Special feature: Taking a private PC-12 on a luxury trip to Switzerland
PUBLISHED: 16:59 05 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:59 05 February 2019
A trip to Gstaad and an overnight stay in a luxury hotel showcase the pleasures of owning and operating a private turboprop | Words & photos: Philip Whiteman
“If you need to know the price…” I can hear you repeat that old saw−I have used it often enough myself − but do read on.
The Pilatus PC-12 is rather a wonderful transport, and the sort of exotic and out-of-the-way places to which you can take family, friends and business associates in it are so special that it is the value of the thing that becomes the overriding consideration.
While I might be enjoying a specially-laid-on press trip here−I am not going to pretend otherwise−the experience for those who own and fly in turbine aircraft will be just like this. We meet up for proper coffee and fresh breakfast pastries at the agent’s private lounge−in this case Oriens Aviation’s own plush new one at London Biggin Hill−and then climb straight into the aeroplane.
No lining up for the hateful business of being X-rayed, sniffed and frisked. All we’ve had to do−all you would have to do−is provide passport details to be forwarded to HM Revenue & Customs beforehand.
Paradoxically, while we are flying in an aircraft that is about as state-of-the-art 21st century as an aeroplane can be, this is air travel like it used to be in the 1930s.
One embarks via a drop-down door with built-in steps and a handrail, entering the cabin just behind the cockpit. There’s also a whacking great top-hinged cargo door towards the tail, which opens hydraulically and closes−neat touch−electrically, at the press of a button.
Indicative of the PC-12’s multi-role capabilities, it is sized to accommodate standard pallets. Today it provides ready access for our bags, all to be stowed in the curtained-off aft baggage hold. There’s even a third door in the form of an over-wing emergency exit−what a contrast to those claustrophobic turboprop singles where one door has to suffice!
More on the creature comforts later. For now the immediate pleasure is Oriens Aviation Director and our host and pilot today, Edwin Brenninkmeyer, offering me the right-hand cockpit seat for the outbound trip.
This is to be no flight test, mind−we have in any event already covered the handling and pilot operation of the ‘Next Generation’ PC-12 (Pilot, March 2016)−but I have flown a single-engine turboprop, in the form of a TB850, and am interested in at least getting an impression of what is involved in flying the 12.
Although Edwin has a vast range of experience, from Cubs to fast jets and flies regularly as an airline pilot, he is not a qualified instructor. However, he provides such an informative running commentary today−and is such a good mentor when I do eventually get to fly the aeroplane−that it’s easy to think that he might have missed one further vocation.
Some wrinkles in best PC-12 operating practice emerge. One of Edwin’s little tricks is to power up the standby bus first, maximising battery power available for engine starting and avoiding time wasted waiting for it to come on line when everything else is running.
It is also apparent that, while the PC-12 is a rather more sophisticated and capable piece of machinery than the average light aircraft, Pilatus has gone a long way to automate and make foolproof most of the aeroplane’s systems.
So, for example, while there are dual electrical systems controlled by an overhead panel, generator engagement is automatic and the supply essentially looks after itself in the event of one unit failing. In the unlikely event of the electrics conking out completely, the battery-powered emergency standby instrument system−a Dynon-sized flat-screen job tucked down at the far left of the panel−will run for an hour.
There is an extensive preflight checklist to work through: as you might expect it’s all rather removed from a quick left to right check around the cockpit and TTMPFF−but not to an intimidating degree. With some additional training I could do it, as could you. The Honeywell electronic flight information system may be different from the familiar Garmin, but entering the route data has been made simple and logical.
One neat ergonomic feature is the centrally-mounted combined hand rest/mouse control, which in any turbulence makes selecting things onscreen so much easier that stabbing a finger at an elusive touchscreen.
When starting the engine you do need to monitor the ITT (Inter Turbine Temperature) which must not exceed 1,000°C (five second limitation or 870 for twenty seconds). In the PT6A engine the propeller is driven by a two-stage turbine running on a separate shaft, and starts are always made with the blades feathered.
Interestingly, you cannot hear the clicking sound of the igniters−nor indeed very much engine noise at all, even in the cockpit.
