Textron Aviation introduced Steve Hitchen to the Cessna Grand Caravan EX, and let him take this iconic aircraft through its paces.
It has been said before that you should never meet your heroes. The inference is that you'll find out they are ordinary people with a less heroic side to them that may extinguish your adulation and have you wondering why you ever worshipped them in the first place. It's a philosophy that could be applied easily to aircraft. What if the aeroplane you lusted after so much in your early days turned out to be a dream-busting disappointment?
One of my own hero aeroplanes has always been the Cessna C208 Caravan. Introduced in 1984, only one year before I logged my first flying hour, it was seen as a radical departure from the established charter and short-haul airline paradigms. One engine, high-wing, turbine; it couldn't have been more different from the low-wing piston twins that had dominated those markets for the previous 20-odd years.
Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought the Caravan was the duck's guts; it was a winner from the moment it left the blocks and there are now around 2500+ of them operating in most countries. Missionary work, short-haul RPT, cargo, parachuting, aeromedical, military, surveillance; the C208 rarely fails at any assigned task.
For me, a lowly piston-pulled PPL of bog-stock nature, the Caravan has always been an aeroplane on a pedestal too high to reach ... until one day last September at a wind-blown Essendon Airport when Textron Aviation pointed me towards the latest version of this legendary GA workhorse, the C208B Grand Caravan EX.
It's easy to believe the Caravan EX is the largest single-engined aeroplane Cessna has ever made. The example I was to fly, N522EX, stood before me like a brooding dragon, one that I would soon be saddling up and riding into the sky. I had doubts that my elementary skills were developed enough to handle an 867-shp turbine, so I was very pleased to have Textron Senior Pilot – Asia Pacific James Wilson as my "co-pilot" for this adventure.
The first thing I did was walk around the machine giving various bits and pieces a nod of approval, trying to look like a college professor assessing a student's project, when in reality I was thinking "this is way cool!" like an over-stimulated schoolboy.
For a start there was the four-bladed McCauley constant-speed, full-feathering and reversible prop. The standard Caravan with the 675-shp engine needs only a three-bladed prop, but the EX needs that fourth blade to translate the extra horses effectively. The Pratt & Whitney PT6A-140 turbine contributes nothing extra to the top speed, but the EX will lift 175 kg more than the smaller model.
It was on the trailing edge of the long, slender wing that I found one of the secrets to the Caravan's short-field supremacy: flaps that stretch almost two-thirds of the wing. Extending the flaps also exposes a rank of vortex generators that support air flow over the flaps during slow flight. With so much of the trailing edge dedicated to flap, the inevitable result is ailerons that are short and stumpy. It made me wonder if the control loading was going to need some muscle to overcome.
Almost uniquely, the EX is a four-door aeroplane. There are crew doors on either side of the cockpit, a passenger door with built-in stairs on the right rear and a split cargo door on the left. Each side of the fuselage is punctuated with eight passenger windows, giving just about everyone in this 14-seater their own window. Slung under the belly is the now-ubiquitous cargo pod with four doors of its own. Adding the pod means passenger bags don't clutter the cabin and also rescues the Caravan from looking too much like a tripod.
Having completed my inspection, it was time to do what I was there to do: drive the beast.
On a roll
The 2.6-metre McCauley out the front demands a long undercart to maintain ground clearance, which in turn means the crew seats have a bit of distance between them and the ground. I climbed into the right seat via a folding ladder and strapped in. The height above the ground gave me a grand-stand view of the tarmac.
Facing me were three Garmin 1000 screens with an auto pilot top of the centre panel, and a barrel-like quadrant from which sprouted five levers marked EMERGENCY POWER, POWER, PROP RPM, FUEL CONDITION and FLAP. All of them were familiar to me except emergency power, which is used to restore power when the fuel control unit fails and engine power is lost. There was also a large rod-like control for the inertial separator. That's a device that redirects large foreign particles away from the engine air intakes. All very new stuff to me.
Wilson quickly ran me through what looked to my inexperienced eyes to be a complicated starting system for the Pratt.
