Pilatus PC-12

How the PC-12 has managed to be all airplanes to all pilots and to do it for less.

Pilatus PC-12

Pilatus PC-12

Pilatus PC-12

__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.

One of the airports we flew into was Steamboat Springs, which is just over the hill from Denver and which features a very steep circle-to-land approach. This would be perfect for trying out the extensive VNAV capability of the PC-12's Honeywell Apex avionics system, which has gotten a number of new
features since I first flew it a few years ago. We'd also get the opportunity to pop over the Front Range on our way over. While just a short hop, the trip would show some of the great strengths, literally and figuratively, of the PC-12.

Evolution of the Type
Over the years the Pilatus PC-12 has gotten numerous upgrades, including a gross weight increase, a more powerful dash model PT6, improved flight controls, a greatly enhanced cabin experience and new avionics.

While early models have some rough spots, today’s PC-12 is a very mature product. I got a chance to see some of the few places where it is still evolving.

The airplane is powered, as I mentioned, by a Pratt & Whitney engine, the PT6A-67P model, which is flat-rated at 1,200 shaft horsepower continuously, as opposed to the previous model’s five-minute limit, after which it is rated at 1,000 shp. The power upgrade allows pilots to keep the lever forward on climb and achieve rates of climb starting at around 2,000 feet per minute and holding steady at around 1,000 fpm — with a watchful eye on temps — all up through 28,000 feet. Once there, the airplane can cruise at around 280 knots on just over 55 gph.

With a light load (pilot plus three passengers), the Pilatus PC-12 settles in at high speed cruise for better than 1,500 nm with reserves. For someone like me, who lives in the middle of the country, that means a nonstop flight to just about anywhere in the country in all but the worst headwind scenarios.

Because it's a sub-300-knot cruiser, that max range trip takes a while to unfold. Naturally, most trips are much shorter than that, but even on the longest nonstop legs, the PC-12 can accommodate such endurance because of its great cabin, which rivals those of even large light jets, like the**** Cessna**** Citation CJ4 and the Embraer Phenom 300. Those airplanes are, admittedly, around 150 knots faster than the Pilatus PC-12, but they also cost more than twice as much as the PC-12 and are far costlier to operate. Of course, if you're regularly flying 1,500 nm trips, the speed of a jet makes great sense. But for most business users, typical trips are half that distance or less, and that's where the benefits of a turboprop, especially a single, really pay off.

Most PC-12s are outfitted with a club-plus-two cabin, giving the airplane seating for the single pilot plus seven. Designed by BMW Designworks, the interior was ahead of its time when it was unveiled a few years ago and is state-of-the-art even today. There is an optional upgraded entertainment system with individual displays and music and video inputs. If work is the mission, there are stowable desks between the club seats and individually adjustable LED lighting throughout the cabin. In an airplane that often gets bought and flown for family and personal use, the nice big lavatory in the PC-12 is an important selling point.
So too is the airplane's ability to get into and back out of short strips.

Better Yet
One of the improvements in the PC-12 with the NG model in 2008 was the addition of "boosted" ailerons, which use anti-servo tabs to greatly improve roll rate

and reduce forces. So hand-flying the big single is no longer the upper body workout it used to be. It’s no Pitts, still, but it’s a pleasant airplane to fly by hand.

The seats up front are excellent, nicely adjustable and comfortable even for long stretches. A new feature is split climate control, so the pilots can cool down without freezing out the folks in back. The yokes are big and beefy, the switches bold and well laid out, and the design set up to make single-pilot operations as easy as possible. The biggest reach is across the cockpit to check breakers on the far side panel. All in all, the effect up front is that of a business airplane.

The Apex avionics system has been improved in several ways since I last flew the PC-12. Apex, as you might remember, is Honeywell’s avionics suite for new airplanes below the level of midsize jet. So far, the PC-12 is the most noteworthy Apex user, which has more to do with the timing of the Next Generation model’s development and certification than anything else. Apex is an impressive suite, with many of the features of Honeywell’s ultrahigh-end Primus Epic suite and more on the way. Apex features four big reversionary displays that the pilot can easily switch between and reconfigure as needed using a series of drop-down menus very reminiscent of those in airplanes that cost 10 times as much as the PC-12. There’s a new cursor control device (CCD) too, to replace the smallish joystick in early NG models. I liked the joystick, though I have to admit the new CCD is an improvement, especially in turbulence, of which we experienced plenty.

There’s also a full complement of weather products through XM, full charting capability (including the ability to split chart sections — plan view at the top, minimums at the bottom) and vertical limits on airspace, a nice addition for an airplane whose pilots fly a lot of VFR.

