Pilatus owners and pilots gather for carefree hoedown

 - October 8, 2007, 7:21 AM

When Pilatus unveiled the PC-12 turboprop single at the 1989 NBAA Convention in Atlanta, the Swiss company envisioned it as a utility airplane geared for small-package express deliveries, and the corporate and special-use markets. In other words, it saw it as being in direct competition with Cessna’s Caravan.

Pilatus was also at that NBAA show on the lookout for an American company as a potential manufacturing and/or marketing partner. The company predicted that as much as 60 percent of the anticipated production would be sold in the U.S., with about half going to package carriers and the remainder divided among corporate and utility operators. Pilatus’ PC-12 has a 16.9-ft-long cabin (for a volume of 330 cu ft), a 1.6-ton payload and a combination of aerodynamics and power that produces respectable speeds. And to Pilatus’ delight a surprising number were ordered at a pre-production price of $1.48 million.

As it turned out, the PC-12’s cost of acquisition was a bit too dear for freight operations, but one of the early volume customers, Australia’s Royal Flying Doctors, fit neatly into the forecast. Deliveries of Swiss-made combi passenger-air ambulance turboprop singles began replacing the operator’s King Air B200s in 1994, and today RFD has 19 PC-12s, more than any other single operator.

Then an unexpected concentration of sales came from owner-pilots. Although the 9,920-lb airplane was turbine powered, the PC-12 was also still a single. And while it had sophisticated systems, it was engineered so that even low-time pilots could fly it. The PC-12 began to garner favor among private owners, gaining momentum and seemingly inventing its market as it went along.

Today, an estimated 75- to 80 percent of the total production of more than 350 in-service PC-12s are based in North and South America, and about three-quarters of those are flown by owners.

In a feature story entitled, “The Best Private Planes,” which appeared in Forbes last October, the PC-12 was selected by the editors as the “best turboprop,” replacing a popular twin turbine that the article described as “long in the tooth and too expensive.”

“The PC-12 is actually larger than a King Air B200 and just as fast, carrying up to nine people more than 2,500 miles…and with pullout seats and a standard rear cargo door, your Harley can go along for the ride, too,” the Forbes article concluded.
Except for the TBM 700, virtually no turboprop design directed at the owner-flown market existed until the PC-12 came on the scene. While the PC-12 may not be serving its intended market, Pilatus is nonetheless going with the flow and adapting to the sales acorn it found.

Owners Group
Six years ago, after Tucson, Ariz. PC-12 owner Cary Marmis met several other owners, he formed the Pilatus Owners & Pilots Association (POPA), with the intention of getting owner-pilots together to swap experiences and expertise. Seven aircraft came to the first meeting, and the organization quickly grew after Pilatus representatives from Switzerland and American operations volunteered to present seminars and answer questions.

This year, 32 of the turbine singles flew into Austin Aero at Austin (Texas) Bergstrom International Airport for the association’s annual convention, where about 200 owners, pilots, vendors and FAA personnel attended two days of technical briefings and social events at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Pilatus vice president of PC-12 marketing Ignaz Gretener, director of customer engineering Koni Oettiker and vice president of R&D John Senior represented the Stans, Switzerland headquarters of Pilatus Aircraft, backed by a contingent from the Broomfield, Colo. headquarters of Pilatus Business Aircraft (PBA).

While some commercial operators belong to POPA, most members are individual owners, so discussions tended to be operational rather than technical as in most manufacturers’ M&O meetings. Many POPA members used the meetings to learn more about managing and running their investment more smoothly.

One thing that does not seem to overly concern most owners is the cost of operating their personal airplane. Pilatus predicted a direct operating cost (DOC) of $370 per hour, though some operators put that figure closer to $400. But it isn’t really a factor, and one owner said, “DOC? Don’t know. Don’t care!”

However, just like owners of everything from Cubs to Challengers, everyone does know and care about the cost of insurance. Lee Morse, a POPA board member who serves on the association’s insurance task force and operates two PC-12s in a Part 135 operation in Virginia, estimated his direct costs at $367 an hour, but he pointed out that $100 of that figure is insurance.

While the aircraft has an excellent safety record, a typical PC-12 owner has traded up from a complex single–the most popular being a Piper Malibu or Mirage-and does not have a great deal of multi-engine or turbine PIC time. So unless an owner has reached a high level of experience, insurance underwriters will require a second pilot.
POPA member Mark Turrentine doesn’t mind the help of his friend, copilot and FAA-designated pilot examiner Bill Ball. Turrentine had less than 500 hr PIC when he took delivery of his new PC-12 last December. “I fly regularly every week and have put 180 hours on it so far,” he said. “I feel very confident.”

“The PC-12 is engineered to be easy to fly,” explained Walter Tollefson, a Salado, Texas professional pilot with more than 1,700 hr in PC-12s. He currently manages one of the turboprop singles and a Citation Bravo for an individual. “It has a lot of sophistication, and the pilot needs to be aware of absolutely everything if he has a problem.”

But POPA board member Dick Foreman pointed out that it’s also the nature of these entrepreneurial owners to anticipate contingencies in flying just as they do in business. “They demand it of themselves to stay trained and be ready,” he said.

Nuts and Bolts Questions
During the briefing sessions, the questions asked tended to be more about systems, concepts and comprehension than hardware.

“Some select operators were experiencing pressure bumps on climb or descent,” said Ken Schaelchlin, PBA manager of product support. “We took a look at those particular aircraft and could find nothing wrong. So in the meeting’s discussions, some of the other operators gave them advice and suggestions about improving the techniques they use to operate the pressurization system.”

But amid all the technology that permeated the event, the kind of practicality created by the club concept lingered in the air. At an impromptu lunchtime discussion among several owners about the problem of cabin noise that some airplanes experience, one described an STC that was available from one of the Pilatus service centers, “or,” he added, “you can cure it by just leaving the potty door open.”

Commercial operator Tollefson’s opinion of the PC-12 is more pragmatic, but he doesn’t have that many criticisms. “It’s advertised as 270-kt cruise, but in the real world I file for 250. It’s got great range [NBAA IFR 1,815 nm with max fuel at 204 kt], but at that speed it means that [from Austin] it’s four to six hours to the coast for passengers. And when it goes out of warranty, it’s a crap shoot.”

The airframe is warranted for seven years, Pratt & Whitney Canada adds its standard five-year powerplant guarantee and Honeywell guarantees its components for two years, but owners worry about reality when they get outside those times. The manufacturer would like them to buy a new airplane, of course, but the owners have developed a support network that Pilatus believes may be the most important element of its business.

“Our direction of focus is customer support,” explained Tom Aniello, PBA vice president of marketing. “And Kansas City Aviation Center, SkyTech, Epps Aviation, Western Aircraft, Skandia, Aviation Sales, V. Kelmar and Atlas Pilatus are where owners can develop a relationship that ensures it happens.”

Schaelchlin said there was concern that owners were allowing the airplane to get outside the Service Bulletin window. “They are not always familiar with the Service Bulletin program and its mandatory compliance period, or not sure if publications are current. I assured them that, at any 100-hour or annual inspection, the service center would check all bulletins and ADs.

With the PC-12 fleet approaching 500,000 hr of service. Pilatus will hold its first M&O meeting at this autumn’s NBAA Convention.