Almost a decade after launching development of its PC-21 basic trainer, Pilatus will within the next few months deliver its first of 25 aircraft to Switzerland and Singapore, while awaiting a decision on a massive contest to supply the United Arab Emirates.
Representing the high-end face of a product line that includes the PC-7 Mk II and PC-9 family of modular trainers, the PC-21 was launched in 1999 with the intention of assuming some duties currently performed using more expensive designs, such as BAE Systems' Hawk advanced jet trainer.
"We have created a different niche for ourselves with the PC-21," says Jim Roche, Pilatus's vice-president, government aviation business. "It is a totally different design concept to bring us into a different segment of the market. With the PC-21 we can cross over the fast jet line and do a considerable amount of training at lower cost."
Roche believes the PC-21's turboprop economics "will drive decision makers to review the numbers of aircraft required, and the structure of the [training] syllabus." This opinion has been supported by the Swiss air force, which last year sold its 20 stored Hawk airframes to Finland, and will transition students directly from the PC-21 onto the Boeing F/A-18C/D fighter after the type enters frontline use on 28 April.
Switzerland's selection of six PC-21s (first example pictured above) represented the first success for the new model. Assembly is now complete, and the air force has almost finished training syllabus development and qualified flying instructor conversion work at Pilatus's Stans production facility near Lucerne. Operations will shift next month to support training activities from the service's Emmen and Sion air bases. The manufacturer hopes that a successful introduction will encourage the air force to order an additional batch, but this could depend on the direction of a recently-launched competition to select a new air policing aircraft to replace the air force's Northrop F-5s.
Pilatus is also a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin for Singapore's Basic Wings Course, which will see 19 PC-21s used to conduct basic training for the nation's air force at Pearce air base in Western Australia from later this year. The 20-year private finance initiative deal will supply 8,500 flight hours per year, plus a further 3,500h using two simulators. Singapore is expected to use around 9,000h of this capacity per year, leaving spare time for possible third-party training. Lockheed says up to 100 students could undergo instruction per year using the system.
Roche declines to provide details on the PC-21's first export deal, beyond saying: "We are producing the aircraft on track, and they will be delivered on time." However, at least three of Singapore's aircraft are known to have made their flight debuts from Stans so far this year.
Pilatus's two pre-production PC-21s serve as development and software testbeds for the Swiss and Singaporean deals, but work on both variants is likely to be completed in time to allow one or both to participate in July's Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough air show in the UK.
The next sales opportunity for the PC-21 lies with the UAE, which has recently conducted an in-country evaluation of the type's ground-based training system and logistics support infrastructure. Pilatus faces competition from Alenia Aermacchi's M-311 jet, but hopes that factors including the UAE's experience in logging more than 100,000 flight hours on the PC-7 could tip the decision in its favour.
Pilatus has set what Roche describes as a "very conservative" target to sell between 350 and 500 PC-21s - around three of which can currently be completed per month - over the life of the programme. "We have been successful in adding a new customer on average every 24 months," he notes.
The UK is eyed as a leading possibility, with Lockheed also serving as training system partner on the nation's Military Flying Training System. Basic training options include the purchase of a high-end design such as the Hawker Beechcraft T-6B, M-311 or PC-21 to "download" work from a small fleet of Hawk 128s or to upgrade the legacy Shorts Tucano T1. "We believe the PC-21 has a better chance of success than the other competitors because of its capabilities," says Roche.
A continued lack of progress on the multinational Advanced European Jet Pilot Training initiative - in which Switzerland still holds observer status - represents another area of opportunity for the PC-21 system. "We have a product, we see a need, and we are actively marketing in Europe," says Roche. "We are confident that the future of the PC-21 is quite rosy." Other opportunities being looked at include providing replacements for Australia's PC-7s and the Chilean air force's Casa C-101 jet trainers.
But will development of the PC-21 undermine Pilatus's attempts to sell its legacy products, the PC-7 Mk II and the PC-9? Roche says not: "We are in a very happy position where we can cover a broad spectrum of training requirements with two very distinct products."
Although the modular trainer design - which uses a common module aft of the engine firewall to simplify production and support activities - has no current orders, Pilatus is confident about the design's long-term vitality following a significant investment. Revealing that talks are underway with potential customers with regard to new business, Roche says: "The modular trainer is alive and well and has a customer base. We see that continuing over the next 10-15 years."
An obsolescence management programme has recently been completed on a first batch of PC-7s for the Swiss air force, which is assessing whether to conduct the work - which could extend operations of the type by 15-20 years - on additional aircraft. PC-7-series trainers have meanwhile logged almost 185,000 flight hours in Royal Malaysian Air Force service, with the nation having bought 44 baseline aircraft and 19 Mk II examples since the early 1980s.
Delivered by July 2007, Malaysia's last batch of 10 Mk IIs (pictured above) included the 800th turboprop trainer to be produced by Pilatus, and eight earlier examples will be upgraded to a common standard by December under a programme conducted in partnership with local firm Airod. The RMAF has an average of 24 PC-7-series aircraft available each day to fly a combined 40-45 sorties, the service's director of training Col Abdul Mutalib Abd Wahab told last month's IQPC Military Flight Training conference in London.
Pilatus prides itself on having a strong support relationship with its military customers, and every two years hosts a week-long conference where operators from around the World meet to discuss in-service issues, share experiences and provide feedback to the manufacturer. "We take every issue head-on, and we discuss it openly," says Roche, who intends to grow the manufacturer's core pilot training business, including through the provision of ground-based and airborne simulation services and web-based through-life support.
Employing around 1,400 people, Pilatus will celebrate its 70th anniversary as a private company in December 2009 with a staunch determination to retain its independent status. "The current investors are very keen that the company will continue to trade as Pilatus," says Roche. "We are very mindful of our brand image, which reflects a quality product manufactured in Switzerland by Swiss engineers. That's probably our most valuable asset.
"We're good at what we do in a niche market," says Roche. "Our focus has always been: be the very best at what you do, and maintain that market position. We don't have to sell ourselves - our customers do it for us."