New Aircraft Preview: Pilatus PC-24

Sep 1, 2014 - 9:15 PM

Deliveries are set to begin in 2017 on a model  our reviewer considers peerless.
As kids we all had them: Swiss Army knives. They were the one tool you never left home without—bottle opener, knife, scissors, file, screwdriver, saw, all in one small package that slipped easily into your pocket. Genius. So much so that the concept subsequently was applied to other things with varying degrees of success, from the Veg-O-Matic to the 1960s F-4 Phantom fighter jet, and later to civilian aircraft.
Like the Swiss Army knife, the concept of a utility/business jet is not new. FedEx began flying Dassault Falcon 20 twinjets with large cargo doors in 1973 and 30-series Learjets could be purchased with an optional 36-inch-wide front door that continues to make them popular as air ambulances. However, the Falcon and the Learjets need lots of pavement. A decade ago, now-defunct German airframer Grob launched the SPn “utility jet,” which was designed to handle short grass fields. That airplane never made it past the prototype stage.
Meanwhile, a new generation of single-engine turboprops had established itself—all with large rear cargo doors. They included the Cessna Caravan, the French Socata TBM and, from Switzerland in 1994, the Pilatus PC-12.
Pilatus is known for its turboprops and to date has sold nearly 1,300 PC-12s—a model particularly popular in North America—and hundreds of other types of turboprop military trainers and utility aircraft. Flying since 1959, its PC-6 “Porter” utility hauler gained fame for being able to take off and land in places where airplanes seemingly should not go. Various militaries led by the U.S. Air Force and Navy have taken delivery of 636 T-6 Texan IIs, aircraft manufactured by Beechcraft but based on the Pilatus PC-9 and used for new-pilot training. And while the fortunes of jet makers rise and fall with macroeconomics, Pilatus has been solidly profitable over the years with its durable if somewhat staid product offerings. Plodding along with a line of versatile aircraft for niche buyers willing to pay a premium for Swiss quality, the company has eschewed trendiness at every turn since its founding in 1939, taking its time evaluating new markets and developing products.
At Pilatus headquarters in Stans, Switzerland, tradition still looms large. The company  hires youngsters right out of high school and shepherds them through a comprehensive apprenticeship program. And more often than not, those workers stay with the company for most, if not all, of their working lives, motivated by job security and ongoing incentives such as regular profit sharing.
Pilatus can be generous and patient because it is privately owned, not subject to the instant gratification pressures of a publicly traded enterprise. This approach has facilitated steady growth in revenues, which reached a record $1.15 billion last year on sales of 112 aircraft plus service and support business. More important, Pilatus has booked significant forward orders for its new PC-21 military trainers.
For many years before Pilatus unveiled the PC-24, there was scuttlebutt that the company was working on a business jet. The speculation bred both excited anticipation and some trepidation—more than one company has stumbled badly, sometimes fatally, when making the transition from propellers to jets. Pilatus quietly confirmed the jet buzz in 2012 and formally gave it shape in May last year, unveiling the mockup of its PC-24 twinjet in Geneva at the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE).
What appeared from behind the curtain was stunning. Sleekly styled inside and out, it cleverly integrates innovative technologies. Like the PC-12, it features a big rear door—4.1 feet wide and 4.25 feet tall—able to swallow standard cargo pallets. Priced like a light jet at $8.9 million (2017 dollars) and with its operating economics but with the cabin space of a midsize, able to use short grass and dirt runways like a turboprop, and capable of being flown single pilot, the PC-24 so far is without peer.
It will be able to take off from runways as short as 2,690 feet at its maximum weight of 17,650 pounds. Power comes from a pair of Williams International FJ44-4A turbofans rated at 3,400 pounds of thrust each. The engines have unique features, including automatic thrust reverse (to 3,600 pounds), passive thrust-vectoring nozzles, quiet power mode in place of an auxiliary power unit to provide ground power, integral pre-cooler to condition bleed air and reduce drag losses and an anti-ice and noise-suppressing inlet. They have a 5,000-hour time-between-overhaul limit and a hot-section overhaul time of 2,500 hours. The engines help propel the PC-24 to 45,000 feet in less than 30 minutes and achieve a maximum cruise speed of 425 knots at 30,000 feet. Range with four passengers is 1,950 nautical miles. Up front, the customized avionics suite dubbed PACE—Pilatus Advanced Cockpit Environment—is based on the Honeywell Primus Apex system and features all the latest advances.
The 501-cubic-foot passenger cabin provides more overall space than either the Cessna XLS+ or the Embraer Phenom 300 and has a flat floor. However, cabin height is just 61 inches. The aircraft will be available with seven layout choices that include executive, commuter, combi, medevac, special mission and quick-change configurations; you can also opt for an externally serviced lavatory (forward or aft) and any of several galley setups. The executive configuration features comfortable seating for six to eight. The pressurization system will maintain a sea-level cabin to 23,500 feet and the aircraft has a maximum altitude of 45,000 feet.
While the announced schedule for some development programs is the stuff of fiction, Pilatus chairman Oscar Schwenk confidently predicts that the first PC-24 will fly by the end of this year. Three aircraft will be used in the flight-test program. Certification and first customer deliveries are set for 2017.
If you’re interested, you might want to place an order now. My guess is that production will be sold out for a long time. 
Mark Huber (mhuber@bjtonline.com) is a private pilot with experience in more than 50 aircraft models.