Somehow, the very idea of motoring along a mile above the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states in a Cessna Stationair seems almost a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron (a moron on oxygen). Most pilots simply don’t associate the tough 206 with operation in the flight levels. The airplane’s image is more utility station wagon than high-performance, turbocharged SUV.
Yet, here we are luxuriating at FL200, relaxing, warm and comfy, in spacious leather luxury, breathing oxygen, looking down on the spine of California’s Sierra Nevada and Mt. Whitney. We’re flying today with the help of one of the most sophisticated avionics suites in general aviation. The panel includes a two-tube, flat-panel Garmin G1000 Integrated Flight Deck for navigation, communication and monitoring engine/flight instruments, plus a Garmin GFC 700 Automatic Flight Control System, which helps keep the whole package pointed in the right direction.
Today, that direction is Reno, Nev., a quick day-tripper to check out the latest 2007 iteration of the Turbo Stationair. Owner Barry Brand of Oxnard, Calif., rides in the right seat to make certain we don’t break anything, and two friends complete the manifest in the middle seats.
True airspeed at this height is 160 knots—not bad for a fully grossed utiliplane with wheels and struts hanging in the wind. If need be, we could ascend another mile to a dizzying 25,000 feet, not a big deal for a Piper Mirage or Mooney Acclaim, but hardly what you’d expect from a flying sport-truck.
To be honest, today’s basic 206 is little changed from the airplane Cessna revived in 1998, and that machine in turn was similar to the Stationair we all knew and loved a dozen years before that. In this case, Cessna got so much right the first time around that there was little need to reinvent the wing.
The Stationair was one of three models taken down off the shelf when Congress passed the 1993 General Aviation Revitalization Act. That bit of legislation established an 18-year statute of repose, which forbad lawsuits against manufacturers of aircraft older than 18. Cessna CEO Russ Meyer, true to his promise, announced that Cessna would restart the piston line. The Skyhawk was an obvious first choice for reintroduction, and the Skylane was another given. Interestingly, the third and most expensive model, the Stationair, was in equal or greater demand than the other two.
Power on the Cessna Turbo Stationair is provided by a Lycoming TIO-540-AJ1A, rated for 310 hp and recommended for overhaul at 2,000 hours. All six of Cessna’s post-1996 models now feature injected Lycoming engines with power ranging from 160 to 310 hp. At a gross weight of 3,600 pounds, the big Lycoming provides a power loading under 12 pounds per horsepower, an important consideration for a bush plane.
Cessna’s 206 has long been regarded as among the very best of the piston, heavy haulers. Fly to any of the world’s hinterlands—e.g. the tundra of Canada and Alaska, the African veldt, the jungles of Borneo—and 206s are among the most popular weapons of choice. While it’s true the old 180/185 easily wins the rough-/short-field competition, the Stationair’s large, double, aft cargo doors and huge cabin make it easy to load with bulky people or cargo. When the 206 is fitted with the big 8.00 x 6 tires, it can sneak into places where lesser machines would fear to roll a tread. (As if to verify the airplane’s appeal, the California Highway Patrol replaced its entire fleet of 185s a few years back with 17 new Turbo Stationairs.)
When the original line of Stationairs went out of production in 1986, after two decades of winning friends and influencing pilots, the existing fleet became some of the most in-demand airplanes on the planet. If someone wrecked a 206 after 1986, the airplane was nearly always rebuilt, as there were no replacements available, and few other models could do the Stationair’s job. Piper’s Saratoga, the modern version of the Cherokee Six, was capable competition, but it also went out of production in 1990, so switching to the low-wing Piper wasn’t an option. (The Saratogas were revived in 2004 as the Piper 6X and 6XT.)
Both the Stationair and the new Piper 6X are probably more popular outside the United States than here at home. Fly to the Far North or overseas on a regular basis, and you’ll see both types doing jobs that practically nothing else can, flying into short or unimproved strips or even operating totally off airport. The Stationair may have a slight edge over the Piper because of the former’s high wing, a feature that eases loading and makes the airplane more adaptable to nonairports in high brush. That’s one reason the value of Stationairs has remained strong. Nowadays, many early 206s, even those that have been flown hard and put away wet, demand as much as three times their new list prices.
Today’s test airplane is a fairly representative example of the new Turbo Stationairs coming off Cessna’s production line in Independence, Kans. The $514,500 base price includes all the goodies listed, plus terrain and obstacle mapping, Traffic Information Service, XM Weather provisions and Stormscope—virtually everything you’d need for pretty much year-round IFR operation. This airplane also includes floatplane provisions and the aforementioned oversized tires and wheel fairings, adding about $7,500 to the total.
