Submitted by: Anthony Mmeri
This year, the Cessna Caravan commemorates the 30th year in service since it was certified by the FAA and entered into service in October 1984.
The Cessna Caravan was developed as a significant upgrade of the Cessna 208, so as to address the limitations in payload and operational performance. The need to develop a single engine aircraft with a payload of 1000 kilograms or 12 passengers but still takeoff in less than 1000 metres was the operational performance required by the majority of operators.
The design of the first generation of the Caravans featured an airframe whose basic design was heavily borrowed from the architecture of the Cessna 208 but with a much wider and longer fuselage to make a total length of 12,6 metres.
The cabin was designed to be simple so as to make the aircraft serve the role in bush environments as it was not pressurized .It could accommodate 12 passengers in a high density airline configuration or as a freighter with a one tone payload.
The prototype was completed by the Cessna engineers with the major shift being in the power plant installation which was for a turboprop engine that would ensure high performance and versatility due to the power to weight ratio and the fuel economy desired. After thorough assessment, Cessna chose to go with the Pratt and Whitney PT6A-114 engine that was one of the most successful engine program mes implemented by the Canadian OEM.
The PT6 was the engine of choice for a wide range of medium class aircraft due to the its efficiency, simple, but effective, design in addition to the high dispatch rate that the engine enjoyed.
The first prototype made its maiden flight in December 1982 with flight tests for the type certification process. This continued until October, 1984, when the final FAA Type Certification was issued.
Launch customer was FedEx, which required a versatile cargo freighter to deliver a one tone payload across various locations some of which had unpaved airstrips. Cessna named the cargo version as the cargo master and later followed it with a stretched version naming it the Super cargo master with an additional payload.
Cessna has since delivered over 250 units to FedEx and it is still the single largest operator of the model to date accounting for over 10% of all the units ever produced by the Wichita, Kansas-based manufacturer.
However it is the passenger version that has been the game changer as far as aviation is concerned especially in the developing nations in Asia and Africa. The first version of the Caravan referred to as the Cessna C208 Caravan was based on the design of the cargo master. It was configured to be a basic nine or ten-seater and it became a favorite to many African operators who required a versatile aircraft that could handle bush flying conditions and be capable of handling a payload of 10 passengers but still have an economical operational cost.
The cabin interior can be fitted with seats or cargo holds with the standard high density airline configuration featuring three rows of 1-2 seating.
The Cessna Grand Caravan, also referred to as the Caravan 11 was released later by Cessna after the overwhelming success of the basic Caravan, especially in Africa. The Grand Caravan was based on the design of the Super Cargo master and was configured by many operators in a high density airline configuration with four rows of 1-2 seating thus making it capable of accommodating 13 passengers with the option of setting it in a low density passenger configuration or even with a combination of passenger and cargo.
A further advantage, thanks to the rugged construction of the spring based undercarriage, is its high ground clearance enabling it to accommodate an addition cargo pod for passenger baggage or cargo. Also the basic airframe can be fitted with various landing gear types so as to operate in a wide variety of environments like landing skis, enlarged tyres for unprepared runways and floats for the amphibian model for marine conditions.
The Caravan can also be configured for a skydiving role with a port side cargo hatch door that features a roll up door.
The basic Caravan was thus able to serve in various roles including standard commuter airline role, air ambulance, aerial survey, search and rescue and cargo.However, it is in the passenger role that made the aircraft such a success as it only needs four passengers in a standard ticketing pricing to break even, thus making it an idea aircraft to serve in commuter airline destinations with fluctuating route passenger density.
After 28 years of producing the basic Caravan model with the analogue instrumentation, Cessna announced that all subsequent Caravans would be fitted with a full glass cockpit that featured the Garmin G1000 avionics suite.
The aircraft has been a wide success in Africa due to its suitability in bush operating conditions that offers reliability with a high dispatch rate and relatively low operational costs. The aircraft has been the mainstay in the general and regional aviation industry in Africa.
In May, 2012, Cessna announced that it would partner with a Chinese manufacturer to deliver a new variant for the Chinese market. The government owned China Aviation Industry General Aircraft set up an assembly for the Caravans in Shijiazhuang.
The latest variant is the 208B Grand Caravan EX Model that was certified in January 2013 as a manufacturer based solution in response to the various Caravan power upgraded Model conversions including the Black hawk and Texan converted models.
