Cessna 206H: Muscles on Butterfly Wings

Float like a butterfly, haul like a B-17? No, that's that not the motto Cessna has adopted for the rebirth of its heavy-hauler Stationair and Turbo Stationair, but it might as well be. AVweb's Dave Higdon spent some quality time with both the turbo and non-turbo versions of the biggest piston-powered single in Cessna's stable. Read all about it in this AVweb Pilot Report.


BoDiddley 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.

Cessna 206 cabinMost often, people reminded me of Bo Diddley’s refrain, folks whosepersonalities defied the overrated “first impression” deemedall-important by so many advising adults. As the years progressed, machinesoccasionally connected that same series of synapses, reminding me that the besttraits 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 currentpiston-single line, the venerable Stationairs 206H and T206H.

Both looked the role of the virile utility machines they are; their expanseof brawny wings, the pumped-up quality of their fuselages, the girth of theirmuscular lift struts, even the bulk of their main-gear legs. The growl of thosebig six-cylinder Lycomings continued the impression of a stalwart, no-nonsensestevedore and the book load numbers backed up that perception.

Nearly Nimble

Cessna 206H, N9554S
The normally aspirated Cessna 206H flown for this AVweb Pilot Report.

Trouble was, from behind the left yoke neither quite carried off the personasuggested by their appearances. Instead of feeling heavy or sluggish in flight,the TurboStationair and its naturally-aspirated clone, the Stationair, respondedwith 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 saddlesconvinced me that neither gives away anything to their lighter, four-placesiblings, 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 Cessnashowered on the two singles previously resurrected in Independence, Kan., threeyears back. Both Stationair versions deliver admirable speed and more-than-amplepayload to go with the enhanced safety and creature comforts.

The only real differences between the two come down to how high and how fastyou want to fly – and whether your wallet’s weight matches the higher entry feefor flying the faster of the two. Otherwise, neither 206H demands more flyingskills or abilities than any of the cousins and, in a couple of areas ofmaneuvering flight, actually felt better than any of the four-seaters.

For perspective’s sake, consider this analogy: a fullback as capable ofdragging five defense men downfield as he is nimbly navigating between them withthe deftness of a ballet dancer in shoulder pads. Or, meeting ArnoldSchwarzenegger and finding that he’s pumping up to play Barishnikov – andcapable 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 ownpress, in a way that makes it more approachable in the process?

In my case, it happens rarely – and happened twice with Cessna’s twostand-out Stationairs. Nothing about flying the 206Hs quite matched myexpectations for large, high-capacity singles. So much for judging the plane’spersona by appearance alone; Bo Diddley was right, again.

Brawn, With Fewer Beefs…

Brawn? You Bet!

The new 206H Stationair landed on the scene just over a year ago, the thirdof three airframes and fourth of four models Cessna revived in its return to thepiston-airplane business. Although both the 172R Skyhawk and 182S Skylanearrived a bit behind Cessna’s aggressive, demanding schedule, neither lagged asfar behind as the 206H; a few months later, the T206H joined the lineup.

The unpredictable logistics of re-establishing an all-new factory – buildinga new plant from scratch, hiring and training new workers – forced back theSkyhawk and Skylane schedules by a few weeks. But the delay of the 206Hs stemmedmainly from Cessna’s efforts to raise the bar for the Stationairs even fartherthan 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 andSkylane. Historically, 50 percent of all Stationairs go overseas, spending themajority of their lives flying the bush and desert and jungle of the developingworld. With so many destined to fly so far from the comfort a amaintenance-capable FBO, let alone factory support, Cessna also wanted the newengine to promise the level of high reliability demanded of such a plane.

Unfortunately for the Stationair program, the new 580-inch mill Textrondeveloped failed to make the mark in an Iron Man-like test Cessna required: a500-hour endurance test with no failures. That’s a run more than three timesgreater than the 150-hour test required, and passed, for FAA certification.Cessna and Textron also experienced some gremlins with the new engine in flighttests and after the program was obviously into tardy territory, Independencepunted.

The new Stationair instead got existing Lycomings, 300 horses for thenaturally-breathing 206H with its IO-540, 10 ponies more for the turbochargedT206H, powered by a TIO-540. And operators in the vast go-it-alone world of bushflying would get engines with proven reliability records.

Ironically, the Stationair has been, relatively, the lightweight wherepost-production ADs are concerned. Both the 172 and 182 have drawn morecorrective and preemptory airworthiness actions than the Stationairs. Some mightsay third time’s charmed. Whatever, minus the differences in decibels, the new206Hs have delivered in performance what they’ve promised for more than threedecades.

Nicely Equipped For Any Environment

Interior of the Cessna 206H. Leather is available, as well as a more Spartan fabric.

