With 300 horses in its throaty engine pulling six seats under wings the size of barn doors, Cessna’s C206 is a mighty workhorse that packs a punch.
While the thought of taming the beast made my knees shake, it was easy to see why pilots love a C206 so much.
It was early morning and my instructor and I were in a Jabiru 430 cruising to the airfield where the 206 lived. Loved for charter and cargo flying throughout southern Africa, I’m told a 206 rating will score you brownie points on a job application.
I was fortunate to be flying one today. I’d done lots of hour building for my CPL in the Jabiru It is very cost effective, has four seats, and buzzes along at a reasonable pace – and it has a decent range too. But the C206 is “double everything in the Jabi.” With a max take-off mass of 1633kg, it is twice the weight, and almost triple the power of the little ‘Jabbi’. According to the Pilots Operating Handbook (POH) it doesn’t exactly rival the Concorde, but as a friend put it, “You can load the family, camping equipment, the ‘potjie’, and granny, and it will still climb like a homesick angel.”
According to my friend, everything he’d flown from a Cessna 150 to a Boeing 747 shrank to the same size once mastered. But eyeing the 206’s specs nervously, my inexperience with planes couldn’t comprehend how this brute was going to “feel the same” as a Jabi, or even a Cessna 172.
An hour later we landed and parked next to the Cessna. The first thing I noticed was its monstrously fat nose and windmill-sized propeller. I was immediately worried that, being a shorty, I wouldn’t be able to see over the instrument panel, or reach the pedals. I wasn’t particularly keen on instrument flying in a wholly intimidating new type, so I grabbed the spare cushion from the Jabi – just in case.
This was a common humiliation I faced in the Sling 2; with its laid back seats and rudder pedals miles away under the panel. One of my favourite things about the C172 is that it has actual chairs – on seat rails that are adjustable. And that was my saving grace with the 206, no matter how big or how heavy, it was still a Cessna – built on the same design principles and ergonomics.
Well, that’s what I told myself anyway.
Another feature is its aft double doors on the right hand side; allowing easy access for passengers or cargo. And with such versatile utility comes the added importance of weight and balance checks. I’d just passed CPL Flight Planning (just) so the calculations were done in a flash. And I realised that with only two butts in the seats, that engine was really going to whip us around like a kite in a gale on a short string.
With a thorough pre-flight done I climbed into the hot seat… and to my amazement I was big enough. The seat was at its full height and most of the way forward, but I could see over the huge panel. Bliss for a shorty.
The panel is wider and taller and has more cool stuff on it, but is still basically a 172’s. I took a moment to locate the main bits and sussed out all the extra ‘knoppies’. At the reins of a beefy engine with a constant speed propeller, engine management was going to be a learning curve. I found a tacho, fuel pressure and manifold pressure gauges, EGTs, and a digital display showing the cylinder temps. It had high and low pressure fuel pumps, and cowl flaps to control cold airflow over the engine. And of course, the main three controls; throttle, pitch and mixture.
The power was visceral, and I couldn’t keep the huge grin of my face.
Firing this one up was a little more complicated and involved monitoring the fuel pressure while the fuel pump primed the cylinders. Once the pressure was up, I killed the pump, fed in an inch of throttle, and turned the key. The prop heaved over several times… and then it fired. The impressively loud pop of each cylinder attacked my left ear through the open side window. The power was visceral, and I couldn’t keep the huge grin of my face.
Lined up, with takeoff vital actions complete, I timidly pushed the black knob to the firewall. With the stampede of 300 horses at full gallop I was pressed back in my seat and watched in amazement as we accelerated hard down the runway and thundered past the hangars. Half expecting to be overpowered by the plane, I eased the wheel back at 60 knots and asked it very nicely if it would fly. It left the ground and barrelled on in a straight line. The controls were heavy but responsive, and the rudder trim was doing a good job of saving my right leg. After the initial hectic climb-out I was relieved to throttle back and pulled the prop back to 2400 rpm. It was not quiet so hectic.
This 206 had the same digital fuel flow meter as the Jabiru. Every few seconds the display cycled between fuel flow, quantity, and endurance etc. During a quick instrument scan I saw the number “80” on the screen and mistakenly thought for a moment it was our fuel quantity – it was a typical number of litres to see in the Jabiru’s tanks. My jaw dropped when I looked again and realised we were burning an eye-watering 80 litres per hour. My instructor must’ve noticed the stunned look on my face, as he quickly reassured me these numbers were normal.
With my mind still recalibrating from Jabiru to 206, we levelled off and started some basic manoeuvres. I rocked the wings, wiggled the tail, and pitched the nose up and down – the elevator was the heaviest control. The 206 is very stable. Shoving air out of the way like a steam train on rails, it was moving in one direction and wasn’t going to budge for anything except at the pilot’s command. It felt good.
Eventually it was time to think about getting down and tackling a landing. Going down wasn’t as simple as pulling the throttle out a finger or two and pointing the nose down; with beer barrel sized cylinders and a highish airspeed, I had to be careful not to shock-cool the engine. I closed the cowl flaps, which restricted the air leaving the back of the cowl, reducing cold airflow over the engine. Then, with the help of the digital cylinder head temperature gauge which flashed me if it was cooling too fast, I throttled back a little at a time, allowing the temps to come down slowly.
I entered the circuit and ran the downwind checks. By the time I was finished we’d already flown the whole downwind leg. I turned onto final, lowered the last notch of flap, and slowed to 70 knots. The 206 was ‘textbook’ in the way it flew. In groundschool we learned about “falling behind the power curve” on final. That is; slowing down to the point where the power required to overcome the extra drag exceeds the power available and you start to sink. I understood the concept, but it was difficult to really see in a Sling or Jabiru, which are light and nimble. But in the 206 with its barn door flaps it was easy to get a demo: I inadvertently allowed myself to get a little slow at 65kt and gave the throttle a nudge. And nothing happened. A finger more power – and still nothing. I could feel it starting to sink – and the airspeed was still low, so I gave the throttle a gutsy push and we powered out of the slump.
On the first couple landings I flared too high, but soon got the hang of it. The position and softness of the main gear felt pleasantly familiar – the 172 again. After a few circuits we called it quits and turned off the runway to the hangars.
Now I understand why pilots have a such soft spot for the C206
Soon we were sitting in the Jabiru again while the autopilot flew us home. I now understood what my friend meant by his puzzling notion. The 206 doesn’t feel like a 172, but it flies like one. Even though it felt heavy on the yoke, has bigger wings and more power, once in the air the 206 has the same gentle manners and so its size no longer matters. It is still a plane – governed by the same four forces that govern the 172, or I suppose any aircraft for that matter – it just has more of each force.
And now I understand why pilots have such a soft spot for the C206; it’s an aircraft that behaves like it should. There’s something deeply satisfying when you see all the theory you’ve stuffed into your head finally come to life in a plane you’ll probably spend hours flying for years to come.