Just as clothing makes the man, training makes the pilot. If so, then my past week at Flight Safety International, learning to fly and teach in the Cessna Caravan, was like ditching “off the rack” menswear for a custom suit. It fit perfectly and the experience was rewarding!
If you’re unfamiliar with the Cessna Caravan, think of it this way. If you were to write the next Indiana Jones movie, what single-engine turboprop would you select for Harrison Ford to fly in and out of remote airstrips, with enough hauling capacity to carry a small mercenary force? Not surprisingly...
Harrison Ford does own a Cessna Caravan (among a collection of about a dozen planes) and used it to take his family on vacation to Alaska this summer.
Just to give you a little history, the Caravan is Cessna’s largest single-engine aircraft. Powered by a 675 shp turboprop engine, it can haul a crew of two people and ten passengers. Some countries certify the plane to carry up to 15 people, which is the way it flies tourists on Safari into remote airstrips in Africa. While it will never win an award as the fastest, sleekest aircraft, it has the kind of hauling capacity and rugged practicality that would make an accountant smile (even in these trying times). If the Cessna T206 is a flying SUV, the Cessna Caravan is a flying Recreational Vehicle.
Preparation Meets Opportunity
Cessna first started shipping in about 1985. They had had the design underway for some time, when Fed-Ex called and asked to visit and talk about their ideas for a single engine turboprop for carrying freight. Until then, Cessna had conceived the Caravan as a passenger plane and hadn’t realized that there was an opportunity to build a version for the freight market.
It didn’t take long for Cessna to figure out that they could make money producing different versions of the Caravan, and they started with a freight version with no windows. As a result, Caravan sales exceeded original market projections. Today, you’ll find Caravans in many configurations, including one on floats, which was first sold to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. To date, 1,800 have been built, with more than 400 sold to Fed Ex.
The latest evolution of the Cessna Caravan, which just began shipping a few months ago, includes the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. To date, most G1000-equipped aircraft have shipped with two 10-inch displays, one configured as a PFD and the other as a MFD. If you’re not familiar with these terms, let me refer you to my Max Trescott’s G1000 Glass Cockpit Handbook. You can read the first 19 pages at www.G1000Book.com and order a copy at 800-247-6553.
However, a few high-end aircraft, such as the Cessna Mustang, include three displays: two PFDs (one each for the pilot and copilot) and a center mounted MFD. In the Mustang, the MFD is a large 15-inch display. However, space considerations dictated three 10-inch displays in the Caravan. I’ve flown with the 12-inch displays found in the Cirrus SR22 Perspective glass cockpit and love the larger size. But surprisingly, I found the 10-inch MFD in the Caravan totally adequate, probably because the pilot and copilot are seated relatively close to the instrument panel. One other bonus: it’s much easier to climb into the pilot seat of a Caravan than into the front seats of a Mustang or Citation.
The Back Story
Sunday evening found me arriving in Wichita, a city of 360,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in Kansas. Passengers arriving in the main terminal walk under a sign that says “Welcome to Wichita – Air Capitol of the World.” You’ll probably find few challengers to that claim. A friend, the former Vice President of Marketing at Cessna, once told me that, excluding commercial and military aircraft, Wichita builds more than half of the non-commercial, non-military aircraft in the world. Now that’s a pilot’s kind of town!
My arrival followed several months of email and telephone exchanges with Tim Leacock, now the proud owner of a new Cessna Caravan with an Oasis interior by Yingling. Tim is well known to aircraft owners in England, where he’s been selling aircraft for over 30 years. For the last ten years, he’s been Cessna’s U.K. Citation jet dealer. Looking for the right plane to haul around his large family (he and his wife have 8 children), he settled on the Cessna Caravan.
Tim's had a U.S. pilot license since the early 1970’s, but never had a need for an instrument rating. After reading my book, he called me and we agreed that I’d teach him the instrument rating in his new aircraft while he’s in the San Francisco area. In an odd twist, it turns out that Tim and I both have daughters with the same first name attending the same large university now far from my home. So that there would be two qualified Caravan pilots in the front row, we agreed to take Flight Safety International’s Caravan Initial Pilot course together in Wichita.
Having no prior turbine experience, I contacted my friend Greg Brown, the 2000 National CFI of the Year, and asked if he thought his The Turbine Pilot’s Flight Manual might be helpful in getting me prepared for the course. Being a savvy CFI and author, he of course said yes (as my kids would say, duh!). With my crazy schedule, I didn’t start reading the book until I boarded my airline flight for Wichita. Since, I had multiple connections and nine hours of travel time, I spent all of that time reading his book and the Caravan’s POH.
