October 1, 1996
By Thomas A. Horne
Two years ago, the Pilatus PC XII quietly sauntered into the turbine single market, then summarily took down its closest competitor — Socata's TBM 700. Now, the PC XII fleet is up to some 53 airplanes; the TBM 700's total sales have stagnated at the 120 mark. In any event, the PC XII has undergone a recent major improvement — an optional gross weight increase of 880 pounds — that should expand the airplane's already impressive capabilities.
The standard PC XII has a 9,085-pound maximum ramp weight and a 5,675- pound standard empty weight, which makes for a maximum payload of 3,406 pounds, according to Pilatus. Top off the 400-gallon fuel tanks, however, and you're left with a payload allowance of just over 600 pounds. This lets you fly three people (including the pilot) and their bags anywhere from 1,400 to 1,600 nm, assuming you fly between 25,000 and 29,000 feet. Alternatively, you could trade people for fuel and fly as many as six passengers on shorter 1,100-nm legs. In a word, the standard PC XII is a payload/range airplane, one that demands these sorts of trade-offs.
The new weight increase transforms the PC XII into a haul-it-all, no-excuses airplane, and practically all new PC XIIs are sold with this $135,000 option. Almost all of the extra half-ton is in the airplane's payload capacity; the rest is in the beefier landing gear. With the weight hike, Pilatus says you can fly eight people and their bags 1,550 nm (in still wind conditions) and land with IFR fuel reserves. Furthermore, spokesmen have said that it's "virtually impossible" to load the airplane aft of its center of gravity limits. "You could have 1,000 pounds in the aft cargo area, with just the pilot up front, and the airplane would still be within its CG," says John Foster, president of Skytech, Incorporated, a Pilatus dealer at Baltimore's Martin State Airport.
From the pilot's perspective the difference between the standard and the increased-weight airplane is invisible. The instrument panel has the same two-tube AlliedSignal Bendix/King EHI-40 EFIS suite that it always had (and the same one used in the Lear 31A), plus a CAWS (central advisory and warning system — a large spread of centrally-mounted annunciators), a fire detection system, and a liquid-crystal display showing engine information, all included in the standard airplane's base price of $2,190,000. Other popular options include copilot instrumentation and a second symbol generator ($98,500), and a Bendix/King RDS 82VP vertical profiling weather radar ($36,500), to name just a few of the OEM panel options.
The panel has a Spartan look to it, due in part to its large size. You can stuff a lot of avionics into it and still have plenty of room left over. The Swiss obsession with order and quality is another reason for the PC XII's aura of restrained luxury, an impression that pervades the panel, as well as every other part of the airplane.
To use an automotive analogy, the PC XII can be described as a flying Mercedes: big, heavy, sturdy, well-finished, and given more to practicality than speed. Everywhere you look you see evidence of Teutonic design overkill, and it's the little touches that tell a lot about the corporate mentality behind this airplane: Massive control rod ends that look like they belong on an airliner. Engine inspection panels that open to reveal squeaky clean rows of fuel and hydraulic lines, and compartments painted with a white epoxy primer, the better to reveal leaks and fight corrosion. A pitot mast/angle-of-attack probe cover that's secured with a chained clevis pin. Spacecraft-serious latching pins for the aft cargo door. A fuel drain tool the size of a small bucket, designed to push up against the lower wing surface when collecting fuel samples. The tool has a rubber flange to protect the paint and make a seal. "With this, if it's windy, the fuel won't blow all over you," a demonstration pilot explained.
But it's the airplane's size that makes the biggest first impression. Its wingspan and height are almost the same as those of a Beech B200 King Air, and it's 4 feet longer. A 1,605-shp Pratt & Whitney PT-6A-67B (derated to 1,200 shp) swings a huge four-blade propeller up front; a transport-sized airstair door lets you into the forward cabin; that giant cargo door in back can admit humongous cargo loads; and the cabin and cockpit are similarly cavernous.