The Caravan EX is powered by an 867 hp (647 Kw) Pratt and Whitney Canada PT6A-140 that improves climb performance by 38% unlike the Black hawk conversion that uses the PT6A-62 and Super van that utilizes the Honeywell TPE331-12 engine. The model is also aimed at float operators and will compete with aftermarket conversion.
Another successful variant was the 208B Super Cargo master that found much favour with FedEx which purchased over 260 units of this model.
The 208B Caravan is the amphibian version that is fitted with Wipaire 8000 floats for water landing and land operations.
However, it was the Soloy Pathfinder 21 that was the most powerful version ever produced as it was a twin engine model. Its construction featured two PT6D-114A engines that were coupled to drive a single propeller with its airframe construction featuring a 1, 8-metre stretched fuselage.
The success of the Caravan led to operators demanding even more with performance improving maintenance providers coming up with various market driven solutions, including the 850 Caravan that was fitted with a 850 Honeywell TPE 331-12JR-701S engine by Aero Twin, which later produced the 950 Grand Caravan that was installed with the Honeywell TPE331-12JR-704AT engine.
The Super van 900 by Texas Turbine went even further with a 1000 hp Honeywell TPE331-12JR that was flat rated at 900 hp, while the Caravan XP42A by Black hawk Modifications upgraded the Caravan with a 850 hp PT6A-42.All these upgraded versions improved the Caravans performance by over 30% in terms of take off run, fuel consumption and power delivered.
The militarily versions include the U-27A that was the based on the 208A, while the C-98 and C-16 were the designations for the Brazilian and US Army respectively.
The C-208 was designated as the Combat Caravan being an armed version with Hellfire missiles used by the Lebanese and Iraq air forces.
An Instant HIT
When the first Caravans were introduced to the African market, especially the East African market, in the early 1990s, it became an instant hit as the then general and regional aviation market fleet choice in the 8-10 seater class aircraft was dominated by supercharged piston engine driven aircraft like the Cessna 406.
During this time turboprop aircraft in this class were not common, but the operational challenges of piston driven aircraft of this class were ever increasing, key among them being the relatively higher operational costs and reliability leading to a lower dispatch rate of the piston engines especially in bush destinations were other problems.
Thus the Caravan with its powerful and reliable PT6 engines with its simple operational design and lower operational costs meant that it had a big role to play in the African market.
The main challenge at the time was that since the aircraft was relatively new to the market and performing very well, very few were on the second hand market thus operators had to part with the then over $1-million listed price so as to lay hands on what was a game changer to the industry.
The aircrafts popularity grew as most African regional operators transitioned from piston to turboprop aircraft. Then, with the rising fuel prices, the place of the Caravan was cemented in the industry.
Cessnas sales agents even went as far as saying in many circles that You cannot go wrong with a Caravan. It may have been seen as a marketing gimmick, but the African market, this turned out to be factual as the aircraft served so many roles successfully that some referred to it as having more uses than a Swiss Army knife.
Serving as a commuter airliner, freighter, air ambulance, surveillance, skydiving-the Caravan did it all, thus becoming one of the aircraft type with the highest number in the civil aircraft registry in many African nations, like Kenya where the Caravan is the most popular aircraft on the register.
As the Caravan will be turning 30 later this year, its impact on the African aviation industry has been powerful, in terms of the areas it has been able to serve. Despite its listed price increasing to well over $2-million for a factory new unit, this has not dampened sales even in a global recession as many African operators have been placing orders and even waiting for over a year to get their hands on the previous bird.
The Caravan has amassed over 13,5-million hours with over 2200units delivered over its three-decade history and has been certified in over 100 countries. Its role is anchored as an industry benchmark as other comparable aircraft in its class like the Quest Kodiak, Pilatus PC-12 and PAC 750 SL aim to get a bigger piece of the pie.
To list the Caravan operators in Africa would need too much space, so the question should be: Who among the African general and regional operators does not have a Caravan?
About the Author: Anthony A Juma is the Editor and Director Commercial and Flights Operations at Wings Over Africa Aviation Limited. This is an Air Charter Company that specializes on Cessna C-208B Scheduled & Private flights for Cargo & Passengers in Africa. The website has guided thousands of travelers to achieve their dream holiday. For more information and guidance, visit the site at