Getting Greg’s book was a good choice and I recommend it to anyone stepping up to turbine and jet aircraft for the first time. While manipulating the controls of these aircraft will be familiar to anyone who’s flown a small plane, the systems, particularly the engines, are significantly different. The beauty of reading his book is that I actually understood the sentence describing the engine in the Caravan’s POH: “Free turbine, two-shaft engine utilizing a compressor section having three axial stages and one centrifugal stage, an annular reverse-flow combustion chamber, a one-stage compressor turbine, a one-stage power turbine, and a single exhaust."
Flight Safety International
Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway owns Flight Safety, so you can imagine that they are a class act. So are their instructors. Every morning at 7:30AM, our brilliant and cheerful ground instructor, Abbey Meraz, greeted us. As a CFI, she formerly taught Denver area clients to fly G1000-equipped aircraft. For five mornings in a row, she taught us the intricacies of the Cessna 208B and the G1000. Invariably, if we had a question she couldn’t answer, she’d look it up and let us know the following day.
Fortunately for us, Cessna’s Caravan Product Manager was auditing our class. As I recall, he has more than 1000 hours experience flying the Caravan. So not only did we get the “official” word on how things worked, but we benefited from hearing some of the inside details. For example, on average, the Caravan’s PT6A-114A engine flies 200,000 hours between engine events leading to a loss of power. To put that in perspective, you’d have to fly 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 100 years, before you’d be likely to have some loss of power in the engine. That makes me want to spend all of my flying hours sitting behind that engine!
We spent each afternoon in a multi-million dollar, custom simulator Flight Safety built to resemble a G1000-equipped Cessna Caravan. Our instructor was Ron Blaha, who previously flew jets for Maytag. Ron kept our feet to fire working through all kinds of simulated emergencies. He was good natured and we had plenty of laughs throughout our sessions.
Luckily, all of our training was during business hours. Another group started using our simulator when we finished around 6:30PM, meaning they probably finished after 11PM. Others simulators, such as the one for the Cessna Citation Sovereign jet, are used 24 hours a day. Just like the airlines, when you have millions invested in equipment, it pays to keep it utilized around the clock.
Our first afternoon was spent with landings and instrument approaches using the Memphis and Wichita airports. I’m glad I already knew the G1000 ahead of time and I recommend that anyone taking this training get some G1000 experience beforehand. Tim Leacock had previously flown about 50 hours in a G1000-equipped, so he too was in good shape. Candidly, if you’re not somewhat familiar with the G1000 or with turbine systems before you arrive, it will be difficult to become proficient in both during just five days. I highly recommend that pilots do some prestudy before starting the course.
On the second afternoon, we dealt with emergencies and icing. A new TKS system was approved for this aircraft the week before we arrived, and had already been installed on Tim’s airplane. Even the struts are covered with laser drilled titanium panels, which weep TKS fluid to keep ice off the most critical surfaces. In my scenario, I forgot to check the TKS quantity before takeoff. However, I compensated by requesting to stay above the clouds longer and setup a VNAV profile with a steep descent to minimize time in the clouds before crossing the IAF. I also used the autopilot, which made it easy to keep the speed up on the approach. As one Caravan pilot told us, you can keep the speed up on approach to the point where the tower will tell you to “slow for the Learjet ahead on final."
One day for lunch, we made a quick visit to the Citation Customer Center. We perused the gift shop and then took lunch in the customer cafeteria. The view was best you’ll find in any company cafeteria. Below us on the ramp were a string of Cessna Citations. The photo shows the jets looking out in just one of the directions we could see.
On the last day, I flew the simulator into Aspen, where realistic scenery from Google Earth gave accurate placement of mountains, valleys, taxiways and terminal buildings. I flew the LOC/DME-E approach, including the unique missed approach that requires flying along the backcourse of a separate localizer.
Having been through Flight Safety, I now understand why this type of training is required or recommended. The simulators let us repeatedly run through many emergencies procedures that wouldn’t be practical or safe to conduct in a real airplane. For complicated procedures, like restarting the engine in flight, we could run through them and then immediately reset and run them again. There’s nothing like repeated practice to build muscle memory and confidence in your ability to solve problems.
Finally, the simulator was so realistic that there were times I truly felt I was flying a real airplane. We stayed relaxed, but heard of students that felt it was so real they came out of simulator sessions dripping in sweat. While the real world odds of encountering the emergencies we practiced is tiny, it’s comforting to know that we already know what they may look like.
AOPA Expo 2008 comes to San Jose, CA this week and the following week I start to give Tim instrument training in his new 208B. Undoubtedly I’ll have more stories and pictures to share. In the meantime, I’m still smiling thinking about the past week in Wichita. If you need a G1000 expert in the right seat of your Caravan, please contact me. Why rely on “off the rack” training when you can get a perfect fit?