Bo Diddley made famous a line that struck me with its truth from my first exposure, a refrain that stayed with me from my teen years on:
You can't judge a book
by lookin' at the cover.
Most often, people reminded me of Bo Diddley's refrain, folks whose personalities defied the overrated "first impression" deemed all-important by so many advising adults. As the years progressed, machines occasionally connected that same series of synapses, reminding me that the best traits of even inanimate objects sometimes were belied by looks.
And Bo Diddley returned to me loud and clear both times Cessna Aircraft Co. granted me some quality time flying the two heaviest haulers of the current piston-single line, the venerable Stationairs 206H and T206H.
Both looked the role of the virile utility machines they are; their expanse of brawny wings, the pumped-up quality of their fuselages, the girth of their muscular lift struts, even the bulk of their main-gear legs. The growl of those big six-cylinder Lycomings continued the impression of a stalwart, no-nonsense stevedore and the book load numbers backed up that perception.
Trouble was, from behind the left yoke neither quite carried off the persona suggested by their appearances. Instead of feeling heavy or sluggish in flight, the TurboStationair and its naturally-aspirated clone, the Stationair, responded with aplomb closer to that of a 90-pound dancer than a 300-pound lineman.
Instead of feeling slow or hesitant to respond, my time in those saddles convinced me that neither gives away anything to their lighter, four-place siblings, the proportionally hearty Skylane 182S, the lighter 172S Skyhawk SP, and the lightest bird from the Independence nest, the best-selling Skyhawk 172R.
Both 206H versions share in all the improvements in accouterments Cessna showered on the two singles previously resurrected in Independence, Kan., three years back. Both Stationair versions deliver admirable speed and more-than-ample payload to go with the enhanced safety and creature comforts.
The only real differences between the two come down to how high and how fast you want to fly and whether your wallet's weight matches the higher entry fee for flying the faster of the two. Otherwise, neither 206H demands more flying skills or abilities than any of the cousins and, in a couple of areas of maneuvering flight, actually felt better than any of the four-seaters.
For perspective's sake, consider this analogy: a fullback as capable of dragging five defense men downfield as he is nimbly navigating between them with the deftness of a ballet dancer in shoulder pads. Or, meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger and finding that he's pumping up to play Barishnikov and capable of carrying all the parts himself.
Others may wonder about my sense and sensibilities here, and rightly so. After all, how often does an airplane so deftly defy its own image, even its own press, in a way that makes it more approachable in the process?
In my case, it happens rarely and happened twice with Cessna's two stand-out Stationairs. Nothing about flying the 206Hs quite matched my expectations for large, high-capacity singles. So much for judging the plane's persona by appearance alone; Bo Diddley was right, again.
The new 206H Stationair landed on the scene just over a year ago, the third of three airframes and fourth of four models Cessna revived in its return to the piston-airplane business. Although both the 172R Skyhawk and 182S Skylane arrived a bit behind Cessna's aggressive, demanding schedule, neither lagged as far behind as the 206H; a few months later, the T206H joined the lineup.
The unpredictable logistics of re-establishing an all-new factory building a new plant from scratch, hiring and training new workers forced back the Skyhawk and Skylane schedules by a few weeks. But the delay of the 206Hs stemmed mainly from Cessna's efforts to raise the bar for the Stationairs even farther than equipment and upholstery.
Cessna wanted a larger engine that would deliver the power desired at lower, quieter engine speeds, an approach successfully employed on both the Skyhawk and Skylane. Historically, 50 percent of all Stationairs go overseas, spending the majority of their lives flying the bush and desert and jungle of the developing world. With so many destined to fly so far from the comfort a a maintenance-capable FBO, let alone factory support, Cessna also wanted the new engine to promise the level of high reliability demanded of such a plane.
Unfortunately for the Stationair program, the new 580-inch mill Textron developed failed to make the mark in an Iron Man-like test Cessna required: a 500-hour endurance test with no failures. That's a run more than three times greater than the 150-hour test required, and passed, for FAA certification. Cessna and Textron also experienced some gremlins with the new engine in flight tests and after the program was obviously into tardy territory, Independence punted.
