For anyone who’s ever purchased an item via Amazon and received a package a few days later, there’s a good chance it was delivered to their local area by Cessna’s ubiquitous high-wing, fixed gear Caravan. The rugged single-engine turboprop cargo and passenger aircraft will soon be joined by a new short-haul freighter, the larger twin-engine Cessna SkyCourier 408. Like the Caravan, it will debut with FedEx
Launch customer FedEx has placed an order for 50 of the $6.85 million SkyCouriers (with an option for another 50, FedEx’s purchase price may be lower) and plans to debut the aircraft in service in late spring or early summer of 2022. That should be auspicious timing in an air freight market which is steadily rebounding from the U.S. trade war with China in 2019 and the business-sapping pandemic of 2020.
The air cargo market is hot right now. According to aircargo news, cargo volumes returned to pre-Covid levels in January with demand surpassing 2019 levels for that month. The upturn in volume is particularly notable for freight dedicated carriers like FedEx, UPS and Cargolux since passenger airliners – which carry the bulk of global air cargo as belly freight – have not returned to flying in pre-pandemic numbers.
The demand is also evident in the market for cargo or cargo-conversion aircraft. Benedict Sirimanne, president of CSDS Aircraft Sales & Leasing, a California broker of large jets and turboprops including the Caravan, says the secondary cargo aircraft market is “going through the roof.”
“In fact I am having a hard time purchasing aircraft because no one is selling cargo aircraft,” Sirimanne says. “I heard about Cessna doing a larger, twin-engine version of the Caravan. It’s actually perfect timing.”
Textron Aviation says the SkyCourier should be certified by the end of 2021, just in time for commencement of FedEx operations and for marketing a new short-haul cargo aircraft.
“The average twin utility turboprop on the market today is 30 years old, indicating that the market is ready for a modern replacement,” says Chris Hearne, senior vice president, Textron Aviation Engineering.
Hearne refers to airplanes like the Beechcraft 1900, Fairchild Metro and Beechcraft King Air that have long served with small, independent cargo airlines and freight forwarders. However, FedEx’s fleet shows that the SkyCourier is not the only new player. The air cargo company is also adding new ATR 72-600F freighters to its operation.
A larger, faster aircraft, the ATR 72-600F is part of the broader modernization of the shipper’s feeder fleet says Scot Struminger, executive vice president and CEO of Aviation at FedEx Express.
FedEx’s fleet still leans on the Cessna Caravan/Cargomaster for short-haul freight segments, typically around 200 nautical miles. The company and its contract-carriers currently have 236 Caravans in operation according to Struminger. It’s a legacy that stretches back to 1984 when the Caravan and its Cargomaster version – developed for FedEx – achieved FAA certification.
The stamp of approval conferred by FedEx combined with the versatile, efficient design of the Caravan/Cargomaster have made it a big revenue generator for Cessna/Textron Aviation with 2,882 freighter, passenger and special military utility variants delivered through the last quarter of 2020.
Merely approaching such a sales number would constitute success for the SkyCourier. Textron Aviation indicates that it sees the 408 as adding to the Caravan rather than replacing it.
“We see it complementing the Caravan,” Hearne says. “Think of the SkyCourier as the ‘Twin Caravan’ with twice the payload and number of passengers. We do not see it in the same niche market as the Caravan.”
For FedEx, the capability gets down to a trio of containers.
Built Around Three Boxes
The headline stat for the new freighter is its ability to carry 6,000 pounds of cargo over a 200-mile segment. But it’s not just the payload that FedEx is interested in, it’s how the SkyCourier can carry it.
“This aircraft allows us to use our LD3 containers, which can be preloaded at the station,” Scot Struminger says.
In a FedEx video on the SkyCourier, Dale Dohmen, supplemental aircraft engineering manager at FedEx Express, explains that currently, FedEx “bulk loads” individual packages into a Caravan, securing them with nets. Designed to FedEx’ specifications, the SkyCourier’s fuselage holds three LD3 containers.
The containers are simply loaded into the SkyCourier, a process Dohmen says should take about 10 minutes versus the 30 to 45 minutes that would be required to bulk load it. A single-point pressure refueling feature, rather than refueling separate wing tanks, should make for faster turnarounds as well.
Through its generous 87” x 69” side cargo door, airplane will also accommodate wood pallets, allowing oversized freight delivery to small airports that the company cannot currently serve.
“The SkyCourier 408 will help us grow our business in small and medium-sized markets,” Struminger affirms.
It will do so with Caravan-like performance. The SkyCourier’s 900-mile range, 200-knot cruise speed and 25,000-foot ceiling all track or better its predecessor. With twice the payload capacity of the Caravan, one SkyCourier could theoretically do the job of two Caravans. Though its 3,300-foot takeoff requirement is modest, shorter runways will still be served by Caravans.
The SkyCourier shares similar Pratt & Whitney PT6A turbine engines with the Caravan and is expected to achieve proportional efficiency and operating cost. “No other current production aircraft in this space offers the low operating costs and capabilities that the Cessna SkyCourier will bring to high-utilization customers,” Textron Aviation’s Hearne maintains.
Its simple design recalls the Caravan to which it will surely be compared in terms of demonstrated ruggedness and reliability. The SkyCourier will be certified for single-pilot operation, a common practice for FedEx and other Caravan/Cargomaster operators.
A passenger version will haul 19 people in a brightly-lit cabin over 400 miles while the freighter can extend its range beyond 200 miles though the tradeoff is less payload.
Judging from what he’s seen and heard about it, Benedict Sirimanne says the SkyCourier should do well.
“There is appeal and market demand for short-hop twin engine aircraft missions currently being handled by older King Airs or much larger cargo aircraft. I think [SkyCourier] will be a successful aircraft for Cessna, as long as operating costs remain as advertised. It’s a perfect aircraft for those Amazon
But the SkyCourier’s range/payload/operating cost balance is attracting market significant attention Hearne says. “We’re already seeing great interest in the product domestically for freight, passenger and special mission operations.”
Textron Aviation declined to comment on additional orders from customers other than FedEx but it’s reasonable to assume that, as with the Caravan, the shipping company’s order will spur others.
Asking the SkyCourier to fill the Caravan’s shoes is a tall order. The latter is arguably one of the most significant commercial aircraft ever. But Textron Aviation’s timing and execution point to the likelihood that the SkyCourier will be around for the long haul.