The Failure of Success

A Short History of Commercially Operated Caravan Amphibians

How too much of a good thing can be bad.

Have you been thinking about getting a new Cessna 208 Caravan Amphibian to develop a niche market? If you have then no doubt you have heard conflicting reports about the efficiency of the aircraft. To help make up your mind, I would like to take the liberty to relate a quick history of the commercial side of the Caravan amphib, with as little bias as possible.
        First of all, I don’t work for either Cessna or Wipaire and never have. I am not involved in selling, trading, or advertising aircraft. Mainly, I have been flying and training pilots on the Caravan Amphib for 12 years, and I believe they are one of the most versatile aircraft on the market today. Congratulations to those who have already made the purchase, as they are wonderful aircraft, but for those of you who have not made up their minds keep reading.
     In 1989 when I was putting together a proposal to supply Chevron with an aircraft and pilot services, I researched the recently introduced Caravan amphib. I had already brought in a Turbo-Beaver to Nigeria to work the oil fields, but I knew Chevron would want something modern with IFR capabilities. I had several “experts” tell me that the C208 amphib would not work as a commercial aircraft. Although B.C.Tel in Vancouver had operated one since 1985, they were considered a wealthy private owner and no one could be expected to operate an aircraft as expensive as they could.
     The other first private operators were the R.C.M.P in Canada and from their early accounts the Caravan would not cut it as a commercial seaplane. They said the aircraft would not perform and could not carry the expected loads that would make it useful. Meanwhile, a company in Alaska had introduced the Caravan amphib into their floatplane lineup. Unfortunately, after several years they sold off their Caravans and thereafter went into Chapter 13 bankrupt. The story was that the Caravans dragged them down.
     I traveled to Anchorage to ask the Mark Air Express Chief Engineer whether this was true. He said absolutely not. The Chief Pilot concurred and he said he really admired the aircraft. The main change, however, was to get rid of the Hartzel composite prop and replace it with the 106’ McCauley metal prop. That prop had the torque to pull the loads out of the water.

