Pilatus in a Whole New Light

Lane flys the Swiss aircraft manufacturer, Pilatus' PC-12, through the Swiss Alps.

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

"We'll just cut through the Gotthard Pass, there, and head down to Locarno on the other side," Theddy says.

I look ahead. All I see is a flat, towering wall of mountain, every bit as steep and high as the dramatic, jagged slopes edging the narrow valley we're navigating our way through at the moment.

"That's a pass?" I ask skeptically.

Theddy smiles and nods. "Wait until we get a little closer," he says. "You'll see."

I hunch up a little closer to the windscreen, banking gingerly between steep rock cliffs that flash past our wingtips close enough to get my full attention as I wait for the mountains to magically part and show me a way through. The turbulence gets a little stronger as we get closer to the pass, and I decide that, as much as I love my Cheetah, I'm glad it's sitting at home. This valley, deep in the heart of the Swiss Alps, is a stunningly beautiful place to fly. But it's not for the faint of heart or horsepower.

Fortunately, I'm not in the Cheetah. I'm in a Pilatus PC-12. And as I powerfully zoom and bank through the deep valleys and massive, snowcapped peaks that dominate the landscape here, I'm beginning to see the airplane-and Pilatus-in a whole new light.

I've always liked the PC-12. It was a little heavy, perhaps, but it had landing gear that could make any pilot look good, speed, and enough cargo room for two motorcycles, surfboards and several large friends equipped for a week in the woods. But the only time I'd flown one had been on a straight-and-level IFR cross-country. So I walked away thinking it was just a nice executive turboprop with a big cabin. But here, in Pilatus' back yard, I feel as if I've suddenly run into a business executive away from the office and discovered he's actually a world-class mountain climber with abilities, fire and passion that I never would have imagined he could possess.

How, exactly, I came to find myself in the Swiss Alps is a whole different story. But since I found myself in central Switzerland with a little extra time on my hands, I decided to pay a visit to the Pilatus aircraft factory, which is located in the shadow of Mount Pilatus, just a few miles outside of the scenic town of Lucerne. After all, I've always said that to really understand someone-or some thing-you have to see where they come from. For we're all products of the environment that created and shaped us, no matter how far we eventually roam.

Pilatus, which was founded in 1939, was the first-and remains the only-Swiss aircraft manufacturer. Since then, it's developed and built two main types of aircraft. The company has a reputation for building excellent military trainers, from its first stubby "Pelican" design and its piston-powered P-3 to the turbine-powered PC-7, PC-9, and its newest PC-21. Pilatus' civilian line-which still includes the PC-6 "Porter" tailwheel bush plane as well as the PC-12-has focused on aircraft that operate well in rugged and mountainous terrain.

I knew all that before, of course. But after spending a little time in Switzerland, everything about Pilatus-from the factory's location, to the nature of its two product lines and the design of its aircraft-makes much more sense. For they're all reflections of the unique needs and character of this small, mountainous, and stubbornly neutral country.

In the United States, most companies tend to specialize in either civilian or military aircraft. But since Pilatus is Switzerland's only aircraft manufacturer, it's not surprising that it's always produced both military and civilian planes. The mix is also a reflection of a culture where defense is never far from anyone's mind. Some of that has relaxed since the end of the Cold War. But until a few years ago, every male citizen in Switzerland had to serve in the Army, roads and bridges through the mountain passes here were rigged with explosives that could be quickly detonated to close the country to attacking armies, and the existence and location of many of the military airfields in the mountains weren't even acknowledged on Swiss aeronautical charts.

The same defensive mindset led to the placement of the Pilatus factory. The company was formed just as World War II was beginning. So the factory was built here in Lucerne-the furthest point from any of the borders-and positioned right up against a mountain ridge. Original plans actually called for a good bit of the factory to be built inside the mountain ridge, but the cost was apparently judged higher than the added safety was worth. Some of the aircraft the company produced, on the other hand, really were stored in secret hangars carved out of the mountains-some reportedly large enough to house a whole squadron of Mirage fighters. In fact, the Swiss mountains contain so many secret caves, hideaways and storage places that I've heard them described as similar to the country's famous cheese-full of holes.

The mountains have always been Switzerland's trump card-its greatest defense against attacks both on the ground and in the air. That and the fact that the Swiss hold the account passwords to an awful lot of countries' money, of course. But the Alps are, indeed, formidable, with narrow, winding valleys, treacherous wind currents, steeply climbing high terrain, and weather that changes often, quickly, and with the same kind of power that the mountains themselves exude. Runways and landing sites, where they exist, are short and challenging, with approaches that are steep and sometimes only possible in one direction.

In short, the Alps are an awfully thorny briar patch to try to navigate by air. But that's where the PC-12 comes in. Because the PC-12 was born in this briar patch. And it plays here as easily and happily as ol' Br'er Rabbit himself.

