Farnborough Air Show

Pilatus feeling pressure for a PC-21 payoff

 - November 15, 2006, 9:50 AM

Swiss airframer Pilatus is riding high on a sustained wave of success of its PC-12 pressurized single-engine executive/utility aircraft. At the same time, it is pushing hard for a first order for its new PC-21 turboprop trainer.

The six- to 10-passenger PC-12 is economic, versatile and appreciated for its outstanding workmanship mainly in the U.S. and Canada, where commercial single-engine flights under instrument conditions are permitted. South Africa and Australia are also prime markets for the PC-12, and demand is on the rise in a number of other countries, including in Europe.

The Swiss manufacturer produced more than 600 PC-12s in a decade and plans to deliver an unprecedented 90 units this year. Upgrades to the aircraft early this year have included more efficient winglets, Flettner tabs on the ailerons, improved interior and flight deck, and a greater mtow, raised from 9,920 pounds to 10,450 pounds, resulting in an increase in useful load to 4,130 pounds. U.S. authorities have already certified the weight increase, but the European Aviation Safety Agency has not yet done so.

Pilatus expects the success of the PC-12 to last for many years, as has been the case with older models such as the PC-6 Porter, a single-engine utility short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that first flew in 1956. Fifty years later, the PC-6 is still in production as the Turboporter, powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A engine. Pilatus sold six PC-6s in 2005 and hopes to sell as many this year.

Pilatus began producing trainers for the Swiss air force in 1939. Its latest model, the single-engine PC-21, which first flew in 2002, has not yet made an impact on the export market but the company expects it will. According to Pilatus CEO Oskar Schwenk, it takes an average of four to five years after initial evaluation for an air force to issue an order for new trainer aircraft, so he is not unduly concerned at not yet having signed a deal.

The PC-21 was specifically developed to prepare student pilots to fly modern front-line current and next-generation fighters at lower costs than today’s trainers. Schwenk said earlier this year that the outlook for an initial fleet order for PC-21s in 2006 was good. Not unexpectedly, the Swiss air force has included a batch of six PC-21s in its defense budget proposal which it will submit to the parliament this summer. These aircraft are for training F/A-18 and F-5 fighter pilots. To date, three PC-21s are flying, one pre-series and two series aircraft.

The PC-21 has been developed with input from the air forces of Australia, South Africa and the UK in addition to Switzerland. The manufacturer has also made positive contacts with a number of other governments, including that of Singapore. However, as politics are often a factor in military procurements, Pilatus suffered a setback in Turkey earlier this year, when the government denied it the right to submit an offer because Switzerland is among the countries that officially recognize the Armenian genocide by Turkish forces in 1915.

On the other hand, the world trainer market currently is not very active. A Pilatus spokesman noted that while no sales contracts have been signed for the PC-21, no competitive bids have been lost to other manufacturers. The Swiss manufacturer claims to have 32 air forces as customers for trainer versions of its PC-7s and PC-9s, none of which has ever switched to another manufacturer. Pilatus is also a partner in the U.S. military’s massive procurement of more than 700 Raytheon T-6A Texan II trainers, an aircraft based on the PC-9.

The Swiss version of the PC-9 and the smaller PC-7 are also still being offered, mostly for air forces wishing to increase their trainer fleet without changing its structure, or for replacements.

This year the manufacturer has sold 10 PC-7 Mark IIs to Malaysia. It also has started refurbishing a fleet of 18 older PC-7s with newly developed cockpits; deliveries of the upgraded aircraft are to be completed next year.

Pilatus (Chalet A24) enjoys a sound financial situation, thanks to a steady income from PC-12 sales and from its maintenance activities. It announced a profit of CHF 34 million ($28 million) on sales of CHF 466 million ($384 million) in 2005. Including all subsidiaries, it employed 1,330 people at the end of last year. A Zurich bank and a group of Swiss investors own the company. An initial public offering on the Swiss stock market is in the books, but there is no urgency, as Pilatus is free of debt since the end of last year, and has currently no problems financing future growth.