Pilatus PC-12

an operator's review by Philip Greenspun, ATP, CFII, in February 2015; updated January 2016

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If every trip that you take starts with deciding who and what to leave behind, the PC-12 may be the right airplane for you. You can load it up with colleagues, friends, kids, and bicycles and still carry enough fuel to fly at least 1000 nautical miles.

Compared to a light or very light jet, important advantages of the PC-12 for non-professional pilots include the following:

That said, the sheer profusion of buttons and switches and the complexity of the PT6 engine means that the simplest jets, e.g., Embraer Phenom 100/300, are very nearly as easy to operate.

A PC-12 with the standard executive interior costs close to $5 million new, a minimum of $2 million for a nice used example with an executive interior, and $1.25-1.5 million at the bottom end of the market (combination of very high time, airliner interior with basic seats and no bathroom, run-out components, etc.).

For charter (FAR 135) use, the PC-12 enables you to quote prices that won't result in customers immediately hanging up the phone. The plane's historically high resale value means that you don't have to operate a crazy high number of hours per year to make the numbers work.

Piloting Basics

If you can fly a Bonanza you can fly a PC-12. However, if you're not going to fly at least once a week you should probably plan on having a copilot. It is a complicated airplane and checklist discipline is critical to safety. (our checklist in Word format)

Best angle of climb speed is 110 knots and best rate (Vy) is 120 knots. A typical cruise climb speed is 150 knots. The plane has a real-world cruise speed of about 255 knots and a real-world range of more than 1500 nautical miles. When working against a headwind it is typically the case that going higher than about 18,000' is not helpful. Thus it often makes sense to fly westbound VFR at 16,500' and (1) not be routed circuitously by ATC, and (2) enjoy a low-altitude cabin (see the pressurization section below). A pilot with poor proficiency can comfortably operate from 4000' runways, with average proficiency from 3000', and with high proficiency and clear approaches probably from 2000' runways.

A typical approach speed is about 80 knots with full flaps. The real PC-12 pilots like to land with flaps 30, but I think it is easier to make a smooth landing at flaps 40 (full flaps). A flaps-30 landing with some extra speed can result in 2000+ feet of floating over the runway. Trailing link landing gear means your passengers are going to be impressed with almost any landing. On a typical landing the brakes are barely used. Rather the prop is reversed and slows down the aircraft to about 40 mph.

Keep your feet either all the way back and just touching (with toes) the bottom ridge of the pedals. Or stretch your feet out so that the plane can be steered with heels and braked with toes. It is easy to touch the brakes inadvertently, e.g., when steering the plane down the centerline on takeoff. The brakes are powerful and it is easy to flat-spot the tires due to the lack of anti-skid.

The PT6 engine is controlled with three levers: power, condition, manual override (MOR). In non-emergency situations you must push the condition lever from "ground idle" to "flight idle" when entering a runway and move it back from "flight idle" to "ground idle" after touching down. A lot of pilots mistakenly moved the condition lever all the way back to cut-off after landing. They heard the engine spooling down and reflexively put the lever back into "ground idle." After spending between $50,000 and $100,000 on a hot section they were able to fly their airplane again. Pilatus has a little mechanical interlock that is standard in newer airplanes and can be installed as a service bulletin in older planes to make this less likely, but it is a good illustration of some of the problems associated with using an engine designed in the late 1950s and not equipped with a FADEC.

A variety of hydraulic-mechanical systems keep the engine fueled and the prop pitched appropriately to maintain 1700 RPM except when taxiing. Thus there is no prop-speed lever.

The plane can be backed up for parking using reverse thrust. "If you touch the brakes at all you are going to get a tail strike," said my charter captain friend as he demonstrated this operation on a tight ramp in Middlebury, Vermont.

Short-Field Landings

I went out for a half day of training with a PC-12 charter captain who has thousands of hours in the plane. Here's what I learned about short-field landings: With full reverse thrust and fairly light braking I was able to stop 1600' from the beginning of the runway. My captain friend was able to demonstrate closer to 1100' in a very challenging situation (mountains all around KRUT).

Reverse thrust can be used down to indefinitely slow ground speeds. With turbojets there is some rationale for not using reverse thrust below a certain speed but apparently not with the PT-6 (perhaps it is the inertial separator?).

Short-field take-offs

Based on the same half-day of training...

Douchebags in the Desert?

Can you fly a PC-12 to Burning Man? Yes, as it turns out. See my companion article "Burning Man for Turboprop Pilots".

