Since its certification back in 1994, the hallmark of the remarkably successful Pilatus PC-12 turboprop single has been its tremendous flexibility and utility -- with a cabin full of passengers and cargo, it can go from a cozy dirt strip to the city lights a thousand miles distant, flying far above the terrain and much of the weather, and do so at very respectable speeds. Today, with the rising cost of fuel, the cost savings associated with having a single powerplant instead of two makes the airplane all the more desirable. Pilatus has more than 200 orders for the latest model, and used airplanes are typically going for 100 percent of their original price. To say that owners love this airplane is a huge understatement.
As with very few other airplanes, the Pilatus PC-12 has no real direct competition. A relatively fast, pressurized short/rough field, single-engine turboprop with a huge cabin, the airplane pretty much defines its own niche. The closest you can come is the Beech King Air B200, a great airplane, yes, but one that has two PT-6s instead of one.
When it came time for Pilatus to upgrade the PC-12, the first major move was obvious. The big Swiss single was one of the only high-end models still lacking flat-panel avionics. So the introduction of glass was a given, especially since the core mission of the airplane has become predominantly executive transport.
The Pilatus PC-12 NG is more than an avionics upgrade marketed as a new model. The NG incorporates dozens of substantial changes from spinner to tail, some intoduced on the NG model and some with recent upgrades. The result is an airplane that is better in very real ways than any previous PC-12.
I recently flew up to Denver to fly the PC-12 NG out of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (still referred to as Jeffco [KBJC] by most pilots) on a warm, gray and soon to be bumpy early summer day. Demoing the airplane for me was Pilatus North America chief pilot Peter Duncan, who even after a few months of getting to know the next-gen model was still clearly enthralled by the changes.
As Peter walked me around the airplane, still ensconced in its air conditioned corporate hangar, we had to stop every few steps so he could show me an upgrade. It soon became clear that there was a lot more behind this PC-12 than just new avionics.
The New Avionics
When Pilatus announced the PC-12 NG at the National Business Aviation Association Convention last fall, it went with a new brand from an old company, the Honeywell Primus Apex. In reality, Apex seems a lot more like Honeywell's bizjet suite, Primus Epic, than a whole new suite. It incorporates many of the features you'd find in the biggest Gulfstreams and Falcons while using right-sized technology for features where it makes sense.
The system is anchored by four 10.4-inch displays, bounded by a pair of PFD/radio controllers alongside each PFD and an autopilot controller (for the excellent Honeywell digital autopilot) directly above the top MFD.
Below the lower of the two MFDs in the console is what Honeywell refers to as the "MFD Controller." It's really an FMS controller on steroids, as the unit gives the pilot access to much more than just flight planning functions. You can monitor and command certain systems, tune, enter and swap frequencies in the nav and comm radios, enter transponder codes and more.
The design and layout of the cockpit is probably the best I've ever seen, with Apex's central display technology allowing for greatly simplified instrumentation. And Pilatus engineers took full advantage of the opportunity, creating a clean, elegant and beautiful arrangement of switches, displays and controls. The overhead panel, for example, contains all of the lighting controls, engine start and ignition switches. This kind of design approach greatly reduces the pilot's workload. When it's time to perform a certain function, it's one-stop shopping instead of having to travel from one end of the panel to the other, as we've all had to do in other airplanes.
The way the pilot controls the software -- we are talking computers here -- is through the system's cursor control device (CCD). You might be surprised to learn that the shape of the "mouse" is the single biggest point of contention in modern avionics design, but it's true. The device has to be easily controlled normally and in turbulence, and its functionality has to match the design of the avionics it controls. On top of that, CCD design is highly subjective. What one pilot (or manufacturer) loves, another one hates. That said, the little joystick CCD on the PC-12 is very nicely implemented. It's small enough to fit well on the multifunction controller panel without taking up too much extra space that could be (and is) dedicated to other important features, and it does its job surprisingly well for such a small device.
As I mentioned, there are two PFDs, one for the pilot and one for the copilot -- the PC-12 is a single-pilot airplane that needs no type rating, and the copilot's display is technically optional, though so far not one customer has declined the "option." The PFDs are conventional looking, featuring a typical split HSI/ADI display with tape-style airspeed and vertical speed displays along the sides.
The displays are upgradeable to synthetic vision through Honeywell's Integrated Primary Flight Display (IPFD), when that already certified technology becomes available for the Pilatus PC-12, as is no doubt in the cards. So far no date has been announced, but it's likely to be sooner rather than later. And Pilatus and Honeywell point out that the system will, likewise, be upgradeable to new and better features as they become available. Electronic charts and XM Weather are two utilities that weren't finished in time for certification but should be ready before the end of the year.
