Operator Report: Pilatus PC-12

 - May 6, 2008, 10:49 AM

A big mission for a big company usually means a big airplane with a cavernous interior and enough fuel to carry a large load over thousands of miles. But to accomplish that there is always a cost-benefit compromise. When a big mission appears for a small company, the economics often translate into a small airplane, which means even more mission compromises.

Short of fractional ownership, the idea of using a jet for business is often no more than a dream. Turboprops can be a possibility, but all demand professionally trained flight crews. And two big turboprop engines can still look pretty thirsty when compared with the value they deliver.

But there are only two in-production twin turboprops to choose from in the U.S.–the Beech King Air and the Piaggio Avanti–a reflection of the squeeze exerted by light jets such as the Citation Mustang, CJ1/CJ2 and Premier I, as well as the in-development microjets (the Eclipse 500 and Safire S-26.)

Pressing twin-turboprop sales from the bottom up are the single-engine turboprops, which include the Piper Meridian, Socata TBM 700, Cessna Caravan and Pilatus PC-12. Base price of a new PC-12 now is about $2.7 million, and about $3.3 million typically equipped. The TBM 700 lists for about $2.6 million, while the Grand Caravan and Meridian each cost about $1.6 million.

All aircraft are a compromise of capacity, speed and operating economics. Although the TBM 700 is faster–about 300 kt vs the PC-12’s 270 kt at 30,000 ft–it carries only a fraction of the PC-12’s load. With full fuel on board, both the Meridian and TBM 700 will carry just two people and some baggage (although Piper just announced a useful-load increase that allows at least one more seat to be filled when the tanks are full).

The PC-12 offers operators a flexible set of mission possibilities–up to nine passengers, a mix of passengers and cargo or all cargo thanks to quick-change seats that can transform an executive-configured aircraft into a cargo carrier in half an hour. The Caravan has a huge cabin, but despite the ability to carry large payloads its 160-kt cruise speed makes it a short-haul aircraft. The PC-12 offers a strong cruise speed in the mid-range altitudes and a cavernous cabin that will humble the interior of many light and midsize jets.

Phil Rosenbaum, a 1,500-hr-TT pilot, flies his PC-12 about 330 hr a year from his Austin, Texas base. PC-12 pilots range from 300-hr private pilots with no instrument rating to professional pilots. Rosenbaum explained another reason so many people choose the Pilatus: “I’m perfectly comfortable taking the PC-12 into 1,800-foot, marginally improved strips.”

At PlaneSense, a PC-12 fractional provider in Manchester, N.H., CEO George Antoniadis said, “The PC-12s take our customers where other aircraft won’t, especially where we operate, which is primarily in the Northeast. The cumbersome routings ATC gives jets actually give the PC-12 another advantage at the low altitudes because of better routings. There are times the PC-12s are equivalent in speed to the jets.”

Mike Wilson, aviation manager for Wisconsin in Madison, takes the state’s PC-12s out east often. “Unlike the jets, I can get down out of the headwind with little performance penalty.”

PC-12: Best Turboprop?

No newcomer to business aviation, Pilatus claims more than 350 PC-12s sold, with about 80 percent operating in North America. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police uses 15 of the turboprop singles, while others are operated as regional airliners on thin routes and as air ambulances.

Pilatus can also lay claim to the only truly successful fractional-ownership program using a single-engine aircraft. PlaneSense operates 11 PC-12s (see box on page 34) and is trying to expand its highly successful operation to the Midwest and the West Coast. “We’ve found the PC-12 to be extremely solid, reliable and sophisticated. They are more than the sum of their parts,” said Antoniadis.

Forbes magazine named the PC-12 the “best turboprop,” comparing the Pilatus with the King Air B200, which that magazine called long in the tooth and too expensive. Antoniadis sees the PC-12 as “a natural competitor to the $4.6 million King Air B200, which is 1960s technology, while the PC-12 was built in the 1990s.”

Rosenbaum asserted that “King Airs have severe payload-range tradeoffs and are expensive to maintain.” He considered a number of different options before choosing the PC-12. “I looked at MU-2s, but they were also expensive to maintain. I liked the Conquest, but it requires a multi-engine rating. Then I took a look at the Caravan, Meridian and TBM 700. The Caravan is just not a good long-distance airplane, although it is very rugged. The TBM 700 is little better than the Meridian, which has a small cabin. The Meridian, which is essentially a turbine Malibu, is also severely payload-range limited. But it is about half the price of the PC-12.”