Airplane Flight Manual/Pilot's Operating Handbook

One of the toughest challenges of flying a Pilatus can be reading the owner's manual. The AFM/POH for serial numbers 101-400 is chock full of information for a plane that no longer exists, the PC 12/41. If you turn to the most important section of the manual, Limitations, you'll discover that you can't take off at more than 4100 kg. of gross weight. As far as I know, the handful of /41 PC-12s that were built have all been upgraded to /45 (4500 kg. gross weight). And in any case the vast majority of the planes in that serial number range were built as /45s. Where is the most critical information that you need as a pilot to operate the airplane? Hidden in a supplement in Volume 2 of the POH.

Pilatus fixed this problem at serial number 400, the "Series 10" airplanes. Then they reintroduced the problem again at serial number 683 with the PC-12/47 (4740 kg. max gross weight). Pilots of non-NG /47 planes have a dog's breakfast in two binders: a POH full of information for a plane they don't own (a PC-12/45) plus a supplement with information for the plane that they do own.

The NG has a clean POH with information only about the 4740 kg. gross weight airplane. Despite selling aircraft at 1/10th the price of Pilatus, Robinson Helicopter has managed to deliver aircraft with applicable manuals. When they bumped the 2400 lb. Raven I up to the 2500 lb. Raven II they made a new POH for the slight variant. So it can be done.

A variety of the avionics in the airplane, e.g., the King EFIS system, have massive books that are required to be accessible to the pilots at all times. These effectively use up all cockpit stowage space. At least some Part 135 operators have managed to get FAA approval to put PDF versions of these documents on a tablet. As a Part 91 operator it should be possible to do this and the ForeFlight app has a "import documents" feature so that they are available without switching apps on an iPad. See this directory for a collection of potentially relevant PDFs.

What can you carry?

Don't believe everything that you read in the brochures regarding payload and range. The brochure empty weight includes a single NiCd battery; real-world airplanes, including s/n 353, often include two lead-acid batteries (much more practical if you care about being able to start your PT6!). The brochure empty weight on the early PC-12s is for an airplane with stripped avionics and barely any copilot instruments. Real-world planes have EFIS and AHRS on both sides.

A survey of the owner's group and SIMCOM reveals that the range of real-world empty weights is from about 6250 to 6500 for a /45 and at least 6600 for an NG. s/n 353, a /45 with the dual batteries, big oxygen bottle, traffic and terrain warning, etc. weighs in at 6462 lbs. Here's what we can carry:

These numbers come from the fact that the /45 plane has a max ramp weight of 9965 lbs., a max take-off weight of 9921 lbs., and holds 400 usable gallons of fuel (about 2700 lbs.). We try to land with 600 lbs. of fuel unless the weather is perfect and we are very familiar with the area, in which case 450 lbs. could be considered comfortable. Fuel burn is about 450 lbs./hour when cruising (high-speed) in the high teens and below 400 lbs./hour up in the flight levels.

The composite 5-blade prop option from MT will save about 4 lbs.; the Hartzell 5-blade prop is 7 lbs. lighter. You can increase payload by about 50 lbs. by trashing the legacy avionics in favor of a Garmin G600. You'll eventually be able to increase payload by about 40 lbs. per battery by switching from lead-acid to the new lithium-polymer batteries from True Blue Power.

You can reduce payload by about 50 lbs. by upgrading an older plane to the -67P engine, which has two heavy starter-generators instead of a starter-gen and an alternator.

Lack of automation

The PC-12 doesn't have much in the way of automation. There is generally one switch for each system or subsystem in the airplane and it is the pilot's job to throw the switch. For example, you always want the pitot and angle-of-attack (AOA) sensors heated in flight. But they don't go on automatically when there is no longer "weight on wheels." The PT6 has an inertial separator to keep crud from being ingested by the engine. Generally this should be open when driving around on the ground or flying at low altitudes. But even with the fancy NG model that knows exactly where you're going and how close to landing you are, the airplane can't be told to open the inertial separator automatically.

Lack of intelligent warnings

The good news about the PT6 is that failures of the Pratt & Whitney engine are virtually unheard of. The bad news is that the pneumatic fuel controller, which is not made by Pratt & Whitney can develop a pinhole in a bellows and the effect is an immediate loss of all torque with a 20-second spooldown of the engine. During this spooldown period all that the crew has to do is smoothly push the manual override lever (MOR) up to the midpoint so that fuel is reintroduced, but in practice crews have been unable to recognize the precise nature of the failure within this spooldown time and/or the failures have occurred shortly after takeoff. Wouldn't it be nice if the $5 million airplane had a couple of sensors and 10 lines of computer software to run the following algorithm: IF the power lever is off the idle stop AND the torque readout on the EIS is below 2 psi AND the fuel flow is around 90 lbs/hour AND the Ng hasn't spooled down below 50 percent yet THEN play a "Consider the MOR lever" audio clip. This could be done with information that is all contained within one box (the EIS) plus a sensor of power lever position. Unfortunately, this is not part of the PC-12 design. The result has been the loss of multiple airframes, including one crashed into the Sea of Okhotsk in 2001 that generated a decade-long litigation tail (Denver Post).

