Cessna And FedEx Renew Their Vows

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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So far, Cessna has only whiteboarded the specs on the new twin, claiming a maximum payload of 6000 pounds against an unpublished gross weight.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!

Comments (24)

This airplane wreaks of practical with a capital "P." With apologies to Jerry Seinfeld, there's nothing wrong with that. The Conquest misadventure is nearly two generations behind Textron-Cessna, whose development team has refined the art, approaching General Dynamics -Gulfstream reliability and efficiency - without the benefit of $60 million sales invoices.
When I first saw the Pilatus jet, I wondered "what - no containerized cargo capability?" (Too much frontal-plate-area for small-jet operating speeds?) Textron's cabin configuration is a winning moment of "duh" design choice.
And itooks like a great way to loft a load of skydivers. Woo-hoo, indeed!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 30, 2017 6:15 AM    Report this comment

What?bertone No automation in aviation? Sorry YARS. Seriously, this is good.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 30, 2017 8:35 AM    Report this comment

What? No automation in aviation? Sorry YARS. Seriously, this is good.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 30, 2017 8:40 AM    Report this comment

A Basler Turbo 67 DC3 conversion beats the SkyCourier by a long way in every single category and still costs 1 million less. Just saying that the new design might have done a lot better by not being so "clean sheet". By the way, the DC3 does not need wing struts.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 30, 2017 9:54 AM    Report this comment

Maybe Textron can keep under 12,000 lbs. gross weight. There is a demand for a nine passenger combi that's easier to load/unload. Many of the current planes including the Caravan don't make it easy to carry half freight and 5 passengers. The SkyCourier could be an ideal plane for a pilot to acquire their magic 1500 hours in.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | November 30, 2017 1:35 PM    Report this comment

This thing looks like it is beautifully optimized for its mission. Fits standard LD3 containers, no pressurization, strut/main gear combo for a strong/light structure, G1000 so any new pilot (or current Caravan pilot) can fly it, aluminum and PT6s that can be serviced anywhere, and so much more! And it will be certified under Part 23. This will be real winner!

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | November 30, 2017 2:38 PM    Report this comment

Paul, on a side note, not to take away from the others, however, I do miss your writing style. You're fun to read.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | December 1, 2017 5:57 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the kind words, Thomas.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 1, 2017 7:00 AM    Report this comment

Interesting design, but at first look the Sky Courier looks to have precious little landing gear travel; is an torsional absorber system in place? If not, will this thing have the backcountry capability of the Caravan? Maybe not?

Compare it to the old Fairchild 24 with outrigger gear; but then it has huge oleos to compensate for the stress on the struts.

Posted by: A Richie | December 1, 2017 11:30 AM    Report this comment

I wouldn't draw much from an artist's rendering. The displayed airframe geometry would be a good candidate for a trailing-link execution.
Whenever I ponder a cargo bird, my mind drifts to the subject of load-in/out. While a traditional Crew/PAX door is a given, the wide-mouth cargo door presents opportunities if relieved of "in-the-box" (forgive the pun) constraints.
A side-located door-within-a-door configuration is tried and true. BUT it requires cargo to be loaded parallel to the wings, before being shifted fore/aft into tie-down position. A more useful configuration is a rear-access ramp. Straight-in loading accommodates outsize cargo as well as containers. But a C-130 -style rear ramp complicates the placement and structure of the empanage. Unless...
The proposed bird is a conventional twin, so a C-119 (and Cessna 336/337) style twin-boom design is an option that would offer a wing-mounted gear configuration AND employment a one-step-off-the-ground belly-clearance configuration - eliminating the need for Crew/PAX stairs.
Paul might even like the idea of running out of the gaping rear of the beast - wearing a parachute, of course!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 1, 2017 1:25 PM    Report this comment

Yars ... I thought the same thing with a rear loading ramp, too.