Mike Wilson’s department purchased three PC-12s as replacements for its 40-year-old Beech Queen Airs. “For us, it was safety first, then economics. But the cost of buying and keeping a machine is important here, too. We have a King Air 350 that cost $5.5 million, and the PC-12 offers similar performance. I did a tremendous amount of due diligence and called practically every PC-12 operator in the world. The PC-12 came out as a no-brainer with a cabin 10 percent bigger than the King Air 200’s.”

Another operator in Denver chose a PC-12 over a Citation CJ1. “On trips from the east to the Rockies, I’d have to make a fuel stop in the Citation. Considering that, the PC-12 always beats the jet’s times. The interior is bigger than the Citation’s and it’s easier to load baggage through that big cargo door.”

Tom Aniello, Pilatus Business Aircraft vice president of marketing, labeled the TBM 700 a competitor, “but not much of one. Actually, our own used PC-12s are now becoming competitors.” The PC-12’s flexibility has attracted to Pilatus a few unusual customers, such as Companion Air, a South Florida-based airline serving as a luxury commuter for people who choose not to ship their canine and feline pals on the airlines.

Adjusting to the Times

Like other sectors of the aviation industry, Pilatus has not been immune to the downturn in the economy. Aniello reports the production lines will be slowing for the foreseeable future to adjust to demand and avoid white tails. Pilatus will produce about 55 PC-12s this year and the same number next year, but is reserving capacity to speed things up by another five to seven aircraft should demand return to last year’s level.

“We still have plenty of people interested in the PC-12. We are positioning it as the perfect airplane for tough economic times,” Aniello said. He noted that Pilatus marketing reflects customers’ comfort level with doing their own research before the initial contact.

“Sixty-five percent of inquiries come from our Web site [www.pilatus-aircraft.com], 25 percent from written communications and the remainder from our toll-free telephone line,” he said. “In the past year we’re finding that customers go to the Web, learn as much as they can and then call us when they feel educated. This has shortened the purchase cycle quite a bit. But a problem this causes is that we don’t have access to these potential customers for very long. If we could talk to some of them sooner, we might stop many from disqualifying themselves.”

Pilatus seems to have found a solid niche among owner-pilots, fully 70 to 75 percent of PC-12s being owner flown. Aniello said, “We thought the PC-12 would revolutionize commuters, but the acquisition costs were too high. A Caravan was cheaper to operate. The toughest part of our job is getting someone to look at the airplane when they hear it is single engine. But then they see that big cargo door and think about the small airports they can fly into, and their eyes get wide.”

The PC-12 has turned out to be popular with people who can afford a much larger aircraft, but who chose the PC-12 because they like the comfort and the ability to fly themselves. Aniello noted that “the PC-12 has sold well to Bonanza and Cessna 210 owners. Last fall, we even started getting calls from people who have never flown an airplane before.”

Pilatus dealers are able to sell a complete turnkey operation, even with a pilot for these individuals. “It also doesn’t hurt to have such a big cabin,” Aniello added. “We try to position the Pilatus as the thinking person’s airplane.”

‘A Flying SUV’

Rosenbaum calls his PC-12 “a flying SUV with a range and payload, as well as a c.g. envelope, as tough as those of my Chevy Avalanche. I have no qualms inviting six of my best friends on board.”

Pilatus is also developing customers as the fractional movement gains additional momentum. Aniello noted, “We’ve sold five airplanes recently to people who learned they could own and control an entire PC-12 for the price of a quarter share in a Citation Excel.”

Like any other small but loyal following, Pilatus PC-12 lovers have turned to a networking group. Theirs is based in Tucson, Ariz. and called the Pilatus Owners & Pilots Association (POPA) to discuss issues of common concern. “At the first owners and pilots meeting, we asked what they’d want in a new airplane,” Aniello said. “They wanted more speed and higher operating altitudes. We are looking into that, but powerplant limitations and a host of systems would need to be modified for those higher altitudes. They like the short-field capabilities and the cabin size, but many would like better avionics.”

“We originally expected more interest from corporate operators,” said Aniello, “but the single engine was an issue.” The question of a single-engine aircraft, even one powered by a venerable engine such as the PT6 with millions and millions of flight hours, is a good one.

Certainly the PC-12 could never replace a heavy jet, but some pilots AIN spoke to admitted that their indifference to any single-engine airplane stemmed more from what looked like a backward career move than any technical or safety challenge.

