It was a typical November day along the Front Range in Colorado at Rocky Mountain Metro Airport (Jeffco). Against an almost too-perfect sky, the wind was flowing downstream from the west, whistling through the struts and tiedown ropes of the airplanes parked on the wide-open ramp. Looking west toward the Rockies, the sight was a familiar one, with fast moving banks and eddies of clouds streaming over the peaks and billowing down around the ridgelines. It was a pretty sight, but that was where we would be heading before too long, and pilots who’d already been through that day were reporting a wild ride. I felt happy that I’d be flying a Pilatus PC-12. It was a prescient thought.
The Pilatus PC-12 was launched 20 years ago, and it’s gotten to the point that it can be hard to remember a time when it wasn’t part of the scene. At first, the airplane was a hard one for the flying public to get their heads around. In some ways it still is.
The airplane isn’t hard to understand once you take a look at everything it is and isn’t. It is a big airplane, with a cabin about the same size as a King Air 250 and a ramp presence of equal gravity. It’s pressurized, as is the King Air, of course, and it is a fast enough airplane, again like the King Air. Like the seminal Beechcraft turboprop twin, the Pilatus PC-12 is a rugged airplane with legendary toughness, as illustrated by stories of pilots who screwed up and lived to tell the tale solely because of the PC-12’s brawn. Like the King Air, it’s a convertible. With a big side-loading barn door — the best in its class regardless of engine count — the airplane makes a remarkable utility hauler. One owner has been known to haul his Kawasaki Ninja around in the back, securely tied down, it goes without saying.
What the Pilatus PC-12 isn’t is a twin, and that is both its greatest strength, in terms of operating economy and maintenance costs, and its greatest weakness, in terms of the way that people look at an airplane in this class and what they expect of it. On that subject, the bottom line is this: The PC-12 is a lot of airplane, it has arguably the most reliable turboprop engine ever made in the Pratt & Whitney PT6, and it can be operated at a much lower cost than a turboprop twin can be. With those cards on the table, the question comes down to how comfortable you feel flying a single-engine turboprop in the flight levels or below. Eleven hundred buyers and counting have felt just fine with that tradeoff.
Rocky Mountain Bump
When Swiss airplane maker Pilatus announced that it would base its North American business in the Denver suburb of Broomfield at Jeffco, it was a move that made a lot of sense, because Pilatus, based in Stans, Switzerland, has linked its long history inextricably with mountainous locales.
I’ve flown a number of PC-12s over the years, and I can attest that they’ve come a long way since initial certification in 1994. While the airplane looks very much the same in most regards as it did back in the day, it has been improved in just about every regard. The latest version is outfitted with a new avionics build, with another new one on the way. The airplane I flew featured all the bells and whistles and was slated to go to a new retail customer in a few days. Before that, however, we had some time to fly off of it, so off to the mountains we went in search of high terrain and steep approaches.