Cessna Denali

May 28, 2017 - 6:15 PM

Last year, after nearly a decade of rumors, speculation, and anticipation, Textron Aviation introduced the Cessna Denali, a pressurized single-engine turboprop. The airframer, which has unveiled a full-scale cabin mockup, is accepting letters of intent for the $4.8 million, single-pilot-capable, six-to-10-passenger aircraft. Textron anticipates that a first flight will occur in 2018 and that the flight-test program will last 12 to 18 months. Deliveries could begin in late 2019 or early 2020.

The model is aimed squarely at the market for the Pilatus PC-12, which, until now, has not faced a viable competitor. More than 1,400 PC-12s have been sold since 1994, and Textron’s goal is for the Denali to offer lower operating and maintenance costs.

The company may also hope the model will appeal to customers who are increasingly eschewing its smaller 90 series Beechcraft King Air twins and don’t mind spending an additional $1 million for an aircraft that is more fuel efficient and has a much larger cabin. While its King Air 250 enjoys steady sales and the top-of-the-line King Air 350 continues to sell well, the 90 series has seen sales fall precipitously in recent years, from 27 in 2013 to just 11 last year and an average of just 18 annually over the last four years, according to data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

The Denali arrives just in time to take advantage of recent changes in European regulations, which now allow single-engine turbine charter operations in instrument-flying weather. And it will give Textron a product offering at virtually every price point along the turboprop continuum, from the $2.2 million 208 Caravan single to the $7.5 million King Air 350i twin.

The Denali’s flat-floor cabin is 16 feet, 9 inches long—the same as the cabin in Cessna’s durably selling but unpressurized and slower Grand Caravan EX turboprop utility single; the other cabin dimensions are nearly identical, too: 58 inches high and 63 inches wide for the Denali and 54 inches high and 64 inches wide for the Grand Caravan. The Denali’s cabin is an inch taller, nine inches wider, and an inch longer than that of the King Air 250 twin, which sells for $1.3 million more. It is the same height as the PC-12’s cabin but three inches wider and two inches shorter.

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Textron expects the Denali to have a range of 1,600 nautical miles with four passengers, a maximum cruise speed of 285 knots, and a full-fuel payload of 1,100 pounds. The aircraft features a 53-by-59-inch rear cargo door (slightly larger than the one on the PC-12) and a digital pressurization system that maintains a 6,130-foot cabin to 31,000 feet. Options include an externally serviceable belted lavatory with pocket door enclosure in the aft of the cabin.

The cabin incorporates large windows, LED lighting, a refreshment cabinet, and an in-flight-accessible baggage compartment. The interior is designed to be easily and quickly converted between passenger and cargo configurations. If the executive configuration mockup displayed last year approximates the finished product, Cessna’s designers deserve kudos for developing a cabin with smooth, clean lines; curved side rails; robust sidewall tables; and attractive single seats with arms that retract into the backs, creating an even more spacious feeling.

Last summer, Cessna’s chief engineer told me that the company had applied lessons learned from the new midsize Latitude jet to the cabin of the Denali, which is more like what you’d expect to find in a private jet than in a turboprop. The externally serviceable aft lavatory is a previously unheard-of feature on a business-class turboprop.

The Denali’s stylish cockpit will be equipped with the Garmin G3000 touchscreen avionics suite and will offer high-resolution multifunction displays and split-screen capability. The G3000 flight deck will include synthetic vision, weather radar, advanced terrain awareness warning system (TAWS), and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) capabilities.

The aircraft will be powered by a 1,240-shp advanced turboprop engine that GE Aviation announced in 2015 and hopes to fly next year. It will feature full authority digital engine controls (fadec) and single-lever power and propeller control—making it as close to idiot proof as any engine/propeller combination can be and also dramatically cutting pilot workload. This is particularly helpful given that the Denali will be certified for single-pilot operation.

GE estimates that the engine could be 15 to 20 percent more efficient than comparable models. And its manufacture employs 3D printing, which not only cuts its weight and improves reliability, it also substantially reduces production costs—perhaps by as much as 20 percent, a GE executive told me last year. The initial time-between-overhaul interval will be 4,000 hours. The engine will be paired with a new McCauley composite 105-inch diameter, five-blade, constant-speed propeller, which is full feathering with reversible pitch and ice protection. (Feathering a propeller turns the blades parallel to the airflow to reduce drag in the event of engine failure, thereby increasing gliding distance. Reversing the blades’ pitch angle after landing reverses the direction of thrust and can slow an airplane faster than brakes alone could do.)

While Textron hasn’t released runway performance numbers yet, you can expect that throwing this monster prop into reverse will make short strip landings no problem.

The new GE engine, wide and refined cabin, and Garmin touchscreen avionics will make the Denali a serious competitor. Cessna took its time and did its homework when conceiving this airplane, and I suspect the effort will pay dividends.