The new Stationair instead got existing Lycomings, 300 horses for the naturally-breathing 206H with its IO-540, 10 ponies more for the turbocharged T206H, powered by a TIO-540. And operators in the vast go-it-alone world of bush flying would get engines with proven reliability records.
Ironically, the Stationair has been, relatively, the lightweight where post-production ADs are concerned. Both the 172 and 182 have drawn more corrective and preemptory airworthiness actions than the Stationairs. Some might say third time's charmed. Whatever, minus the differences in decibels, the new 206Hs have delivered in performance what they've promised for more than three decades.
When word broke back in 1993 that Cessna wanted to revive three singles, few could question the lineup. Before Cessna put its piston line into long-term hibernation in the winter of 1986, each model selected for 1997 stood out from the crowd: Skyhawk, the world's best-selling airplane, period; the Skylane, high-performance and heavy hauling in a simple, sturdy four-place airframe; the Stationair, originally called the Super SkyWagon, a popular six-place utility mount boasting performance on par with more-svelte singles like the A36 Bonanza in defiance of its bulbous, strut-braced, fixed-gear simplicity. You couldn't tell it by looking.
Excellence in a specific area never goes out of style or popularity; what made this trio sell well before remains in demand today. What the market wouldn't tolerate, Cessna marketing executives learned in surveys, was an airplane out of style with the technologies of the times. Consumers wanted greater avionics capabilities, better instrumentation and lighting, more systems redundancy in other words, more attention to safety. Comfort was another demand; interiors had to reflect the styling available in new cars and trucks.
And forget about fielding machines with Spartan equipment lists; standard equipment should include everything commonly needed for instrument flight, the options few and well-thought-out.
Cessna executives got the message and responded.
New Cessnas all sport: dual vacuum pumps for increased IFR safety; better panel and cabin lighting, including lighted instruments and gauges; accurate fuel gauges with flow metering and low-fuel warning lights to improve pilot awareness; and an annunciator panel to concentrate warnings in a central location. That annunciator panel highlights low fuel to low voltage, oil pressure or vacuum-system suction. An alternate static source is also standard.
Inertial-reel shoulder harness, energy-absorbing seats, padded glareshields, individual intercom jacks, multiple fresh-air vents, stronger door latches, stronger seat rails, and more, round out the safety, comfort and performance enhancements designed into the new singles.
The new 206Hs also share standard-equipment brand names with the other models, since Cessna selected single vendors for major components, to simplify manufacturing and control costs: the aforementioned fuel-injected Textron Lycoming engines; props from McCauley; avionics and autopilots from AlliedSignal's Bendix-King line.
All new Cessnas also include more and better sound insulation; thicker windows; modern, fitted interiors; and panels well-designed and executed. Coupled with the slower engine speeds of their powerplants, the Skyhawk and Skylane may have the quietest cabins of any piston planes; the Stationairs are nearly as quiet and certainly quiet enough to lessen the fatigue effect of sound during hours-long cruises.
You might think this level of finish and equipment unnecessary gilding the lily of a utility plane. But Cessna's engineers also designed the interior to fit into the real world of bush use. Five of the six seats come out easily; a wide door on the starboard side gives generous access to the rear four seats; luggage compartment access is also more than ample.
Cessna even offers a baggage pod that adds considerable volume to the Stationairs' transport potential. And load potential it has. Today's 206H delivers a 1,539-pound maximum payload, which translates into 1,011 pounds of people and cargo with the four rear seats removed and a full 88 gallons of fuel.
Other options for the Stationairs include avionics upgrades that improve on the GPS and autopilot, but no weather avoidance gear, such as a StormScope or StrikeFinder; for those, you'll have to consult an avionics shop. Likewise, fitting floats is an aftermarket affair; but vendors are available for that addition, as well, and Cessna offers an optional float-plane package that equips the Stationairs to take the available pontoons.
But if a pretty interior with carpeting and fine leathers or fabrics clashes completely with visions of flying the outback, Cessna offers a more-Spartan utility interior as an option. Also available: oversize wheels, tires and pants, to help balance the competing worlds of unimproved runways and improved aerodynamics.