"It's not a difficult start," he contradicted me. "That's the good thing about this engine." He then proceeded to prove his point.
He flicked on the battery and one of two avionics switches. That powered up one of the Garmin 1000 PFD screens to give us the engine gauges during start. He set the fuel boost pump to ON, checked the power lever was is idle and pushed the prop RPM levers full forward. He started the gas generator and ran the Ng gauge up to 12% before moving the fuel condition lever to low idle, which introduced fuel to the starting process. He watched the Ng ramp-up to 55% before turning off the starter and setting the fuel boost pump to normal.
By that time the prop was just a blur. Wilson then switched on the second avionics switch and the other two Garmin screens came to life.
"Ready to go?", he asked me as he completed his checklist ... like he needed to ask.
It didn't take much to get 22EX moving, just a little encouragement with the power lever.
"We taxi at walking pace, so you add power as required; there's no set figure," Wilson told me. "What you don't want to do is have the power up and ride the brakes at the same time. If you want to use the brakes, make sure you come back to idle. Whether you decide to use Beta or whether you decide to use brakes you need to strike a balance."
Beta: that magical function that exists only on turbo-prop aeroplanes. Beta gives the pilot the ability to reverse the prop pitch using the power lever instead of the RPM lever. Airflow from the prop is redirected forward so it can be used as a brake or even for going backwards. Some pilots just like it because of the roar it makes.
We followed our taxi clearance to runway 36 and on command lined-up in the face of a blustery 25-knot head wind. With take-off and airways clearances in our pockets, it was time to rock and roll.
Wilson shoved the fuel condition and prop all the way forward, but dealt with the power more prudently.
"You don't firewall the power lever on take-off," he said. "If you look on the Engine Indicating System [EIS] you'll see that there's a red line indicator and you want to take the power up to just before that. As you accelerate, you'll get ram-rise; more air into the engine through dynamic pressure and you need to make sure you don't go over the red line, so you set the power slightly below the red line in anticipation of the ram-rise."
At 70 knots Wilson lifted the nose to meet the wind. The PT6 had to lift only the two of us and about 1300 lb of fuel, so 22EX climbed like a Wedgetail up a ridgeline. Passing 90 KIAS Wilson retracted the flap and we settled into a 120-knot climb.
Our clearance was for ESDIG, a point to the west of Melbourne where several airways converge. So in a very Essendon-like way we followed our vectors eastward before we were allowed to turn back for our destination. It did give us a chance to reach our clearance altitude of 10,000 feet and extend the cruise time; ESDIG is not that far away.
Once level, Wilson eased the power a fraction and set the prop to 1750 RPM. When everything settled, the Garmin was showing a TAS of 179 for 152 indicated.
"Generally if you're at 10,000 feet you can expect a cruise of between 175-180 KTAS for that power and prop setting," Wilson said, "so our speed is typical of what I would be aiming to get. In some flights you might want it to be a bit quieter in the cabin, in that case you'd bring the prop back to 1600 RPM which will reduce the noise in the cabin. That will make it a really nice ride."
Then he said the words I'd been waiting for. "Do you want to have a fly?"
I grabbed the wheel like it was the first beer of a fly-away weekend and punched-off the autopilot. N22EX was now mine.
My first task was to do nothing. I had to hold heading and altitude until Wilson won a clearance from ATC to do "airwork", the official term for swinging around the sky having a great time. Once that was secured, there was no need for holding back.
As I dipped the Caravan into the first left turn, my brain registered that the controls were quite heavy, but I tempered that by remembering that this was my first time handling anything this large. The control forces were more like I would have expected from a twin. Mentioning this to Wilson returned me a surprise look; he thought I was about to say how well it handled.
As we continued our erratic path through the sky–left then right, then right around, then back to the left–I started to see his point. The Caravan EX was actually quite responsive despite my first reaction, and after a while my hands warmed to the task such that any thoughts of "heaviness" evaporated quite quickly. But how was this possible with those stumpy ailerons? The secret is something that can't be seen from the ground and you may not even know they're there unless told: roll spoilers on the upper wing.
