The Cessna 208 Super Cargo Master Caravan is a commonly known aircraft associated with lugging heavy cargo for mail carries across the nation.
But for the U.S. Army it serves many missions, and you’ll find the only one of its kind at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG).
“We use it for just about everything,” said Scott Myers, Flight Services Division pilot and Aviation Safety officer.
Dubbed the “Swiss Army Knife” of aircraft tests and evaluations at the base, the military-certified aircraft comes highly modified and is always evolving.
“It’s a very versatile aircraft and it is also a very economical aircraft,” Myers said. “It’s the most economical aircraft we operate on.”
With no one test mission being the same, this one-of-a-kind aircraft can conduct survey work, fly aerial targets, radar targets, conduct software testing for surrogate Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) work, test and calibrate radar systems, and conduct guided parachute systems. However, the list doesn’t end there.
“It is a surrogate aircraft, meaning that we can substitute it if we want to simulate what a UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] will do,” said Stuart Smith, the Avionics lead for the Cessna 208. “It is very versatile.”
Smith is responsible for all electronic equipment fitted and installed into the aircraft for any one mission, and while the wiring and electronics can be a lot, it takes all hands on deck. “It is a huge amount of teamwork that goes on out here.”
Larry Stewart is the engineering technician and maintenance lead for the plane. He has engineered all the modifications to the aircraft since its approval for military testing in 2009.
“It makes a really good platform for UAVs because it flies slow enough that it can reach the same speed and it is more stable and more dependable then UAVs are when they first developed them,” Stewart said.
Stewart has also worked on the undercarriage modifications. Below the aircraft, rail modifications have been attached to the belly of the plane to hold cargo pods that can be fitted with sensors.
Adding to its resume, the aircraft has been used to assist (NASA since 2005 at YPG. Test missions have allowed for the testing of the Orion Space capsule and its parachute recovery system.
“They [NASA] want to see how their parachutes operate during a normal landing,” said Smith “We are providing them with an outside look at their systems and we have that ability because of the altitudes we are allowed to fly at.”