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Although Textron Aviation formally announced its plan to build the Cessna SkyCourier 408 on Nov. 28, 2017, the clean-sheet cargo workhorse has actually been under development for about seven months.
FedEx Express approached Textron in the spring about developing the large twin-engine utility aircraft, and the two collaborated on a design that would meet the operator’s mission requirements.
“We supply them with their current model 208 Caravan that they use extensively, so we had a history together,” said Brad Thress, Textron Aviation’s senior vice-president, Engineering. “That’s how it started.”
He told Skies that the SkyCourier was essentially designed to handle up to three FedEx Express LD3 cargo containers.
“That determined the dimensions of the rectangle we’d have to build the plane around. Once we had that space, we went about building an airplane around it.”
Thress said the next step was designing the plane’s cargo handling system.
“The cargo floor has built-in rollers so that when you put a pallet on the floor, you can easily roll it forward or aft. We put the cargo-handling floor in the design and added a large hinged door aft of the trailing edge of the wing. It’s hinged at the top; it raises out of the way so the plane can be loaded with a forklift.”
From there, Textron set about designing “the most simple, straightforward utility airplane that we could,” said Thress.
The SkyCourier has been designed to move freight quickly and effectively, but it purposely lacks many of the bells and whistles found on other modern aircraft. For instance, it eschews composites in favour of a traditional aluminum skin and propellers. Its cabin is unpressurized, its landing gear fixed, and the cockpit will feature a standard Garmin G1000 NXi avionics suite (including ADS-B In and Out capability) and manual flight controls.
“There won’t be any fancy hydraulic flight control systems or fly by wire,” noted Thress. “It will be a very simple airplane–and a non-complex airplane results in a much higher dispatch reliability rate.”
It may be simple, but the SkyCourier will be efficient. With a 6,000-pound maximum payload capability, the high-wing turboprop will cruise at up to 200 knots true airspeed (KTAS) with a range of 900 nautical miles.
It will be powered by a pair of 1,100-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-65SC engines, enhanced with a fully connected engine monitoring system.
Engineered for high payloads, the new PT6A variant was optimized specifically for the SkyCourier 408, according to Nicholas Kanellias, vice-president, General Aviation at Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC).
“This engine will create a lot of power in a small package, and it will do it with a very good maintenance schedule and low cost of operation, and we’re going to do it all quickly and efficiently in what would seem like a very tight time frame,” he told Skies.
Kanellias said one of the benefits of the PT6 engine family is its adaptability.
“It’s been our bread and butter to optimize and in short order create an engine which our OEMs can use to power a new aircraft.”
The SkyCourier’s PT6A-65SC engines will benefit from P&WC’s integrated FAST (flight acquisition, storage and transmission) monitoring system and oil analysis technology, and will be supported by the manufacturer’s worldwide service network.
“This engine comes with all of that,” said Kanellias. “So it’s peace of mind for operators, especially one like FedEx, who counts on being able to manage their business in a very tight way.”
Textron is targeting a 2020 entry into service date for the SkyCourier. FedEx Express expects to take delivery of the first aircraft by mid-year, with one aircraft delivered per month from then on, over a four-year period.
Thress agreed the program’s timeline is ambitious, but feels the integration of “proven technology” will help to expedite certification.
The exterior shape of the SkyCourier has now been defined, and wind tunnel models are currently being built for scheduled testing in January. Those results will define and confirm the plane’s aerodynamic performance and structural loads.
At the same time, Textron will work with FedEx Express and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to design a maintenance program for the new airplane, system by system.
Thress said that once it’s approved by the FAA, the program will become a living document that will be reviewed and updated annually based on fleet inspection findings.
Textron also announced that it will build an unpressurized 19-passenger version of the SkyCourier. Both the cargo and the passenger models will be certified for single-pilot operation.
“Some operators want to use it as a crew airplane so the co-pilot can log second-in-command time. We’re working on that,” said Thress.
He added that since plans for the aircraft were unveiled on Nov. 28, Textron has already received “four to six expressions of interest” from domestic operators who are interested in the passenger configuration of the SkyCourier.
“I think there’s a lot of potential. I think the market there is as big, or bigger, than the freight version,” continued Thress. “When we look at the global fleet of Caravans in passenger-carrying operations, it’s pretty extensive, especially in Africa and Asia.”
In terms of a timeline for Canadian certification, Textron pursues international validations based on sales. So if a Canadian customer orders the SkyCourier, Transport Canada certification will be prioritized.
Thress said the new aircraft would be a great fit for rural Canadian operators, with float certification expected in 2021.
The SkyCourier is the latest entry in an aircraft category that includes the Czech LET 410, the Polish Skytruck and China’s Harbin Y-12–and of course, Canada’s own Viking Air Series 400 Twin Otter.
Both the cargo and the passenger variants of the Cessna SkyCourier 408 will be sold through the factory in Wichita, Kan.