And let there be no doubt, either Stationair is as comfortable where the getting is tough as it is where the going is easy. At least that capability matches its looks, as demonstrated by putting the big bird through some of its paces at a remote strip that looks every bit what it is: a piece of uneven, rough, virgin prairie.
A runway's gotta be beyond rundown to pose much of a challenge for the Stationairs, my lasting impression of flying both the T206H, N9554W, and 206H, N9554S, into my favorite piece of prairie, tiny Beaumont, Kan. You can find Beaumont (7K9 on the Wichita Sectional) about 44 nautical miles out the 86 degree radial from the Wichita VOR. But that's not my usual navigation practice when coming from a Wichita-area airport.
My usual flight to Beaumont is IFR54-E I Follow Route 54 eastbound until in view of an unusual, unmistakable landmark: a wooden, 1870s railroad jerk-water tower that stands above the red-brick buildings of this 19th-century village. From Wichita to Augusta, Kan., the landscape goes from urban, to developing rural, to the vast, undeveloped Flint Hills, where cows outnumber people, per square mile and in total population.
You may have heard pilots talk about the Beaumont Hotel, either from personal visits while in Wichita to pick up a plane, training at FlightSafety; attending an aviation convention, or from word-of-mouth passed around and around.
Beaumont is simply that unique a place. For five decades, private pilots have been landing on the 2,500-foot strip of prairie on the east edge of Beaumont, turning west off the south end of the strip, taxiing up 116th Street to the intersection with Main, and parking across the street from what today is called The Summit House Country Inn and Restaurant.
Beaumont is my standard test for a bush plane: handling the rough landscape of the Flint Hills turf, the ruts and grooves near the runway ends and in the middle, the trees beyond the south departure, and the "drive" into town to park in the designated "Airplanes Only" parking area beneath the water tower.
It's when flying a non-standard approach to a non-standard landing on a far-from-standard strip that many of an airplane's most-telling traits sharpen into focus: power response; slips; steep approaches; slow-speed handling; trim needs; pitch sensitivity for soft-field touchdowns, and, of course, stalls during full-flare short-field demonstrations.
And despite the many times Beaumont has hosted one of my demonstration flights, the tall stand of trees a few hundred feet beyond the south end of the strip almost always intimidates me a bit. Looking down the runway to where it slopes downhill and out of sight gives the illusion that those trees grow right out of the end of the runway, they stand that tall from a half-mile away. Coming the other way, northbound, for landing, makes the trees a significant factor if you want to plant as near to the downhill end of the runway as possible.
Every plane I've landed there Skyhawks, Skylanes, Cherokees, Comanches, M20-series Mooneys, and a Caravan got me over the trees, or, at least, high enough to maneuver away from them, on takeoff, and let me arrive on the runway with space enough to stop. Yet knowing the short-field capabilities of the Stationairs, only in the abstract of the POH, did little to calm my nagging nerves.
But of all those different planes, the Stationairs did the job the easiest. Where a new 182S cleared the trees on takeoff close enough to delay stowing the flaps and thus postpone the accompanying sink of that Cessna until beyond the reaching of the towering branches both Stationairs gave me more than 300 feet to spare going out.
The biggest differences between the T206H and its ambient-breathing 206H kin was in acceleration to rotation speed, followed by climb after takeoff. My flight to Beaumont in the 206H came on a cool November day, and the big Stationair needed less than one-third of the prairie to get airborne; on a hot, sticky May day, my numbers for the TurboStationair came out just slightly shorter, close enough to make me question my technique.
On the hotter, higher-density-altitude day, the TurboStationair made all 310 horsepower; on the colder, damper day six months earlier, density altitude was closer to Beaumont's field elevation, 1610 feet high enough to drop power a few percentage points. On a side-by-side basis on the same strip, I'd expected the TurboStationair to best the Stationair by no more than a few seconds. And that was enough to improve the distance-to-clear-a-50-foot-obstacle numbers by a few feet. In this case, a good 30 feet more.
