The PC-12 has always had a very stout and hardworking look about it, both inside and out. In the cockpit, the knobs, switches and flight controls all looked like they belonged in a bigger airplane, even though the PC-12 is plenty big. But Pilatus hired BMW Designworks to create the cockpit in the NG version, and the impression is more sleek and modern. I felt as though I were in the newest business jet instead of a single-engine airplane when I got to fly the NG.
The PT6A-67P in the NG is one of the most powerful in the PT6 turboprop family, with the capability to produce 1,845 shp. Pilatus restricts maximum output to 1,200 shp, so the difference between that and the maximum power potential is available on very hot days, or at higher altitudes. This “flat rating” is common in turbine engines, but the NG has one of the largest percentage differences between maximum engine power potential and the amount of power actually transmitted to the prop. The huge amount of flat rating means the NG can operate from very high-elevation runways on hot days, and can cruise faster at its 30,000-foot ceiling.
The quality of the metalwork in the PC-12 has always been first-rate, but executive interiors had not matched other business airplanes of its size in terms of sophistication and materials. With the NG, however, the cabin appointments are better and the airplane is getting closer to its competition in that category. Pilatus offers a variety of interiors for executive, high-density, cargo or a combination of cargo and passenger missions. Even with a typical six-seat executive interior, there is still gobs of space in the aft cabin for baggage. You can even load your Harley through the big cargo door, as Pilatus has demonstrated at many airshows.
The wing is long and slender with a span of more than 53 feet and an aspect ratio of 10.2. The flaps extend along about 80 percent of the trailing edge, leaving room for rather short-span ailerons. The flaps need to be very large because certification rules limit the maximum stalling speed of single-engine airplanes — including single-engine turboprops — to 61 knots. An effective flap is a good way to lower stalling speed while keeping total wing area small enough to be efficient at cruise.
Short-span ailerons are typically less effective and require more stick force than longer-span surfaces do, and that is true in the PC-12. However, Pilatus added servo tabs to each aileron several years ago, which greatly reduced roll force. The PC-12 is still not light on the controls, but the harmony of forces is pretty good, and it’s easy to fly the airplane smoothly.
The Apex avionics system makes use of what Honeywell calls INAV, for integrated navigation. What that means is that you can perform most flight-plan and other avionics entries using a cursor and menus. Pilatus recently installed a track ball on the center pedestal so you can use your fingers to position the cursor on the four displays. Graphical flight planning is as easy as putting the cursor on the moving map over the fix you want to add to the flight plan and clicking. Drop-down menus are a click away to select frequencies, view checklists, look at system synoptic pages and so on.
As in some jets, you can see everything you need to fly the NG on the PFD (primary flight display) in front of you, including engine, navigation and communication frequencies. Of course, you can move data around by opening and closing windows and can pretty much configure everything except the actual primary instrument display to your liking. With a host of line-select keys on the edges of each display, it doesn’t take long to figure out how to operate the system. Synthetic vision and enhanced GPS navigation based on WAAS are expected to be available later this year.
Pilatus chief pilot Peter Duncan and I had the Apex system programmed for takeoff and quickly worked through the mercifully short checklists in just a few short minutes after engine start. As you can imagine, setting enough rudder trim for takeoff is a big deal with that much power going to a single propeller, so you dial the trim way over to counteract the torque. I realized a couple of minutes after takeoff that I wasn’t pushing on the rudder pedals even though I had forgotten to adjust the trim from the takeoff position. What I had done is turn on the yaw damper, which is now a smart system, and it adjusted the trim automatically. One more issue with a single-engine airplane resolved.
The autopilot in the Apex system is excellent and shows off its jet heritage by flying the NG with smoothness and precision. I watched the Apex system fly several approaches, including automatically entering holds and procedure turns and exhibiting all of the stuff that is expected for new avionics systems but is still amazing. One of the most unusual features of Apex is that it has coupled go-around, meaning when you push the go-around button on the throttle, the autopilot remains coupled. In other airplanes, without an autothrottle the autopilot typically uncouples at go-around and you need to re-engage the system. I like the autopilot-coupled go-around, but some certification types worry the human pilot will forget to advance the power if the autopilot is flying. That makes no sense to me, and I think Pilatus and Honeywell got it right.
The PC-12 can use rinky-dink runways of less than 2,000 feet, but it can also fit in smoothly at busy airports, because you can extend the landing gear at up to 180 knots and approach flaps at 165 knots. And I don’t think you can ever be flying too fast on final in the airplane because of the massive speedbrake mounted on the nose. When you pull the power back to idle, the propeller blades go to flat pitch and the propeller becomes a huge disk of drag. You can fly amazingly steep approaches with the engine at idle, or can slow from jet approach speeds to a normal landing in almost no distance by chopping the power.
The long-stroke trailing link main gear is designed for unimproved surfaces, so a normal landing on pavement is a thing of beauty. With reverse thrust from the big propeller, you hardly need brakes.
The PC-12 has demonstrated that people will fly single-engine turboprops, and pay more than $4 million for them. For the big majority of pilots, the answer to the question of how many engines you need is “enough to do the job,” and in the case of the PC-12, the magic number is one.