When word broke back in 1993 that Cessna wanted to revive three singles, fewcould question the lineup. Before Cessna put its piston line into long-termhibernation in the winter of 1986, each model selected for 1997 stood out fromthe crowd: Skyhawk, the world’s best-selling airplane, period; the Skylane,high-performance and heavy hauling in a simple, sturdy four-place airframe; theStationair, originally called the Super SkyWagon, a popular six-place utilitymount boasting performance on par with more-svelte singles like the A36 Bonanza- in defiance of its bulbous, strut-braced, fixed-gear simplicity. You couldn’ttell it by looking.

Excellence in a specific area never goes out of style or popularity; whatmade this trio sell well before remains in demand today. What the marketwouldn’t tolerate, Cessna marketing executives learned in surveys, was anairplane out of style with the technologies of the times. Consumers wantedgreater avionics capabilities, better instrumentation and lighting, more systemsredundancy- in other words, more attention to safety. Comfort was anotherdemand; interiors had to reflect the styling available in new cars and trucks.

And forget about fielding machines with Spartan equipment lists; standardequipment should include everything commonly needed for instrument flight, theoptions few and well-thought-out.

Cessna executives got the message and responded.

The Cessna 206H panel. All the goodies and room to spare for more.

New Cessnas all sport: dual vacuum pumps for increased IFR safety; betterpanel and cabin lighting, including lighted instruments and gauges; accuratefuel gauges with flow metering and low-fuel warning lights to improve pilotawareness; and an annunciator panel to concentrate warnings in a centrallocation. That annunciator panel highlights low fuel to low voltage, oilpressure 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 performanceenhancements designed into the new singles.

The new 206Hs also share standard-equipment brand names with the othermodels, since Cessna selected single vendors for major components, to simplifymanufacturing and control costs: the aforementioned fuel-injected TextronLycoming engines; props from McCauley; avionics and autopilots fromAlliedSignal’s Bendix-King line.

All new Cessnas also include more and better sound insulation; thickerwindows; modern, fitted interiors; and panels well-designed and executed.Coupled with the slower engine speeds of their powerplants, the Skyhawk andSkylane may have the quietest cabins of any piston planes; the Stationairs arenearly as quiet and certainly quiet enough to lessen the fatigue effect of soundduring hours-long cruises.

You might think this level of finish and equipment unnecessary gilding thelily of a utility plane. But Cessna’s engineers also designed the interior tofit into the real world of bush use. Five of the six seats come out easily; awide door on the starboard side gives generous access to the rear four seats;luggage compartment access is also more than ample.

A turf runway? The 206H can be right at home, with larger wheels and tires, plus oversized wheelpants as options.

Cessna even offers a baggage pod that adds considerable volume to theStationairs’ transport potential. And load potential it has. Today’s 206Hdelivers a 1,539-pound maximum payload, which translates into 1,011 pounds ofpeople 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 onthe GPS and autopilot, but no weather avoidance gear, such as a StormScope orStrikeFinder; for those, you’ll have to consult an avionics shop. Likewise,fitting floats is an aftermarket affair; but vendors are available for thataddition, as well, and Cessna offers an optional float-plane package that equipsthe Stationairs to take the available pontoons.

But if a pretty interior with carpeting and fine leathers or fabrics clashescompletely with visions of flying the outback, Cessna offers a more-Spartanutility interior as an option. Also available: oversize wheels, tires and pants,to help balance the competing worlds of unimproved runways and improvedaerodynamics.

And let there be no doubt, either Stationair is as comfortable where thegetting is tough as it is where the going is easy. At least that capabilitymatches its looks, as demonstrated by putting the big bird through some of itspaces at a remote strip that looks every bit what it is: a piece of uneven,rough, virgin prairie.

As At Home On The Range…

A runway’s gotta be beyond rundown to pose much of a challenge for theStationairs, my lasting impression of flying both the T206H, N9554W, and 206H,N9554S, into my favorite piece of prairie, tiny Beaumont, Kan. You can findBeaumont (7K9 on the Wichita Sectional) about 44 nautical miles out the 86degree radial from the Wichita VOR. But that’s not my usual navigation practicewhen coming from a Wichita-area airport.

Beaumont's water tower
The water tower at Beaumont, Kan., is on the National Register of Historic Places.

My usual flight to Beaumont is IFR54-E – I Follow Route 54 eastbound untilin view of an unusual, unmistakable landmark: a wooden, 1870s railroadjerk-water tower that stands above the red-brick buildings of this 19th-centuryvillage. From Wichita to Augusta, Kan., the landscape goes from urban, todeveloping rural, to the vast, undeveloped Flint Hills, where cows outnumberpeople, per square mile and in total population.

