There is no need for Pilatus to establish a market niche for the PC12. Since 1994, this fast single-engine turboprop with a pressurized cabin and seats for up to 9 passengers has been selling successfully to operators worldwide who need to get to remote, short, often unpaved runways with speed and economy.
Pilatus Aircraft, a Swiss company founded in 1939, is well established in military turboprop trainers and STOL aircraft such as the PC6 Porter. The company has sold more than 760 PC12s to private companies and government operators around the world—including the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Australia and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Two thirds of PC12s operate in North America.
Certification for single-pilot IFR operations and single-engine economy, paired with cabin space and cruise performance similar to those of a King Air, have made this aircraft popular with corporations, charter operators and even fractionals. The PC12 is a great aircraft for getting to that sunny Bahamas resort from the wintry northeast US in a matter of hours, with no transfers involved.
Of course, you have to get over the fact that the PC12 has only one engine—the tried and proven Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6. Pilatus has a lot of literature and statistics to prove that this is not really an issue—but, as we all know, the single/twin-engine discussion will probably never end. Beyond statistics and flight performance, the discussion almost resembles a question of belief.
When you approach the PC12 on the ramp, you certainly forget that it is a single-engine aircraft. It sits tall and high, and looks solidly built—indeed, many business jets appear smaller.
I visited Pilatus Aircraft in Stans, Switzerland recently, to be one of the first to fly the new PC12 NG after its Mar 23 FAA/JAA certification. Pilatus Sales and Marketing Mgr Daniel Kunz and Production Test Pilot Michael Alb were awaiting me at the Pilatus factory, which is located about an hour by train south of Zurich on the small joint-use military/civil airport of Stans–Buochs.
As Kunz was giving me a tour of the production facilities, a customer called, wishing to push his PC12 NG delivery forward. It turned out that Kunz could not really accommodate him, since every one of the 180 PC12 NG aircraft that Pilatus can manufacture in the next 2 years is sold, and the next open delivery slots are only available in 2010. The Swiss do their manufacturing in a very traditional way—the happy result being strong aircraft built to exacting standards. All parts are milled from solid aluminum blocks at Stans and shipped to a plant in Portugal for fuselage and wing riveting. The empty fuselage and wings are then trucked back to Switzerland, where the wings are joined and all final assembly takes place.
There is almost no fluctuation in the workforce, with workers staying for their entire career with Pilatus—some are even second-generation plant workers. Stans seems a good birthplace for a solid aircraft, with the beautiful Swiss mountains offering alpine skiing and hiking and so doing their part to keep the workforce happy.
Alb invited me into the cockpit of HB-FVC, PC12 NG s/n 1001. (The new PC12s have serial numbers commencing at 1001.) After a few months as a company demonstrator, this aircraft, painted in silver and black, is destined for a private customer. It has a comfortable executive interior with white leather seats.
Before our flight the following morning Alb wanted to get me acquainted with the new Honeywell Primus Apex flightdeck. Honeywell designed the Primus Apex glass cockpit—based on Primus Epic architecture for executive and regional jets—for turboprops such as the PC12 NG. In recent years I’d had the opportunity to fly the PlaneView version of Primus Epic on the Gulfstream G450, and the EASy version on Dassault’s Falcon 900EX. As a result, I was looking forward to see how this very advanced flightdeck would help pilots in a single-engine turboprop setting.
Just like Gulfstream and Dassault, Pilatus has joined with Honeywell and BMW DesignworksUSA to create a workspace that is well thought out ergonomically and made for the needs of the pilot. Four large 10.4-inch flat panel LCD displays are arranged in a T-shape, with a primary flight display (PFD) each for pilot and copilot and, between them, an upper and lower multifunction display (MFD).
Since the PC12 NG is certified for single-pilot operations, the right (copilot) PFD is an option, but Pilatus says no customer has yet ordered the aircraft without it. Together with the various switching and tuning panels, this flightdeck offers a density and depth of information that are hard to find in other aircraft in this class.
Not only can the PC12 NG operate IFR at jet cruising levels between major airports up to 1500 nm apart—its takeoff and landing performance, coupled with impressive cruise performance, mean that it can also fly VFR to short and remote grass and gravel strips. This kind of operation shines a whole new light on the 2 integrated GPS receivers and the worldwide database of the enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS). But, after all, Pilatus pilots operate closer to terrain than many of their executive jet colleagues, so the PC12 seems to be a good aircraft in which to install the very latest situational awareness tools.
Flights are planned and executed on the flight management system (FMS). Traffic and collision alerting system (TCAS) and weather radar returns are displayed on the PFDs. Since the PC12’s single engine is in the aircraft nose, the weather radar antenna is located on the right wingtip. Nexrad, airport weather and winds aloft can be received if the aircraft operating in the US.
A modular avionics unit (MAU) coordinates the flow of all data with the help of 2 network interface cards (NICs)—2 advanced graphics modules (AGMs) calculate the subsequent display. The AGMs are also part of the MAU. Two independent MAUs are standard in large executive jet installations such as the Gulfstream G450 and Dassault Falcon 900EX.Obviously, all these advanced avionics need more power than conventional avionics—as well as good backup systems—since they have assumed such a central role in new generation aircraft, and failure is not really an option. Pilatus completely reworked the electrical system—but before the engineers even started on that project, the underlying power of this single-engine aircraft had to be boosted.
