Last month the first group of instructors from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) began training on the Pilatus PC-21 turboprop trainer. The initial cadre was deployed in mid-January to the Pilatus factory at Stans-Buochs in Switzerland to undergo type conversion on company-owned aircraft, and to begin the development of a training syllabus for the RAAF. The first aircraft are due for delivery in June 2017.
Australia is no stranger to Pilatus products, having flown the PC-9/A turboprop trainer since 1987. The type also forms the equipment of the RAAF’s aerobatic display team, “the Roulettes.” Neither is the PC-21, itself, an unfamiliar sight in Australian skies, as the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s No. 130 Squadron has been operating the type on basic training duties from RAAF Pearce near Perth, Western Australia, since 2008.
Selection of the PC-21 to answer the RAAF’s Project AIR 5428 requirement for a turn-key tri-service pilot training system was announced on September 6 last year. A contract covering 49 aircraft was signed in December. The PC-21 is being supplied by a partnership known as “Team 21,” comprising Lockheed Martin Australia (prime contractor), Pilatus, and Hawker Pacific, the latter responsible for providing a comprehensive in-service support package, among other tasks. The contract includes seven flight training devices, accommodation, and ground training facilities. The aircraft themselves are being bought by the Australian Department of Defence, and the instructors will be Australian military personnel.
Team 21 successfully competed for the 25-year training-system contract against a team headed by BAE Systems offering the Beechcraft T-6C. Led by Lockheed Martin, the Team 21 arrangement is closely based on that of the Basic Wings Course training contract for Singapore with its 19 PC-21 aircraft. That program recorded 50,000 accident-free flying hours as of December 2015, having produced more than 300 pilots for the RSAF.
Of the 49 aircraft on order for Australia, 42 will be employed in the pilot training role. RAAF East Sale, Victoria, is to be allocated 22 aircraft for basic training, and for instructor training with the Central Flying School. Twenty will be assigned to No. 2 Flying Training School at RAAF Pearce for advanced training, successful graduates moving into the BAE Systems Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer for fighter lead-in instruction.
The flexibility of the PC-21 allows it to take ab initio students through to advanced stages of the training syllabus. The arrival of the PC-21s will spell the end of the current BAE Systems contract for elementary training that uses piston-engine PAC CT-4B Airtrainers at Tamworth, New South Wales (Singapore is also a customer of this training school). BAE Systems will continue its Tamworth operations for the RAAF until 2019, after which elementary training will be assigned to the PC-21. Despite the number of RAAF training aircraft being significantly reduced, the implementation of the PC-21-based training system is expected to increase annual pilot output from the current level of around 75 to more than 100.
Three of the new PC-21s are to be assigned to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) at RAAF Edinburgh, South Australia, for trials and chase duties. The remaining four will be allocated to No. 4 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown, New South Wales, formerly known as the Forward Air Control Development Unit. This unit undertakes a range of FAC training duties. Its current equipment comprises four camouflaged PC-9/As equipped with smoke grenade dispensers for target-marking.
Pilatus developed the PC-21 to maintain its strong position in the turboprop trainer market. Following the selection of the PC-9 to fulfill the United States’ JPATS requirement, the Swiss company found itself facing competition in the international market from its own design, built under license in the U.S. as the Beechcraft T-6. Unable to match U.S. political “clout” in securing export sales, Pilatus set out to offset this disadvantage by developing an aircraft with significant improvements in performance and capability.
With a near jet-like maximum speed of 370 knots, high roll-rate and +8/-4 g structural limits, the PC-21 enables air forces to use it in many advanced training realms that are traditionally performed by jets. However, the stall speed of 81 knots and docile handling at low speed allow the type to undertake initial training duties. The de-coupled cockpit provides significant flexibility in training, allowing the instructor to manipulate the student’s displays in flight. In the advanced phases of the syllabus, the PC-21 provides a cost-effective training platform for mission management. The system can include virtual radar and weapons simulation, and a datalink option permits multi-aircraft training.
Singapore’s 19-aircraft order was the first for the PC-21 from an overseas customer, following an initial order from the Swiss air force for four (later increased to eight). Subsequently the type has been bought by the UAE (25, first delivery in 2011), Saudi Arabia (55, first delivery June 2014) and Qatar (24, first delivery October 2014). Following the Australian order, current sales for the PC-21 stand at 180.