Why I Fly A Pilatus PC-12

Larry Turley and his Pilatus PC-12 Ehren Jordan

Larry Turley first decided he wanted to be a pilot when he was a teenager, working the line for an FBO in Augusta, Georgia, and the Master's Golf Tournament came to town.

"Arnold Palmer and the other pros landed their jets and pulled out gas credit cards," Turley remembers with a laugh. "I'd never seen that before."

Turley's first attempt at learning to fly, however, was less than successful. Turley stands a full 6 feet 4 inches tall, and his first couple of lessons were in a J-3 Cub. "I had big feet, and my instructor had a big butt, and I couldn't move the rudder pedals," he recalls.

So the flying idea got put on the back burner … for almost 20 years, as it turned out. Instead of pursuing flying, Turley learned to ride motorcycles and went on to become an emergency room physician. But over time, being an ER physician began to dampen his once-ardent love of motorcycles.

"You'd have to have blinders on not to see the mashed up bodies coming in from motorcycle accidents," he says. "It took some of the fun out of it when the orthopedic guy I worked with started calling them 'donorcycles.' But then one day, a guy I knew came in, all broken up from a crash. I walked with him up to surgery and came down and said, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'" Yet giving up motorcycles "opened up a void" in Turley's life — a void he finally filled with airplanes.

"I still had to worry about safety a lot in takeoff and landing," he says, "but once you were in the air, it was just magical … sunrise, sunset and pretty much any time in between."

By that time, Turley had also started a winery business, Turley Wine Cellars, which offered another reason to fly.

"With a plane, you could do in a day what would be impossible without, and it was fun," Turley says.

After a brief stint with a Piper Arrow, Turley bought a 1963 Beechcraft Debonair with friend and fellow winery owner Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena. They flew the Debonair for about 11 years before upgrading to a C10T Silver Eagle, (a turbine-powered Cessna 210).

In truth, Turley had wanted to buy a Pilatus PC-12 ever since he started reading about them in the mid-1990s. But the $3 million-plus price tag for the Pilatus was daunting, even if he could use it for business. The C10T was a more manageable compromise of speed, performance and price.

In 2005, however, Turley and his winemaker/general manager, Ehren Jordan, began looking at the option of buying a PC-12 and then putting it on FAR Part 135 charter to help defray the costs. The Turley family was living in France that year, and Turley hopped over to Switzerland to see the Pilatus factory for himself. What he saw convinced him.

"I saw them turn this huge chunk of aluminum into a one-piece spar," he says. "It's a phenomenal airplane. Very strong. And then the pilots flew me through the Alps, to show me what it could do. Emphasis on through. The Swiss are not conservative flyers. But it was amazing, what that plane could do. And you know, with that trailing link gear, you hardly know you've touched down."

So when the Turleys returned home to St. Helena, California, they brought a new PC-12 with them.

"Suzanne was pretty skeptical about [the purchase] to start," Turley says of his wife, "but then I flew her down to LA for a business meeting, and she sat in back, plugged in her computer and worked the whole way down. And at the end, she said, 'Huh. I could get used to this.'"

Turley still has the C10T in partnership with Barrett, and a Cessna 185 taildragger he bought with his father-in-law (and retired Delta pilot) Jack Chambers. Turley likes the sport of the 185, as well as the fact that he can land it on a 1,600-foot strip he built on his Paso Robles, California, winery — a recent addition to his original Napa Valley property. But the PC-12 is his main business vehicle.

"I've flown it nonstop to Knoxville and Atlanta," he says, "and I've even used it to transport a client's wine cellar to Moab, Utah." That trip, Turley notes, demonstrated that the PC-12 could carry 34 cases of wine — an important metric for a winery owner.

"To do wine-tasting dinners or distributor meetings, I used to have to ship the wine ahead and hope it got there in time, and then fly a day ahead to make sure everything was there and in place," he says. "Now I just load up the wine and people and go. Which is better for the wine, as well as just simpler."

And while he's not generally flying through the Alps, Turley's still impressed with the PC-12's performance. "I routinely land in less than 1,000 feet. It's astonishing to land at Napa Airport and turn off before the second runway starts," he says with a chuckle. "The tower says, 'Are you just showing off?' and I say, 'Thanks for noticing.'"

At the same time, the PC-12 is "a much more capable IFR airplane" than his others.

"It's big, stable, with a well-equipped MFD, Doppler radar and a really good autopilot," Turley notes.

All that equipment, however, didn't prevent him and his father-in-law from running into an embedded thunderstorm that never showed up on the radar, en route home from Turley's daughter's college graduation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, this past spring. But that's where the PC-12's strength came into play.

"Jack, who has about 37,000 hours, looked up and just said, 'Hang on!' I didn't have time to warn Suzanne or anything. So I just held on and focused on the attitude indicator. It was an intense, 30-second wild ride, but Jack told me, 'You'll fall apart before the airplane does.'"

Not that Turley needed any more proof that he had the right airplane. "It's been a great plane," he says. "No airplane is cheap to maintain, of course, but I haven't had any problems with it, and I'm told the PC-12 has great access for mechanics. Having it chartered as Part 135 has worked out well too­. I've got a guy named Bruce McClean who operates it out of San Carlos Airport, just south of San Francisco."

And while there have been a few surprises, they've been the good kind. "The first time I walked up to it, it seemed like an airliner, it was so big. And I thought, 'Oh, my. What have I gotten myself into?'" Turley says. "I got over that pretty quickly, though, and now the size seems normal to me. But I didn't know you could fly it with eight people and still go a phenomenal distance. With most planes, it's a trade-off between those two.

"It's so much more of an airplane than I ever dreamed," Turley concludes. "I love flying the Pilatus, and everyone loves flying in the Pilatus." Given that it's notoriously hard to please all the people all the time, that's pretty high praise.

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