Credit the Stationairs' commendable climb rates. Now don't get me wrong, here; while neither of these birds is a slouch when making for the heavens, neither will they set the world ablaze with their climb rates, though both deliver ascents above 1,000 fpm. As befalls all naturally aspirated piston planes, the 206H climb suffers with altitude and the resulting proportional decline in engine power.
But not so, the T206H. Engine power remains at 100 percent until near the flight levels, and the climb rate hangs right in there, too, even as the true airspeed increases with altitude. In fact, to keep visibility and engine-cooling air at optimum, 120 knots proved a good speed that kept me climbing well above 500 feet a minute until above 10,000 in the 206H and nearly at the flight levels in the T206H.
As much as the Stationairs' runway requirements matched my expectations, however, the work of maneuvering on and off the prairie airstrip surprised me. My expectations leaned toward the heavy and sluggish; my experience rewarded me with a replay of Bo's refrain.
The key to making the 206Hs fly light and lively, at least for me, came from learning the feel and speed of the electric pitch-trim to neutralize the Stationairs' heaviest handling aspect, regardless of powerplant. Developing that trim touch took a bit of time; it seemed fast, overly sensitive, at first. But after my third or fourth circuit, my touch on the trim switch became more deft and my feel of the airplane more sensitive.
And that was a good thing.
Without judicious, generous application of pitch trim, the Stationairs become nose-heavy and far less easy to fly. Remember, somewhere upwards of a quarter-ton sits out there ahead of the firewall; letting the elevator trim relieve you of fighting the nose weight also enhances management of small airspeed adjustments on either side of a target speed.
The better you manage airspeed on ascent and descent, the better the Stationair makes you look getting on and off runways. And to achieve the Stationairs' best-performance landings and takeoffs, the ones yielding sky-view only climb angles, you've got to quickly, precisely, put the nose where you need it and keep it as close to target as possible.
Rolling back the split trim switch at climb-out or ahead of landing flare helped me find a sweet spot between the onset of the stall horn and the onset of pre-stall buffet; that sweet spot, timed for the task, gave me the shortest ground rolls in either direction of short-field operations. For more-normal arrivals, starting the transition before 70 knots worked well to let me flare and roll out with normal braking; and on departure, the same starting point worked well with acceleration while trimming to a shallower, faster climb angle.
And during transition maneuvers like landings and takeoffs, the Stationairs both rewarded me with powerful aileron control. Right down at the point where the stall horn started squalling but the wing was still flying. Taken all together, this control authority, coupled with the approach speed down in the low 70-knot range, rewarded me with progressively shorter landings and stop distances.
Thanks to some lucky targeting during my attempt to execute an extreme short-field landing, the T206H put me as close to the arrival end as I could ever hope and, let me stop with enough distance to launch the big bird from that point trees or no trees.
Other than the slight differences in takeoff performance, both models were delights at Augusta, Beaumont, Benton, Mid-Continent, and Ponca City, Okla. Of course, Beaumont was the toughest, followed by Benton, an equally short asphalt runway about 15 miles northeast of Wichita.
Where the test at Beaumont gave me plenty of perspective on the Stationairs' short- and soft-field performance on an unimproved runway, the test at Benton involved crosswind handling, an important factor on a narrow (25 foot) runway. After all, if the two 206H models could get in and out of a grass strip, a paved strip of equal length presented little challenge except when the wind shifted and strengthened.
Again, the Stationairs' powerful control surfaces made easy work of landing straight-and-level in 15 knots, 60 degrees off the centerline. For me, crosswinds demand flying final in touchdown configuration so I can feel how close we are to the aircraft's limits. And at no time did either 206H feel near its limits.
At one point, the wind started pushing the 206H west of the centerline, but a bit of extra rudder and aileron, coupled with an approach speed higher by seven knots, countered that push. My fondest wish is for every landing to be as smooth and under control as my last crosswind touchdown, but in fact, it took me three tries to hit my mark as well as I like; and afterward, it was a snap.
And flying the ILS at Ponca City, well, the Stationairs are a pair of airplanes with the combination of maneuverability and, in conflict, stability, that makes life easier and more comfortable when flying inside the eggshell.