Getting in and out

The PC-12 has a massive cargo door in the back that swings up. This is great for loading bicycles, dog crates, and other bulky cargo. It is also great for ruining your $500,000 interior because Pilatus thoughtfully put a cupholder in the swing-up door. Guess what happens when an open can of Coke is flipped upside down? (We recommend making a can-sized cylinder of foam to fill this space and prevent passengers from placing drinks in the door.)

The front door is an airstair opposite the lav. Turn left to be a pilot, turn right if you're a passenger. As with most certified pressurized planes the door is secured with massive bolts that go through ribs. It might leak a little but it is never going to come open in flight.

The toilet

Congratulations on sitting in the front of a $5 million aircraft. Now for a discussion of the luxurious private aircraft lifestyle...

The PC-12 is not an Embraer Phenom 300 with an externally serviced lav. The potty is essentially a bucket that someone (probably you, the pilot!) will have to pull out of the aircraft, empty, wash, etc. One practical solution is to take small kitchen trash bags and put them in the potty. Then pee into something like a TravelJohn that turns the liquid into a gel. When you get to your destination, grab the trash bag, tie the top, and discard into the nearest trash barrel.

Pressurization

The PC-12 is designed for a fairly low pressure differential of 5.75 psi. This means the plane will hold a sea-level cabin on regional flights up to 13,000'. If you use the FL300 service ceiling the cabin will be at 10,000', substantially thinner air than the 8,000' maximum cabin altitude of a typical turbojet. This is one reason why it may not be worth bothering with RVSM certification for an older PC-12. Unless you're clearing a thunderstorm, in which case you might be able to get approval to climb despite negative RVSM, why would you want to fly around in a $5 million pressurized airplane and be suffering from mild hypoxia?

In the Legacy airplanes all of the pressurization control is manual. The pilot sets a dial for the planned cruising altitude before departing and sets it for the planned landing altitude before descending. The NG model has a more advanced system that takes advantage of the fact that the avionics have been apprised of the destination airport and can look up the field elevation.

Interior Options

The type certificate of the PC-12 says that it can hold 11 people, including the two pilots. Potentially that allows for 9 seats in the back and an airliner configuration provides for that. Older planes more commonly have 6 La-Z-Boy size executive seats in the back. Newer planes typically have 6+2 seats in the back, allowing seating for 10 but beginning to look a lot like "one seat after another" and "how is this different from coach on an airliner?"

A great configuration for family travel is the rare 7-seat interior with four executive club seats and a three-seat bench across the back. The bench is wide enough to accommodate a 6'-tall person curled up and sleeping (I have tested this!). It should also work for belting multiple younger children together (should be legal if you're doing a hop that doesn't require oxygen in the event of a depressurization and don't exceed the total of 11 people in the airplane).

PC-12/45 versus /47

With serial number 683 Pilatus introduced a 530 lb. (240 kg) gross weight increase, creating the PC-12/47. This happened in 2006 and makes it possible to do long-distance flights with a full cabin. For people who are using the PC-12 to accomplish regional hops, e.g., around the Northeast U.S., it doesn't make financial sense to pay for a /47.

The aileron control forces in a /45 are absurdly heavy. In the /47 Pilatus added "Flettner tabs" that use aerodynamic forces to help move the ailerons and lighten the roll handling.

Pilots taller than 6' will find that the already-inadequate legroom of the /45 has been reduced by about 1.5 inches in the /47 (both /47 and /47NG versions). The seats are also considered less comfortable by those who fly both the /45 and /47 regularly.

Series 9 versus Series 10 and others

Starting with s/n 321 (airplane #221 since s/n 101 was the first) in 2000 Pilatus made the "Series 9" airplanes. This had a lot of minor improvements over previous airplanes (Series 1-8) but the switch layout was still optimized for single-pilot operation. With the Series 10 airplane, starting at s/n 401, Pilatus moved some important switches, including for exterior lights, up to the overhead panel. In theory this made life easier for two-pilot crews.