"The roll spoilers are there to balance the turn," Wilson pointed out. "They make the Caravan a very nice handling aircraft; they make it very responsive. In a single-engined aircraft you need to co-ordinate your turns with appropriate rudder and the roll spoilers make the turns very accurate. They combat adverse aileron yaw. You get induced drag from the lift and the spoilers balance that out."
What began to annoy me was my propensity to roll through our assigned heading. I seemed to be constantly making corrections, showing that I was still a little bit behind 22EX. The roll rate is not as sprightly as most of the high wings that get mentioned in my logbook. I did eventually get it close to right.
The big come down
The thing with flying a Caravan EX is that you sort of feel like the king of the world. With the wing leading edge well behind the your eye line the visibility is broad and expansive, and the PT6A out the front hauls you along with the greatest of ease. Add the fingertip capability provided by the three Garmin 1000 screens and you've got the complete package to get almost any job done with plenty left on the table. It's almost enough to induce a bit of swagger in your soul (danger!).
So I was feeling pretty comfortable by the time ATC cleared us back to Essendon and gave us a new level of 5000 feet. We were blasting our way back down when it became apparent that blasting was not the best idea. Wilson pointed to the ASI needle, which was flirting with the red line.
"There's a very large engine out the front," he chipped in, "so the Caravan EX is an easy plane to over-speed. I set the speed by the power and make sure we don't go through the red line on the TRQ. It's an unpressurised cabin and I don't like going down at more than 1000 fpm because you can feel it on your ears, and that's not great for passengers.
"You plan your descent either through the Garmin avionics or just use time based on your estimate for landing. You also have to make sure your descent profile is reasonable for the approach you're making.
"Then you're looking to make sure you don't over-torque the engine."
I handed 22EX back to Wilson and broke out my camera. We cruised along the base of Melbourne CBD and out to Caulfield (traffic again) before swinging back on a vector for a visual approach to runway 35. It was here that Wilson handed the aircraft back to me to make the landing.
"Make sure the prop is full forward, then have a look at the two flap limitation speeds," he briefed. "The first stage is 150 knots, which is quite generous and then landing flap is 125 knots. When you drop the flaps you will see the nose rise, so you'll have to counter that by pushing forward and re-trimming. Once you've got it configured for landing, you'll be looking at a speed between 75-85 knots."
I lined up well out and checked the wind. It was still strong and blustery, but in our favour was straight down the strip. At that point I decided to make the whole landing significantly harder to pull off.
"I've never made a bad landing on runway 35 at Essendon," I boasted.
Wilson looked at me like I'd summoned evil spirits. "You shouldn't have said that!"
N522EX speared on through the headwind, wallowing gently as the piano keys grew large in the windscreen.
"As you come it at 50 feet," Wilson continued, "bring the power back to idle, you'll have enough drag, so start pulling it back, put the aileron into the wind, hold the centre line with rudder and that should see you to the ground once you flare."
I became a bit over-conscious about the height between the wheels and my eyes, and recognised the danger of slamming it onto the main gear if I flared late. It turns out that I got it pretty close to right. The main gear rolled onto the runway in what I classify as a respectable first (and to this date only) Caravan landing. Hex defeated!
Still my hero
Most fledgling commercial pilots will encounter a Cessna Caravan of some incarnation very early on in their careers. It is likely to be the first turbine they will ever fly in command ... and they're going to love it, especially if it's an EX. The capability and capacity entices operators to put Caravans on all sort of missions and it performs each one of them without missing a beat.
"The Caravan is great fun," Wilson believes. "Being a single-engined aircraft you can go to really remote places, you can land on water, land and on both water and land. In respect of flying, it's a fantastic aircraft. It's very straightforward. The avionics suite is G1000, which is available in most GA aircraft today, you have a power lever and a variable pitch prop."
I can't disagree with any of that. I have met my hero, and rather than be disappointed, I found that my adulation was justified.