A few weeks ago, I saw a FedEx bird sleeping on the ramp at KDLL in between flights to KMKE. I wonder why they don't rent those things out to parachute jumpers in between? Watching the video of those five crazy people being pushed out the back of a Shorts in a car gives me an idea. PB could get a bunch of his buddies and they could all race out the back of a new 408 on superbikes wearing parachutes OR ... wingsuits. I don't think anyone has done THAT yet?? FedEx could enjoy extra revenue during down periods of their 408's, too.

WooHoo! :-)

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 2, 2017 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Larry, might as well earn money while jumping. Have each jumper carry and deliver a FedEx package. Drones be damned, woohoo?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 3, 2017 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Nah, Raf - have 500 drones, each carrying a package, bail out of the 408 over the IP. ;-)

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 3, 2017 1:22 PM    Report this comment

Yars, Raf ... I was going to suggest that but I didn't say it. The software used to compute a best fit path threading the needle through radar laced airspace for a B-2 could be used to determine the best path over the ground to drop hoards of delivery drones. Since the drones would mostly be going down, they could be storing energy via regeneration from their engines and this energy could later be re-captured. Maybe, Textron could build a hybrid 408 ... the 408h ... and use that energy to get itself back up to altitude. Geezola ... we'd have darned near a energy free system of systems here, guys. And, if it were autonomous (to make Yars happy), that would make them all the more energy efficient. Why we could use NASA's X-57 Maxwell idea with 18 electric engines on the thing and -- maybe -- even add some photovoltaic cells on top of the wing. We could call it ... the Greenie!

I think we need to patent this idea !! Either that or ... sell it to Elon or Jeff.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 4, 2017 8:04 PM    Report this comment

Hell, we rich now!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 4, 2017 9:44 PM    Report this comment

Cessna needs UPS in the mix here.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 6, 2017 11:23 AM    Report this comment

UPS as in Uninterrupted Power Supply ?

Posted by: Michael Weidhaas | December 6, 2017 4:41 PM    Report this comment

UPS as in United Postal Service. The company that lost my iPad.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 6, 2017 5:25 PM    Report this comment


Did you mean United PARCEL Service, the guys in the brown trucks which will soon have automated trucks and delivery robots?

Posted by: Richard Montague | December 7, 2017 7:29 AM    Report this comment

Yes Sir. United PARCEL Service. UPS. The guys that deliver 4x more packages than FedEx, wear brown uniforms, and drop PARCELS at your front door, unless there is a dog in the neighborhood.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 7, 2017 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Cessna's investment on the 408 is more than another airplane in a rapidly expanding airfreight and passenger transport industry. As a proponent of the revitalization of America's aviation, I am excited.

According to Boeing, airfreight traffic growth forecast is to average 4.2 percent annually for the next 20 years contributing to a 70 percent increase on the number of airplanes in the freighter fleet by 2035. More aircraft, more of everything aviation. And by the way, where do drones fit into the pic?

World Air Cargo Forecast - Boeing


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 9, 2017 12:14 PM    Report this comment

Drones will range from housefly-size to jumbo-jet-size. Human-piloted commercial aircraft will become as common as typewriters and carbon paper are in modern office settings. But we'll still have our Cubs!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 9, 2017 1:12 PM    Report this comment

YARS, you mean like the "paperless society" we were promised at the advent of computers. Paper remains adding to practicality. I agree that aerial Drones will proliferate but I doubt that commercial aviation pilots will be voided. A balanced mix will remain. But getting back to reality, the 408 is a timely solution to the regional passenger transport and lower level cargo delivery infrastructure demands. Cessna and FedEx are correct.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 9, 2017 1:41 PM    Report this comment

Airplanes are the paper; pilots are the carbon paper. My office has two networked laser printers, but no typewriters. I guess that's our balanced mix.
Light snow in western Massachusetts. I'm admiring our newly-decorated Christmas tree.
The truck is being replaced by a Santa Fe Sport. I must be getting old.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 9, 2017 2:01 PM    Report this comment

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