That mass in the nose, coupled with well-balanced tail feathers and the Stationairs' overall mass, work together to make the 206Hs as stable and tenacious in airspeed as you could want, without making these big birds into airplanes with handling that matches their looks.
Nothing like the variety of different airports and prairie air strips to flush out an airplane's low-speed handling, arrival and departure traits, eh? Of course, not all is getting in and getting out. In between is where the real time is made, and speed definitely counts.
And that may be one of the more-surprising aspects of both the 206H and, especially, the T206H. These haulers, well, haul at speeds surprising for their size and weight. Just how fast is it/are they? Let's start with the slowest, first.
The 206H and T206H flown for this report turned in airspeeds that most serious cross-country pilots would be happy with particularly when you consider the versatility of the designs.
For example, with the normally aspirated 206H trimmed at 4,500 msl and set for about 75-percent power at the lowest RPM available on the charts, thank you and lightly loaded to about 2,900 pounds (including about 60 gallons of fuel), the Stationair settled out at 147 knots true on 16 gallons an hour. Cessna's book specifications call 150 knots as the maximum sea-level speed, 143 knots maximum cruise on 75 percent power at 6,500 feet. And with all 88 gallons of tanks filled, you've gas enough to go a whopping 680 nautical miles with reserves, after allowing fuel for engine start, warm-up, taxi time, and climb to cruise.
This pace should make cross-country flying more than comfortable. Sure, these sort of speeds may pale compared to other 300-horsepower aircraft. But, of course, most of those planes are high-performance retractables with much-higher price tabs than the Stationair's $289,900 price tag.
Turning now to the $340,900 T206H, this bird hauls tail feathers. After climbing at well over 1,000 feet a minute through 5,000 feet msl, the T206H continued to breath easily and deeply, delivering any manifold pressure I demanded, whether the 30 inches set for cruise or a full 37 inches for maximum climb. That supply of pressurized induction air translates into some impressive numbers, including a service ceiling of 27,000 msl, more than high enough to give a pilot a view down on climbers headed for the peak of Mount Everest.
Down at 17,000 feet, a great altitude for traversing the country relatively traffic-free, the turbocharger pumps in enough fresh air to keep 75 percent power and speed along at 178 knots true; up in propjet territory, like Flight Level 200, that 75-percent power yields 164 knots true.
And this bird has legs to spare. With 88 gallons of useable fuel on board, the T206H can cover 568 nautical miles with 45 minutes of reserve fuel, even after allowing for engine start, taxi, takeoff and climb. Cessna recommends climbing at 2,400 rpm and 30 inches of manifold pressure, trimmed to 500 feet per minute and fuel flow leaned to 20 gallons per hour, to make those range numbers.
On both birds, engine and oil temps stayed firmly in the green; and that electric trim, while seeming too sensitive at first, became the most-welcome asset as my time in N9554W progressed. Other than twisting the throttle in every 1,000 feet to keep that 30 inches of manifold pressure the turbo system does not automatically compensate the job of flying the big bird could hardly be easier.
Before you judge this big bird by its looks, you may first want to leaf through the pages of its abilities and traits. Today's Stationairs blend utility and capability useful in the bush with appointments and flying habits equally welcome by business-owner/pilots, charter companies and rental operators. At your small home field, in front of a polished corporate FBO, in a jungle or outback locale, these birds are useful in all roles.
With flying traits no more demanding than the stalwart Skyhawk, and speeds in territory Bonanzas know well, most normally competent aviators should find little to frustrate or frighten them. Now that's not saying there won't be some pucker factor trying to squeeze either version into small, constrained, unimproved strips, particularly the first few times it's attempted. But again, any average pilot with the right training and practice should be able to master places that insurance adjusters fear to fly.
Cessna also equipped the resurrected Stationair to the same enhanced level of standard features as its other piston singles, making the base plane a far better-equipped, more-capable mount than previous incarnations. And though it may not look so luxurious or sanguine at first, though it may seem more muscular than fast, just remember my buddy, Bo.
If you do, it's likely you'll come away impressed by how much more it is than it looks.