Pilatus PC-12 NG pilot and UK agent Edwin Brenninkmeyer enthuses over the PT6A-powered executive,
reaching places other pilots can only dream of
With a reputation for rugged performance forged through more than two decades of service, the PC-12 offers a unique combination of grass airfield, short take-off and payload capability. Pilatus has continuously improved its single-engined turboprop over the years and in 2008, the PC-12 NG introduced the more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67P, Honeywell Primus Apex integrated avionics suite and revised aerodynamics.
Pilatus took the next major step in PC-12 development in 2016, last year’s PC-12 NG benefitting from improved performance and reduced vibration when a five-bladed composite Hartzell propeller replaced the original four-bladed unit. Further aerodynamic refinement, combined with the new prop, brought a 5kt improvement in maximum cruising speed to 285kt, as well as a faster climb rate and more rapid acceleration.
With single-pilot operations firmly in mind, the avionics were upgraded to Primus Apex Build 10 configuration, further easing pilot workload, while the cabin was also enhanced. The BMW Group’s Designworks organisation developed six interior configurations, with a variety of colour and trim options available. Pilatus also offers inflight entertainment via a wireless eConnect system and the cabin features both USB and power points; a lightweight satcom antenna is optionally available.
Finally, and particularly unusual for an aircraft in its class, the PC-12 NG complements its forward airstair passenger door with a large rear fuselage cargo door. The cabin is easily reconfigured from executive to cargo layout, or a combination, generating a very particular level of flexibility.
Seating up to nine passengers, the PC-12 NG is priced to compete with light jets, albeit offering a considerably larger cabin. With direct operating costs in the region of just 70% those of a light jet, twice the capacity and typically almost 40% greater range, the PC-12 NG becomes a very attractive ownership proposition.
Factor in the aircraft’s low depreciation – in a December 2016 report, Rolland Vincent Associates noted ten-year old PC-12s retaining between 75% and 80% of their original selling price, and the aircraft becomes nigh on irresistible. In a demonstration of owner loyalty that’s perhaps a little less encouraging for potential buyers of pre-owned PC-12s, the same report records just 4.8% of the global PC-12 fleet of more than 1,400 aircraft available for sale in November 2016, including only 26 PC-12 NGs.
Oriens Aviation is the UK’s authorised Pilatus centre and in mid-April EVA spoke with CEO Edwin Brenninkmeyer to learn more of the PC-12 NG experience. On the one hand, he was always going to be a fan, but on the other, the vastly experienced Brenninkmeyer remains current on other aircraft, leaving him well placed to consider the type’s performance in a wider context.
He began with a neat summary of the piloting experience, based on a recent flight with a newly sold PC-12 NG, into a grass airfield in Oxfordshire, marked as a microlight strip on the 1:500,000 chart. “I flew the aeroplane in and all the autogyro and microlight pilots were looking at me as though a UFO had landed!
“I picked up five people, plus around 13 pairs of skis, tools, bags and the remaining contents of their minibus. We put it all in through the cargo door and then took off for Bern. The client’s son is a competitive skier and he remarked: ‘That’s why I bought the PC-12 – there’s no other aircraft that can do this’.
“And you can configure the aircraft pretty much any way you want. Most customers buy a ‘six-plus-two’ layout. It’s very comfortable, with six executive seats, but the rear two are easily movedforward to make space for two quick-release seats; they’re not full executive seats, they’re slightly smaller. At 6ft 5in tall, Brenninkmeyer says he can sit in the rearmost executive seats “… and still stretch my legs right out.”
Alternatively, pairs of executive seats can be removed in approximately one hour, and they can be moved forwards or backwards, now with no requirement for a licenced engineer, so a pilot can do it. The quick-release seats are so easily removed that Brenninkmeyer reckons the process takes as long to explain as it does to complete. Located aft, the regular baggage/cargo area is separated from the cabin by a net and, like the cabin, is therefore pressurised, and accessible in flight. With the rear seats removed, the net is moved forwards to increase baggage space.
“We’ve got customers who remove all but the forward two seats so they can easily carry full-size motorcycles. The large cargo door also eases loading; the Royal Flying Doctor Service was launch customer back in the 1990s and the PC-12 was always designed for utility. That’s why it has a ‘T’-tail, which is less likely to be hit by a forklift, say, during loading.” The straight wing trailing edge also enables direct loading by forklift and since the door’s sized for a Euro pallet, it’s an entirely practical option.
The important point to emerge is that an operator can move large quantities of kit or luggage and still carry as many as six passengers in executive comfort, or a 1,000lb payload, from a short grass strip, over 1,500nm and at a fraction of the fuel burn of a light jet. With the cabin full to maximum weight, 750nm is a realistic range with IFR reserves… off an 800m grass runway.
Even rougher strips pose little challenge to the PC-12 NG, thanks in part, Brenninkmeyer says, to its wheels and tyres. “The wheels are huge and they effectively have balloon tyres, inflated to only 60psi. People often see a PC-12 NG parked and think the tyres look under-inflated, but that’s normal, they’re supposed to be a little ‘squishy’. Another feature is the lack of electrical squat switches on the landing gear. These are easily clogged with grass and mud, but the PC-12 has magnetic proximity sensors for which dirt is no problem. Prop clearance is also excellent and the big trailing link undercarriage evidently has lots of oleo extension even when the aircraft is loaded on the ground, which gives you an idea just how much ‘give’ there is in it.”
