Pilatus Aircraft’s PC-24 business jet has been a major attraction on the outdoor static display at EBACE since 2016, when the first test aircraft (P01), took a brief break from its busy flight test schedule to make an appearance at the Geneva show.
The arrival of the superlight twin at this year’s event – P03, the initial production-standard PC-24 – will be greeted with great fanfare, coming less than six months after the eight-seat aircraft was awarded European and US type certification following a rigorous, yet trouble-free flight-test campaign.
The first PC-24, bearing the registration N124AF, entered service on 1 April with US fractional ownership company and long-time Pilatus customer PlaneSense. It has since logged over 250h of flying. A second example – N224WA – was handed over to the airframer’s US dealer and maintenance provider Western Aircraft in March, while the third PC-24 – HB-VSE – was handed over on 23 May to Swiss owner flyer and entrepreneur, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.
The PC-24 programme was launched at EBACE in 2013, ushering in a new era of business jet manufacturing for the Swiss airframer, which, for more than eight decades, has produced piston- and turboprop-powered aircraft from its headquarters in Stans, including the ubiquitous PC-12NG, which is also on display at the show.
As the best-selling single-engined turboprop for executive use, the PC-12 has given Pilatus a formidable pedigree in the business aviation market. Flight Fleets Analyzer records that the global fleet has grown to more than 1,550 examples of the 10-seat type since its introduction in 1994, including 12 units added in the first quarter of 2018.
“The Pilatus brand stands tall,” says aerospace analyst Rolland Vincent, and has won a “very loyal” owner base within the turboprop community.
The PC-12's popularity and expanding global inventory were key drivers behind the PC-24's launch. Vincent says the programme provides a “step-up path for customers delighted with the propeller aircraft, but wanting to embrace different requirements, such as longer and more demanding missions that only a jet will serve”.
Pilatus is also now able to target the brand at a wider base of potential owners and operators with larger budgets; one with a preference for jets.
“Despite the well-proven safety and economic efficiency of single-engined operations, some organisations and individuals cannot, or simply will not, operate a single-engined turbine aircraft, whether due to company policy, insurance requirements, fear of, or aversion to, an engine-out situation, or other factors,” says Vincent. “There are some customers who simply prefer a jet, seeing it as modern technology that offers the speed they prefer.”
Pilatus began work on the PC-24 programme in 2006 with the aircraft being formally launched in 2013. The flight-test campaign kicked off in May 2015, and the three test aircraft have flown around 2,300h, with Pilatus taking the fleet “to the very boundaries of its limits and even beyond”.
This rigorous testing regime has paid off, with the Williams International FJ44-4A-powered aircraft hitting or exceeding its original performance specifications. Maximum speed, for example, is recorded at 440kt (815 km/h) – 15kt higher than predicted. The PC-24 has also met its maximum range target of over 2,000nm (3,700km) with four passengers, and 1,830nm with six.
The PC-24 prototypes are currently undergoing various post-certification tests, says Pilatus, which are scheduled for completion by the end of the year. “The main focus is on steep approaches and take-offs and landing operations on unmade runways, which require various individual tests,” it notes.
These extra performance features are the hallmark of the PC-24’s appeal. The aircraft is designed to take-off and land on only 856m (2,810ft) of runway, including grass and gravel strips. This feature gives the PC-24 access to over 20,000 airports around the globe – more than twice as many as competing light-jet category models
Another boost to the PC-24’s multi-mission capability is its large aft cargo door. Measuring 125cm wide by 130cm tall, this feature is proving a major draw for utility, special-mission and aeromedical operators, including the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) of Australia, which has ordered six PC-24s.
The RFDS has used PC-12s for more time than any other operator, having taken delivery of its first example shortly after type certification in 1994 – including the milestone 1,500th example last June; it has over 30 of the type today.
The PC-24's cargo door, coupled with its short take-off and landing capabilities, was behind Pilatus’s decision to give the aircraft its unique moniker – “super-versatile jet”.
Vincent says these features will “bring smiles to the many customers who will step-up from a PC-12”.
Another offering unique to the PC-24 is a “quiet power mode” which allows the FJ44 to power the aircraft’s electrical systems – including heating and air-conditioning – independent of any source of ground power, such as an auxiliary power unit.
Vincent is bullish on the PC-24’s prospects and believes the $9 million model perfectly illustrates Pilatus’s approach to aircraft development. Their “secret sauce”, he says, is clever design, precision engineering, and a philosophy that seeks to do one thing at a time, but to do it exceptionally well.
“As a relatively modestly-sized OEM, and a private corporation, they are adept at channelling their available resources to take advantage of market opportunities that they seem uniquely positioned to capture,” he says.
Vincent’s optimism in the PC-24 is borne out by its healthy order backlog and a strong pent-up demand for the product. The first batch of 84 aircraft were sold-out within 36h of Pilatus starting to take commitments in 2014.
Pilatus has not disclosed a timeframe for the next order round, but it could be as early as the fourth quarter of this year following pressure from eager customers, including PlaneSense.
George Antoniadis, founder and chief executive of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based company, has made no secret of his desire to acquire more PC-24s to add his fleet of 36 PC-12NGs – the largest commercial operator of the type – and four Nextant 400XTi light business jets, which are being used as an interim platform for the PlaneSense jet programme.
PlaneSense will take delivery of two more aircraft in the fourth quarter, and the remaining three units that it currently has on order in 2019.