There are cargo planes, and there are passenger planes – and in general never the twain shall meet. However, we were lucky enough to fly out to Jersey to meet Lannie O’Bannion, VP Sales and Flight Operations at Textron Aviation and to see N408PX, an experimental model of the new SkyCourier aircraft currently touring Europe in order to show prospective buyers that you can have your cake and eat it, or at least, you can fly passengers around during the day and then deliver cargo at night using the same equipment.
The SkyCourier is a utility high-wing aircraft made by Textron Aviation under the Cessna brand. While it has a passing resemblance to the firm’s Caravan line, it is an entirely new ‘clean-sheet’ design.
“We designed this aircraft with FedEx to carry three LD3 containers, but while we did that we asked other customers to come to Wichita and we listened to them,” explained Mr. O’Bannion. “These customers were a mix of freight haulers and passenger-carrying folks who understood what we needed to incorporate into the designs. We then executed on that”.
The aircraft in cargo form has been around for a year or so since receiving type certification and a number of these planes have been delivered to FedEx Feeder, its primary user. However, the one we are viewing at Jersey Airport is even more interesting to us as it is both a cargo aircraft, capable of carrying around 2.7 tonnes of freight and a regional island-hopper with seating for 19 passengers.
This is achieved by having seating and trim panels that simply clip into the aircraft using quick release fastenings. The maker estimates that the craft can be converted between configurations in an hour and a half – and possible faster with practice.
This means that the aircraft could potentially be used for ferrying passengers around during the day, and then being converted to shift cargo about through the night. O’Bannion is clear that the aircraft type is being pitched as an option both for users of existing Cessna products, as well as completely new users, including those who might currently move freight and people overland or on ships.
Part of the appeal is it’s ability to land and take off in environments where other craft might not be able to go, as earlier in 2023 a gravel runway operations kit was approved for use. It can also take off and land on short runways, further increasing its utility and becoming an option in areas where, in O’Bannion’s words, the ground infrastructure is ‘not great’’.
While clearly not the most luxurious cabin in the world, passenger comfort is better than you might expect. The seats are supportive and well enough padded, while panel lights and air vents make the cargo-focussed aircraft a pleasant place to be. There’s ample headroom when walking through the cabin and there’s even USB sockets in the side panel mouldings to give at-seat power.
The aircraft is non-pressurised and conventionally constructed from aluminium. More long-proven components include the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-65 engines engines, Garmin G1000 avionics and a fixed landing gear. It has single-point refuelling to speed turnarounds at stops.
Although designed with a specific primary user in mind, Textron hopes that the SkyCourier will find a new customer base. “Yes, this aircraft was designed with FedEx, but it is also hitting a different segment of the market,” O’Bannion explained.
“There isn’t a lot of aircraft that exist that have this type of performance with this type of payload. While we have interest from existing customers, we’re also finding customers in new regions where we can grow the market, whether it’s airlines, charter or even company shuttle type operations,” he concluded.