by the spring steel nose gear, another nod to the airplane’s rough-field capabilities.

Caravans are approved for flight into known icing when equipped with the TKS ice-protection system. The TKS tank holds 20 gallons and provides 3.5 hours of normal anti-icing operation or 45 minutes at the high-flow setting. The propeller has its own TKS slinger ring, which helps protect the nose of the airplane. The windshield also is protected with a TKS spray bar. The TKS system is much cleaner looking than the deicer boot system found on earlier Caravans, which had boots mounted on almost every forward-facing surface.

The Grand Caravan EX’s 340-cu-ft cabin offers loads of flexibility, with seating configurations available for up to 14 occupants. Search-and-rescue (SAR) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment is easily mounted in roll-on, roll-off style on the floor’s seat tracks.

The newest versions of the Caravan EX are equipped with the Garmin G1000NXi, offering additional features compared with the G1000 on the airplane flown for this report.

SAR operations are enhanced by the Garmin G1000 avionics suite, which offers the option of a full set of customizable search patterns that can be flown by the autopilot. The Garmin displays can also accept video input. Among other avionics options are weather radar and high-frequency radio as well as military radios.

The large cargo door on the aft left fuselage allows loading of up to four standard pallets, and many operators are flying their Caravans with dual passenger-cargo configurations. The optional belly cargo pod is also a popular choice. The aft baggage compartment in the cabin carries 31.5 cu ft and up to 320 pounds, while the cargo pod’s maximum cargo weight is 1,090 pounds and has a volume of 111.5 cu ft.

For aerial survey work, the Grand Caravan can be fitted with up to two 22- by 22-inch ports with floor support. The ports are spacious enough for medium-format cameras, although they will accommodate large-format camera systems.

For medical transport, the Grand Caravan can carry up to four gurneys for casualty evacuation or two patients on air-ambulance stretchers offered by a variety of manufacturers.

Other available special-mission configurations allow parachute operations, training and float operations. With Wipline 8750 amphibious floats, the Grand Caravan EX’s maximum cruise speed drops to 164 from 185 knots and maximum range to 813 from 912 nm. Useful load with floats is 3,162 pounds, down 405 pounds from the non-float-equipped Caravan’s 3,567 pounds.

cargo door
The Grand Caravan EX has an external baggage capacity of 1,090 pounds.

“The mission depends on the payload,” explained Robert Varriano, technical solutions manager for Textron Aviation. For ISR-type operations, the Grand Caravan can fly at loiter speeds for five to six hours. “It has a great useful load to be able to do that.” Medevac flights are typically shorter because the Caravan is not pressurized, so the range capability is more than sufficient.

With a full load of fuel—2,246 pounds—the Grand Caravan can carry a payload of 1,286 pounds. For an ISR or SAR mission, the Caravan can fly as slowly as 90 ktas at 2,000 feet while burning 290 pph. At higher altitudes, fuel consumption drops even lower, and loitering at 14,000 feet, the engine burns 240 pph while propelling the Caravan at 103 ktas. At these fuel consumption levels, loiter times of more than six hours at low altitude and almost eight hours at high altitude are possible, even allowing for a generous reserve.

The Grand Caravan’s flexibility shows in how little runway it needs (or water, typically 2,000 feet for a water takeoff). At sea level on a standard day, at the maximum takeoff weight of 8,807 pounds, the turboprop leaves the ground in just 1,355 feet, with 2,095 feet needed to clear a 50-foot obstacle. In more challenging conditions, 6,000 feet and ISA +20 degrees C, the Caravan’s ground roll is 2,765 feet and takeoff distance 4,395 feet. Taking off in the same conditions with 500 fewer pounds of payload (8,300 mtow) requires a ground roll of 2,355 feet and takeoff distance of 3,690 feet.

“The great thing about the Caravan,” said Varriano, “is that because of its multiple uses, most things are optional so if you’re cargo hauling and you don’t need to have a lot of equipment on board, you can make it as light as possible so you can maximize your cargo. But at the same time if you need to be in inclement weather or doing things that you need to have some more information, you can load up the airplane with all sorts of equipment.”

Climbing Inside

The Caravan’s cockpit is comfortably spacious, more like a small business aircraft than a light airplane, and it is both utilitarian and well appointed. Climbing into the left seat is easier using the fold-out ladder at the pilot’s door, but you can also clamber in through the cabin after entering via the large cargo door.

Grand Caravan EX cabin
The cabin of the Grand Caravan EX has room for nine passengers.

An integrated glass cockpit is pretty much a standard requirement these days, and the Caravan has long featured Garmin’s G1000 flight deck, now delivered in the NXi version with faster processors and added features such as visual approaches and HSI map overlays. ADS-B out is standard, and ADS-B in optional. VFR and IFR charts can also now be displayed on the moving map. Garmin’s SurfaceWatch alerts pilots if they are about to take off or land on the wrong runway or on a taxiway or too short a runway. I especially like the newest feature that comes with NXi, the com frequency decoding, which spells out the facility for the selected com frequency, right below the numbers. (This Caravan wasn’t equipped with the G1000 NXi.)