You may have heard pilots talk about the Beaumont Hotel, either from personalvisits while in Wichita to pick up a plane, training at FlightSafety; attendingan aviation convention, or from word-of-mouth passed around and around.

Beaumont is simply that unique a place. For five decades, private pilots havebeen 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 theintersection with Main, and parking across the street from what today is calledThe Summit House Country Inn and Restaurant.

Beaumont is my standard test for a bush plane: handling the rough landscapeof the Flint Hills turf, the ruts and grooves near the runway ends and in themiddle, the trees beyond the south departure, and the “drive” intotown to park in the designated “Airplanes Only” parking area beneaththe water tower.

It’s when flying a non-standard approach to a non-standard landing on afar-from-standard strip that many of an airplane’s most-telling traits sharpeninto focus: power response; slips; steep approaches; slow-speed handling; trimneeds; pitch sensitivity for soft-field touchdowns, and, of course, stallsduring full-flare short-field demonstrations.

This isn’t Beaumont, Kan., but you get the idea…

And despite the many times Beaumont has hosted one of my demonstrationflights, the tall stand of trees a few hundred feet beyond the south end of thestrip almost always intimidates me – a bit. Looking down the runway to where itslopes downhill and out of sight gives the illusion that those trees grow rightout of the end of the runway, they stand that tall from a half-mile away. Comingthe other way, northbound, for landing, makes the trees a significant factor ifyou 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, highenough to maneuver away from them, on takeoff, and let me arrive on the runwaywith space enough to stop. Yet knowing the short-field capabilities of theStationairs, only in the abstract of the POH, did little to calm my naggingnerves.

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 theflaps – and thus postpone the accompanying sink of that Cessna until beyond thereaching of the towering branches – both Stationairs gave me more than 300 feetto spare going out.

The biggest differences between the T206H and its ambient-breathing 206H kinwas in acceleration to rotation speed, followed by climb after takeoff. Myflight to Beaumont in the 206H came on a cool November day, and the bigStationair 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 slightlyshorter, close enough to make me question my technique.

On the hotter, higher-density-altitude day, the TurboStationair made all 310horsepower; on the colder, damper day six months earlier, density altitude wascloser to Beaumont’s field elevation, 1610 feet- high enough to drop power afew percentage points. On a side-by-side basis on the same strip, I’d expectedthe TurboStationair to best the Stationair by no more than a few seconds. Andthat was enough to improve the distance-to-clear-a-50-foot-obstacle numbers by afew 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 bothdeliver ascents above 1,000 fpm. As befalls all naturally aspirated pistonplanes, the 206H climb suffers with altitude and the resulting proportionaldecline in engine power.

The Stationair is at home in the boonies, or at Anytown International.

But not so, the T206H. Engine power remains at 100 percent until near theflight levels, and the climb rate hangs right in there, too, even as the trueairspeed increases with altitude. In fact, to keep visibility and engine-coolingair at optimum, 120 knots proved a good speed that kept me climbing well above500 feet a minute until above 10,000 in the 206H- and nearly at the flightlevels 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 mewith a replay of Bo’s refrain.

The key to making the 206Hs fly light and lively, at least for me, came fromlearning the feel and speed of the electric pitch-trim to neutralize theStationairs’ heaviest handling aspect, regardless of powerplant. Developing thattrim touch took a bit of time; it seemed fast, overly sensitive, at first. Butafter my third or fourth circuit, my touch on the trim switch became more deftand my feel of the airplane more sensitive.

And that was a good thing.

Without judicious, generous application of pitch trim, the Stationairs becomenose-heavy and far less easy to fly. Remember, somewhere upwards of aquarter-ton sits out there ahead of the firewall; letting the elevator trimrelieve you of fighting the nose weight also enhances management of smallairspeed adjustments on either side of a target speed.

The better you manage airspeed on ascent and descent, the better theStationair makes you look getting on and off runways. And to achieve theStationairs’ best-performance landings and takeoffs, the ones yielding sky-viewonly climb angles, you’ve got to quickly, precisely, put the nose where you needit- and keep it as close to target as possible.

Rolling back the split trim switch at climb-out or ahead of landing flarehelped me find a sweet spot between the onset of the stall horn and the onset ofpre-stall buffet; that sweet spot, timed for the task, gave me the shortestground rolls in either direction of short-field operations. For more-normalarrivals, starting the transition before 70 knots worked well to let me flareand roll out with normal braking; and on departure, the same starting pointworked well with acceleration while trimming to a shallower, faster climb angle.

And during transition maneuvers like landings and takeoffs, the Stationairsboth rewarded me with powerful aileron control. Right down at the point wherethe stall horn started squalling but the wing was still flying. Taken alltogether, this control authority, coupled with the approach speed down in thelow 70-knot range, rewarded me with progressively shorter landings and stopdistances.