The PC-12 NG’s versatility is a real-world asset that’s available on every flight. A standard aircraft requires no special preparation for even the most demanding mission, so lifting six executives from a muddy grass field in the heart of rural Scotland and flying them in considerable comfort direct to London City is entirely possible, for example. Depending on passenger load, range and frequency of flying, it could also work out considerably cheaper than first class travel on the UK’s less than ideal rail network, but that’s another story entirely.
Especially in its NG form, the PC-12 is optimised for single-pilot operation. “The avionics are essentially scaled down from the Honeywell Epic suite fitted to the Gulfstream and Falcon, a multi-crew system, configured as the Apex for a single-pilot. Aircraft similar to the PC-12 tend to have Garmin avionics, which are very capable, but the company started out with systems for smaller GA types. So Garmin avionics tend to be smaller systems that have grown up, while the Honeywell equipment has been scaled down from something much larger.
“In manifests itself as a system that handles very smoothly. I also fly a Citation XLS for a charter company and although it’s an unfair comparison because the Cessna has older avionics, there are certain autopilot modes we avoid because they’re ‘twitchy’ and uncomfortable for the passengers. In the Pilatus everything is very smooth. It’s a really professional system. We’ve had customers whose pilots fly Gulfstreams and they quickly feel at home. The philosophy’s a little different, but they soon get it.
“Another beauty of the Honeywell suite is that you get four screens. The advantages are in redundancy – not that they fail often – and that the pilot and co-pilot get their own PFDs, plus one screen for systems and one for nav. Everything’s there, right in front of you, without having to scroll through too many pages.”
For conversion and recurrent training, a PC-12 NG simulator is available in Dallas. “It’s a situation we believe needs to be improved. There’s a requirement for a full-motion Level D simulator in Europe as well, but at the moment all the training is done on the aircraft. There are two approved training organisations in the UK and customers typically use their aeroplane for recurrent and type rating training. It’s also worth remembering that although the avionics take a little getting used to, they’re very intuitive and the aircraft’s very easy to fly. But to get the very best out of them, you really have to have the additional training to understand what they can do.
“The other option is factory training in Switzerland. Pilatus offers ground school as well as flying training – I did my training at the factory and in an example of the extended avionics functionality, we simulated IFR engine failures. The system has an incredible database of landing sites, down to the smallest strips anywhere in the world. We shut down to idle at 11,000ft and hit ‘Nearest’ on the panel, selected a small VFR airfield and which runway we wanted. In this situation, the autopilot will fly the aircraft down to within 50ft of the runway threshold. We literally sat there and watched the aeroplane fly itself down – all we had to do was adjust the flap settings.
“Of course there’s also synthetic vision, so the grass strip appears ahead of you as though it were a concrete runway, with surroundings matching what you see out of the cockpit windows. If it really is a concrete runway, the centreline markings shown on the PFDs correspond exactly with those painted on the runway. It’s an example of just how powerful the avionics are and the stuff you have to learn to understand the full capability.
“The rest of the aeroplane’s very simple. There’s one power lever and pretty much everything’s automatic. The pressurisation’s automatic – as soon as you enter a flight plan into the system the destination airfield pressurisation’s automatically set, as is the airfield elevation. And if there’s an electrical failure, there’s automatic load shedding, the pilot doesn’t need to think about which loads to shed.”
Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PT6 turboprop has been tried and tested on multiple platforms in more than five decades of operations. How does its modern form fit the demands of PC-12 NG flying? “It’s very reliable and especially so on the Pilatus, where the PT6A-67P seems to do particularly well. It’s rated at 1,800shp but flat rated at 1,200shp, so it operates well within its capacity. In addition, for example, the engine’s ITT [interstage turbine temperature] limit is 820°C, but the factory recommends not exceeding 780°C, further improving reliability. All this, combined with the engine’s capability and the way pilots are taught to operate it, means it barely breaks into a sweat in regular PC-12 NG flying.”
Sitting in the Back
“The biggest improvements in passenger comfort came in 2016, the five-bladed prop reducing cabin noise and vibration. It’s never going to be as quiet as a jet, but the experience in the back isn’t far off, especially above 18,000ft, when the PC-12 NG becomes noticeably quieter. Then of course it’s slower than a jet, so if you’re cruising at 28,000ft, you’ve got prop noise but less wind noise. And, for $5 million you can’t get a larger pressurised cabin – its 10% bigger than a King Air 250’s, which comes in at a much higher price point.”
Edwin Brenninkmeyer makes a convincing case from the operator and passenger points of view. But smart avionics and a reliable engine aside, how is the PC-12 NG piloting experience?
“It’s just a fun aeroplane! You can almost fly it like a Cherokee on a nice VFR day. You don’t have to go airways, you don’t have to fly it like a jet, you can just fly visually outside controlled airspace. You’ve got so much sophistication, including TCAS, so you can see where other aircraft are, you’ve got very large windows and you can drop into little farm strips. I used to fly into farm strips in Piper Cubs and you can do that with the PC-12, just like a tail-dragger, but it’s huge!
“The maximum take-off weight stalling speed is 67kt, which compares very well to a light aircraft. You get all the fun and versatility of a light aircraft, yet you can go up to 30,000ft and fly across Europe, then fly at exactly the same approach speeds as the Citation XLS, so the PC-12 NG easily fits into Schiphol, or Vienna, for example. And it’s a solid, stable IFR platform too. The slow landing speed and trailing-link undercarriage really flatter your landings – you’ll know if you’ve messed it up, but your passengers won’t! It’s just a fun, very forgiving and very safe aircraft.”