When the producers of Goldfinger were seeking an out-of-the-way Alpine setting for a Bond villain's lair in 1963, they chose Pilatus in Stans. In fact, stick a pin in the middle of a blank map of Switzerland and it will be close to the company's mountain valley home of eight decades – there because pre-war politicians wanted their main military aircraft factory far from the borders in case of invasion.
That remoteness – relative, of course, given Switzerland's size and superb road and rail infrastructure – helped when Pilatus was designing its first jet in the site's innocuous looking "Hangar X". The project's details were hidden from all but a handful of suppliers and engineering staff until a concept was formally unveiled to the business aviation world at EBACE in Geneva in 2013.
Five years on, Pilatus is preparing to reopen its order book for the PC-24, but not until mid-2019 – it sold 84 aircraft during the 36h it was previously open in 2014. The firm remains on track to deliver 23 examples of the Williams International FJ44-4A-powered superlight this year, after handing over in January the first of six ordered by US fractional and long-time Pilatus operator PlaneSense.
The first major European customer, Jetfly – another fractional operator, with 22 of the PC-12 turboprop in its fleet – took delivery of the first of its four PC-24s in mid-September. The first two of five PC-24s for Australia's Royal Flying Doctor Service, configured as air ambulances, were due for handover around the time of the NBAA BACE.
Shutting the orderbook and stopping even loyal Pilatus customers buying as many aircraft as they wanted was not a difficult decision. "The plan was always going to be to take three years' worth of orders in 2014, and stop there," says Ignaz Gretener, vice-president general aviation at Pilatus. "Our intention was not to have speculation and to protect our residuals."
With production of what Pilatus dubs its "Super Versatile Jet" ramping up to 20 in the second half of 2018 and due to reach 40 next year, the last of these 84 aircraft is due to be delivered in mid-2020. Pilatus may choose EBACE in May to begin taking orders again, although Gretener says that is not yet decided. "There is still a very long list of those who would like to become a PC-24 owner," he says.
Another reason Pilatus wanted to limit the number of operators was to gain performance data from around the world and make any necessary tweaks. Although the PC-24 retains features of the venerable PC-12, including short-runway performance, versatility, and single-pilot operation, professional aviators are more likely to fly the jet, so feedback will be very different, says Gretener.
Managing the orderbook when it does reopen will remain a challenge, he admits, as Pilatus sells mostly through independent dealers who have their own list of prospects. Although "there will be a price change", Pilatus has not yet decided where to set the production limit on any second tranche. "The whole strategy is to avoid speculation and preserve residuals for owners," says Gretener.
Pilatus – which is exhibiting a PC-24 and a PC-12NG in Orlando – is making major investments at its factory to support production of the jet. Despite the relatively high cost of labour in the country, Pilatus remains a highly vertically integrated producer, outsourcing little and proud of the craftsmanship that enhances the company’s "made in Switzerland" reputation.
The company employs 2,000 workers in Stans and "the key is having them in one facility", says Gretener. "It means we are able to work smarter, which you have to do as everything is going to be more expensive here. However, we do not hide from the fact that what we are creating here is high value. If you want something cheap, there are other places than Switzerland."
Pilatus is keeping the local builders busy. A new milling hall opened last December to manufacture large structures, including the single wing spar. In June, a final assembly building for both its aircraft types came on stream. It will be joined by a completions centre, and, on the other side of the Stans airfield, a new structural assembly plant is being erected.
Although the majority of PC-24 and PC-12 customers are in North America, Gretener says there are no plans, as of now, for a final assembly line at its Denver subsidiary, which directly controls its six US dealers. Instead, after a first batch of completions in Stans, jets for the transatlantic market will fly "white" to the USA to have their interiors installed.
While the PC-24 is Pilatus's flagship, the PC-12 remains its bread and butter in the business and general aviation market. The first PC-12 prototype from 1991 sits proudly at the factory entrance – a reminder that the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-powered turboprop has bankrolled the company for more than two and a half decades, alongside the PC-21 military trainer.
The PC-12 has changed a bit from that first version – the wing is bigger and the fuselage reshaped; there is now a five-blade propeller and new avionics. However, the core appeal of the world's best-selling single-engined turboprop – with its wide cabin, large cargo door, and an ability to take off and land on short, rugged strips – remains the same.
With more than 1,500 delivered, Pilatus continues to make about 80 PC-12s a year. Customers, says Gretener, range from flying doctors to the "let’s go surfing crowd". One of the type's strengths, he maintains, is its strong residuals – reflecting why Pilatus has been so keen to dampen speculative demand for the PC-24. "A two-year-old PC-12 still gets a great price for the customer," he says.
When Pilatus was researching whether to build a jet in the late 2000s, it asked existing customers for their views. "They told us they wanted a PC-12 but one that was faster, with a more spacious cabin, a flat floor, and still those two doors so they could take a stretcher, their motorbike, or their daughter's belongings to university," says Gretener. "What they wanted was the PC-24."