If you're going to be mostly single-pilot and looking at an airplane roughly in the s/n 400 vintage it probably makes more sense to get a Series 9 plane.

PC-12 NG versus PC-12 Legacy

The NG version of the PC-12, also known as the PC-12/47E, incorporates an all-glass integrated cockpit sort of like the Garmin G1000. Unlike the G1000, however, it is a Honeywell system adapted from two-pilot jets. In addition to requiring a lot of retraining for pilots accustomed to Garmin, the Honeywell system seems be much less reliable and everyone purchases an avionics warranty from Honeywell that costs close to $20,000 per year. In other words, the annual maintenance cost for the avionics in a brand-new NG will be about the same as with a 20-year-old Legacy PC-12.

The NG has a voice annunciation for a stuck relay saying "trim runaway" rather than emitting a confusing tone. The NG's pressurization system has two power sources and therefore won't stop working if a battery bus breaker trips. The NG gives a landing gear annunciation, not simply a horn that some pilots have misidentified as a stall warning. In addition to the Legacy gear warning scenarios, the "Gear" annunciation warning in an NG comes on when the radar altimeter reads less than 200' and power is reduced below 10 psi.

Friends who regularly fly both the NG and the Legacy PC-12s say that their personal favorite is the Legacy airplane upgraded with a modern Garmin GTN 625 GPS.

The NG is slightly faster than the Legacy but the new avionics are heavier than the old stuff and therefore the payload is slightly reduced. Most people say that the interior noise level of an NG is higher than on a Legacy PC-12. Here are our January 2014 measurements from s/n 1103:

These numbers from a barely used NG are slightly worse than what we measured on s/n 353, a rather ragged-out 2000 Legacy PC-12, especially at the pilot seats:
Phase Pilot Row 1 Row 2 Row 3
idle 79 75 73 70
taxi 74 72 70
takeoff 82 82
climb 84 82
6500'; 180 knots 88 82 80 79
7000'; 215 knots 88 87-88 85 84
10,000'; 208 knots 88 87 85 84
13,000'; 203 knots 87 86 85 83-84
15,000'; 204 knots 88 87 85 83
FL280; 170 knots 86 83 82 81
FL280; 128 knots 85 78 77 75-78
Note that s/n 353 had more than 10,000 additional hours in its logbook compared to the NG and also a leaking rear door seal that was causing a whistle in the very back (subsequently fixed).

We had previously measured even lower noise levels in a 2006 model year Legacy PC-12, roughly 85 dBA at the pilot seats and 81 dBA in the back.

If you want the speed of the NG without the fancy Honeywell panel, Finnoff Aviation has an STC to put the big new engine on the old airplanes. It works out to at least $500,000 in additional costs compared to a simple overhaul.

If you want the fancy Honeywell panel without the speed of the NG, BendixKing AeroVue is a retrofit panel announced in 2014 for the King Air that will presumably be available one day for the PC-12.

If you want a Garmin panel, for about $175,000 you can have the 2008-technology G600 on both sides and the GTN 650/750 stack. This is physically much smaller than the AeroVue screens, which means the G600 looks a bit ridiculous in the huge PC-12 panel... like Derek Zoolander's cell phone. Also, there are no PC-12 simulators that include the G600 panel. Finally, there is no way to certify the G600 for RVSM. So we think it makes sense to wait for the AeroVue and/or the next generation of Garmin products.

Other potentially interesting options are a glass cockpit with autothrottles from IS&S (to be certified in 2016) and the Avilon flight deck from Sandel (announced for the King Air, but not the PC-12).

PC-12 NG versus the very latest and greatest PC-12 NG

Starting in 2014 Pilatus eliminated the hydraulic system on the aircraft. The all-electric landing gear system saves 13 lbs. (only!), reduces maintenance costs, and increases reliability. The older-than-2014 PC-12s can be prone to spurious hydraulic cautions on the ground. Thus if you are in the market for an NG, look for a 2014 or newer.

PC-12 versus TBM 700/850/900

Especially against a headwind, the TBM is substantially faster than the PC-12. However, the passenger compartment is about half the size and about 3 dB noisier. The cost of purchasing an operating a TBM is similar to the cost of a PC-12 and the utility is nowhere near comparable. The TBM has an airframe life limit of 12,000 cycles/16,200 hours compared to the PC-12's 20,000-hour limit that can be extended with inspections to over 30,000 hours.

The TBM is a nice airplane for an owner-operator who typically takes two passengers in the back on short trips (no bathroom!).

