When the press release on Cessna’s new twin turboprop came pixeling into my inbox Tuesday morning, my first reaction was: a new skydiving airplane! Woo-hoo! This further proves that self-interest easily overpowers rational thought, but in a more sober moment, I realized that in aviation as in everything else, history repeats.
Even without a piece of ruled graph paper—can you even buy that stuff anymore?—you can figure out the economics here. In case you’ve forgotten, Cessna and FedEx joined hands and checkbooks in 1982 to create the 208 Caravan. Thirty-five years and 2500 airframes later, they’re renewing their vows with the 408 SkyCourier, a clean-sheet twin turbine that is, as far as I can see, a rethinking of the venerable de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter. And then some.
Draw the lines of the graph and you find that in 1982, U.S. GDP was $3.3 trillion and FedEx—then still Federal Express—had about $800 million of it. In 2016, FedEx was a $50 billion operation in an $18.5 trillion economy. In 1982, the China import trade was barely visible. Today, China accounts for $462 billion in imports and FedEx flies a lot of that stuff not just from China but right into the hands of customers. FedEx was the launch customer for the Caravan because it needed an airplane to fly freight from the big airplanes to the little towns.
There aren’t any more little towns now than in 1982, but there are more people and there’s a whole lot more stuff. E-commerce is a growth industry and FedEx clearly needs more lift capacity at greater efficiency. And it may have Amazon to contend with as a competitor. We’ve reported that Amazon has been trying to build its own airline for package delivery and FedEx likely has an interest in blunting that. Logically, at least to me, this points to a twin turboprop to displace the Caravan on certain routes. The fact that Cessna has designed the 408 to accept rapidly loadable industry-standard LD-3 containers will usher in some ramp efficiency. FedEx’s initial buy will be 50 airplanes, with an option for 50 more. Not huge volume, but then the Caravan wasn’t either, nor was FedEx the only customer.
So far, Cessna has only whiteboarded the specs on the new twin, claiming a maximum payload of 6000 pounds against an unpublished gross weight. That’s nearly twice the 3305-pound useful load of the 208B Caravan and 1600 pounds more than the typical Twin Otter. (Textron didn’t give proposed useful load for the 408, so these numbers are a little fuzzy. But they’re directionally valid.) Fully loaded, the SkyCourier will have a range of about 400 NM, well within the 200 NM or less typical stage length the Caravans fly. That’s further proof that FedEx needs nothing more than a bigger pipe. (FedEx has also contracted to buy a fleet of new ATR 72-600F turboprop twins.)
All of this is perfectly logical and reasonable. I found two things interesting in the announcement. One is the utterly workmanlike feel of the proposal. Textron tends not to talk about such things, but there’s no whiff that it thought about the airplane being electric or hybrid or to have the hooks for that current darling of the forward-looking industry, autonomous operation. By aviation standards, they plan to have the thing flying by next week (2020, actually) and that’s too aggressive a timeline to fool around with technology that doesn’t exist, despite all the stories the aviation press flogs on the topic.
Second, it’s to be expected that Cessna would propose a passenger version of the SkyCourier; that simply expands the market envelope. But the 19-seat market, which was hot around the time the original Caravan appeared—remember the Beech 1900 and the Embraer 110 Bandeirante?—is moribund now. In the U.S., with the Essential Air Services program on life support, it’s hard to imagine that it will come back. But then I’m sure Textron isn’t banking on such sales. This is a utility airplane that’s all about cargo.
One other surprise, maybe. The press release didn’t mention the engines, but the specs page does. I was expecting the GE ATP, the cutting-edge engine Cessna will use in the big Denali turboprop single. But nope. They’re planning the Pratt & Whitney PT6A-65SC. At 1100 SHP, it’s an iteration of the -65 series that’s been around for a while and will have the addition of Pratt’s FAST maintenance tracking and prognostication feature. Not exactly old school, maybe, but not cutting edge either. When the Caravan was launched, FedEx crowed about Pratt as a provider of reliable turbine power. Could be they drove that opinion again. I won’t be surprised to see a second engine option for the 408 if GE’s ATP proves more efficient and less costly to operate than the PT6. If you fly an airplane 1000 hours a year, a 15 percent efficiency gain in operating cost is not to be ignored.
Ten years from now, the 408, like the Caravan, will still be soldiering along. Twenty years? Same. Somewhere during that run, FedEx will cast off a few and, sure enough, one will become a skydiving airplane. Like I said, woo-hoo!
Originally posted at AVWeb.com.