If you’re like me—and I know I am—and you’ve been making a semblance of a living flying airplanes smaller than airliners for a while, you’re probably already familiar with the Cessna Caravan. Cessna’s model 208 has been around in one form or another for about 35 years, and it’s operated all over the world as one of the most trusted and talented, purpose-built utility airplanes ever produced.
By general aviation standards, it’s a huge, boxy machine, and in this case, that’s a compliment, not an insult. Doors on both sides of the airplane make it possible to load whatever cargo needs to go on board, even with a forklift, if necessary.
In its largest, most spacious configuration, the Caravan offers seating for up to 14, though the model is rarely utilized in such a conventional manner.
The airplane was created for more of a cargo mission. The Caravan’s floor space was specifically designed to enclose pretty much anything you can imagine—a dog sled and a pack of Huskies, machine parts for a remote drilling site, etc.
All of my flights have been dedicated to moving the airplane from where it is to wherever it needs to be in the world.
In fact, you might say that Caravans have rarely flown as far over gross as the half-dozen I’ve been privileged to deliver to such destinations as South Africa, Australia, Korea and Singapore. In some cases, I was operating as much as 900 pounds over certified maximum takeoff weight with perhaps a half-dozen 55-gallon barrels of jet ferry fuel in the cabin directly behind me.
None of those Caravans ever complained. No cause for concern, no reason to call the FAA. In all cases, I was operating on a ferry permit and a Special Airworthiness Certificate that excused my temporary over-gross flights. Without exception, the Caravans paid little attention to the overload and flew better than I had any right to expect.
These trips were all 8,000-10,000 nm, most with at least one leg stretching to 2,100 miles. Perhaps ironically, the longest hop was the one closest to home for me—California to Honolulu. At a typical cruise speed of 150-160 knots (in the overweight condition), that was often something like 15 hours in the left seat, flying above nothing but ocean with not even a rock in sight once I passed the Channel Islands off the California Coast. In one case, unexpected headwinds pushed me to 17 hours, and I landed in Honolulu with about 30 minutes of fuel remaining.
There was no bravery involved. I knew I was flying behind many pilots far smarter and more experienced than me who regard a Caravan’s PT6A turbine as the most durable and reliable engine in the industry. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6A-114A turboprop is rated at 600 to 675 shaft hp. (Later Caravans were powered by PTA turbines rated as high as 867 hp.)
“My” Caravans were of all descriptions, some as pure freighters, others as luxury passenger airplanes. That was the whole idea behind the model 208—build a tough, durable and easily convertible machine capable of performing whatever mission someone could dream up. The airplanes were fitted with quick-change interiors adaptable to any mission. Standard seating was for nine folks. Later and larger models could be configured for up to 14 seats.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some Caravan buyers fitted their airplanes with luxurious leather interiors.
I know of one Caravan operator back in Long Beach who started up a luxury charter service, flying to Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, Palm Springs, Phoenix and other destinations within 300 to 400 miles of Southern California. He and his pilots flew the Grand Caravan to pretty much anyplace you wanted to fly in the southwestern U.S. He explained that there were a surprising number of charter customers who liked the airplane’s luxurious accommodations and flights at relatively low altitude where clients could enjoy the view rather than charter a Citation Lear, Falcon or Gulfstream and fly at airline altitudes with nothing below but clouds or haze.
In traveling the world in a variety of Caravans, I’ve had the opportunity to see the airplane in a wide variety of conditions. On a delivery flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, a few years ago, I flew the Atlantic by the usual route: Florida to Bangor, Maine, then to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, followed by three days of weather delay waiting for storms to blow out of the way.
After that, it was a 1,350-nm hop to Santa Maria, Azores, followed by an 800-nm leg to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and a 1,700-nm leg across a small slice of the Sahara to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
As I departed Abidjan the following day for the 800-nm trip to Libreville, Gabon, the infamous Intertropical Convergence Zone—where weather systems from the Northern and Southern Hemisphere converge over the equator—was raging with potential thunderstorms.
The airplane was well-equipped with Stormscope and weather radar, but that was about all the help I could count on, as weather information in most of Africa was limited in those days.
