Textron Aviation SkyCourier Q&A: Brad Thress


Textron Aviation revealed a new utility turboprop offering last week, the Cessna SkyCourier 408.

The aircraft was developed with FedEx Express, which has signed a solid order for 50 of the aircraft, with the option to extend to 100.

As a spiritual successor to the Caravan 208A, which was also developed with FedEx in 1986, there has been a lot of interest in both the cargo and passenger variants of the SkyCourier.

To find out more, we asked Brad Thress, Textron Aviation’s senior vice-president, engineering, about the aircraft’s development, working with FedEx and how the announcement has been received.

CJI: How is business?

Thress: We are having a pretty good year. Late in the year, we are seeing people with late-year financial decisions coming through so our fourth quarter has been pretty busy, which is encouraging.

The market has been the same as it has been the last few years. We are modestly up across the board. Regarding new aircraft sales and aftermarket growth, there has been nothing dramatic but we have seen mixed single-digit recovery percentages across the board.

CJI: How far along is the SkyCourier development?

Thress: It is in its very early stages – it started development about seven months ago. As far as planes go, it is still early days but we wanted to be clear on the mission and design the airplane from there. We started from the inside out. We designed the aircraft around the cargo space and the ability to load and unload the cargo very efficiently.

CJI: Who approached who?

Thress: FedEx approached us. In hindsight, it looks like they were looking to modernise the utility section of their fleet. We were very keen to see what they were up to and it worked out great.

CJI: When will you have prototypes flying?

Thress: The cargo will be flying first – we will be focusing on the FedEx airplane first. We have our first wind tunnel model being built now and it will head to the tunnel Febuary next year. As well as measuring drag, it will give us the load specifications for the airplane and, once we get loads, we can start sizing the structure of the airplane and start designing the parts for the test and flying prototypes. The first prototype will be flying in the middle of 2019.

CJI: How is this different to the development of the Caravan?

Thress: From the beginning, we based the aircraft around FedEx’s mission instead of adapting an existing an airplane like we did with the Caravan 208A. This has really been designed for their needs so they are much more involved in the basic definition of the airplane.

The other thing we learnt is that reliability is king for FedEx. Because of this, they refocused us on making sure the SkyCourier was simple, robust and reliable.

CJI: Although the aircraft is developed with FedEx, have you seen any other companies interested?

Thress: Very much so. There is a lot of excitement in the passenger and the cargo versions. We saw a surprising amount of interest immediately after the FedEx announcement.

CJI: Are you seeing more interest in the passenger or cargo variants?

Thress: It seems equally split right now, although it is early days.

CJI: Why not keep the “Caravan” name?

Thress: For us it is a completely different aircraft even though it is in the utility mission area. We thought it deserved its own name. It is also a different model number, the Cessna 408, whilst the Caravan is the 208.