Garmin’s revolutionary AHRS-based (Attitude Heading Reference System) GFC 700 autopilot is standard on the 2007 Stationair and Skylane, and it’s a major step forward for a general aviation autopilot. Garmin has incorporated a variety of features normally found only in high-end corporate jets and airliners. Autopilots have offered rate of climb and altitude preselect for decades, but the new Garmin features airspeed hold, an important benefit in the airline world where airplanes must maintain precise separation. Airspeed hold means you can lock in best- rate-of-climb speed or a predetermined cruise climb velocity.
The 700 also offers overspeed protection, pitch hold and coupled VNAV, so the pilot can now control every aspect of descent as well as climb and straight-and-level flight. When preloaded with the appropriate approach, the GFC 700 incorporates the ability to make automatic approaches and fly the published miss-and-accept vectors for another attempt. It can perform holding patterns, procedure turns and DME arcs. The autopilot is WAAS-enabled for vertical guidance, providing ILS-like cues on GPS approaches.
If there’s a catch, it may be that the new level of sophistication isn’t without a considerable level of complexity. Pilots new to both the G1000 Integrated Flight Deck and the GFC 700 Automatic Flight Control System will find the avionics far more of a technical challenge than the airplane itself. Pilots require at least several days of training to learn to program the new avionics systems.
Despite its add-on complexity, a Stationair is an inherently simple machine. Over an intermittent four decades of production, the type has earned a reputation as a utility airplane par excellence, but a 206 also serves well as a six-seat commuter. If hauling people isn’t necessarily the Stationair’s normal mission, the airplane does the job better than you’d imagine. The front cockpit is 44 inches wide, and because the cabin is essentially a tapered box, fully 42 inches of that width holds to the rear seats. That’s the same dimension as the front pit of a model 36 Bonanza, generally regarded as a paragon of comfort.
Incidentally, that rear seat has been modified in 2007 to fold down flush against the floor to make room for cargo. Previous models required that you remove the seat in order to transport bulky items. Now, you have the option of flying one way with all people and the other way with people and stuff or all stuff.
Despite every manufacturer’s best efforts, most aircraft wind up a little heavier than book. Four-seaters often can transport only two or three people, and six seaters are sometimes limited to four. Our test T206H was typical. Fully equipped empty weight was 2,423 pounds against a max ramp weight of 3,617 pounds. After all the math, the big Stationair wound up with a 655-pound payload, basically four folks’ worth. It’s important to remember, however, that Stationair missions are often more about flexibility than range, so downloading fuel by 30 to 40 gallons would still provide two hours of endurance and allow you to increase the paying pounds to nearly 900.
The Turbo Stationair is at its best as a freight elevator. The optional, belly-mounted, external cargo pod allows for carrying 300 pounds outside the aircraft, and the cabin will accommodate 127 cubic feet of whatever. Remove all seats except the pilot’s, and you can load large items through the aft cargo doors.
While Cessna’s most exotic piston single is obviously capable of doing what we did on the way to Reno, the turbocharged Stationair typically flies its missions at altitudes below 12,000 feet. The blower allows the airplane to operate in the mountains at tall density altitudes. Climb from sea level tops 1,000 fpm, but equally important, the T206 manages better than 800 fpm at 10,000 feet.
Utility airplanes often must possess unusual talents, and to that end, the 206 may be adapted in a number of ways for better speed, range and flexibility. Cessna offers a 16,000 BTU Keith air conditioner, Flint Aero extends the wings and installs a pair of 15-gallon fuel tanks to boost gross and range and improve high-altitude climb. Wipaire, best known for its line of amphibious floats, whittles out the right front cabin to accommodate a forward side door, not surprising since Wipaire also produces amphibious floats for the 206. You can also install flap gap seals from Knots 2U to improve speed, modify the airplane with Aerospace Systems TKS anti/deice system and mount floats by PK DeVore or Wipaire. (Perhaps the most extreme STC available is an upgrade to Rolls Royce turbine power with Soloy Corporation.)
Whatever the level of mods, the Stationair remains what it has always been, one of the best jack-of-all-trades airplanes in general aviation, willing to haul pretty much anything you can close the doors on to practically anywhere at just about any time. The 206 definitely isn’t the fastest or the most modern design, but for operators who need a comfortable, talented airplane that still must work for a living, Cessna’s durable Stationair can pay its own way.
SPECS: 2007 Cessna T206H Stationair