PC-12 versus Piper Meridian

The Meridian is slightly smaller inside than the TBM. The componentry and workmanship on the Piper are not comparable to either the TBM or the PC-12. Piper is a tiny company compared to Pilatus and therefore not in the same position to provide suppport.

The Meridian makes sense if you're buying a used one for under $1 million and the mission is two people in the front with some bags in the back.

PC-12 versus Beechcraft King Air

With its King Air, Beechcraft was the market leader in light turboprops for roughly three decades. Then Pilatus came along and put them into bankruptcy. More than 3000 King Airs have been manufactured over the years and a trickle of new airplanes continues to emerge from the factory, acquired by military contractor Textron in 2014.

The King Air 200 is the version that is comparable to the PC-12 in size. Per-hour operating costs are higher on the King Air due to the fact that two PT6 engines are spinning. If you're willing to invest in extensive multi-engine training, spend a lot of time flying over water, and/or will be operating a small number of hours per year, the King Air may be worth a look. A 35-year-old King Air 200 can be purchased for between $500,000 and $1 million and will handle the same missions as a PC-12. One good thing about the King Air is that there are at least two integrated glass flight decks available. Garmin created a G1000 system for the King Air back in 2008, with an upgrade cost of about $300,000 (after a $50,000 rebate; remember to save your receipt!). The King Air was the first airframe for which BendixKing announced the availability of their AeroVue glass panel.

Before you get too excited about saving $1 million in capital costs, remember that (1) there are reasons why Beech went bankrupt and Pilatus kept growing, (2) if you buy a 35-year-old plane today you'll be trying to sell a 45-year-old plane one day in the future, and (3) the buyer of your plane probably won't be able to get financing (aircraft lenders are most interested in planes that are less than 20 years old), (4) the resale value of a PC-12 will be correspondingly higher.

PC-12 versus Epic almost-ware

The successful Epic composite kit airplane will be turning into the certified E1000 six-seater at some point in 2016 (New Year's Eve at 11:58 pm?). This is a nice G1000-equipped plane with PC-12 speed and similar range but... no bathroom.

PC-12 versus Kestrel dreamware

The Kestrel is an 8-seat design with an emergency potty that should be comparable in speed to a TBM. It is unclear when or if this will be certified.

PC-12 versus Textron vaporware

In 2015, Textron (Cessna, Beechcraft, et al) announced that they will build a single-engine turboprop with a FADEC engine from GE. The plane is supposed to be similar in size and speed to a PC-12, but with lower operating costs due to the higher engine efficiency and longer TBO intervals. It will be interesting to see what other improvements Textron can wring out of the 30 years since the PC-12 was designed. I'm hoping for a much quieter cabin, more systems integration, design for maintenance, and an externally serviced lav.

PC-12 versus Turbojets

If most of your trips are less than 800 nautical miles and you seldom have more than four passengers, consider the Embraer Phenom 100. It is much quieter than the PC-12 and comparably easy to fly due to its high level of integration. The Phenom 100 can hold as many as eight people total (two in the front seats, four in the back club seats, one in an "opposite-the-door" bench, and one perched on the potty). Just don't feed any of the passengers for about six months prior to the trip.

If you need the interior space and range of the PC-12, but don't need the ability to land on short and unconventional runways, the Cessna Citation V series planes may be worth a look. A Citation Encore can be purchased for roughly the same price as a PC-12, but requires a greater commitment to training. Despite the fact that it is possible to get a single pilot type rating for the Citation V, due to the fact that the speeds are higher than in a very light jet, it should probably be operated with a two-pilot crew at all times.

Shopping tips for the PC-12

As noted above, if you are in the market for an NG consider buying a 2014 or newer plane to get the electric gear. NG owners also suggest putting a high value on the "connected flight deck" feature: "Unless you have someone managing the plane that you fly once a week, you'll need to do a chart update 50% of the time or a navdata update 25% of the flights. Without the connected flight deck, you'll need to bring a laptop with an ethernet port and LAN tap kit." With the connected flight deck, on the other hand, updates can be done using an iPad.

If you're buying an older airplane look for one where the engine is run out or has recently been overhauled. A privately operated plane with, say, 2200 hours since overhaul may seem like a good deal but if Pratt & Whitney hasn't seen the engine for 10 years you don't have the latest revisions of the various little controllers.

If the older airplane has been operated by an owner-pilot budget for a lot of expensive-to-fix defects that even the most diligent pre-buy inspection probably won't catch. There are a lot of systems on the PC-12 that can operate intermittently and/or generate intermittent warnings. A private owner anxious to save $30,000 at each annual might have learned to live with a lot of quirks that he knows aren't real safety issues. A plane that was operated 135 by a professional crew is less likely to have hidden gremlins. Each intermittent item will cost about $5,000 for an attempted fix (module swap from Pilatus).