Mark Air Express Amphibious Twin Otter

      They both agreed that the Caravans were so customer friendly that the routes they were on became so successful that they were forced to look at other options. That is when they had Wipaire do the STC for putting the Twin Otter on amphibs. Eventually they had to replace the Caravans with larger aircraft simply because they had too many customers for the 9 passenger aircraft. Moreover, the company was having financial troubles because of a totally different reason.
     That is basically what happened to Hummingbird Island Air in the Maldives. When they started, they had 3 Mil-8 helicopters and only a small passenger load based on what few contracts Maldivian Air Taxi and their Twin Otters had not managed to win away from them. Basically they had no seaplane contracts.
     Hummingbird knew that they had to get operational fast in order to be in a position to bid on the very important second series of lease islands the government was putting up for bid to resort developers. Twin Otters, at the time, were almost impossible to get for a fair price. And the two 100 and 200 series that Hummingbird did manage to procure spent most of their first year sitting on the dock with breakdowns.
     New Caravans, however, were easier to get and once the pilots were properly trained the aircraft flew non-stop with no breakdowns. They were always ready. After flying the resort owners around for a short time on the “new” seaplane, the Caravan became the aircraft of choice. There was no comparison between flying in the well ventilate, wide windowed, bright, roomy Caravans to having to fly in the hot, stuffy, cramped, and claustrophobic Twin Otter. Hummingbird monopolized the charter business for nearly a year using the Caravans.
     When the contracts for the new resort islands came up for bid, Hummingbird was able to win 8 of the 9 resorts based on the fact that they had already won over the owners by using the Caravans. Hummingbird had flown the owners and investors back and forth to their resort islands for nearly a year during the construction phase, in all kinds of terrible weather, proving the commercial capabilities of the aircraft. And, of course, by using the cost effectiveness of Caravan in the price-structuring Hummingbird was able to bid a competitive unit price.
     Hummingbird quickly overextended, however, and ended up with far more contracts than they could financially handle. They were faced with moving between 500 and 700 passengers per day, and the 9 seat Caravans were carrying the burden of the loads. To cope with the demanding schedule the pilots pushed the envelope for sea condition limits for the Caravan, and 3 of the 6 Caravans ended up with bent firewalls. Wipaire said that the pilots were exceeding the 5G’s the float structure was stressed for. That was true, but the Caravan proved that it could get in and out of (almost) anyplace the Twin Otter could.
     Under the same punishment, the Twin Otters, however, broke float struts and cross bracings. In the world of bush plane lore, for some reason, that was considered standard practice. The Twin Otter would be down on some resort for 2-3 days while they worked the repairs and then it would be back flying. The Caravans, however, got the bad rap for being not seaworthy. For some reason, it was ok to fix a broken strut, but not ok to fix a bent firewall. (The cost of repairing the firewall had been greatly exaggerated and Wipaire came up with a reasonable repair scheme.)
     Another problem Hummingbird had was that Maldivian Air Taxi, who operated all Twin Otters, devised the standard contracts in the Maldives. MAT had actually based their contracts on the helicopter contracts that they were so successful in winning, but the contract suited their purpose to a degree. I will explain what part the contracts played in the definition of how seaplane transfers developed in the Maldives, but first another point.
     MAT originally started with a Caravan on straight floats, but the aircraft suffered severe "reef rash" in Rasdhoo and sunk. MAT decided to get out of the Caravan business, and the rumor I heard at the time was because the Caravan was unsuited for the Maldives. The fact that they also sunk a Rocky Mountain Air Twin Otter during the same period did not stop them from continuing with Twin Otters. So why did they stop using Caravans?
     The Chief Engineer told me that the Caravan never flew because the Operations Manager at the time was scared to put it in the water (during the bad weather.) What the CE did not understand was that the “bowling alley” takeoff area and all the taxiways to the operating area were narrow channels 90o to the prevailing monsoon winds. When the winds were howling at 30 knots or more the Twin Otters could taxi with full power reverse on one engine and plenty of power on the opposite engine to keep the floatplane going straight. Even then, when the winds and currents got together, the Twin Otters had taxi incidents brushing up against the narrow coral channels. The Ops Manager knew better than to attempt to taxi under such conditions with a single engine seaplane
     Moreover, MAT had committed themselves to using the waterfront which did not have easy access to the runway. Therefore they had no options to going for amphibs. They had no place to operate them. Hummingbird, however, had tarmac space at the airport that they used for the Mil-8 helicopters, and so had a perfect place to continue with the Caravan amphib. For almost 2 years the Caravan shared the tarmac with the helicopters. The passengers for both aircraft were only a few steps away in a comfortable air-conditioned lounge.
     The problem with the MAT standard contracts, which the resorts were accustomed to, was two fold. One, the transfers were paid by a set price per seat no matter whether it was the busy season or the off-season, or whether there was deadheads or not. Basically the contracts were based on scheduled airfares using charter operations. Two, the international airline schedules made it that the passengers going out had to be at the departure one hour before boarding, but the inbound passengers were not available until one hour after landing. The contract did not recognize this dilemma, and the only solution was for the seaplane companies to position their aircraft overnight at the resorts.