Zooming through the mountains at 200 knots, I suddenly begin to both understand and appreciate all the PC-12's design characteristics-even the solid heaviness of its controls. You want stability and solidity in this kind of turbulence and terrain. And yet, you still need pretty quick maneuverability. I ask Theddy Spichtig, the Pilatus test pilot who's flying with me, what a pilot does when things start happening a little too quickly between these mountain walls.

"Ah," he says with a smile. "I'll show you."

We're getting close to the pass which, as promised, miraculously appears around the right-hand side of the mountain I was viewing as we flew down the valley from the north. I bank right, then left, as we weave our way through the narrow ravines leading up to the summit saddle. From side to side, the approach to the pass is a little more than half a mile wide. Theddy takes the plane.

"Now watch," he says, as he pulls the power back, deploys flaps and puts the landing gear out. We slow to 80 knots, and he banks the plane to the left. Straight toward the mountain wall. My pulse rate rises a bit, but we don't hit the mountain. We don't even come close. We curve around easily, doing steady, 360-degree turns, in the narrowest part of one of the more dramatic valleys in the Swiss Alps.

I am, in a word, impressed. Not to mention relieved.

We shoot over to the south side of the pass, and in front of us, at the bottom of a steep valley, is a runway. But we are WAY too high to make the field. Or so I think. Once again, Theddy pulls back the power, throws out flaps, and we start sinking like an elevator out of the sky. We do a missed approach, but we wouldn't have been far off touchdown on the numbers if we'd taken it all the way down.

We continue on to the sunny, balmy city of Locarno, which is located on Lake Maggiore in the Italian sector of Switzerland, south of the Alps. We land on the field's 700-meter (approximately 2,100 feet) grass runway, the PC-12's trailing-link gear cushioning the touchdown force like the down pillows and comforters they favor so much here. We're down and stopped in something short of 300 meters.

So, okay. I'm impressed again.

After paying the landing fees that are an ever-present fact of life in European aviation, we taxi out to the grass runway again. We add full power, 30 degrees of flaps on the roll, and rotate at 60 knots. We're off and airborne in half the runway length. Theddy estimates that there are only about 10 runways in Switzerland that can handle a business jet, but 20 or 30 that a PC-12 can operate in and out of. If the rest of the Swiss runways are like what I've seen so far today, I believe him.

On the way home, Theddy decides to let me see how much fun the PC-12 can have in its backyard playground. We follow the Maggi Valley along the Italian border, looking west across Italy to Switzerland again, which is a weird kind of view and feeling. We bank and turn up the valley, maneuvering easily right beside the white wall of the Basodino Glacier, which towers over us to the left. Everywhere along these slopes, there are barricades set up across the mountains to help prevent avalanches. Looking up at the sheer mass and precariously balanced snow of the Basodino Glacier, I understand why.

The PC-12's terrain avoidance system is threatening to have an apoplectic fit through all of this, of course, repeating "Caution! Terrain!" almost nonstop until Theddy finally shuts it off. "It does that a lot here," he says with a grin.

We pop up over the saddle of the Nufenen Pass, which Theddy says is the highest road pass in Switzerland, and then head over to the Rhone Glacier-the frozen headwaters of the famous Rhone River, which makes its way from here all the way down to Marseilles. From 500 feet over the glacier, I can see the stark fissures and blue depths of its ice, evidence of the ancient and enduring geologic power of the Earth. Theddy points the nose of the PC-12 up to match the glacier's slope, and we simply power our way up the snow bowl. Try that in a 172.

There was a movie made in the Amazon a number of years ago called At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Turning and climbing among all these glacial peaks, surrounded on all sides by sun-blinding snow, ice and sculpted peaks of rock jutting out from the liquid frosting that coats the landscape here, I feel as if I'm at play in the fields of the Snow Lords.

The effect is breathtaking, even as it threatens to overwhelm me with sensory overload. I'm surrounded, as far as the eye can see, with perfect postcard images. No, it's more than that. I'm immersed in postcard images. No, that doesn't quite describe it, either. I'm absolutely, completely and totally LOST in postcard images, in three dimensions of space and movement and 360 degrees of vision. I've been transported to an entirely different world, in a chariot that seems to have an understanding with the mountain gods, allowing it access where, it's said, only eagles once dared to fly.

We clear the summit of the glacier, and Theddy pulls the power back again and we dive down another narrow valley, winding our way easily back toward Lake Lucerne. Fifteen minutes later, we're back on the ground. In an hour of flying, I've crossed the Alps twice, gone to the Italian border and back, climbed a glacier, landed in 900 feet on a grass strip, maneuvered in tight mountain spaces at 80 knots and zoomed out of them again at 200 knots. And that's not even bringing cabin size into the equation.

The PC-12 may be a good, versatile executive transport. But now that I've seen it in its natural environment, I know there's a lot more to it than that. Because the PC-12 is, without question, Swiss to the core. Which means that while it may sometimes wear executive clothing, it's really a mountain climber at heart.

A mountain climber with wings.