You'll have to agree on a price before you can put the plane into a pre-buy, so ask for a status spreadsheet showing remaining calendar months and flight hours/cycles on all of the components. There are 10-year items, such as a wing demate, that can cost about $80,000 and should be factored into a purchase price if recently done or coming up soon. You might want to ask for a clause in the purchase agreement under "aircraft condition" with the following form:

current on all manufacturers' required maintenance programs and inspection schedules (including all calendar and hourly inspections through at least 12 months and 150 hours beyond the delivery date) with no extensions or deferrals, and in compliance with all applicable FAA airworthiness directives and mandatory service bulletins (or manufacturer's equivalent) that have been issued with respect to the Aircraft and its systems, components, accessories or equipment, which are due to be completed on or before the Closing Date including the completion of the Seller Inspections;

Remember that there are no bargains in the PC-12 world. Pilatus put its main competitor, Beechcraft, into bankruptcy. Now the company is busy fulfilling orders for military trainers, mostly from India and Arab countries. They are also busy completing the PC-24 turbojet. This means that PC-12 production has slowed down to about half of what it used to be. When they get too shabby for toting around rich people, used airplanes are in demand for cargo and medevac, which puts a floor on the used PC-12 market that doesn't exist for the Piper Meridian and TBM markets.

Training

The FAA doesn't require any training for you to fly a PC-12. It is a single-engine airplane under 12,500 lbs. so push the Start button and go! (You would need high-altitude, high-performance, and complex endorsements somewhere in your logbook history, of course.) Insurance companies are much more strict than the FAA, however, and generally require simulator training. SIMCOM has non-motion simulators for the Series 9 and NG aircraft in Orlando and a Series 10 Legacy simulator in Scottsdale, Arizona. For about twice the price, Flight Safety Dallas has full motion Level D sims for the NG and the PC 12/47 Series 10.

If you join the MyPilatus support Web site the company will make available to you a moderately specific-to-your-airplane pilot's operating handbook in PDF form. SIMCOM gives you all of the training guides as PDFs and hardcopy.

A Practical approach to avionics in a legacy aircraft

For s/n 353 we decided that we wanted the following: We started with the 4-inch King EFIS tubes on both sides and a KLN 90B. The minimum cost solution turned out to be (a) replacing the 90B and one NAV/COM with a Garmin GTN 650, (b) getting the weather from a portable ADS-B receiver, and (c) getting the synthetic terrain from a yoke-mounted iPad running ForeFlight. We had two 28V cigarette lighter outlets installed up by the pilot seats and also two in the passenger cabin so that we could plug in USB chargers and not have to rely on battery power for these critical items. We finally treated ourselves to Bose-style LEMO connectors for noise-cancelling headsets up front and one in the cabin so that a passenger could talk to the pilots. Atlas Aircraft Center, the maintenance arm of PlaneSense, did this work for us at a cost of $23,676 and within the time promised (just over a week). We consider Jack Shields, the avionics manager at Atlas, to be one of the most knowledgeable and capable people in the industry.

For the portable electronics we obtained a Stratus ADS-B receiver and AHRS and mounted it on top of the cabinet just behind the lav. For reasons that we cannot fathom it gets consistently good reception of GPS and ADS-B signals in this position (except in the western U.S. where ADS-B towers seem to be sparse). We're not completely happy with the yoke-mounted iPad Minis, which seem to get in the way a little and are hard to read in bright light. ForeFlight is incredibly powerful but in our opinion it needs a simplified "in-flight mode" with fewer and bigger buttons. If you've been a heavy ForeFlight user for preflight planning and in-flight charts you are probably more facile with it than I am (my first time really using the software was in the cockpit of a moving PC-12).

One thing that did not work as planned was the idea of using T-Mobile cellular service so that ForeFlight updates would trickle into the iPads and they would be current without us removing them from the plane. It turns out that the data transfers are too big and take too long for this to be practical. Another thing that doesn't work out is that ADS-B, despite the billions of tax dollars spent, apparently has very little bandwidth. Thus one gets weather only for nearby airports and a handful of big airports farther away. This makes it a great system for a Cessna 172 where you're probably not going more than 200 miles, but not a good substitute for XM weather in a long-range airport. Want to know how the TAF or METAR of your destination is evolving on a 1000-mile trip? Call Flight Watch on 122.0! (Or land and have an avionics shop put in a $10,000 XM receiver.)