The new Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67P delivers 15% more power then its predecessor, allowing for improved flight performance but also enough excess capacity to mount two 300A generators on the accessory section. These supply the 24V DC system and charge two 42Ah batteries. In addition, the emergency power system (EPS) acts as a backup with a 24V 5Ah battery. A standby-power bus supplies the most important systems and avionics, and is used on the ground to feed the FMS before engine start.
Honeywell’s Apex offers the possibility of using the FMS airport database’s landing altitude to control cabin pressurization, so Pilatus took the additional step of automating the cabin controls with a new digital environmental control system (ECS).
Preparing for flight
On the next morning we climbed again into the cockpit to try all this in flight. I took the left seat, while Alb instructed and assisted from the right seat. Once you are settled in the cockpit, it is very easy to forget that you are operating a single-engine aircraft. The cockpit is not only roomy—the new PC12 NG’s very professional-looking glass cockpit is more reminiscent of a large executive jet than a turboprop. To get started, we switched on the standby bus on the overhead electrical system panel. Interestingly, Pilatus has abandoned the once fashionable push-buttons for regular switches, since the engineers felt that switch positions were not easily identified with push-buttons. However, the electrical panel does not require a lot of switching during flight and is mostly automated.
With the avionics awakened, we could now go ahead and program the FMS and other parameters for takeoff. The batteries allow up to 2 hours to complete this task, but in practice it only takes a few minutes. This is because when entering data, the big-iron heritage of the Honeywell Apex glass cockpit becomes evident. Data entry is almost intuitive and is done using 4 tabs on the upper MFD—Init, Preflight, Takeoff and Landing. These tabs are similar to traditional FMS pages, but instead of inserting data with line select keys (LSKs), the cursor jumps from entry to entry according to a task-oriented workflow.
We start on the Init tab with the check of the geographic (Lat/Long) position and the database cycle. After that it’s on to the Preflight tab with weights and environmental data. Departure runways and route are entered on the Takeoff tab, transitions, approaches and landing runways on the Approach tab. This all happens very quickly, since the cursor automatically jumps to the next required field after each entry.
In this way, a flightplan is created and displayed in tabular form on the left 1/3 portion of the upper MFD. The right 2/3 of the upper MFD are used for the INAV—a large map display with geographic and chart information. The flightplan is displayed on the INAV in graphical form as well. You can even define flightplan waypoints by moving the central joystick to a certain point and selecting that defined position as a waypoint via a menu.
As I found out during our flight over Switzerland, the cursor control device (CCD), the joystick and the 4 arrow buttons near it are among the few items that could be improved, since it may be difficult to move the cursor precisely in turbulence. Other, larger aircraft have palmrests on the center pedestal for this reason, but, since the PC12 NG does not have a center pedestal, some other solution, maybe software-driven, should be found.
Flying the PC12 NG
After engine start, the PT6A engine turns the 4-blade Hartzell propeller at idle rpm. As the aircraft systems come alive one after another, a multitude of red and amber messages disappear on the crew alerting system on the lower MFD. The status of gear, flaps and trim and important aircraft systems (fuel, electric, ECS) is always shown on the lower MFD.
At this point the checklists are classic paper—a fact that I enjoyed, since electronic checklist are often cumbersome and inflexible for those professional pilots who fly many legs a day.
In very little time the PC12 NG was ready for takeoff and, after crossing a highway at a traffic light (typical for Swiss airports in narrow valleys), we took off VFR toward the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland’s central range.
Flying the PC12 manually over these 12,000-ft-high mountain tops is pure fun. After an impressive climb and a look at the few midweek skiers on the slopes, Alb demonstrates an equally impressive 8000-fpm descent back into the valley for a touch and go at Stans– Buochs. Thanks to the trailing-link landing gear and Alb’s patient instruction, my first landing turns out quite well.
After takeoff we continue IFR to QLS (Lausanne) on Lake Geneva. Today the weather is defined by a southwesterly flow, with heavy clouds on the southern side of the Alps and mixed weather in the west with sometimes just a few miles’ visibility.
On approach to QLS, which has no IFR approach to its short 2600-ft runway with a 2.5% uphill slope, we cancel IFR and descend VFR through the haze. The INAV map display and EGPWS database provide good situational awareness—essential at the high speeds at which the PC12 operates.
After a good French-Swiss lunch at the airport restaurant, we continue to ZHV (La Chaux-de-Fonds)—another mountain airport with a short runway—and finally the international airport at ZRH (Zurich), where I will end my left-seat session in the PC12. While waiting for our IFR clearance for these 2 sectors during climbout from QLS, mountains, clouds and other aircraft demand our full attention. I find the Primus Apex cockpit very reassuring as it provides enhanced situational awareness in the challenging conditions Pilatus PC12 pilots typically encounter. With future software upgrades, terrain, traffic and weather will be displayed not only on the PFD but on the INAV, which seems to be assuming an ever more central role.
At ZHV we fly the entire procedure turn and ILS approach coupled on autopilot, and land on another 2500-ft runway. The aircraft performs very nicely hands-off (except for speed, flaps and gear). After a touch-and-go, we try out the other side of the PC12 and fit neatly with the 210-kt standard medium approach speed into the traffic flow at ZRH, where we land on the 10,000-ft Runway 14.
After a long rollout without reverse we taxi to Jet Aviation’s ramp, where the PC12 NG has enough ramp appeal to make ground staff and executive jet pilots take notice. PC12 NG owners will enjoy the ability of this aircraft to bring them safely, quickly and cost efficiently from large aviation hubs to the runway behind their ranch.