Welcome to the fourth and last in our series on cargo aircraft. Over the past year we have reviewed military airlift, the widebodies in international services, and, most recently, cargo haulers in the Canadian air freight industry. In that report, we considered both narrow-body jet services and turboprops used as feeders as well as in smaller markets. To narrow the discussion, we cut off “real freighters” at a minimum 10,000-lb payload.
The characterization of “utility” haulers will also require some arbitrary cutoffs to keep the discussion focused. If a 10,000-lb payload is the upper end, I will cut off the lower end at 3,000 lbs. That will leave out the venerable Beaver (with 405 still on the Canadian Aircraft Register) and the piston Cessnas. If you will forgive the analogy, I am writing about flying trucks, and those aircraft hauling less than 3,000 lbs are the pickups and delivery vans for moving goods. Another qualification is made with respect to passengers; my interest is in aircraft that move things, even if some of those things may be breathing when they are used in bush operations. Just to muddy the waters, I have left out the PC-12; even though it can haul a good load, it mostly serves passengers.
Even this 3,000- to 10,000-lb payload definition can be subdivided. The larger end are twin-engine aircraft as large as the DC-3 (of which there are still 27 on the Register, though some are in museums). Beech 1900s, Metros and more limited numbers of Dorniers and Casas also fall in this category. Traditionally, utility aircraft were up to 12,500 lb gross weight but that regulatory limit is blurring. The current leading example of the 12,500-lb utility aircraft is the recent report of the de Havilland Twin Otter being brought back by Viking Air.
On the smaller end, mostly single-engined, the most ubiquitous model is the Cessna Caravan with 105 operating in Canada. Canada used to lead the world in utility aircraft with the single Otter predating the Twin. Indeed there are still more Otters than Caravans in Canada at 127; there are even 31 Norsemen left on the Register.
Finally, we need to keep in mind we are talking about commercial aircraft that need to make money for their operators. This was Robert Noorduyn’s objective in designing the Norseman 75 years ago. There are two markets for utility aircraft, in the south and the north. Utility aircraft provide feeders for the east-west services of the integrated carriers, from the Morningstar Caravans in Fedex service to Beech 1900Cs and others. North-south, be it above or below 60 (north latitude), utility aircraft fill many roles in serving remote communities, resource development and fly-in tourism, often carrying people as well as the freight.
After looking at current utility aircraft, featuring the Twin Otter and Caravan, my favourite part of these reports is to present new developments in this category of aircraft and to speculate on the utility aircraft of the future (even if predictions in my first two reports have proved inaccurate).
The all-new Twin Otter Series 400 is being put into production by Viking Air. It was only a year ago that Viking president David Curtis first reported at the Western Canada Aerospace Conference that the 400 was under consideration. Viking will be making parts at Victoria International Airport, as it has for years for all de Havilland aircraft. Actual manufacturing of the 400 will be done in Calgary. The production schedule calls for nine aircraft this year, 12 next and 18 a year by 2010. De Havilland built 844 DHC-6s up to 1988; Viking is projecting 400 orders over ten years. To simplify regulatory requirements, updates are initially limited to upgraded PT6A-34 engines and new “glass” instruments. Improvements requiring supplemental type certification work, such as lightening empty weight with composite parts replacing metal, will be added over time.
The value of a utility aircraft is in its usefulness. The 400 only gets another 1,000 lbs or so of payload over a Grand Caravan, but it can carry 19 passengers versus 9 (note: these are regulatory restrictions; manufacturers advertise 20 and 14 respectively). It should also hold four 4 ft. cube pallets versus hand-loading a Caravan. Pricing at US$3.2 million is about 50 percent more than a Caravan for the 50 percent greater “utility.” And of course both types operate wheels, skis or floats, and can be equipped for icing. Before yelling “not in a Caravan,” Texas Turbines has a 900-shp Honeywell conversion (versus the 675-shp P&W): “The extra performance is especially welcome in icing conditions, where the Caravan has come under scrutiny in recent years” (Avweb report); the irony is that Texas Turbines developed the mod from its work re-engining piston Otters with the Honeywell engine.
In the Caravan’s 17-year history, over 1,300 units have been delivered worldwide. Cessna advertises its utility as “versatility” in listing its many roles and uses, with minimal runways.
In terms of current production airplanes, the Viking 400 and the Cessna Caravan dominate the sector. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the coming years. Overall, the Caravan appears to deliver about 75 percent of the utility for say 67 percent of the price. The choice for some operators will still be between two engines versus one. Most aviators appreciate that you are likely as safe, if not safer, behind one engine instead of two, but for carriers carrying passengers, they still feel comforted by a ‘spare’ engine. Doubtless, both aircraft will enjoy commercial success in their utility roles.
Looking to the future, what is on the horizon to improve upon the new Twin Otter and the Caravan? And what would be required to improve on these types, to provide a competitive advantage that could assure commercial success? There is the upper end of the range to be considered. In our 3,000- to 10,000-lb payload bracket, both are at the lower end. Is there anything new in the 5,000- to 10,000-lb category? The only thing that I have come across is the Turbo Dakota, such as the Basler BT67. People still think of it as an old aircraft with new engines but having toured the factory I can assure you it is a new aircraft, with an old serial number. Personally, I would love to see a Dash 8 cargo conversion, complete with a cargo ramp like a mini Herc. With more and more being retired from passenger service, I could never understand why Bombardier was not looking at this. Perhaps it is just too small a market to make the development costs worthwhile.
The Caravan’s success, and Viking succeeding with the Twin Otter 400 launch, demonstrates that there is a viable market in the 3,000- 5,000-lb payload range. That means a new product would have to make a quantum leap in the only criterion that matters in the utility category, usefulness, whether in payload or cost. The biggest cost factor is in the choice of one or two engines. There are engines today that will power a 12,500-lb aircraft that will be cheaper to buy and to operate. The next question is whether the useful load can be increased. Both the Caravan and the 400 are metal airplanes – composites are lighter.
There are two projects based on these economics; interestingly, both are in western Canada. Northern Sky Aircraft of Vernon, BC is developing the NSA-X1. Northern Sky calls it a 21st century Otter. As a 12,500-lb aircraft priced comparably to a Caravan, it would haul 50 percent more weight in a larger cabin.
The Loadstar, developed by Aeromax Loadstar Ltd. of Red Deer, Alta., is also a 12,500-lb aircraft with two additional factors. It is a modern DOT Chapter 523/FAA Part 23 utility aircraft with a 6-ft-wide square fuselage and rear ramp to accommodate palletized/ containerized cargo, vehicles, or 19 passengers. Secondly, it solves the one versus two engine issue by offering a single PT6-67B or dual – 114As mated to a single propeller using a Soloy Dual Pac gearbox for the safety of centre-line thrust. Cost and performance are enhanced using a 20% thick advanced GAW airfoil for the wing. It employs state of the art moving map technology and will haul 5,000 lbs in the 820-cu-ft main cabin while costing somewhat less than the Viking Twin Otter.
The 19,000-pound Ayres Loadmaster that floundered a few years ago has been replaced by the GECI Skylander being developed in Portugal at the high end of the utility market, with a 7,500-lb payload and a selling price of approximately US$4.5 million.
Either the NSA-X1 or Loadstar will have a promising future when investors are found to get them off the drawing board. In the emerging robust utility market it will be interesting to see how this race for investors and orders shapes up.
Whether or not we see a new utility aircraft coming into production, even with the promise of improved usefulness, Canadian and international operators will continue to be well served by the Cessna Caravan and the new competition of the Viking 400.