     Thus, the last flight of the day was to take the last arriving passengers out to their respective resorts, and the first flight of the day was to take the departing passengers back to the airport one hour before their departure. As amphibs are simply not built to remain in the salt water for any length of time (dissimilar metal corrosion,) and the float plane Twin Otters were not nearly so fiercely affected (all aluminum structure equals little conductivity,) the end result was that the Caravans looked less efficient in a direct numbers comparison. Where the floatplanes could overnight at the resort lagoons, the amphibs could not and often ended up doing two empty repositioning legs to compensate. That amounted to one hour of flying each Caravan each day.
     Timing wise it was not a problem, because with civil morning and evening twilight the Caravans could legally take off early enough to be at the resorts just as the Twin Otters were getting under way. And alternately, they could land at last light at the resorts, and still be back to the airport before the end of civil evening twilight. In fact, the Twin Otters had to be back 30 minutes before the Caravans to be able to land in the water if need be. I won’t go into details about contract management, but there are ways around that numbers problem that appeared to plague the Caravan operation.
     The Caravan amphibs excelled in doing charters which was a lucrative market in itself. But, Hummingbird dropped the ball when they ended up with so many resort transfers and not enough equipment, basically Twin Otters, to move them. Hummingbird had to pull out of the charter market all together to service their contracts and MAT, who always had excess Twin Otters on standby, regained the charter business that Hummingbird had monopolized for so long.
     The Caravan still had another niche market in the Maldives, especially during the slow season, and that was to provide specialized service to small groups of 6 or less, especially when it involved a dead leg. Where the two engine Twin Otters had a higher cost per hour, the Caravan could potentially save the company money by running the lesser number of passengers for much less overhead. With 5 passengers one way on a 30-minute flight the Caravan could still make a profit, where using the Twin Otter was a losing proposition. To make money the operator often had to combine trips inevitably upsetting one client or the other. In the world of bookkeeping management, however, the numbers did not add up.
     In the management meeting with the owner, the bookkeepers would ask us to explain why the Twin Otters were always running at say 80% capacity, and the Caravans only at say 60% capacity. My explanations was that when we had groups of 8 or less where we could not combine flights we would send the Caravan. Doing it this way with the less expensive to operate Caravans, enabled us to maximize the Twin Otter loads often with combined flights and full loads both ways. In other words, the Caravans made the Twin Otters more efficient at the sacrifice of keeping their numbers up. I could have done it the other way around, but I was concerned about the efficiency of the entire fleet, including the helicopters, and not about any one type of aircraft.
      In the end, however, Hummingbird was simply not maintaining the Caravans to standard (they ended up over-nighting the Caravans on occasion, practiced no corrosion prevention, they had no hanger, too few engineers, and little in the way of spares,) and the corrosion needlessly got the better of them. With the requirement for more seats, and the fact that floatplanes require a lot less maintenance than amphibs, Hummingbird got out of the Caravans and exchanged them for all Twin Otters.
     For their growing operations (the prediction for the next season was to handle 1000 passengers per day) that was a smart move. If there were a viable aircraft larger than the Twin Otter, Hummingbird would have gone with that. But, again, like Mark Air Express, they did not replace the Caravans because they were not successful, but because they were too successful for their own good. Hummingbird at one time had 6 Caravan amphibs working at once and there was not enough ramp space to bring in another one.
     The reality was that if not for the Caravans, Hummingbird would simply not have gotten off the ground. There was no way that Hummingbird could have competed head to head with MAT using Twin Otters. The proof of that statement can be seen in a comparison with the third competing seaplane company in the Maldives. Sun Express started shortly after Hummingbird, but made the mistake of starting with only Twin Otters. Because waterfront was at a premium they could not get an operating permit until they had an operational area, and that took time for all the sea-front work to take place. When they bid on the contracts they bid using the Twin Otter and lost simply because they could not prove they were ready to operate or ready to compete.
     Hummingbird’s floatplane base, although they had waterfront, was terribly inaccessible in the beginning and with the older Twin Otters always broken down they would have impressed no one. The amphib Caravans, however, were ready to run off the tarmac the minute they were registered and by making the best of their niche markets, Hummingbird went on to win the contracts and Sun Express went on to eventual bankruptcy. The gut instinct genius that had started Hummingbird against such a strong competitor as the well-entrenched Maldivian Air Taxi was lost once the operation got too big too fast and the bookkeepers moved in.
     The owner of Hummingbird, misled by the bookkeeping trap, eventually sold out half to a local resort owner, and the airline was renamed. While the airline now labors on in mediocrity, the Caravan got an undeserved bad rap from those who misunderstood the real workings of the operation.
     The C208 amphib operation in Nigeria, however, has also been a qualified success. I say qualified because, although overall they were successful there is some explaining involved. The Chevron contract for a Caravan amphib has been going for over 8 years now and Chevron continues to support the aircraft. At times there are too many passengers, but the dispatcher just diverts them to the airport and they have to travel by “other means.”

