For Pilatus PC-12 operators, the exciting news at NBAA was mostly at the Garmin booth. Usually these folks are tight-lipped about certification plans for specific aircraft, but apparently the marketing folks failed to fully brief the booth guys (nearly all appeared to identify as men). They said that they expected PC-12 certification for the new autopilot and displays within 18 months. Thus for $ 200,000 an older PC-12 could shed its $ 17,000-per-year Bendix/King (Honeywell) warranty and cathode ray tube displays in favor of a thoroughly modern panel. Bendix/King simply had no response to this competition. There are roughly 700 PC-12s out there stuffed with Bendix/King (Honeywell) avionics designs from the late 1980s/early 1990s. Boxes critical to flight safety are failing multiple times per year in an airplane that can hold 11 people. Honeywell folks at the show, asked if they were going to provide owners of their product with an upgrade path to something modern, simply said “we’re thinking about it.”
If the avionics in a legacy PC-12 are getting tougher to maintain every year, the rest of the airframe may be getting easier. Pilatus is working on a maintenance interval extension (currently at 150 hours). The company also redesigned the wing de-ice timer to use solid-state relays and also not to start inflating the rubber boots for 20 seconds. This gives the pilot time to check the outside temperature and, if below -40C, turn the boots back off (they’ll crack if operated in super cold high altitude air, a $ 30,000+ mistake). This being the aviation industry, nobody at the operator’s meeting raised his or her hand to ask “Why isn’t a $ 5 million airplane smart enough to display a ‘too cold for boots’ warning and then inhibit them unless the pilot confirms with an additional switch input that it is an emergency where the boots might help?”
In my Pilatus News from the 2015 NBAA I noted that GE and Cessna were working on a PC-12 competitor. The Cessna Denali seems to be coming along, but hasn’t flown. So far Pratt hasn’t made any commitments to matching the technology in the new GE turboprop engine, including the FADEC. Pilatus is concentrating on getting its PC-24 jet out the door. So the Cessna Denali could be a home run in this market if it ends up substantially outperforming the existing PC-12 (not significantly improved since 2005 when the PC-12/47 model was introduced (the Honeywell panel introduced for the NG model in 2008 is not universally regarded as an “improvement”; the Cessna will have the Garmin G3000 that everyone wants)).
The Pilatus operator’s meeting was dominated by “government regulation giveth and government regulation taketh away.” The European bureaucrats, after about 20 years, finally approved all-weather charter operations in single-engine turboprops such as the PC-12 (now that 1,500 PC-12s have been built and some have accumulated more than 30,000 flight hours!). On the other hand, after more than 20 years of peace, the U.S. FAA bureaucrats decided to wage war on charter operations in the PC-12, citing FAR 135.163:
No person may operate an aircraft under IFR, carrying passengers, unless it has
(f) For a single-engine aircraft:
(1) Two independent electrical power generating sources each of which is able to supply all probable combinations of continuous inflight electrical loads for required instruments and equipment; or
(2) In addition to the primary electrical power generating source, a standby battery or an alternate source of electric power that is capable of supplying 150% of the electrical loads of all required instruments and equipment necessary for safe emergency operation of the aircraft for at least one hour;
The older PC-12s have a “GEN2” belt-driven alternator (115 amps at 28 volts) that is certainly adequate for getting back on the ground in the event that the main GEN1 (300 amps) fails. They also have a main battery and an emergency battery system for the essential instruments. Somehow various local offices decided that the unchanged airplane did not comply with the unchanged regulation. Three operators were shut down while planes in other regions were still running. After a year of paperwork submissions to various FAA offices, Pilatus and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association went as supplicants to the FAA headquarters and somehow got this sorted out.
The Harvey Weinstein story had broken a week before NBAA and Bill Cosby is known as a Pilatus PC-12 owner (N712BC gets him and his family in and out of the 3200′ runway at Turners Falls). The big fight in California over the Santa Monica airport also had been in the news. Finally there were celebrations of general aviation’s contributions to disaster relief, including bizjets going in and out of hurricane-struck Puerto Rico. These items were put together: “Bill Cosby could send his PC-12 into Santa Monica to rescue all of the women who said ‘no’ to Harvey Weinstein,” which generated a response “There would probably be a couple of seats empty.” (the executive configuration PC-12 holds 6-8 passengers in the back)
Pilatus is a private company, but Switzerland apparently requires some public-company-style disclosures of big private companies (this makes sense under Econ 101; markets function with textbook efficiency only when participants have a lot of information). We learned that the company has revenues of about 900 million Swiss francs (worth slightly more than one USD) and profits before R&D and interest of about 200 million francs (down closer to 100 million after R&D expenses, presumably mostly associated with the PC-24 jet). The company was profitable even through the ugly 2008-2010 years.
The PC-24 jet remains on track for certification later this year and delivery of the first plane (on December 31 at 11:58 pm?) to New Hampshire-based PlaneSense, the world’s most experienced Pilatus PC-12 operator. It will cost about $ 10 million for this eight-passenger plane (10 pax in airline config, plus 2 pilots in front), but the company has taken 83 orders and won’t accept more until at least some are out in the wild.
Philip Greenspun’s Weblog