There are several hackneyed phrases in aviation journalism that, when an insouciant writer actually uses them in print, bring howls of laughter to those of us with a cynical bent. One is the ubiquitous "easy to fly" descriptor. Another proclaims that "stalls are docile." The most hilarious moldy oldie is "the controls fall easily (or 'readily' — take your pick) to hand," a term meant to convey good cockpit ergonomics. It's safe to say that these kinds of phrases are almost always employed by those whose imaginations have either temporarily or permanently failed them — and are therefore rendered meaningless. In the case of the PC XII an exception to this ersatz rule must be made. The airplane really is easy to fly. The control feel is as solid — some might say heavy — as the airplane's appearance, and really presents no surprises. There can be large nose-down pitching moments with flap extension, but the trick here is to plan your descents and/or speed reductions well enough in advance. In this way, there's no need for large, sudden configuration changes. This is something that PC XII pilots learn at SimCom, Pilatus' training organization of choice. And yes, the controls — at least, those on the central quadrant — do fall easily to hand. There's even a panel-style rocker switch installed on the thrust lever; it's used to change rudder trim.
As for stalls, they can apparently bite. Though the PC XII is certified under FAR Part 23, it has a stick-shaker and -pusher, something usually found on much larger airplanes and jet airplanes certified under Part 25, the rules for transportcategory airplanes. Come too close to the stall and the control column physically vibrates. Increase the angle of attack further and the control column will exert a nose-down pitch force without any pilot input. All of this is to help guarantee that the PC XII driver never enters the stall regime. Shakers, and especially pushers, are usually signs that an airplane has a nasty stall, so you wonder what happened during the PC XII's certification flights. The PC XII has a giant T-tail, and one characteristic of that configuration — especially in jets — can be a tendency to enter a so-called deep stall. This is a condition in which the flow of air over the horizontal stabilizer is so disrupted that stall recovery is either seriously delayed or rendered virtually impossible. Moreover, T-tail airplanes can fail to issue the pre-stall buffeting cues that provide so many light airplanes with a reliable stall warning. This is a result of wing downwash's not reaching the horizontal stabilizer at high angles of attack. Whatever the case, stick-shakers and -pushers, which serve valuable safety functions in many large transports, are common features in those types of airplanes, and the PC XII is apparently no exception.
Engine starts certainly pose few problems. Just hit a start button, then wait for the compressor speed to come up to 13 to 18 psi. (Like the TBM 700, the PC XII's engine gauges measure compressor output in terms of pressure, not percentage of maximum permissible rpm.) At this point, move the condition lever to the ground idle position, which will introduce fuel into the combustion chamber. Light-off follows; and after a few checks, you're taxiing out.
As you might expect from a 1,200-hp airplane, takeoff acceleration builds to an impressive level. After setting the rudder trim to compensate for the torque you're about to make (trim position indicators are along the top of the control pedestal), simply advance power to the target value and track down the runway, waiting for the rotation speed of 80 knots. Pitch up 4 degrees and the airplane pretty much flies itself off the ground. A good initial climbout speed is 120 knots — VY — but to keep the PC XII's longish snout at a lower deck angle for better forward visibility, 160 knots is best for an en route climb.
As for cruise, the PC XII does best at 18,000 feet or so, where at maximum cruise power and light weights, true airspeeds can run up to 275 knots. At medium weights — say, 8,000 pounds — true airspeeds are likely to run 265 knots or so. Under these conditions, figure on fuel burns of 475 pph, or 71 gph, and direct operating costs of some $270 per hour. Fly higher (the PC XII's maximum operating altitude is 30,000 feet), and at long-range cruise settings, and fuel burns can drop as low as 300 pph or 45 gph, significantly lowering costs of operation.
There's little difference in speed — perhaps 10 knots, on average — between flying in the high teens and the high 20s. But the difference in fuel burns can be dramatic, so most pilots choose to fly high. In this way, you have a better chance of flying above the weather, in smooth air, and yet arrive at the destination only a few minutes later than had you flown down low in "combat cruise."
Anyone familiar with a Beech Bonanza or other high-performance piston single will find no surprises flying a PC XII on approach. The ship's landing gear can be extended at speeds up to 177 knots and the first 15-degree notch of flaps can go out at 163. Reduce power gradually to 15 psi or so to maintain 110 knots on downwind, turn base and final, select full flaps, then set up for approximately 80 knots (try 5 psi) on short final. You'll notice a pronounced nose-low deck angle of minus 4 degrees or so in this configuration, with the result that the flare must be well-timed or there's a chance of touching down on all three gear simultaneously, or worse, hitting nosewheel first. Once down, reverse thrust is available; and if you've held 80 over the fence, there should be no trouble making the first turnoff.