      Pan African was only the second commercial company to successfully operate a C208 amphib, and is still the only one to contract a Caravan to work for a major oil company. We flew over 100 hours per month many times and average 86 hours per month for the first 6 years. Despite being operated daily in brackish and salt water, the aircraft is maintained to the highest standards and could be easily sold at maximum blue book value today.
     Pan African also operated two other Caravan amphibs for a period of over 4 years, and they eventually suffered the fate of their success. We won a two-year contract for one Caravan and started flying about 60 hours a month. With the ability to service the out-of-the-way oil terminals and riverside work areas, our flying soon grew to 125 hours per month and we had to add a second Caravan. Luckily Chevron wanted a “new” Caravan with air conditioning about that same time so we gave them the new aircraft and put their “old” aircraft on the new contract.
     Even with the two aircraft we could hardly keep up. The aircraft would leave Lagos airport at 6:45am and complete a 2 hour 15 minute flight with 5 or 6 water location landings enroute, eventually ending in Port Harcourt by about 9:30am. The water landing included Lekki, Escravos, Forcados, Warri, Choba, and Bonny Island. Then the pilots would refuel and do the same on the way back to Lagos. After a short lunch break the pilot would do the same trip, with variations on the water locations, all over again and be back in Lagos by 7pm. Beside these 6 water locations we also operated into over 20 different water landing locations in the Niger River Delta for oil service work.
     The customer satisfaction was extremely high. Before the Caravan, one German construction manager used to dread his trips to Bonny Island where Shell was building a major gas plant. He would take 3 days from the office and two nights from home to conduct one day on the job site. By chartering the Caravan, he could leave his home after breakfast, arrive on site by 9am, spend the entire day working, and then be home in time for dinner.
     Another manager for an oil service company would take from Monday to Friday to complete visits to 3 of their constructions sites in the delta. Now he could charter the Caravan and visit all three sites in one day and be home in his bed by that night. Plus he would not lose the 4 extra days out of the office. The cost savings to his company were incredible.
     Not surprisingly, at the time, the charter market to remote sites was booming, but again we were struggling with too many passengers on our contract obligations and too many charter requests for the number of Caravan we operated. For the amount of work I turned down we could have used another couple of Caravans or even Twin Otters.
     Our local competition watched us struggle with our passenger load and introduced a Dash-8 onto our major run to Port Harcourt, where the military airport had recently been refurbished for commercial use. As the local airports became more user friendly, the oil service companies were eventually able to use the commuter services for all the airport-to-airport transport. Pan African kept one Caravan on contract to service the areas still without airports, but with new airports opening in Osubi (Warri), Bonny Island, and Owerri our Caravan amphibs could no longer compete. The Dash-8’s, Dornier 328s, and other commuter aircraft took over. The traffic that the Caravans built up over the years went to our competition.
     The Caravan owners were not interested in going into the commuter airline business, and sold their second last Caravan just last December. The Chevron Caravan continues and as Chevron only uses it for executive travel they have no need of replacing it for a larger aircraft. If there are any excess passengers the junior members have to travel by scheduled Dash-8 service, while the Chevron management gets exclusive door-to-door transportation from their lagoon side compound to the oil terminal 50 minutes away.
     If you are planning to start a commercial run with the Caravan amphib you better plan on what to do if it becomes too successful. You should already have your expansion plans in place. The problem with most businesses is that they want to start small and stay small, but that rarely happens when you put a Caravan amphib into a niche market. If you are not prepared to expand, often someone else will, and your business will die a natural death.
     Then there is Shoreline Aviation flying Caravan amphibs around the New York, Martha’s Vineyard area. Although it is a seasonal market, flying from Long Island to the outer reaches of New York State, Shoreline has been very successful at serving that market with the Caravan amphibs. The Caravan meets and beats the requirements for noise restrictions and can easily navigate the crowded skies of New York City. Shoreline has attempted, with several projects, to work their Caravan throughout the winter season, but can still justify keeping them solely with their summer work.
     That is the same with several operators in Canada who fly their Caravans on amphibs for the busy summer market and then put them on wheels to do contract work or back up their Grand Caravans on the scheduled runs for the winter. These operators have a cliental that has grown to expect the safety, reliability and comfort of the Caravans, and so make keeping the Caravans a must. Once you get your customers used to the Caravan it is difficult to go back.
