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Pilot Review: Pilatus PC-12NG

My favorite airplane to fly is the Pilatus PC-12 and I can't lie. Yes, that means that my favorite plane is a little turboprop, and I'm okay with that. Here's why.

Every so often you'll run into a product which feels like a piece of its birthplace. The fresh lines and simplicity of the Macbook are as breezy as the California spirit. A Cadbury Egg is as pastel and diminutive as England. And the Pilatus PC-12 is a 1,200-horsepower piece of Switzerland: unbreakable, elegant, and über-functional.

If it was a car, it would be a Range Rover, a Jeep Rubicon, and a BMW X6, all rolled into one and sold for a cool $5 million.

I'm not the only one with a PC-12 obsession, however. If you ask the average pilot what plane they'd buy if they won the lottery, there's a good chance they'll say it's the PC-12. Why? Because it's fun as fuck. Let's break this down.

What makes an airplane fun to fly? For me (and for many pilots, I think), it's about hitting the sweet spot in each of these: challenge, versatility, speed, and flying characteristics.

Challenge

A Cessna 150 is a boring airplane. there are about 10 dials on the panel, and nothing ever really changes. With a headwind you're flying slower than highway speeds, which means that everything unfolds in slow-motion. Boring.

The Pilatus, on the other hand, is a little more involved. It cruises at around 280 knots (over 300 mph) and there are four 10-inch screens to look at.

While jets can cruise above the weather at altitudes of 30,000-40,000 feet, the Pilatus is capped at around 28,000 feet. This means that you're dealing with the weather, and when there's a cloud in front of you, it's your call whether to go above it, below it, to the left, to the right, or straight through it. Boring? I think not.

Versatility

The Pilatus aims to be two things which rarely come together in one plane: fast, and slow. A faster plane is better for obvious reasons. A slow plane is important too, because a slower plane can use shorter runways to take off and land. Speed is a big deal here, because kinetic energy (which the brakes have to turn into heat) is directly proportional to the square of velocity. So a plane that lands 10% faster will eat up far more than an extra 10% of runway.

This all means that when the airplane designers do make a plane with good slow-speed characteristics, the list of available airports increases dramatically, allowing the pilot to land closer to the final destination.

This versatility means that you, the pilot could take your Pilatus from Atlanta International and land it in a grass pasture on a Colorado ranch, on one tank of gas.

Then once you land, you could literally forklift a pallet of elk meat through the aft cargo door, and fly it back home. Try that with your TBM.

Speed

The PC-12 is not the fastest. Cruise is around 280 knots, or around 320 mph. But it's fast enough. Los Angeles to Phoenix is a 1.5 hour flight, saving you a 5.5 hour road trip.

Here's the thing: the Pilatus feels fast. The controls are tight, and feedback is smooth.

Flying Characteristics

In a heavier business jet the pilot feels removed from the experience—the computer-controlled engines mounted in the back are barely audible, and control yoke feedback has a more stable feel. A well-trimmed Pilatus, however, feels like an extension of the pilot's brain.

The faster the plane flies, the more air is streaming over the control surfaces, tightening like steering on a supercar. As the plane slows, the controls loosen. However, Pilatus engineers gave the PC-12 huge control surfaces and enormous flaps to give it docile slow-speed characteristics.

Due to gravity, airplanes pick up speed when the pilot points the nose down to begin a descent. This is good—until you reach the never-exceed speed (V$ne$), beyond which the tail starts to flutter until it falls off. For this reason there's a joke in aviation: "you can go down, you can slow down, but you can't go down and slow down."

The PC-12 doesn't have this problem. Need to go down fast? Drop the landing gear, deploy the flaps, bring power to idle, and point the nose down as far as you dare to go. The drag from the flaps and the giant gear assembly and the 104-inch propeller will keep forward speed under control, but you'll be dropping at around 70mph towards the ground.

Landing is a cinch. Huge, low-pressure tires and an impressive twelve inches of travel in the shock struts means that you can "grease" your landings consistently. And since every passenger judges the pilot solely based on the landing (I don't make the rules), this is an easy win for you as the pilot.

Conclusion

The PC-12 really is a flying Swiss Army knife. It's just the right amount of fast, slow, crisp, and docile. It's not perfect—the toilet is too small, the avionics could use a refresh—but it's damn close. Fly one, if you can.