I elected to strap on a mask and try to top the atmospherics at 17,000 feet. The Caravan responded eagerly and made the ascent to 3½ miles as if it had been there before. I did have to climb on up to 21,000 feet later in the flight, but the airplane’s PT6A engine lifted me over the clouds with enthusiasm.
In retrospect, it probably hadn’t spent much time in the flight levels, as most typical Caravan missions are flown at low altitudes with frequent stops—think FedEx. The package delivery company has purchased several hundred of the type and continues to do so to serve its feeder routes all over the world.
My most recent Caravan trip was from California to Seoul, Korea, to a company that serves Google Earth’s photogrammetry mapping program. The new owner of “my” airplane already had a half-dozen Caravans of all description, each fitted with camera portals that allowed them to mount huge cameras, most often looking straight down at the ground. The company handled photo missions throughout all of southeast Asia for a variety of clients with a need for detailed air-to-ground images of the Earth below. They covered everything from Japan south to Bali and New Guinea.
My delivery flight routed through Hawaii, then south to Majuro in the Marshall Islands and straight west to Guam.
After that, the final leg was to Japan to Hiroshima, across the Sea of Japan to the southeast coast of the Korean Peninsula and into Seoul.
The total trip was only about 7,200 nm in one of the most comfortable airplanes you could imagine. The Caravan offers a very large cabin, the better to haul freight, people or whatever you need to fit inside. It may not have been as fast as most other airplanes, but the spacious cabin—54 inches tall by 64 inches wide—more than made up for the lack of speed.
The trip went normally as far as Guam. After that, things became more problematic. I had made several trips on roughly the same route, terminating in Sendai, Japan, so I was familiar with the spectacular headwinds beyond Guam, and, sure enough, they were waiting for me when I departed the airport in the Marshall Islands and headed across the Western Pacific for Japan and Korea.
American bombers had encountered fierce headwinds during World War II on this route, coming across what later came to be known as the “jet stream,” though they were at first flying as high as possible to avoid Japanese fighters and flak.
I was cruising at 10,000 feet, so the winds weren’t quite as bad, but I was still fighting 40-knot headwinds. That wouldn’t have been so bad if I was operating a 250-knot bomber, but I was struggling along in a 150-knot Caravan.
It was so strong that when I arrived over Iwo Jima a half-hour behind flight plan, I called San Francisco on HF, and they advised I could expect the same conditions all the way to Seoul. I checked Nagasaki a full hour late and crossed the eastern Korean coast nearly 10½ hours behind schedule.
The sun had long since dropped below the horizon as I plugged along, watching the lights blink on below. A few miles inland from the coast, the autopilot began to pitch up, and speed began to drop. In addition to the headwinds, I was now fighting downdrafts.
Before long, the Caravan was down to Vy, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Just as I was contemplating who advised me downdrafts never descend all the way to the ground, Center called and advised that I was below the MEA and needed to climb back up to 10,000 feet. I notified the controller that I was well aware of the problem, that I was in some hellacious downdrafts and asked if there was any lower terrain within reach. The Center controller said the mountainous terrain remained at the same level to the opposite side of the Korean Peninsula.
At about the same time, the downdrafts turned to slight updrafts, and the airplane began to climb. I advised the controller that I was established in climb and requested 12,000 feet just in case the same thing happened again.
Of course, it did. Pretty much all the way to Seoul, downdrafts would push me downhill despite my best efforts to maintain 12,000 feet, then the vertical drop would turn back uphill a few minutes later.
In combination with the headwinds, such a seesaw flight path reduced groundspeed even further, so I was a little concerned as I approached Seoul when the controller suggested I fly to a nearby waypoint and hold.
After about 20 minutes of delay, I was just about to declare a low-fuel emergency when the Seoul controller abruptly cleared me for the approach. Counting a weather delay, the entire trip had demanded a week.
The following day, I boarded a KAL 747and was home in Los Angeles in half a day.
Okay, KAL was quicker, but the do-it-yourself Caravan was far more comfortable and a lot more fun.