My friend David and I went up to Manchester, New Hampshire the other day to test-fly the Pilatus PC-12. This is a competitor to the TBM 850 that I tested a couple of weeks ago. The PC-12 has a much bigger cabin, a small closable toilet opposite the front stairs, and turned out to be much quieter. It is more expensive than the TBM and significantly slower, but if you can afford $2.8 million you can probably afford $3.5 million and, “If you’re important, people will wait for you.”
The Pilatus has a profusion of switches, but David said that he thought they were more logically laid out compared to the TBM. The fundamental instruments are 5″ glass tubes. In 2008 the company will be shipping a revised PC-12 with a simplified panel and a three-screen glass set of flight instruments (the new design also has a higher cruise speed).
Handling of the airplane is very consistent from 90 knots right up to maximum cruising speed. The controls never felt sloppy during slow flight and the plane can fly very slow indeed. The FAA won’t certify a single-engine plane unless it can fly right down to about 70 mph. The theory is that if the engine quits and you need to land in a potato field, you shouldn’t be zipping along at 100 mph where an impact with a ground obstacle would be fatal. The requirement that a single-engine plane be able to fly slow means that the PC-12 can land on very short runways (less distance required to brake from 70 mph than 100 mph) and can be safely operated by less experienced pilots.
Fit and finish throughout the airplane were superb, visibly superior to the TBM. This is not necessarily a tribute to Swiss craftsmanship because the interior is done in Colorado. I had to bend forward a bit to see through the windows and standing up in the cabin is not an option for those over maybe 4’6″ tall. Interior noise is obtrusive at low altitudes and while climbing, but abates in the 13,000′ cruise to 85 dBA in the pilot seats and closer to 81 in the back (supposedly quieter at higher altitudes). An optional sound insulation package would bring the noise level down by 3-6 dBA at the cost of 175 lbs. in payload. Of course, after paying $42,000 for this option, you probably won’t have as much stuff or as many friends to haul around… Options are priced at 100-400X what you’d pay for the same thing at Walmart. A microwave is $20,000; a coffee maker is $7,000; a DVD player for the folks in back is $12,000. Tell your friends to bring a novel from the library and a thermos.
Resale value of the PC-12 should be less affected than the TBM by the flood of very light jets (VLJs) hitting the market. The typical VLJ can only hold 2-4 people in anything that might be called comfort or for any distance that you couldn’t drive in four hours in a Ford Pinto. A PC-12, by contrast, can haul a huge amount of cargo or two families with kids all the way down to Florida. The plane also handles ice very well and consequently is in extremely high demand over in Russia. If U.S. yuppies eventually decide that they need to ride in turbojets, a PC-12 can be unloaded in two weeks to a happy Russian customer.
Conclusion: A great step-up plane for guys like David, who has 600 hours, is planning to fly about once/week to remain current, and who plans one day to fly a twin-engine jet. It is a shame that the market isn’t large enough to support mass production of planes like this and therefore there aren’t significant economies of scale bringing the price down. Pilatus builds only about 100 per year and if you don’t have a spare $2.8 million kicking around, it is tough even to find an old one.
Related: TBM 850 quick review