There was nothing like it: A pressurized, single-pilot, single-engine turboprop with 1,500-nm range, capable of taking off and landing on short, grass strips, featuring a flat-floor, 6-9-passenger cabin as capacious as those in some medium jets, and with a fully enclosed, flushing lavatory. And in addition to its people door, it had a barn-sized one that could swallow cargo measuring 4 sq. ft.
Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. had always been known for building unique utility and training aircraft, but this one stretched the definition to the limits.
If it could sell 200 of the curiosities, the Swiss aircraft maker would consider the PC-12 (see photo) a success. At least, that was the thinking at the aircraft’s debut in 1994. That thinking has since changed. The company has now delivered more than 1,100, making the PC-12 the most populous Pilatus ever, and five new ones roll off the wooden production floor in the Alpine burgh of Stans every month.
PC-12 buyers are as eclectic as the aircraft is unique. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police uses its fleet of 15 to transport personnel and prisoners and carry out searches. The two-dozen medevac versions operated by the Royal Flying Doctor Service are key to providing emergency care and transport for patients throughout Australia. PC-12s serve as regional airliners in South Africa, cargo-haulers in South America, executive short-haulers in the U.S.—PlaneSense, a fractional ownership program headquartered in Portsmouth, N.H., boasts a fleet of 30—and are a favorite among special ops forces alighting in places dark and dangerous.
Pilatus focuses on aircraft that serve niche markets and promise long production runs—the short-takeoff-and-landing PC-6 Porter has been in production, albeit at a very low 2-5 annual rate now, for over 50 years—and the PC-12 fits those criteria perfectly. The airplane was in production for 14 years before it underwent a major upgrade in 2008, being fitted with Honeywell’s Primus Apex integrated cockpit and a more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67P engine flat-rated at 1,200 shp, creating the PC-12NG (as in “Next Generation”). That model, which is standard, sells for $4.5 million.
Conventional wisdom holds that airframers must provide their customers with follow-on models, and, accordingly, Pilatus management is regularly asked, “What’s next?” For years, the (non)response left reporters’ notebooks blank.
Privately held, Pilatus eschews debt and instead funds new product development—alternating between military trainers and civilian programs—with profits from sales, but it exhibits the reserve of a Swiss banker in sharing any details. Still, Chairman and CEO Oscar J. Schwenk has acknowledged that design work is underway on a new civilian model, the PC-24, and one company executive recently hinted there might be “some news this year” regarding the new aircraft.
Details on the airplane are woefully absent—could it be a turbine twin? A larger single? Something altogether different? But certain characteristics seem certain: it will be built to last, it will be unique, and it will be around for a long, long time.