In addition to the PFDs, there are two centrally located multifunction displays, one above the other. Any of the four displays can act in reversionary mode as a PFD with composite information, including required engine parameters displayed. Under normal operations the top center MFD is used as the navigation display and the bottom display as the systems page.
Integrated into the Primus Apex is full-up crew alerting system (CAS) messaging. Gone are the numerous, separate and widely arrayed warning lights, replaced by a single pair of lights (a master caution and warning light). The individual CAS messages are displayed on the LCDs, and the logic of the system remains the same.
Apex also offers several new capabilities. For example, the system will warn the pilot visually and with an audio warning before a takeoff is attempted in an unsafe configuration (with landing flaps or with the condition lever in the ground idle setting, for instance). And Apex handles the formerly manually controlled pressurization system now, too. It will definitely give experienced PC-12 pilots the feeling that they've forgotten something, at least until they have a few flights under their belts.
Pilatus says it's proud to have its airplanes referred to as "over-engineered." They surely weren't afraid of that complaint with the design of the new generator system, which replaces the previous system (with a belt-driven backup generator) with a pair of engine-driven 300-amp generators, three batteries (two main, one backup) in a dual buss system to provide a remarkable degree of power and redundancy.
Almost lost in the announcement of the next-gen airplane at NBAA was one huge detail: the PC-12 NG would be outfitted with a new, more powerful version of the Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop engine, the PT6A-67P model, giving it 15 percent greater thermodynamic power, thanks to higher heat tolerance due to improved compressor and turbine blade design. The new model is approved for 1,200 shp continuously, compared with the previous model's five-minute limitation at 1,200 shp with a maximum of 1,000 shp thereafter. The increased power allows for impressive performance gains across the board. More on that in a bit.
Not necessarily new but welcome on a more powerful and better-equipped airplane are the advanced external lighting options, which integrates with the TCAS to automatically activate recognition lights when traffic is detected. And the anti-servo tabs on the ailerons make for greatly reduced roll forces and a more pleasant hand-flying experience.
Without question one of the most compelling things about the PC-12 is its cabin, a huge space that is comparable not to turboprop singles or very light jets but to midsized business jets. It's a big airplane by single-engine standards, it goes without saying, but it's substantially larger than light bizjets, too. The first time you see it on the ramp is an eye opener.
PC-12s are ferried green across the Atlantic from Pilatus' headquarters in Stans, Switzerland, and are "completed" at Pilatus North America's facility in Denver. The vast majority of them are outfitted with a six-place executive interior (that is, six seats in the cabin in addition to the two pilot seats). And what was already a premium interior is nicer than ever, rivaling those same midsized bizjets in terms of quality and style.
The new interior was dreamed up by BMW Designworks. Customers can select their interior choices from a range of attractive leathers, fine wood veneers and fabrics, creating interiors that are comfortable and stylish while being practical and highly reconfigurable. There are improvements in lighting, environmentals (including the dual-zone climate controls, a first in the PC-12), and with available satellite phone and other entertainment options, the cabin amenities are very good. And one of the nicest features is a private forward lav with hard doors separating it from both the cabin and the cockpit.
Flying the PC-12 NG
Things were heating up at Jeffco as we taxied out to 29L, the shorter and narrower (7,000 feet long by 75 feet wide) parallel runway -- the 9,000-foot runway was closed at the time. Of course, we would need just a small part of that shorter runway, both going and coming back in.
On the way to the runway Peter explained the takeoff configuration safety utility, which identifies unsafe takeoff conditions and warns the pilot of them. Sitting safely in one spot we checked it out by deploying full flaps and advancing the power. As we neared takeoff power a voice came on over the speaker and headsets warning "NO TAKEOFF, NO TAKEOFF, NO TAKEOFF," and a warning flashed on the PFD. It would have been impossible to miss.
Once I had the airplane properly configured for takeoff, I lined it up and advanced the power smoothly as we accelerated briskly down the runway. With three of us aboard (Pilatus' Marketing VP Mike Haenggi was relaxing in the back) and half fuel, we were light by PC-12 standards, and our rate of climb of nearly 2,000 fpm reflected that, despite the mile-high altitude and warmer-than-standard day. We asked for but didn't get a climb directly to 28,000 feet, though the airplane could have done that, even at max takeoff weight on a standard day. The airplane's ceiling is 30,000 feet, and the new NG model is RVSM-ready as delivered. And it can get up to its ceiling in a hurry. A climb direct to 30,000 feet takes 26 and a half minutes. For a single-engine airplane, that's a remarkable figure.
