The best design is where form closely follows function. In the world of transport, a prime example is the 1940s Willys Jeep – an angular, motorised platform for moving troops and supplies across rough terrain.
In aircraft, physics keeps designers’ excesses in check. There is little latitude for the more extravagant stylistic squiggles and curlicues when balancing thrust against weight, lift and drag. Yet an aircraft that is efficient has its own beauty.
The Grand Caravan EX from Kansas-based aircraft maker Cessna has that design ethic in spades. With a wingspan of 15.9m, a length of more than 12.6m and a height to the top of its tail of 4.5m, its size, boxy bulk and sturdy fixed undercarriage make it look like it could carry anything and go anywhere.
Over nearly 30 years in production, the Caravan model has shown that sort of capability. It can land on short and rough airstrips, a talent much appreciated in places with little infrastructure. I flew in one operated by the UN into Somalia some years ago, where the approved arrival technique, to minimise the risk of being shot down by small-arms fire, was to fly high over the rough airstrip, then spiral down steeply and clear the ultra-short runway as quickly as possible. Losing all the energy of a steep descent in time to make a short landing is not easy in many aircraft.
The Grand Caravan EX, introduced this year, makes that sort of feat even easier. Its single Pratt & Whitney PT6A turbine engine, driving a big 2.7m diameter propeller, grabs big enough chunks of the air to make accelerating, climbing and descending steeply simple. The power output, up to 867 shaft horsepower from 677shp, eases the task of lifting loads, whether they are refugees, oil drums or an anxious journalist or two.
That sort of performance is of no less value to adventurous owner pilots. Actors Harrison Ford and Angelina Jolie are in the ranks of Caravan owners.
What makes or breaks this sort of aircraft, though, is how easy it is to fly. Crossing hazardous terrain and landing at a tricky airstrip is difficult enough. If the aircraft takes too much effort, though, it leaves the pilot less headspace to keep the flight and landing safe. As the aircraft is certified for operation by a single pilot, despite having up to 13 more seats, ease of operation is all the more important.
On the apron the Grand Caravan looks solidly reassuring. Substantial ground clearance, in spite of the optional huge cargo pod on the belly of the fuselage, gives the impression that it can cope with the roughest of runways.
But it also has the same layout as smaller aircraft from Cessna. I am one of the many who learned to fly in a Cessna 152, which also has a single engine, high wings braced with struts and a fixed undercarriage. The two-seat 152 is no longer made, but the four-seat 172 is still used as a training aircraft around the world. Those small Cessnas have benign handling characteristics, with few sudden surprises for the clumsily inexperienced pilot.
The Caravan’s turbine engine, as I find when I go to start it, is easier to operate than the smaller aircrafts’ piston powerplants. Plus the propeller has the benefit of being switchable into reverse-pitch, deflecting the thrust from the engine forwards – a particular boon when trying to land in a tight spot.
For taking off, though, that 867shp makes the aircraft pick up speed quickly, even with the greater resistance of a grass runway, and then climb steeply. Even at the maximum gross weight of 4 tonnes, taking off from a hard surface uses just 426m of runway.
Sophisticated avionics, including weather radar on the machine I am flying, make navigation and flight planning simple. But the biggest surprise is that this large aircraft can be flown with a delicate touch. In fact, the flying characteristics are so similar to those of its smaller siblings, including a modest cruise speed of 185 knots, that any pilot who can master a 152 or 172 would feel instantly comfortable in the Caravan.
There is not much headroom, but a range of interiors can be fitted in the Caravan, from luxury to utility. The inside, accessible through a big side-door, can also be emptied quickly for cargo. There is nearly over 1.6 tonnes of carrying capacity to be split between people, fuel and cargo. Even with a full fuel load, that is nearly two-thirds of a tonne of load-lugging ability.
There are few other aircraft that will swallow a motorcycle or two as easily, and nothing at the Grand Caravan EX’s basic price of $2.15m. Prospective buyers recognise that; Cessna is working on a hoist system for one customer.
Many other owners use them to reach remote places, or to operate from water on floats. If they are discerning about form and function, they will also appreciate a flying machine of design purity as they guide their aerial SUV through the skies.
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