One unusual item on the checklist, at least for those of used to bimbling around in VMC, is testing the de-icing boots. Through the side windows, these can be seen inflating and deflating, segment by segment.
Edwin is keen to demonstrate a maximum performance takeoff. We are close to maximum weight, so this is no STOL-plane departure−but it is impressive by the standards of the PC-12’s business jet rivals.
The book figure is 792m to clear fifty feet and the aircraft can happily be operated from unpaved runways (Edwin says it is better on grass the his Cessna 210). There’d be no problem with operating from one of our favourite GA fields, Popham−try that in a Citation…
Typically with the PC-12’s class of aircraft, once you are off the deck and have quickly reached the height where emergency landing actions and field options are no longer the immediate concern (I respected Edwin’s preparedness in identifying and pointing out suitable areas as we climbed out) the flying is done on autopilot.
I am impressed by the Honeywell Primus Apex system: the heading changes are gentler than some I have experienced when travelling in commercial airliners. Indeed, the PC-12 delivers a remarkably ‘jet-like’ ride and the sensation, when flying in the cabin, is of the level of smoothness you might expect from a large jet−and there is no vibration from the propeller.
We are on our way up to the typical PC-12 cruising level of FL280. At such an altitude the margin between stalling speed, best climb speed and indeed Vne is considerably narrower, so it is essential to have the autopilot climb in speed mode, accepting the tailing off in rate as cruise level is approached, rather than dialling in a rate of climb that could put you unhealthily close to the stall.
There is of course a stick-shaker and ultimately a pusher to avoid the uncomfortable event, but one piece of automation that is absent is any kind of trim on throttle (or more accurately) torque setting during the climb. To stay within the prescribed engine limits, one has to make periodic adjustments. Maybe Pilatus leaves it like this so the pilot has at least one task to keep him or her awake!
One further manual action is establishing the torque limit for prevailing conditions. To my mild surprise, this involves Edwin digging out a book and consulting a printed table. We are expecting to end up cruising at around 275kt TAS, not as fast as the smaller, speedier TBM930 but a respectable clip nonetheless.
Your Airbus or Boeing will be flying at twice that speed, but then again you’ll have been cooling your heels at the airport for some time waiting to depart for the two hours this flight to Switzerland is going to take.
And nor are you going to be able to take a sightseeing trip along alpine valleys to the Matterhorn in an airliner. As we follow the first of these, Edwin hands the controls to me. He warns me that the ailerons are going to feel firm by light aircraft standards, which proves correct.
However, I am also mindful of the passengers, several of whom are non-pilots, so gentle rates of roll are the order of the day. At first I wonder why the trimmer doesn’t seem to do anything, but then Edwin points out the yoke trigger that must be pulled to activate it−a safety feature in the event of trim runaway, something that has caused accidents in other aircraft.
Of course the cockpit offers the best seats in the house for hand-flying through the Alps but, as I discovered on the way home, the PC-12’s relatively large cabin windows and the fact that everybody has a window seat means that the passengers are treated to a very good view too.
On the way to the Matterhorn, with Edwin now back on the controls, we pass through the base of an expanse of cloud that is hiding the peaks either side of the valley. This would be a buttock-clenching activity in most aeroplanes but a) I know Edwin has flown the route many times before and b) even I can see where we are going, because the Honeywell primary flight display screens are showing a synthetic image of the otherwise hidden ‘cumulo granite’. What a safety bonus this is.
We are being bumped around in patches of turbulent air−all to do with local conditions and not the PC-12’s excellent ride−and one or two of the passengers in the back are looking a little green, so Edwin takes us over a high pass to arrive at Gstaad Saanen Airport (LSGK) from the east.
This involves something of a Stuka approach, descending from high ground to the airfield on the valley floor. Edwin makes a masterly job of it but, to my Cub pilot’s eye, our speed looks a bit hot and I feel mildly alarmed when he adds a smidge of power just before we reach the fence. But, how wrong can you be!
Edwin touches down as gently as can be, and we rapidly come to a halt with plenty of the 4,600ft runway length to spare (the book figure for landing distance from fifty feet in ISA conditions is 2,170ft/661m).