Once I was seated in the left seat, it felt like I had climbed up into a seriously big truck; the Grand Caravan EX is a tall airplane, and at 41 feet 7 inches it is long, too, with the cabin able to accommodate a variety of interior configurations from utilitarian but comfortable corporate style to high-density commuter seating for the pilot and up to 13 passengers (one of them occupying the right front seat), or variations of seats combined with cargo-hauling capability.

Our load was fairly light, with Allenbaugh, one passenger and me and a bit more than tanks half full of fuel for a takeoff weight about 1,000 pounds less than the 8,807-pound maximum. The PT6 started easily, and I taxied from the Textron Aviation new airplane delivery center to Beech Airport’s Runway 19. The Caravan moves solidly on the ground, tracking the centerline with little extra effort, except for the occasional pull of the power lever into beta range to manage taxi speed. In tight spaces, turning in a small radius with nosewheel steering and brakes feels just like it does in a smaller single-engine Cessna. This was helpful during the taxi back on the active runway at Beech Factory, which has no parallel taxiways, and I would also come to appreciate this during one of our upcoming maneuvers.

Density altitude was about 3,000 feet, and the wind was 20 degrees off the runway heading and gusting to 15 knots. I pushed the condition lever to high idle before lining up on Runway 19, then advanced the power to maximum torque, which is handily indicated on the torque gauge’s dynamic redline on the G1000 multifunction display engine indicating system. The PT6 and Hartzell four-blade prop sped up quickly and accelerated the Caravan, and I needed just a touch of right rudder to keep the nose on the centerline. At about 70 knots, the nose felt light, and the big turboprop climbed off the runway without any need for a big pull on the yoke.

I turned to the east while climbing at the cruise climb speed of 110 knots and getting a feel for the Caravan’s controls. It is a heavy airplane, but by keeping it trimmed I could easily fly with a light touch on the yoke. Like any single-engine Cessna, the Caravan is rock-solid stable, but it is also easy to feel when trim is needed.

After turning south then leveling off at 9,000 feet, I pulled the power back, slowed down and added full flaps for some slow flight. Handling is even better at low speeds, aided by the spoilers and aileron servo tabs that improve lateral control forces.

Slow flight is a comfortable regime for the Caravan, and with takeoff/approach flaps set, it’ll fly for hours and hours at medium altitudes sipping fuel while dutifully following the search-and-rescue patterns built into the G1000 avionics. The patterns are easily customizable to adapt to the particular situation, and the GFC 700 autopilot just follows along. A lone pilot could be freed up to look outside using the autopilot tracking the patterns, but more likely multiple observers would be on board. With the Garmin synthetic vision technology switched on, the animated view of the outside world helps keep the pilot aware of the Caravan’s situation.

Steep turns these days feel almost like cheating; putting the flight path marker on the primary flight display’s horizon line with synthetic vision running makes it almost impossible to mess up. The Caravan tracks true in a 50- to 60-degree bank and enters and exits turns crisply.

Soft-field Patrol

The exercise that showed the Grand Caravan EX’s true skills as a rough-country vehicle came next, as we planned a full-stop landing at a grass strip, Sedan City Airport. During the preflight briefing, Allenbaugh had outlined the plan: fly a normal traffic pattern and approach with approach flaps, but without landing. We would allow the main wheels to touch so we could get a feel for the condition of the grass runway, then add takeoff power and return for a full-stop landing.

rough field landing
The Grand Caravan EX is a true rough-country vehicle.

We entered the traffic pattern from the crosswind leg, then I turned downwind and deployed the flaps as the Caravan slowed.

Except for the PT6’s turbine whine and the large airframe, the Caravan feels sprightly in the traffic pattern, maneuvering like a much lighter airplane.

On short final, I allowed the speed to drop to about 80 knots. With just half flaps, the Caravan assumed a nose-high attitude as it crossed the runway threshold, and I goosed the power lever to keep from sticking to the runway as the main wheels rolled in the turf. Allenbaugh agreed that we could feel no bogging down of the wheels as I held them on the runway, and then I added power and climbed back into the air.

After returning around the empty traffic pattern, I set up final approach almost the same, except for adding full flaps and slowing to 78 knots. The Caravan felt solid, responsive and stable as we crossed over the end of the runway. Touching down mainwheels first, I brought the power to idle, allowed the nose to drop then moved the power lever past beta into reverse, and the Caravan quickly came to a stop in what looked like just a few hundred feet.

Before the big Cessna stopped rolling, however, Allenbaugh asked me to advance the power to keep from getting stuck, so I moved the prop out of reverse and added power while stepping on the left rudder then brake to turn tightly around on the narrow runway. The Caravan pirouetted promptly, and it did so once again in the other direction at the runway end.

With flaps back to the takeoff setting, I pushed the power lever forward and held the yoke aft for a soft-field takeoff. The Caravan couldn’t wait to get airborne and lifted off the strip in short order.

We climbed to 4,000 feet on the way back to Beech Airport, and then I flew a normal approach and full-flaps landing back on Runway 19.

Overall, the Grand Caravan EX’s handling reminded me of flying an old friend, a big brother to the classic Cessna single-engine, strut-braced-wing design, with plenty of performance, massive amounts of passenger and cargo space and handling and performance characteristics that any pilot will appreciate.