Hand flying the airplane out of Jeffco, I got a nice feel for the lighter ailerons. For the record, you're not going to mistake this airplane for a fighter jet, but then again, why would you want to. The control forces are much lighter and more pleasant than the legacy airplane, which had the rap for being somewhat heavy handed (though charmingly so, I always thought).
And before I forget, having the PFD on departure, as I followed the cues of the flight director, was a real boon. It's quite a commentary on the state of general aviation avionics that I've been flying with a PFD in my piston single for almost five years now, and it's gotten to the point that steam gauges simply seem antiquated. The PC-12 NG has caught up to the times in this respect and then some, as the high-level of integration and redundancy in its Apex cockpit is light years ahead of anything the aftermarket will be able to put together for existing PC-12s.
Peter had walked me through the flight planning on the ground back at Jeffco, but as we hit the airways and got a few route changes, I took over, making changes using the CCD on the MFD controller while referring to what amounts to the dedicated navigation display on the top MFD. Honeywell calls its FMS utility INAV, the "I" standing for "interactive," though it could just as easily stand for "intelligent," as it knows a lot about where you are and what you're doing as the flight progresses. And with so many dedicated resources available and with the next likely choice automatically nominated for you in many instances, there aren't many button pushes needed to do exactly what you want the system to do.
To continue the comparison, the FMS in the Pilatus PC-12 NG has all the capabilities of those in midsize jets. You can program a flight from takeoff to 200 feet agl with all vertical profiles and a mixture of airway and off-airway flying while maintaining an ease of editing legs that's enviable by any standard.
Despite the fact that my brain has been thoroughly "Garminized" now after years of GNS 430 and G1000 use, halfway through the flight I was able to program in all the arrival and approach waypoints, and set up the vertical nav and autoflight system with little help from Peter. That wasn't, I should point out, because the system has very few features -- far from it. It's because it is very well designed, a testament to the years that Honeywell invested in the creation of Epic and the smart way it leveraged that technology into Apex.
As I said, halfway through our roughly two-hour flight, I was confidently pushing all the buttons and turning all the knobs. It's really that easy, and Pilatus expects its owner-flown customers, who represent a large percentage of its customer base, to be able to make the transition to Apex with a modest transition course. As before, SimCom, which has a brand-new NG flight training device at its Orlando facility, will conduct initial and recurrent training in the PC-12 NG, with the initial course still taking just six days.
For most of its customers, the PC-12 has always been fast enough, but now it's even faster. In fact, the numbers we were seeing were about five knots faster than what Pilatus claims. At FL 280 we saw 278 knots true with a fuel flow of 360 pounds per hour (about 54 gph). The airplane's best cruise speed comes down at FL 200 but at a significantly higher rate of fuel burn, 491 pounds per hour, or about 20 additional gallons per hour.
For an airplane of its category, the PC-12 NG has about as long a range as you'd hope for, 1,595 nm at high-speed cruise with three passengers with reserves. From the middle of the country, you can get just about anywhere else in the lower 48 nonstop, and for regional trips of, let's say, between 500 and 800 nm, you can load up with passengers and cargo and make it every time.
Heading back into Jeffco on vectors from Denver Approach we flew an RNAV approach to 29L -- WAAS, it goes without saying, is standard with Apex -- but I switched off the automatic flight guidance and hand-flew it down the pipe. As we descended, I remembered just what this airplane is all about. Making my first landing in a PC-12 in more than a year at an unfamiliar airport, I came in a little too fast and used up a little too much runway. Despite my out-of-practice performance, we used less than 3,000 feet of the available runway with minimal braking and use of beta. Yeah, a guy could get used to this real fast.
A few days after I flew it, the PC-12 NG earned FAA certification, and Pilatus made its first delivery. As it's typically equipped, the PC-12 NG goes for just over $4 million. The company currently has more than 200 orders for the next-gen airplane -- the factory in Switzerland can turn out just over 100 airplanes a year.
The arrival on the scene of the NG model is good news for everybody. Those customers looking to upgrade will finally be able to get glass, spectacular glass at that, in their big Swiss single. And if they're lucky, buyers looking for a used PC-12 of any variety might finally be able to find one. When they do, however, it probably won't be long before they start thinking about glass, too, and all the other good things that come along with it.
For more information about the Pilatus PC-12 NG, visit pilatus-aircraft.com.