We are to be guests at Le Grand Bellevue Hotel, a fitting place for those who might be arriving in Gstaad by private turboprop or bizjet, I would say. Keeping to the luxury theme, the hotel has provided not just a courtesy car, but−for heaven’s sake−a courtesy Bentley! (And nor, as I learn later, is this any old Bentley: it’s James Bond actor Roger Moore’s old car, immaculately preserved and presented.)
The accommodation at Le Grand, just a short car journey from the airport is rather wonderful − I note the five stars as we enter − and we are treated to a light lunch in the bar before going on a tour of the centre of Gstaad, just a few minutes walk from the hotel.
Combining designer outlets with old-world Swiss chalet charm, including a number of historic monuments, Gstaad may be out of season for skiing during this October visit but it is an attractive place in its own right and, we are told by our guide, draws a healthy number of visitors in summer.
Later, we enjoy a superb dinner at the Bellevue, where the service is first class and each of the four courses is accompanied by a selected wine from the hotel’s 10,000 bottle cellar. Naturally the cheese is Swiss−in several delicious varieties. They know how to look after their guests at this place. It makes you feel, in the nicest way, a bit like James Bond.
For the return trip I take a seat in the cabin, which is not entirely inappropriate as eighty per cent of PC-12 owners do not pilot the aircraft themselves and cabin comfort is a primary consideration. Standard seating is two crew seats and nine passenger seats, the latter being equipped with three-point harnesses (one up on airliner seats!).
As you would expect, various trim and seating options are available. G-DYLN is configured with six of the optional ‘executive’ passenger seats; four facing each other in club seating and two individual seats in the back (where there’s legroom to spare).
These rather plush seats swivel, allowing one to sprawl in comfort − not least because the floor is flat and you do not end up dangling your feet in a well, as you do in some small bizjets.
With its grey leather, dark wood veneer and polished metal fittings − all beautifully finished − the whole thing has the feel of a luxurious European car, which should come as no surprise as it is all spec’d out by automotive specialist BMW Designworks.
In this class of aircraft you might only expect to find relatively large folding tables that drop down into the cabin walls: ’LN has the additional refinement of a wifi system that relays aircraft position to the passenger’s smartphones – is this neat or what?
Of course we are all goggling at the view as we depart Gstaad. Busy executives would want to get their heads down and be able to work undisturbed. Subjectively, the noise level is low and at least as good as−if not a bit better than − the average commercial jet cabin.
The ride, as already mentioned is excellent, and even in the rearmost seat there is none of the swaying sensation with rudder movement that you get at the back of a big jet (this has to be down to the excellent yaw damper/autopilot). Combine these virtues with the comfort of the executive seats and you will feel, as I did, utterly spoiled.
Short queue for Customs
Back at Biggin Hill − where the queue for Customs was the seven of us − Edwin Brenninkmeyer likens the PC-12 to a sports utility vehicle. “If the TBM 930 is the Ferrari of turboprops, the PC-12 is the Range Rover”.
You can see where he is coming from − as well as appreciating his honesty in not attempting to oversell the larger, slower and altogether less sporty Pilatus. However, aeroplanes−even in their most basic form−are exotic machines next to mere cars.
Forget all the Top Gear fantasy: in the real world super cars are no quicker through traffic than Fiat 500s, and no matter how much you pay for the things you get the same view − often of an endless row of stationary vehicles − as every other poor sod.
Nothing that can whisk you heavenward to the view from 28,000ft and whisper you uninterrupted to destination at just under 320mph bears comparison with a tin- or big-deal carbon composite box skimming between traffic jams and speed restrictions.
Are you still wondering about the price? Suffice to say that for a sensibly specified PC-12 it is $5m. All I can say is that were I a whole lot more astute with money−or a lottery-winner (note to self: you’d better start buying tickets)−I would be keen to buy a PC-12, or a share in one (one of the aircraft supplied and maintained by Oriens Aviation is owned by a three-man syndicate).
To make the best of it, you’d have to be current and up to speed with instrument flying and procedures−and for this reason one can appreciate why so many owners, even if they are pilots themselves, employ professionals to do the main flying duties.
But for those of us who love flying and delight in visiting those exotic and out-of-the-way places, what better aircraft could there be for that around-the-world private flight we have all promised ourselves?
It’s some Range Rover, Edwin!