There’s better redundancy than ever too, with an upgraded electrical system and new bus architecture.

Diving in at Steamboat Springs
Heading out of Rocky Mountain (KBJC), Denver Departure gave us vectors and a quick clearance up to 22,000 feet on our flight plan route up to Steamboat. The limiting factor in the climb is temperature, though I didn't have to come back on the power at all from full forward until we were passing through 14,000 feet.

Even then, it took just a slight reduction to keep us in the green. Once leveled off at FL 220, even though we were lower than our most efficient altitude, we were still seeing good airspeeds, up around 270 knots true pushing against 70-knot headwinds. Pilatus North America’s chief pilot, Peter Duncan, was in the right seat, and he showed me how to program in the vertical nav capability of the system, which would take me a few trips to master, I’m sure. Once it was programmed, the autopilot flew the entire approach — or it would have, had we not had other plans.

The ride over was OK, with just moderate chop as we descended for the RNAV circle-to-land approach at Steamboat Springs. As we leveled off at 10,300 feet, we got to see how the Pilatus PC-12 earns its keep with operators who fly in mountainous terrain. We canceled with Denver Approach and flew the approach straight in to Runway 32, which from that point is a very steep descent. With gear out and full flaps (40 degrees), you can aim the nose of the PC-12 at the runway end and use power to adjust airspeed. It was kind of surreal, in a 10,000-plus max gross airplane approaching at around 85 knots at an angle of 7 or 8 degrees nose down, nine feet of aerodynamic brake out front keeping us plenty slow. Yes, it’s fun.

Peter was in a rare mood to show off, so he asked for the landing at Steamboat from the right seat. His control was masterful — I wasn’t surprised — and he planted it in the howling crosswind just beyond the displaced threshold, threw in a handful of beta and had us stopped and taxiing off in just over a thousand feet on Taxiway Alpha. The guy on the Unicom volunteered that he didn’t see many airplanes make that turnoff unless they happened to be coming in from the opposite direction.

We taxied in through the ice and slush, parked it and headed into town for lunch.

Big Bang
After some more mountain flying, we headed back to Denver as the day was growing dim. Picking up our IFR clearance from Denver Center — pop-ups are a way of life in the mountains — we made our way back across the Front Range.

It was getting pretty bumpy at 17,000 as we began to overfly higher terrain. I’d just poked my head back and asked Tom Aniello, Pilatus’ vice president of sales and marketing, to tighten his belt. No more than a minute later it hit us, a jolt of turbulence so strong it stretched my belt and banged my Bose against the ceiling, the nose dropping 15 degrees in that split second and the wing dipping hard left. Peter beat me to the thrust lever and pulled it back before the airspeed hit red. I leveled the wings and raised the nose, and just like that it was over. We checked on Tom, who was fine, cinched up our belts even more and carried on. It was the biggest hit I’ve ever had outside of demo derby.

I was the first to say it but not before we’d all thought it: that we were glad we were in a PC-12, a legendarily strong airplane.

Back to the Base
In moderate chop we headed back to Rocky Mountain Metro. Again, Peter showed me how to set up the vertical nav function for the LPV to Runway 29 Right, which was easier than programming the unusual approach up at Steamboat Springs. I watched and handled the power as the autopilot flew the descents through the turbulence.

I disconnected before minimums, however, and hand-flew the last approach of the day, yet another one with the Colorado wind howling directly off the wing.

Luckily, the PC-12 flies just like a real airplane; it handled the crosswind, nearly 20 knots of it, with ease. I squeezed on much less beta than Peter had up in the mountains and still easily got it slowed and off in around a thousand feet of ground roll. It’s an airplane that will make you feel like a hotshot. What pilot wouldn’t like that?

The PC-12 is a remarkable airplane but a premium one to be sure. At around $4.5 million very nicely equipped, the airplane is a popular tool for some very successful entrepreneurs who love its rugged good looks and fabulous cabin. It has seen a lot of use in the Outback of Australia by the Royal Flying Doctor Service and in the most remote regions of Canada by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Around 30 PC-12s participated in the airlift to Haiti two years ago, many of them flying multiple trips. PlaneSense, a fractional provider based in New Hampshire and serving the entire East Coast and parts of Texas and Oklahoma, operates a fleet of 32 PC-12s and passes along the model’s low operating costs to its customers.

The Pilatus PC-12 is an airplane that’s built to work hard and do good. In the process, if the pilot happens to have a little fun flying it, well, that probably can’t be helped, can it?

Send reader mail to: edit@flyingmag.com or P.O. Box 8500, Winter Park, FL 32789.