April 6th dawned a perfect day in Waco to begin our amazing odyssey. With sunny skies and mild temperatures, we could not have picked a better day. The purpose of this trip is to take our newest Cessna Caravan engine upgrade on a demo tour of one of our most important regions in the world – Brazil. This product is our newest and quite possibly our greatest achievement to date in improving the performance of an airplane. Nearly three years, and over $2,000,000 in the making, it was a monumental undertaking for our small company. The myriad of testing required by the FAA as well as our own penchant for high quality and utmost safety required close attention to every detail – not to mention a lot of money.
The Cessna Caravan is a single engine turboprop that was never designed to be a race horse. It was designed to operate under the harshest conditions, carrying heavy loads out of rough bush strips in remote corners of the world. FedEx owns a fleet of them for its short haul cargo flights and puts them to the ultimate test every night. Cessna did a phenomenal job of building and designing this heavy duty work horse that operates in the harshest environments on the planet. It has performed well but operators are using the airplane for ever more demanding missions and the smaller engine that it was originally approved with is struggling to handle many of these missions. In some cases where ice buildup is a problem, they simply don’t have enough horsepower to stay in the air and will drift down even at full power – not a good situation in places like Alaska and Colorado where there are rocks in the clouds.
The Caravan project certainly tested our mettle. Few companies were willing to take on this project but my partners and I thought a more powerful engine for the Caravan would be the proverbial better mousetrap and we were just the company that could make it happen. In August of 2011 our perseverance finally paid off when the FAA approved our data and cleared us to begin delivering our engine upgrades which increased the horsepower from 675 to 850. To quote one of our first customers: “The Blackhawk upgrade was the best thing to happen to the Caravan since the Caravan. The larger engine makes the airplane a monster of a work horse.”
By March 30th, 2012 we have sold and installed 15 engines on the Caravan which is an amazing success rate, however we have ordered a lot of these big engines this year from Pratt & Whitney so we don’t have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. We have to take our show on the road and today the road leads to Manaus, Brazil which is situated at the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers which are the main tributaries of the Amazon River and the heart of the Amazon Jungle.
The planning for such a flight is long and arduous as you are dealing with multiple countries along the way that all have their own rules and idiosyncrasies. We have to make sure that the airplane is “legal” with all inspections current and all paperwork signed off. We had to have a life raft on board along with life jackets for each person on the flight for obvious reasons considering the amount of open ocean we will be crossing. The airplane has only one engine so regardless of how much horsepower it has, if it quits turning, the glide path will take us all the way to a water ditching so we better have something to float around in just in case. We also have a jungle survival kit as we will be crossing over two hundred miles of Amazon Jungle. If we happen to go down in the Amazon I don’t think there are many 4 star hotels that we can check into while awaiting rescue and I doubt my iPhone will get a signal there.
On the flight with me are my Flight Ops Manager Chris Dunkin who is a 12,000 hour former American Airlines pilot and Mike Moore who has 35+ years’ experience as a maintenance technician. If we were to break down somewhere along the way, I know Mike will get us back in the air. Our first leg is a routine flight from Waco to Tallahassee, FL. Chris is flying the first leg and I will fly the second from Tallahassee to Great Exuma Island. Chris flies with the well-honed skills of a seasoned airline pilot and he soon has us climbing briskly in the cool central Texas air smoothly banking east towards the rising sun. The incredible power of the 850 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine has us climbing out at nearly 1800 feet per minute on our way to 11,000 feet.
As the copilot on this leg I get to do most of the work; handling the communications with the various radar “center” controllers, monitoring the weather at the destination, navigating and inputting the many flight plans into the triple Garmin GPS boxes that we will require for the entire trip. Passing through 3,000 feet Chris punches up the autopilot, couples the NAV track function, arms the automatic altitude preselect capture set at 11,000 and leans back and jokingly asks where the flight attendant is with his breakfast. We both look back and see Mike already reclined in the oversized executive chair sound asleep. The guy can sleep anywhere. As the aircraft automatically levels off at our assigned altitude; the autopilot is tracking precisely on my first waypoint at Mobile, Alabama. Cruise checklist complete and Ft. Worth Center watching us on radar it’s time to read the morning Waco Trib.
Flying over Crestview Florida we fly close to Eglin Air Force Base where I was stationed when I was in the service. I was 18 years old and didn’t have a clue what I really wanted to do with my life, except that I wanted to fly airplanes. Since I didn’t have a college degree, the chances of flying as an Air Force pilot were nil. So I did the next best thing – I joined the base aero club and started taking flying lessons. Since then I have flown through this same airspace in every aircraft imaginable from small single engine airplanes to corporate jets. No matter how many times I do though, it always takes me back to those days of bouncing around in the rough thermal laden air of the Florida panhandle. I loved every minute of it.
Our landing at Tallahassee is Chris’ usual uneventful touchdown with a slight bounce that I took devious pleasure in and a good hearted ribbing. Even with my 8000 hours it’s always fun to see that he is human. After a quick lunch and a $1600 fuel top off, I am now in the pilot’s seat climbing out of the familiar bumpy Florida air. Our flight plan called for us to fly to Vero Beach then a slight right turn direct to Nassau and on to Great Exuma some 611 miles over the horizon. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas.
The same line of thunderstorms that spawned multiple tornados and ripped through Dallas a few days ago, now stood between us and Exuma. Our on board radar is lit up with red and yellow globs along with numerous lightning strikes on the Stormscope. Although we can’t see the lightning I know it’s there and there is no way could we can climb over it, go under it or through it so we opt to turn right about 30 degrees towards the island of Bimini in hopes of skirting around the west side of the storms. Miami Center isn’t too happy about us needing to make such a large course deviation for weather but they reluctantly clear us to “deviate from our course as needed”. Finally about 40 miles from Bimini we see an opening that looks navigable so we turn back southeast and fly into the cloud mass hoping it is as mild as it appears. Three or four solid jolts later and some moderate rain we punch through the other side to a dazzling blue sky and quickly leave the bubbling cauldron of storms behind us. I look back in the cabin to see how Mike is doing; sound asleep again.
Flying down the Exuma chain is always an amazing experience. The color of the water is dark blue to turquoise to nearly white due to the sandy bottom clearly visible even from 13,000 feet above the ocean. We fly right by the small island of Staniel Key which is where I flew my wife to on our honeymoon 22 years ago. Being a pilot definitely has its perks! Approaching Exuma we drop below radar coverage so we have to cancel our instrument flight plan with Miami Center. We spot the runway at Great Exuma from 30 miles away. There is a slight tail wind but I elect to fly a straight in approach to land to the southeast which results in me being slightly fast on my flare and I bounce the landing. Chris chuckles saying something about paybacks… Opening the door we are hit with the hot heavy humid air of the islands. Welcome to the tropics.
We button up the airplane for the night and breeze through customs and immigration and are soon barreling down the wrong side of the road in a beat up taxi headed for the hotel and a cold beer.
Tomorrow we head 522 nautical miles south by southeast to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. The golf courses and beaches await us. (You didn’t think this was ALL work did you?)
Blackhawk Modifications opened for business in Waco in 1999 with only 2 employees and have grown to over 35 employees worldwide. We are in the business of designing, engineering, and selling turbine engine and performance upgrades for turboprop aircraft. In the 12 year since we started we have expanded our sales to every corner of the world with offices in South Africa, Brazil, Switzerland, Alabama and of course Waco.