     There is one market that the Caravan did fail to make an impact and that was in Fiji. An Aussie leased out his Caravan amphib to Turtle Airways. I don't know the whole story, but I heard that the owner stole back his Caravan one night and flew it home to Oz. The Caravan's firewall had started to buckle under the impact of operating into the large waters of the Coral Seas. This was territory that the underpowered C206s had reigned supreme for years and survived. Suddenly the Caravan was tucking tail and running off home.
     Yes the firewall was bent. That part was true, but why the owner retreated was another story. What I heard from a previous employee was that the owner was very meticulous, and once he saw the tough conditions that the seaplanes were operating under in Fiji he changed his mind about leaving his Caravan in the hands of these seeming lunatics. In order to break the lease he had to invent a reason and steal this aircraft away from the Civil Aviation under which it was registered.
       I don't know how that issue was resolved or even if it was, but I do know that the Fiji waters are a tough place to operate. Since he was the first to experience this firewall buckling, he justifiably panicked. Not all owners can stand the idea of their million dollar equipment getting beat up in the swells. But, I still think there was more to this story than meets the eye. And I should mention that the C206's had their share of broken cross bracings, front struts, and cracked door frames to show for their hard work. But, again, they didn't cost a million buck either.
     Before I wrap up, however, I want to make sure I don't get accused of glossing over the issue of the Caravan firewalls buckling in the heavy ocean swells. The firewall problem is definitely a recurring problem. Although Wipaire came out with a reasonably inexpensive repair, on certain aircraft the problem never went away. Once repaired the buckling would start all over again. Cessna, of course blamed Wipaire, and at first Wipaire blamed Cessna. But, the buckling was worse on the newest of the Caravans. The 1985 600 hp Caravan Hummingbird bought off B.C. Tel never had a buckling problem even though with the lesser power there was no doubt that she suffered the worst punishment in the ocean swells.
     The second Caravan delivered right from the factory and Wipaire only showed a slight bend in the firewall after a year of terrible sea conditions and heavy water operations. The third and forth Caravans delivered started buckling from the minute they first touch water and continued to get worse daily. The explanation is way too long for this already windy article, but suffice to say there were many factors involved, one of which added up to Monday morning Caravans meeting up with Friday night Wipaire mods.
    There is an operation out of Miami that started with amphib Caravans just after Hummingbird started with theirs and they too were getting the buckling and the run around from Wipaire. But, lets face the facts; the conditions in the Maldives are extreme to say the least. With anything man made something had to give. We pushed the envelop and learned from it. I would say that if I could start all over again in the Maldives, I would still be able to recommend Caravans, but only if I could pick and choose our operational areas. Again because Hummingbird grew so terribly fast we were forced to operate in extreme conditions by the obligations of contract.
     Regardless of the firewall buckling, however, at no time did we ever operate recklessly or dangerously. In fact, if the firewall buckling had been our worst problem then life would have been very sweet indeed. We flew the aircraft with bent firewalls with no further consequences, until the firewall would crack. At that point we had to effect the repair to maintain the integrity of the firewall. Cessna has since changed the design of the firewall reinforcement again and I hope that will fix the problem. (All 1999 Caravans amphibs and on will have the new firewall reinforcement.) But, the best cure is prevention and that means not committing yourself into a contract until you have an expert in the seaplane business scout out your intended areas of operation.
     The bottom line, however, is the bottom line, and that is business. No matter if you were the first and no matter if you were the best, if you cannot meet the clients expanding needs they will go elsewhere. Don't let success lead you to failure. Depending on your market you might start out with a Caravan amphib and end up with a Twin Otter. For that matter, you could easily go from Caravan amphibs to Dash-8s, that is, if you can get Wipaire to put them on floats!

  After all, Edo put the DC3 on floats.
Amphibious Cessna Caravan & DC3

Article and Images by John S Goulet

Note from the Editor. Just a side note, since we are doing a short history of Caravans, the floatplane that MAT sunk was returned to Canada and rebuilt by Ken Borek Air. It was eventually sold to Slate Falls Airways where it has been operating successfully in fresh water ever since. I don’t think I would have wanted to put that aircraft back into the salt chuck, but I would have no qualms about buying a Caravan that has been operated in salt water, as long as the operator is prepared to do a proper rebuild first.
     Do what Slate Falls did and get a good price and go from there. This is not a paid advertisement, just a piece of advice proven reliable by Slate Falls Airways.

For maintenance concerns about operating your Caravan in saltwater read
Seaplanes & Salt Water

The attitude indicator will guide you back to The Bush Pilot Company.
Article and Images by John S Goulet

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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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