Cessna, part of Textron Aviation, has a reputation for never resting on its laurels. It produces iconic, quality aircraft, and then keeps on improving them. The C172 and C182 are great examples, and at the top end of the range, the Citation jets.

Now there’s a new-old “Grand Design” on the apron, one of high interest to scores of Australian operators. It’s the Cessna Grand Caravan EX.

The Caravan or “208” design is 34 years old, having first flown in 1982. It’s gone through multiple revisions and improvements – airframe, engine, avionics and interior, the sort of quality improvement program that gives buyers, owners and passengers a huge sense of safety, trust, and in the 208’s case, utility.

Aviation Trader was given the opportunity to test Textron’s demonstrator, C208B-EX, N271EX, with just delivery hours on the clock, during a return flight from Essendon to Moorabbin in early September. It was a rainy, cloudy and definitely IFR day, with ATIS warnings to “expect an instrument approach and turbulence in the circuit.”

We were accompanied by Textron’s Regional Sales Director, Adam A. Triolo, ATP, who is based out of Singapore and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics; Textron’s Brisbane RSA, Kathrin Huston; and Luke Smith from Hawker Pacific at Bankstown. Another “passenger” in the back was an aircraft propeller, that nicely demonstrated the carry-anything-no-fuss nature of the 208.

First impressions of the 208 are that it is, despite its 1980s origins, a thoroughly “this century” aeroplane – the shiny two tone paint scheme (white on the top for visibility and dark blue on the bottom to hide the dirt), the LED lights, the familiar G1000 / GFC 700 avionics, and in the case of the demonstrator, classy and comfortable, light weight, executive-style beige leather seats.

Utility comes from the fact that some or all of the seats can quickly be swapped for cargo, or mini containers that slide though the 49” x 50” double cargo door at the left rear. The FedEx origins of the 208 remain. There’s a door and passenger stairs at the right rear, and doors at the front for both pilots.

“The 208 is just a big 152” [in terms of design and the way it flies]. “If you can fly a 152 you can fly a 208,” they say. That urban legend will be examined shortly, but first the one big difference, and “big” is the operative word. This is a huge single, capable of carry 14 people, lots of fuel, at much improved speed, over long distances. This is not an aeroplane you slip into like a 152. You must literally climb into a 208. Sitting up high you know you’re in the Grand Champion of SUVs in the sky.

The cockpit has a commanding view and the huge passenger windows are panoramic. You get a feeling of space. The cabin is quiet. Passenger headsets or ear plugs are not required and conversation is easy.

OK, back to that bit about the 208 being a big 152. When it comes to the way it flies, it’s true. And that’s a good thing. The many pilots who took the 152, 172, 182 or even 206 route, with Garmin G1000 experience, will immediately feel right at home.

Cessna has cleverly taken all those great handling characteristics of the small Cessna’s (that many of the 208 pilots will have progressed through) and built them into the Caravan. Our test flight showed it really does fly just the same. The big fat high wings are a large part of that, the controls are nicely balanced in all aspects, and best of all the 208’s huge flaps act like barn doors when lowered, giving amazing “helicopter-like” short field performance, just like the on the Cessna “One Series” aeroplanes. Cessna pilots will even be ready to pitch the nose down to avoid the balloon when lowering those flaps.

The short ground roll will have “One Series” pilots feeling comfortable. It will be so familiar, at first that they won’t notice it at all. But suddenly they’ll exclaim “Hang on a minute mate, did I really just take off in an 8,807-pound aircraft?” If you are used to the Cessna family, take off, climb, cruise, approach and landing will all come to you just so easily and naturally.

Perhaps the best improvement on this latest version is the smooth and easy starting 867hp turbine, with its scheduled overhaul interval of 3,600 hours. It greatly improves climb performance – to 1,330 fpm and cruise speed, to a maximum of 195 KTAS. The latter is important in Australia, where distances are continental.

It would be wrong to pigeon hole the 208 as perfect for only one type of flying. And this is where the 152 analogy is no longer relevant. When it comes to “purpose” the 208 is not a trainer or pure pleasure craft. This is a work horse, a flexible money maker, a strong business proposition.

The 208’s USP (unique selling point), especially with that extra speed, is that it can be optimal for multiple missions – executive travel, scheduled airline services, charter, skydiving, freight carrying – especially with the large compartmentalised (to avoid load shifting) cargo pod, short or unimproved strip work, medivac, surveillance, photography or mapping, float plane, skis, and much more.

In a walk around, interesting items catch pilots’ eyes: so many doors, small and big; the large high wing, way above even the tallest head; the strong and spring loaded landing gear with big fat tires attached (that’s why the taxi and landing were so smooth); the massive number of storage areas, running the length of the aircraft; the height, width and headroom of the cabin; the single exhaust; the single turbine engine, when in the past an aircraft this size would have had two or three; the large windows, rivalling airliners, for size, view and position; the big struts supporting the wings, and those B52-like flaps.

The versatile and ultra-dispatch-reliable Caravan is a popular aircraft in Australia and elsewhere. It is clear from this latest iteration that won’t change. Expect to see lots of the new model appearing in multiple roles. A key part of the attraction is Cessna’s worldwide dealer and support network. And of course, Cessna isn’t finished yet. The C208 will be continually refined and improved.

About the Author

Paul M Southwick is Melbourne based journalist, communications consultant, and pilot.