Most people incorrectly assume a single-engine aircraft is less safe than a twin. According to Robert Breiling of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Robert E. Breiling & Associates, “There have been only five accidents in single-engine turboprops involving loss of power–one of which was in a PC-12–since record-keeping began in 1987. Three more occurred in Cessna Caravans. No fatalities occurred in any of these accidents.” Aniello admitted, “We had one in-flight shutdown when the pilot ignored the chip detector.” All aboard survived. With the prop feathered, a PC-12 can glide 80 mi–about half an hour–from 30,000 ft.

Overall, single-turbine reliability is 10 times better than that of single-engine piston aircraft. There are now some 1,000 turboprop singles flying worldwide that have accumulated 4.4 million flight hours. Breiling also added, “Twin turboprops often have more accidents than turboprop singles after losing one engine due to poor piloting skills.”

Rosenbaum said, “One of the biggest dangers in losing an engine in a twin is assuming you are flying an airplane that is better than a glider. You may be, but only marginally. And will that twin perform as designed? I don’t think so. There are too many pilots who think they will.” Wilson agreed: “My background is in jets, where more engines are better. But I learned that, statistically, more people die after losing an engine in a twin than by losing the only engine in a single.”

Turboprop Single Heritage

Pilatus is based in Stans, Switzerland, about an hour’s drive south of Zurich. The company has been in business since 1939 and claims to be the largest and oldest manufacturer of single-engine turboprop aircraft. The stable includes the boxy PC-6 Turbo Porter, a high-wing turboprop capable of leaping into and out of parking-lot size strips. The company’s military trainers include the PC-7 and PC-9, which evolved into the Raytheon Texan II (JPATS), as well as the PC-21, which first flew in July.

“The heritage of Pilatus is in single-engine turboprop aircraft,” said Aniello. “We could build turboprop twins but I can’t imagine why we would put two turboprops on a PC-12 and recreate a King Air B200. We must build a tangibly different product that is competitive. We have 1,200 employees, so we can’t support multiple clean-sheet products. We’re betting the company every time we try something new.”

The PC-12, an all-new design, was the company’s first true venture into the general aviation market. The project was based on a strategy that would need to pay off to make the aircraft a winner–that single-engine aircraft would eventually be certified to fly IFR in commercial passenger-carrying service, which they were not when the PC-12 was being designed at the company’s headquarters in the mid- to late 1980s. Second, the aircraft needed to offer the short-field attributes of its brethren, and it had to be able to climb quickly to the middle altitudes, where a turboprop can really show its stuff.

Initially, Pilatus designers wanted a large cargo door in the rear to allow for easy loading of large items, in addition to a traditional airstair in the front of the aircraft. But since the PC-12 was also to be the first pressurized Pilatus, the two issues were somewhat at odds–how to provide a pressure vessel with a large enough cargo door yet still maintain sufficient fuselage integrity. Eventually, the door was included as an integral part of the fuselage when closed.

The PC-12 weighs in at almost 10,000 lb fully loaded. In the cargo configuration that means 2,200 lb of payload. PlaneSense’s Antoniadis said, “Many of our clients will move furniture to their remote summer homes in the back of the PC-12.” In the standard passenger configuration, the rear cargo area will hold up to 500 lb.

The PC-12 was built and certified to Part 23 standards to ensure the aircraft would be able to compete in the U.S. market. The regulation requires the aircraft to have a stall speed no greater than 61 kt, which was not really an issue for the PC-12 with its big 70-percent-span Fowler flaps. The problem developed at the other end of the flight envelope. Hans Galli, Pilatus’ PC-12 chief test pilot, explained it this way: “To meet the 61-knot specification, you just design a wing that generates lots of lift. The difficulty is getting a high cruising speed out of that same wing because it creates more drag as it creates more lift.”

The wing was machined specifically with the thick pneumatic de-icer boots in mind so they fit flush to the airfoil for minimal drag. For operational simplicity, boot inflation is selected from the cockpit with an automatic timer of either one- or three-minute durations. After some 600 hr of flight-testing, including icing certification tests in Iceland, the PC-12 received its FAA type certificate in July 1994.

New PC-12s are flown from Switzerland practically empty, but still using only the standard fuel tanks for the transatlantic crossing. The aircraft arrive at the company’s U.S. completion center at Broomfield (Colo.) Jeffco Airport, where interiors are added to customer specifications. PC-12s are painted at a separate facility in Cheyenne, Wyo., under contract to Pilatus. Training for new PC-12 pilots is accomplished through a five-day course in a non-motion, visual simulator at SimCom’s Orlando, Fla. facility.