When it was first brought to the United States, there was some uncertainty about who would answer the PC XII's call. Initially, there was an idea that the airplane might serve as a kind of flying pickup truck to carry around the toys of the idle rich. As it turns out, most PC XIIs work as owner-flown business transports and are fitted out with the optional $139,000 six-seat executive interior. This year, that option includes a forward lavatory that has wood veneer doors and a flushing potty. Very few of the freight-hauling, straight utility variants of the PC XII have been sold in the United States.
Owners are rabidly enthusiastic about their PC XIIs. Dave Biery, an executive with Fisher Auto Parts of Staunton, Virginia, serves as chief pilot for the company's PC XII. Like the preponderance of Pilatus owners, Fisher used a Malibu Mirage prior to buying into the big turbine single. "We got out of the Malibu because we needed more speed, wanted to carry a bigger load, and wanted more room," Biery said.
Biery's flights typically involve flying two or three passengers to a wide range of destinations east of the Mississippi (Fisher's parts distribution business has 230 stores, warehouses, and distribution centers in 13 states). "It's a terrific airplane," Biery went on to say. Speaking of a trip to Annapolis, Maryland's Lee Airport, which has a 2,505-foot-long runway that's 48 feet wide, he said, "Any time you can cruise at 250 to 270 knots, come across the fence at 78 knots, and land at a place like Lee, you've got a very capable airplane."
Richard A. Forman, a media broker who buys and sells radio and television stations, says his PC XII is "the best airplane God ever made — with the help of the Swiss, that is." Forman, too, owned a Malibu. Referring to the Malibu's operational considerations, he opined that "there's only 35 knots between the top of the green and when the wings fall off...and when I looked at the Pilatus, I decided I'd rather pay more [than what it would have cost him to buy another Malibu], get the quality, and not be inconvenienced [by maintenance down time].
"The Pilatus does everything it's supposed to. You can count on 268 knots at FL 280," Forman continued. "I once flew from White Plains to Grand Cayman Island, nonstop, with five passengers, in seven-and-a-half hours. That was with a 100-knot headwind at times, and I still landed with a 45-minute fuel reserve."
As for reliability, Forman is equally enthusiastic. "As far as I know, there's only been one service bulletin on these airplanes," he said. "And one time, Pilatus asked me to bring the airplane in for 'serialization.' What they did was to bring the airplane up to the latest specifications. This gave me some new generator wires, new logic for the deice boot sequencing, the new lav with the hard doors, and several other improvements. They did about $50,000 to $70,000 worth of work and didn't charge me anything. Now that's what I call standing behind your product."
Forman had no multiengine or turbine time when he made the decision to buy a PC XII. After seven days at SimCom's Orlando training center, 25 hours of dual instruction, and 15 hours of solo time, USAIG was ready to insure him to fly passengers. He reportedly pays $40,000 a year in insurance premiums for $10 million of liability and $2.7 million of hull insurance, but now that he's amassed more than 300 hours of Pilatus time, Forman expects his premiums to start coming down.
Those unable to purchase a whole PC XII can now buy fractional shares from Alpha Flying, Inc. (AFI), a Boston-based operation that operates a fleet of five PC XIIs. The minimum to buy into the program is to pony up for a one-quarter share, at a price of $625,000 per share. For each share of ownership and a $4,700 monthly management fee, participants are entitled to 175 flying hours per year. For those who don't fly often enough to justify paying up to $2,579,650 (the price of N96WF, one of the aircraft flown for this article, and which does not have the increased gross weight option), fractional ownership makes an attractive alternative. Airplanes are on call and available with a 6-hour advance notice; crew, hangar, maintenance, and insurance fees are taken care of under the terms of the ownership agreement, and fractional owners have the option of selling their shares or buying more.
The PC XII remains one of general aviation's sturdiest, most practical, and unique turboprops. It offers more speed, comfort, range, economy, and cargo capacity than most competing turboprop twins and has a ramp presence that's a guaranteed head-turner. For all these reasons — and its Swiss-built cachet — the PC XII should continue to develop its market niche. It will be interesting to follow this airplane's future.
For more information, contact Pilatus Business Aircraft Ltd., Terminal Building B-7, 11755 Airport Way, Broomfield, Colorado 80021; telephone 303/465-9099; fax 303/465-9190.
All specifications are based on manufacturer's calculations. All performance figures are based on standard day, standard atmosphere, sea level, gross weight conditions unless otherwise noted.
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
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