Note that having chosen 28V outlets, rather than aviation-grade USB power supplies attached to the airframe, we have preserved for ourselves the option to use a handheld Garmin with a super-bright screen (since it is not trying to run off batteries and be super-light, like the iPad, the Garmins are much easier to read in bright sun).

If we could get the BendixKing AeroVue system at a reasonable price (less than $250k?), we would bite that bullet and tear everything out of the panel. We would probably keep the Stratus and the ForeFlight iPads around as backups in the event of a total electrical system failure.

Given that the PC-12 is a single-engine plane and there are quite a few potential reasons to lose power from a PT6 (though in practice it is extremely rare), it would be nice if either AeroVue or ForeFlight had the "guide me to the nearest runway" feature of the Xavion app.

Propellers

For most of its life the PC-12 has shipped from the factory with a Hartzell 4-blade metal prop. Since roughly 2009, a 5-blade wood/plastic prop from MT has been available as an STC for about $60,000. MT claims "cabin noise is reduced by 6 to 7 dB(A) depending on location". Here are some measurements made by the owner of s/n 575, MT-equipped, with our sound meter:
Phase Pilot Row 1 Row 2 Row 3
idle 79 75 73 70
taxi 74 72 70
takeoff 82 82
climb 84 82
6500'; 180 knots 88 82 80 79
7000'; 215 knots 88 87-88 85 84
10,000'; 208 knots 88 87 85 84
13,000'; 203 knots 87 86 85 83-84
15,000'; 204 knots 88 87 85 83
FL280; 170 knots 86 83 82 81
FL280; 128 knots 85 78 77 75-78
Note that these numbers are virtually identical to the measurements that we made of s/n 353 with the 4-blade Hartzell. The lack of real-world noise reduction from the MT Prop was confirmed by various pilots we've talked to who have flown both configurations. The MT Prop may reduce vibration and the noise spectrum is supposedly different.

As of late 2015, Hartzell began shipping a 5-blade composite prop that is standard equipment on new airplanes. This has the same blade length as the 4-blade prop and therefore does not have a reduced tip speed. However, Hartzell managed to cut cabin noise as much as 2 dBA depending on the phase of flight, position within the aircraft, and power setting. That's not nothing, but the PC-12 will still be very noisy for the pilots and moderately noisy for passengers compared to a light jet (76-80 dBA in the cabin; 76-78 dBA in the cockpit).

It costs about $65,000 to upgrade an older plane with the new 5-blade Hartzell prop. N353PT got this prop in December 2015. Here's what we have noticed so far:

If you do have the 5-blade prop, be sure to inform anyone servicing the airplane that the prop heat cannot be turned on for more than a few seconds unless the propeller is spinning. Otherwise there is a risk of melting the composite blades.

Maintenance

If you're not a fleet operator with a special maintenance arrangement approved by the FAA you must overhaul the PT6 at 3500 hours. This was done in 2013 on s/n 353 by Pratt & Whitney in Montreal for $315,000 (other owners report costs as high as $500,000). A power-by-the-hour program is available and it costs about the same as the power-by-the-hour program for the two engines in a Cessna Mustang or an Embraer Phenom 100. That's how complex the PT6 is!

A 150-hour/annual inspection costs a minimum of $8000 if absolutely nothing is broken or worn. A more reasonable budget would be $25-50,000. Budget an additional $23,000 per year or so for a warranty on the Honeywell Legacy avionics and various Honeywell mechanical components such as pressurization valves.

One big challenge in maintaining the PC-12 is that anything involving electronics doesn't seem to have been designed for maintenance. If a warning light comes on intermittently and a maintenance shop can't duplicate the behavior in a hangar there is generally no information logged by the aircraft about the signals present at various locations that led up to the warning light. The mechanic is left to wonder "Is it a bad wire connection? Is it a bad board full of relays and logic?" This leads to a certain amount of hopeful board-swapping more or less at random. Board swaps tend to introduce additional problems because the Pilatus pool of spare boards contains many that were previously returned by customers as broken. A board that works fine during a bench test at Pilatus can be are stamped "good" and shipped out to a different customer. In a world where computers and memory are cheap there should be almost no situation in which an airplane cant self-diagnose, e.g., "at 12:32:47Z there was a mismatch between information on Board A and information in the central warning system, therefore replace Wire A127" or "the signals on Board B should have resulted in Relay B4 closing but the output of that Relay indicates that it did not close, so replace Replay B4 and/or Board B."