Systems

Like a good SUV, the PC-12 comes equipped with plenty of “just in case” options, such as two generators. The main acts as the 28-volt, 300-amp starter generator, while the 130-amp standby generator is capable of running most of the aircraft systems should the main generator fail. The PC-12 features an automatic load-shedding system to keep electrical loads manageable after a failure.

The PC-12 also features a 40-amp-hour NiCad battery and has an option for a second connected in parallel to assist with starting during extremely cold temperatures. Like most larger transport-category aircraft, the PC-12 includes a backup attitude indicator powered by an independent battery. Ground power can supply energy for the heat or optional air-conditioning system while the aircraft sits on the ramp. The nosegear does require a special tow-bar attachment that doubles as a tail stand carried in the rear battery access compartment.

Interestingly, the PC-12 incorporates a stick pusher, which Pilatus said was necessary because the aircraft did not display a significant enough pitch down in the stall regime.

A 5.75-psi cabin pressure differential offers Pilatus passengers an 8,000-ft cabin at 25,000 ft and a 10,000-ft cabin at 30,000 ft, which means pilots will want to cruise in the mid-20s most of the time to keep passengers comfortable. But with domestic RVSM looming over the horizon, even the mid-20s may become a bit crowded for a while. RVSM approval will soon be offered on the PC-12 as an option.

Up front, the cockpit reflects its focus on single-pilot operation, with switch placement convenient for all operations from the left seat alone. Rosenbaum said, “Pilatus put in lots of automation up front to make it easy for a single pilot to fly an approach to minimums and sweat only a little bit. There is a lot of redundancy and backup.”

Standard equipment on the PC-12 includes the four-inch Honeywell EFIS and a separate four-inch multifunction display, a KFC 325 autopilot system, the KLN 90B GPS, two KX 165A (25 MHz) transceivers (8.33 kHz is an option) and the RDR 2000 color radar.

Since some operators may fly with a second pilot, the right side does offer traditional vacuum instruments or an option for EFIS instrumentation. Aniello said the most popular PC-12 cockpit options are dual five-inch EFIS displays and dual Garmin 530 radios in place of the Honeywell Bendix/King package. The PC-12 was designed with an aural warning system to reduce workload in a crisis by focusing the pilot’s attention on the problem.

Service and Support

Pilatus service centers in the U.S. are located in Boise, Idaho; Denver Centennial and Jeffco; Olathe, Kan.; Manchester, N.H.; Baltimore; and Atlanta. Locations outside the U.S. include Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada; Adelaide, Australia; Nuevo Leon, Mexico; Lanseria, South Africa; Roskilde, Denmark; and Geneva. Aniello said that Pilatus “won’t have any more in the U.S. above our current six service centers.”

Rosenbaum still flies his airplane to Denver Centennial for service for a number of reasons: “Aviation Sales in Denver was the first Pilatus distributor, so they’ve been in the PC-12 service business from early on. They’re a stable service organization with lots of people who have spent a lot of time learning the aircraft. I can always get my telephone calls returned promptly and my aircraft has never been AOG.

“And while I’ve not had any major problems, I have to take it back to Denver every 100 hours because of the system used to maintain the aircraft. That’s three hours out and three hours back, so 6 percent of my flying time is devoted to getting the aircraft maintained. My understanding is that they will soon have an authorized service center in Dallas since there are now 15 or 16 aircraft in this part of the territory. But I have such a high degree of confidence in the maintenance people in Denver that I don’t want to be the first person to try a new facility.”

Although the state of Wisconsin fixes its PC-12 itself under a special arrangement with the factory, Wilson said, “I have found factory support better than on any other airplane I’ve ever operated.” Pilatus warrants everything on the airplane, nose to tail, including paint, for two years, with seven years on the airframe.

Early PC-12s had flap motor problems. Rosenbaum said Pilatus “redid the flap system at its own cost. The company worked like crazy and spent quite a bit of its own time and money to make certain I had a safe airplane.” Brush failures on the number-two generator have also been an issue, according to some operators. The aircraft cannot legally be flown with only one generator.

Another reported problem is repeated blurring of the Honeywell EFIS, especially with high ambient temperatures. Another PC-12 owner called the KLN 90B archaic technology.

Insurance Concerns

Even before September 11, companies that wrote aircraft insurance were in financial trouble. The terrorist attacks caused a few of them to drop aviation coverage due to hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, in addition to the liabilities many faced as a result of the New York City attack themselves.

