Pilatus PC-12 Versus the World
"This is what flying is all about," I thought to myself as we sped along the surface of the Willamette River, the beyond-crisp western Oregon air rushing past. Our trusty fishing guide extraordinaire, Chad Wiest, from On the Line Guide Service, directed our boat by intuition, through the near darkness to a spot that promised to contain the treasure we were seeking: spring Chinook salmon. Our chariot to this spot was the Pilatus PC-12 NG, and back at the cozy little GA airport in nearby Scappoose, the big single was stuffed to its gills with gear for this ultimate long weekend. We had packed bikes, coolers (in optimistic anticipation of our legal take of Chinook), golf clubs and, thanks to an afternoon sortie the day before, several cases of Willamette Valley wine.
It had already been a good trip. Twenty minutes later, it started to get a lot better, as first I landed a 20-pound hatchery Chinook (a keeper), and then my buddies Aaron and Jed followed suit, each taking a big (though not quite as big, I reminded them) salmon over the next few hours.
Yes, the Pilatus PC-12 NG was our ride for this excursion, and it'd be hard to imagine a better one. Coming out of Colorado a few days before, we crested the Rockies, went nonstop to Seattle, then cavorted around the San Juan Islands, collecting photographs and memories along the way. It really was what flying is all about. Magic carpet stuff.
The question "What airplane would you buy if you won the lottery?" seems as though it would have a lot of different answers, depending on what pilot you asked. The truth is, the most common answer by far, at least in my experience, is "a PC-12 NG." It shouldn't be surprising that more than a few pilots would want to buy one with their winnings. A lot of pilots with the means to buy one do just that. It is a remarkably versatile airplane. But the fact that so many pilots looking for very different kinds of lift — a rugged toy hauler, a sleek and spacious business transportation machine or a fanciful portal for adventure — would all pick the same airplane says something about the Pilatus PC-12 NG. It's about as perfect a compromise as one could imagine.
The Pilatus PC-12 NG is not a one-of-a-kind airplane. There are a few other pressurized singles: the Piper piston-powered Mirage and turboprop Meridian, and the quick and pretty Daher-Socata TBM 850, as well as a few emerging models. There are other rugged turboprop singles, including the seminal Cessna Grand Caravan and the slightly smaller Quest Kodiak. And there are other nine-passenger near-midsize cabin transportation airplanes, including the Citation CJ2 or CJ4, the Beechcraft King Air and the Embraer Phenom 300. There are other would-be competitors, all of which do one or two things better than the PC-12 NG. The Phenom is faster, by a lot, the TBM 850 is also substantially faster, the Caravan is less expensive to operate, the Meridian costs about half the price, and the King Air has that extra engine.
But when all is said and done, it's tough for any of the PC-12 NG's competitors to measure up across the board, or to even come close. Let me summarize its remarkable features. The PC-12 NG is rugged enough to set down on a short gravel strip at high altitude, it's pressurized for hopping weather and keeping passengers comfy, it's fast enough to make it a great regional flyer, it's got great range for when the mission stretches out, and it boasts a reconfigurable cabin roomy enough to let you play FedEx with a large load or pile in the passengers and their gear for a long weekend in the woods. The big side-loading door aids in loading gear, up to dirt bikes. And when you head to the front of the airplane, you'll discover a cockpit that rivals those of many high-end bizjets. What other airplane matches this description? That's right, no other airplane does, and Pilatus and its would-be competition know it.
Now, this is not to say that there are no competitors of the PC-12 NG. There are, and great ones too. They generally offer something that the PC-12 NG lacks, most typically high cruise speeds. But in every case, you're giving up something when you choose not to go with the PC-12 NG.
In a world where compromise is built into the game, the PC-12 NG represents a product that is very cleverly conceived and very delicately positioned. It occupies its own niche and, in so doing, has, ironically, created a universe of competitors in neighboring niches below and above.
Describing the Beast
Launched around 20 years ago now, the PC-12 NG has sold consistently well for longtime Swiss airplane maker Pilatus (named after a mountain near the factory, in Stans, Switzerland). The project was far from a slam-dunk. The concept of a single-engine pressurized turboprop might sound like a natural today, but that's only because the PC-12, along with the TBM 700 (now 850), proved the concept. The concern with a big and fast single is, of course, what to do if that one engine fails. The advantage of a turboprop engine, compared with a piston, is that not only is it more powerful — a lot more powerful — but it's also a lot more reliable. Engine loss, in Pilatus' view, was an acceptably small risk. That is the argument today, and it was the argument a couple of decades ago, when Pilatus launched the bird. At the time a certain percentage of people bought it and sometimes, consequently, bought a PC-12 as well. Today, the concept of a turboprop single is a no-brainer. A friend who's been selling PC-12s since the model's inception told me that in the early days the single-engine safety discussion was a big part of the sales process, whereas now it hardly comes up.