Thanks to some lucky targeting during my attempt to execute an extremeshort-field landing, the T206H put me as close to the arrival end as I couldever hope – and, let me stop with enough distance to launch the big bird fromthat point – trees or no trees.

Other than the slight differences in takeoff performance, both models weredelights at Augusta, Beaumont, Benton, Mid-Continent, and Ponca City, Okla. Ofcourse, Beaumont was the toughest, followed by Benton, an equally short asphaltrunway 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 Bentoninvolved 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 pavedstrip of equal length presented little challenge- except when the wind shiftedand strengthened.

Again, the Stationairs’ powerful control surfaces made easy work of landingstraight-and-level in 15 knots, 60 degrees off the centerline. For me,crosswinds demand flying final in touchdown configuration so I can feel howclose we are to the aircraft’s limits. And at no time did either 206H feel nearits limits.

At one point, the wind started pushing the 206H west of the centerline, but abit of extra rudder and aileron, coupled with an approach speed higher by sevenknots, countered that push. My fondest wish is for every landing to be as smoothand under control as my last crosswind touchdown, but in fact, it took me threetries 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 ofairplanes 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 theStationairs’ overall mass, work together to make the 206Hs as stable andtenacious in airspeed as you could want, without making these big birds intoairplanes with handling that matches their looks.

…As It Is Aloft

Nothing like the variety of different airports and prairie air strips toflush out an airplane’s low-speed handling, arrival and departure traits, eh? Ofcourse, not all is getting in and getting out. In between is where the real timeis 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 fortheir size and weight. Just how fast is it/are they? Let’s start with theslowest, first.

The 206H and T206H flown for this report turned in airspeeds that mostserious cross-country pilots would be happy with – particularly when youconsider the versatility of the designs.

For example, with the normally aspirated 206H trimmed at 4,500 msl and setfor about 75-percent power – at the lowest RPM available on the charts, thankyou – and lightly loaded to about 2,900 pounds (including about 60 gallons offuel), 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, 143knots maximum cruise on 75 percent power at 6,500 feet. And with all 88 gallonsof tanks filled, you’ve gas enough to go a whopping 680 nautical miles – withreserves, after allowing fuel for engine start, warm-up, taxi time, and climb tocruise.

This pace should make cross-country flying more than comfortable. Sure, thesesort of speeds may pale compared to other 300-horsepower aircraft. But, ofcourse, most of those planes are high-performance retractables with much-higherprice tabs than the Stationair’s $289,900 price tag.

You can’t judge this book by its cover.

Turning now to the $340,900 T206H, this bird hauls tail feathers. Afterclimbing at well over 1,000 feet a minute through 5,000 feet msl, the T206Hcontinued to breath easily and deeply, delivering any manifold pressure Idemanded, whether the 30 inches set for cruise or a full 37 inches for maximumclimb. That supply of pressurized induction air translates into some impressivenumbers, including a service ceiling of 27,000 msl, more than high enough togive 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 relativelytraffic-free, the turbocharger pumps in enough fresh air to keep 75 percentpower and speed along at 178 knots true; up in propjet territory, like FlightLevel 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, evenafter allowing for engine start, taxi, takeoff and climb. Cessna recommendsclimbing at 2,400 rpm and 30 inches of manifold pressure, trimmed to 500 feetper minute and fuel flow leaned to 20 gallons per hour, to make those rangenumbers.

On both birds, engine and oil temps stayed firmly in the green; and thatelectric trim, while seeming too sensitive at first, became the most-welcomeasset as my time in N9554W progressed. Other than twisting the throttle in every1,000 feet to keep that 30 inches of manifold pressure – the turbo system doesnot automatically compensate – the job of flying the big bird could hardly beeasier.

Judging The Book: The Stationair’s Gotcha Covered

Before you judge this big bird by its looks, you may first want to leafthrough the pages of its abilities and traits. Today’s Stationairs blend utilityand capability useful in the bush with appointments and flying habits equallywelcome by business-owner/pilots, charter companies and rental operators. Atyour small home field, in front of a polished corporate FBO, in a jungle oroutback locale, these birds are useful in all roles.

With flying traits no more demanding than the stalwart Skyhawk, and speeds interritory Bonanzas know well, most normally competent aviators should findlittle to frustrate or frighten them. Now that’s not saying there won’t be somepucker 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 masterplaces that insurance adjusters fear to fly.

Cessna also equipped the resurrected Stationair to the same enhanced level ofstandard features as its other piston singles, making the base plane a farbetter-equipped, more-capable mount than previous incarnations. And though itmay not look so luxurious or sanguine at first, though it may seem more muscularthan fast, just remember my buddy, Bo.

If you do, it’s likely you’ll come away impressed by how much more it is thanit looks.