Adventure Travel: Taking Flight

Cessna Caravan Amphibian

In some eyes humvees are the ultimate sport-utility vehicle, but they're far too terrestrial for certain souls who want to travel beyond the beyond—or at least to the edge. For those die-hard adventurers, the conveyance of choic is a Cessna Caravan Amphibian, a state-of-the-art floatplane equipped with wheels.

While smaller and less sophisticated "amphibs" exist, they don't begin to fly in the same league. The Caravan's big—it's 40 feet long, carries nine passengers and gear galore, and stands almost eye to eye with a Boeing 727. It's also the fastest floatplane in production and powerful too, jumping out of the water with the new 675-horsepower turboprop jet engine. (Most amphibs have piston engines.) But most of all, it's fun to fly, inspiring even the most seasoned pilot to sightsee along the way.

Caravans on wheels are common; they're today's DC3, the workhorses of general aviation. Over a thousand roam the globe hauling freight, delivering visitors to safari camps, and flying medical evacuations. But put a Caravan on Wipaire's Wipline floats and it is transformed into the ultimate flying sports vehicle—and a rare one at that.

The first Caravan was put on floats in 1986, and in Jun of 2000 the hundredth Caravan was delivered to a commercial charter company in Ketchikan, Alaska. Within this small constellation are just a few dozen privately owned Caravan floatplanes. Momentum is building as this amphib evolves int an entirely new life form—a pure pleasure craft. Thus far, Wipaire has six private planes on the books for the year 2001.

Jimmy Buffett spent several months sailing around the Caribbean, Mexico, and Belize while his Caravan—a parrot painted on its tail—flew alongside. Financier George Soros, Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, and Samuel Johnson of Johnson Wax also own Caravans, and Rob Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, flies his own, as does Gary Comer, founder of Land's End.

The Caravan is often treated as a "support vehicle" to a boat. One owner, on an extended cruise of the Northeast in his 110-foot sailboat, used his Caravan like a flying dinghy—his pilot made runs into ports to pick up groceries and friends while the boat cruised. On other days it was used for adventures. Some New Yorkers rely on their Caravans to beat a retreat from the city, meeting their planes dockside on th East River. The exodus to East Hampton takes only 38 minutes, and it's far more comfortable than a helicopter. The most unusual sighting of all: In the Mediterranean, one Carava belonging to a Saudi sits on the aft deck of an enormous yacht—which in turn is the support boat to his even more enormous yacht.

But the heart of the Caravan is its adventurous spirit. A case study of the new Caravan owner is Montanan Kent Williams, who spends summers on his boat in Alaska, his Caravan moored to an anchor nearby. No newcomer to Cessna, Williams also flies a new Citation Excel and keeps a Super Cu on his ranch—but his Caravan is another breed.

Williams keeps the plane loaded with fishing gear and an inflatable dinghy, so that if the fishing gods beckon he can easily alight on a river, lake, or bay. Or he might land on mint-colored glacial waters and scoop up mini-icebergs with a net so his guest can enjoy 5,000-year-old ice with her bourbon.

Flying this high-performance plane is a pleasure, and when the going gets tough, the Caravan offers options. "There isn't a lot of infrastructure in Alaska—you're out there on your own," says Williams. "I always keep an eye out for places to land, and I know that if conditions really deteriorate I can bring it down on a river or some old gravel airstrip." With the new turboprop jet engine, introduced in 1998, it has the power to accelerate and climb faster in tricky conditions like small lakes, and it has a long range, around a thousand miles, so there's no need to cache gas tanks as most bush pilots do.

At the end of last summer, Williams took off on a fly-about to Alaska's Brooks Range to see the caribou migration and fall colors. Though he was wilderness-lodge hopping, he packed emergency food provisions and sleeping bags, turning his new Caravan into a flying Winnebago. In the remote Arctic outpost of Bettles, bush pilots circled the elegant white plane each evening like schoolboys hoping for a ride, and Williams obliged. Flying homeward, Williams landed in Whitehorse, in the Canadian Yukon, to clear customs. As he took off, the air traffic controller said, "Seeing your plane makes my day—just think of all the places you can go." Indeed, there's just about no place on this planet a Caravan Amphibian can't go—and wherever it does, people take notice.