Owners report that it can take 1-2 years to resolve electronic or hydraulic problems that are not obvious hard failures. This is consistent with our own experience. The starting control system failed for us in September 2014 in that the starter did not disconnect once the engine reached 50-percent Ng. Thus it was impossible to get the main generator online without manually resetting the starter. The problem recurred intermittently but the system tested okay during multiple authorized service center visits. No information was logged that would have allowed anyone to determine whether the problem was (a) the EIS system (about $8,000 to swap), (b) the starter control board (about $5,000 to swap), or (c) various relays that are involved (about $2,000 to swap). In April 2016, more than 1.5 years after the problem first occurred, we decided to replace the starter controller. Pilatus sent us a board from its spares pool that had been pulled off serial number 295, i.e., a plane that FAA records show to been built in 1999. Assuming that Pilatus had ordered boards in batches, this one would therefore have been somewhere between 17 and 20 years old. The "defect/investigation report" that came along with the at-least-17-year-old board said that in 2012 at 2200 hours "Customer Reports Aircraft Will Not Crank." The problem was traced to "Resistor R24 (15 Ohms) has changed his value to 800 Ohms." The 13-year-old component was replaced, some updates were performed, the board was bench-tested, and then put on a shelf until 2016. The good news is that the board swap seemed to fix the problem, but how can it work in the long run to put circuit boards with such old components out there? Eventually capacitors and resistors simply fall apart.

If it isn't a Pilatus part you might be able to save considerably by dealing with it outside of the Pilatus parts network. For example, a starter-generator exchange for our airplane was quoted at $10,000 from Pilatus in Colorado. Yet Ametek can overhaul one for about $2,000 if you can tolerate a week (including shipping) of downtime.

If you've got a Honeywell panel you may wish to purchase a fixed-price service plan for the avionics. This is about $17,000 per year on a legacy aircraft. For another roughly $5,000 per year you get coverage for Honeywell-produced mechanical parts, such as for pressurization.

Compared to other aircraft manufacturers, our overall experience with Pilatus maintenance has been negative. At least in the U.S, Pilatus's primary concern seems to be compliance with its own established procedures, not with ensuring that customers have airworthy aircraft. This is a misalignment of incentives and the result can be an owner unhappy that a $50,000 annual inspection didn't fix the squawks and the airplane wasn't airworthy while Pilatus is simultaneously congratulating itself on successful accomplishment of an ISO 9000-style procedure. The authorized service centers seem to have adopted some of this attitude as well. Our regional center, for example, sent us an email saying that they "will not hesitate to put a mechanic on the road to assist you at your home base in KBED if you need service on site." When I took them up on the offer, hoping that they would come down to deal with a minor issue rather than us killing a day to ferry the plane up to them, they responded with "My understanding is that [your FBO does] not currently allow anyone to perform maintenance in their hangar facility unless they purchase a specific insurance policy approved by them that costs somewhere in the region of $30,000 (it includes environmental). As you can imagine this would be big investment for our company." When they sent the first email, however, they already knew where we were parked and thus that it was a meaningless offer. We ended up feeling like the consumer who sank in a ISO 9000-certified concrete life jacket while the manufacturer was waving a stack of beautiful ISO 9000 paperwork.

Repainting

Even if hangared, the PC-12 seems to need repainting every 7-10 years, unlike a piston-powered airplane. This is partly because the airplane travels at higher airspeeds, thus running into little particles of dust at higher speeds, and partly because the soot coming out of the PT6 exhaust up front blackens the paint.

The paint shops that seem to be the most experienced with PC-12s and that have been most highly recommended to us are West Star in Colorado, Hillaero in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Duncan Aviation, also in Lincoln. The going rate for a strip and repaint at a big shop seems to be roughly $60,000. We had some high quality work done by Royal Aircraft in Hagerstown, Maryland. They replaced the Canadian tail numbers on s/n 353 and replaced them with a U.S. registration. The work was done over a weekend for slightly less than the quoted price, despite the poor condition of the fiberglass vertical fin.

We visited Hillaero in March 2015 and were very impressed with their work on some medevac King Airs, one of which had come back for a touch-up after seven years of 1,000 hours per year. They are a factory-authorized shop for painting new PC-12s.

schemedesigners.com maintains a list of paint shops that their clients have used and liked. Note that some of these shops may be more accustomed to smaller non-pressurized all-metal aircraft, which are simpler to paint than a PC-12.

Wishlist

Some of these are ideas from the owners' group:

More


Text and photos Copyright 2014-2016 Philip Greenspun.
philg@mit.edu

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