The few companies still in for the long haul were determined to make up their losses on those customers who remained in the flying business. This meant taking fewer risks and making certain aviation insurance premiums more than covered their costs. That translated into significantly higher rates for many low-time pilots flying high-performance aircraft, a problem that has fallen squarely into the center of the Pilatus PC-12 customer base.

One PC-12 owner, who did not want to be named, said his hull coverage was a huge burden, costing him about 1 percent of the hull’s value annually, or almost $100 per hour. The Pilatus Owners and Pilots Association recently organized a task force to investigate this problem.

Inside the PC-12

Passengers and crew used to a King Air B200 will feel right at home climbing aboard the PC-12. Even with six seats in the rear, the cabin offers an aisle wide enough for half a dozen people to move around during the flight without bumping into each other. One drawback is that the PC-12’s 4 ft 8 in. cabin is not standup category, but neither is that of the King Air B200 or CitationJet.

The Pilatus offers a traditional fold-down entry stair that can be lifted back into place with ease thanks to some great balancing of the pneumatic door actuator. On the walkaround at Chicago Palwaukee Airport, demonstration pilot Peter Duncan pointed out the closed-door tabs that must be visible inside the cabin before takeoff. Surprisingly, even if the door-open light illuminates on the panel before engine start, a quick look at the six tabs is considered sufficient for takeoff.

The engine cowlings are composite, with quick-release latches that offer a full view of the vast engine compartment, of which the PT6 appears to take up only a small part. The oil is viewed through a sight gauge. The pressurization and vacuum lines for the de-icer boots are also highly visible and easy to check.

The PT6 exhaust stacks provide approximately 6 percent of the aircraft’s thrust. Pilatus also considered it an engineering challenge to reduce the soot level on the fuselage, which now requires a wipe down every 20 hr of flight. The PT6 features a cockpit-controlled inertial separator for ice and rain penetration that costs about 2 percent of useful engine performance when activated.

As you walk out toward the right wingtip, the bulbous nose of the radome is prominent. Duncan said the radar antenna was added to the right wing rather than the left to help cope with torque and P-factor. The TBM 700’s radar antenna sits out on the left wing. The PC-12 also has an under-camber to the wing for drag reduction, and the trailing-link main gear smoothes out any landings that the standard low-pressure tires don’t catch.

Beneath the aft fuselage sits a Learjet-like stabilizer fin to tame any Dutch-roll tendencies. Although the PC-12 does not require a yaw damper thanks to this fin, Pilatus offers one as standard equipment anyway. The rudder on the PC-12 is huge, not surprising for an aircraft with as much horsepower as this one.

The large rear access area gives the pilot an immediate look at the aircraft’s two NiCads and air-conditioning unit. An electric motor closes the cargo door, while opening the door is a one-handed operation. Although the cargo area will easily hold a motorcycle, the floor is 3.5 ft off the ground, which means you’ll need to find a way to hoist it aboard. Despite that drawback, a rear cargo door is a welcome addition for pilots who have spent years hauling baggage up the front steps of their Hawker or through the cabin of their Citation or Learjet, only to offload it again an hour later.

As you walk back inside, the toilet doors are prominent and can be closed before use. One door folds forward to block access from the cockpit, while another folds aft to block access to the cabin. These doors are also said to quiet the cabin somewhat during flight.

Aniello said most cabins are set up for six or seven deluxe swiveling seats. There can be as much as two feet between them, which offers even the most finicky passengers plenty of room for getting comfy during long flights. Leg rests on the two rear seats are options, as well as a three-seat bench. The six-place cabin offers three card tables and a refreshment area and entertainment cabinet. Options will include an aft cabinet with a microwave, an Espresso machine and additional refreshment stand.

In Conclusion

While there are turboprops that are faster, none can haul what the PC-12 will, nor in the kind of comfort this airplane offers. The sound level in the cabin is superb for passengers. There is simply no way, other than the airspeed indicator, for a pilot to know he is not flying a jet.

Wilson said, “There are a lot of people doing some very interesting things with the PC-12. We can carry six hours of fuel and seven passengers. There is no question in my mind that we’d buy another.”

Comments

Bala ibn Na,Allah's picture

I have some 746 hrs pic on these aircraft serial no 689 .it is an incredible aircraft to fly. You never can go wrong with this craft. To me it even help it's pilot to understand more about flying. It is so reliable that you can even fly it relying on power setting and language of the engine to get predictable results. The only improvement needed in the Aircraft is the elimination of the anti ice additives.

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