Why the Caravan club keeps growing in Africa
African customers of Cessna's Caravan account for around 10% of total production of the utility aircraft and military users are increasingly purchasing the type. But, asks Alan Dron, will the armed Combat Caravan find its way to the continent?
You can find the Cessna Caravan just about anywhere – from plying subsidised ‘essential air service’ routes in the US far west to ferrying well-heeled passengers to luxury hotels off the rugged coast of Scotland. (The latter involves swapping the usual fixed undercarriage for floats.)
So it is hardly surprising that the single-engined aircraft crops up as a regular visitor at African airports and airstrips, sometimes wearing military insignia.
At least six air arms on the continent operate, or are due to start flying, the Caravan, although even manufacturer Cessna, now part of Textron Aviation, is not always able to say how many of the type are flying in Africa with military pilots at the controls.
“Sometimes we don’t know,” said Bob Gibbs, vice-president, special missions, at Textron Aviation.
“Sometimes a government will have aircraft that they bought through a commercial channel and sometimes they just don’t want us to say.”
Currently, Caravans are known (or believed) to be operated by the air forces of Kenya, Mauretania, Niger and South Africa, while Cameroon and Chad were due to take delivery of their first examples around the start of 2017.
Most of Africa’s military Caravans are used in the liaison role, ferrying personnel between airfields, but the type’s versatility means it is regularly used for cargo-hauling (particularly with the optional large external cargo pod beneath the fuselage), paratroop training and medevac flights.
However, they are also used for more overtly military purposes, giving modestly funded air forces a simple intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.
This is achieved through the addition of third-party equipment, frequently an under-fuselage turret with visible light and infrared cameras from specialist providers such as L-3 or Wescam. “That’s the norm for most of Africa,” said Gibbs.
There is no fixed, or recommended suite of ISR equipment: “Our customers drive the request. In air forces, if they need an ISR capability they usually have a specific solution that they need or a specific brand that they want to work with.
“Sometimes they want a particular sensor, made by one specific company. Other times, it’s a case of who they’ve worked with before [on similar projects].” Even companies that specialise in integrating this type of equipment, like North American Surveillance Systems, “will put sensors from FLIR or L-3 on the same aeroplane”.
African ISR is not really high-end. “It’s used for border surveillance, poaching control etc. That’s really all you need. They’re not out there trying to do signals intelligence.”
Gibbs believes that versatility is a primary reason for the type’s popularity with African air forces. “We can put four military-type stretchers on the right-hand side of the cabin and attendants on the other side. Or, we can fit a stretcher with a complete [set of] intensive care equipment. Those installations are plug-and-play. You can take the seats out of the right-hand side and have a flying hospital in less than an hour.”
Even those aircraft that fulfil the ISR role have a sensor fit that is installed with removable attachments, allowing the aircraft to switch roles quickly.
The aircraft has no problem getting in and out of a 1,000 metre airfield at maximum take-off weight and often operates out of runways as short as 600 metres, depending on payload. Although the fixed undercarriage is not strengthened compared to those in civilian service, high-flotation tyres can be fitted to cope with gravel airstrips or softer terrain.
Cost is a major factor in the aircraft’s popularity. A Caravan costs $2.5-$3 million out of the factory doors, which makes it affordable to air arms with modest budgets. An ISR fit-out will add around $1 million, but $4-4.5 million is probably the maximum price tag.
Around two years ago, Cessna introduced the larger Grand Caravan EX, which has a more powerful version of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A, which delivers 867shp instead of the basic model’s 675shp. “Significantly more horsepower,” commented Gibbs.
Ironically, Cessna often competes with itself when African governments come calling for a light transport or liaison aircraft, he added. “They come in and want either a Beechcraft King Air 350 or a Citation Sovereign.” When they start looking at what they need the aircraft to do, they realise the cheaper Caravan can fulfil all, or most, of their requirements.
When it comes to the light transport role, some countries realise they can buy a small fleet of Caravans for the price of a larger light tactical transport, such as the CASA C-212.
However, more usually, the Caravan finds itself competing with medium-category helicopters such as the Airbus H125 AStar. When air forces do their homework, they realise that the operating costs of the Caravan are as little as 20% of the helicopter’s, said Gibbs.
“We see dispatch rates upwards of 99% and because it’s a very common commercial platform, logistics and support are very low cost.” The number of civilian Caravans operating in Africa also means that “in any country in Africa”, you can find mechanics that can work on them.
The aircraft can take on a more warlike role in its Combat Caravan role, which typically carries single AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missiles under each wing. A batch has been sold to Iraq and Lebanon. “I can’t comment on how active they are,” said Gibbs, “but if you look for information in the public domain, you’ll find that they’ve fired their weapons.”
No Combat Caravans have yet been sold into Africa, although some countries have expressed interest in the modified version. “There are conversations going on, but nothing that we can comment on. There’s active interest, but not really from Africa too much.”
However, with new operators Chad and Cameroon due to join the Caravan club imminently, the aircraft will soon become an even more regular sight on the continent.