““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan
The Cessna Grand Caravan is what happens when you cross a Winnebago and a single-engine turboprop.
The Model 208B Grand Caravan and its four-foot-shorter sibling, the Model 675 Caravan, have been around for decades. This rugged $2 million "utility infielder" combines simple systems, a cavernous but unpressurized cabin and a robust design that has stood the test of time. Cessna delivered the first Caravan in 1985 and the first Grand Caravan in 1990. Save for a few incremental improvements added over the years, the model remains largely unchanged. Bill Herp, whose Massachusetts-based Linear Air at one time operated six executive Caravans, called it "a rock-solid airplane."
The Caravan is a true go-anywhere Cessna. While it does travel a little faster at lower altitudes, it can be flown at up to 23,700 feet, provided passengers and pilot are breathing supplemental oxygen. A built-in oxygen system is an $11,000 option.
Going into a short gravel strip in the middle of Alaska? No problem. The airplane sits high on fixed, spring metal main landing gear and a strutted nose wheel, giving its propeller ample ground clearance and allowing it to handle primitive, uneven and unpaved landing strips. Even if you roll into a big rut a tad fast and collapse the nose wheel strut and blow out the front tire, the propeller sits up high enough that it will not convert into a garden tiller. With full fuel, a Caravan can still hold more than most medium business jets. With lighter loads, the airplane can take off in less than 1,500 feet and land in less than 1,000- with spirited use of brakes and propeller reverse, you can stop much shorter than that.
Of course, rare are the missions when you need to pack in full fuel, 332 gallons (usable). The airplane burns 50 to 55 gallons an hour at cruise power setting, which means you'd miss both games of the Sunday NFL double-header before you'd run out of gas. (Fortunately, a chemical toilet is an available option.)
Aside from the procedure used for starting the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-114A, 675-horsepower turbine engine, a Caravan isn't much different to fly than your basic, 160-horsepower, piston engine, four-seat Cessna 172 trainer. A low-time pilot would feel comfortable in this airplane. The handling is docile and the speed in all flight regimes is, well, slow. Stall speed with full flaps is just 60 knots. Conversely, cruise speed tops out at 186 knots. That means a typical 600-nautical-mile trip-including taxi, climb-out and landing-will take a leisurely 3.6 hours. But then, you buy this airplane for utility, not speed.
Federal Express Feeder airlines operate 260 stripped-down Grand Caravans (no passenger windows or finished interiors) that have cargo pods slung under their bellies and are badged Super Cargomasters. Numerous other small-package freight expediters fly them as well, as do rural regional and tourist airlines from Canada to Cameroon.
The Garmin G1000 integrated glass-panel avionics system is standard on new models. A variety of partial-glass and full-glass options are available for retrofit from several manufacturers, including Chelton, Sandel and Garmin, at prices ranging from $70,000 to $300,000. Electronic flight bags and other portable, plug-in devices that contain charts and flight performance data also are available for around $2,500.
Likewise, you have plenty of choices when outfitting a Caravan's cabin. Cessna typically will not sell this airplane with a finished interior, largely because so many buyers choose to customize it. The airplane has the same interior volume as a Beech King Air 200 and the cabin is actually a bit wider, at about 5 feet, 4 inches. (Height is 4 feet, 6 inches; length is a bit more than 16 feet aft of the cockpit.) There are four exterior doors-one at each pilot position plus an air-stair passenger door aft right and an oversized, fold-up and fold-out cargo door aft left.
In executive configuration, the airplane seats six to eight passengers, plus one or two pilots. The executive interiors of Caravans are virtually indistinguishable from those found on business jets. The single seats have the same swivel and recline features and similar rich veneers and fabrics. You can install in-flight entertainment systems that almost match those in the priciest business jets, too.
The one big difference is the lavatory. On most executive Caravans, this consists of a flip-up part of the rear bench seat and an underlying-and dreaded-chemical bowl. However, some Caravans have been equipped with electric flushing toilets, full vanities and sinks and even exterior plug-ins for showering (outside of the airplane on the ground) and generator power. Some have also been outfitted with elaborate bars and microwave ovens. Portable Iridium satellite phones can also be plugged in to use an aircraft antenna.
Capital Aviation in Oklahoma City was one of the first companies to market executive interiors for this airplane and has completed 142 of them since 1994. Over the years, Capital Aviation's Larry Price has seen his share of eccentric customer requests for items, including seat styling to match that of a Range Rover, a custom fishing-rod rack, an Indiana Jones-style interior and a lodge look, complete with distressed leather seating and wall treatments that resembled fish scales. The company also has designed a few interior options that have been popular with customers, including double sliding pocket doors that separate the crew from passengers and a side-facing water closet in the aft cabin that affords better privacy.
Capital Aviation is one of two companies that provide the majority of Caravan executive interiors. The other, Yingling Aviation in Wichita, developed a plush "Oasis" interior that has become popular. Angie Jackson, Yingling's director of interior completions, said the company is on track to deliver at least 25 Oasis interiors this year and has done 100 since 2004. Several of those are quick-change jobs with easily detached cabin seats, vinyl flooring under the removable carpet and protective temporary coverings for the high-gloss veneer cabinets-in case you want to take along a couple of dirt bikes without messing up the interior. Jackson said the interior adds 475 to 600 pounds to the airplane's weight and takes about 10 days to install.
All in all, a nice executive interior will run $150,000 to $330,000 depending on the components you select.
A few other options are worth considering on this airplane: Single-point refueling-no need to climb a ladder onto the wing tops-for $40,000 and a 111-cubic-foot underbelly cargo pod for $60,000. The pod can hold 1,090 pounds and knocks only seven knots off cruising speed. Depending on where you operate, air conditioning for about $24,000 may also makes sense. The Grand Caravan has large windows and the cabin gets hot baking in the sun.
Does this airplane make sense for you? You can certainly buy faster and more expensive single-engine turboprops. However, the Grand Caravan delivers a unique combination of dependability, economy, style and utility, albeit at the speed of leisure.