Pilatus PC-12 NGX
The NGX is the latest edition to Pilatus’s rugged and versatile PC-12 range. So, what’s new? Words: Mike Stones
THE SWISS ARMY knife of the air, the Pilatus PC-12 range, became a little sharper last year with the launch of the PC-12 NGX. Updated from the NG, the latest variant includes the Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC) PT6E-67XP, plus the full authority digital engine control (FADEC) system with low speed propeller mode to cut cabin noise.
The new model also features updated Honeywell avionics, including touchscreen and a cursor control device, an autothrottle plus 10% larger cabin windows. Maintenance intervals have doubled from 300 hours to 600 hours or 12 months and the engine’s time before overhaul (TBO) has increased from 3,500 hours to 5,000 hours.
Those are the bare facts, but a wealth of detail is added by Edwin Brenninkmeyer, founder of Oriens Aviation, the exclusive Pilatus distributor for the British Isles. I am sitting in the left seat of a NGX, bathed in crisp September sunshine, outside the company’s hangar at Biggin Hill Airport, UK. From the right seat Brenninkmeyer tells me: “The airframe remains essentially the same, but under the skin there are some big changes.”
The biggest is the engine and the “tweaked” avionics, he says. The FADEC system features an electronic engine controller that governs all aspects of engine and propellor performance. Pilatus and PWC refer to it as the Engine and Propellor Electronic Control System (EPECS).
The benefits include: better fuel efficiency, automatic engine protection against out-of-tolerance operations, such as hot starts, which could damage the turbine powerplant, and engine health monitoring and diagnostics. It also reduces the number of parameters to be monitored by flight crews and improves an already excellent safety record, he says.
A new Data Collection and Transmission Unit (DCTU) enables engine metrics to be constantly monitored. “After every flight, the data is automatically transmitted to Pratt & Whitney Canada, so the engine is permanently on condition,” says Brenninkmeyer. “That means fewer AoGs [Aircraft on Ground events] and greater peace of mind.”
The latest of the line, the PC-12 NGX, is pictured in the land of her birth, the Kandergrund, Canton Bern, Switzerland. 1,700 aircraft have made their home worldwide.
The low speed propeller mode – which reduces the propeller RPM from 1,700 to 1,550 – offers a quieter cabin and greater passenger comfort on the new re-styled leather seats.
Brenninkmeyer’s passion for the plane is palpable. And with 4,600 hours in his logbooks – a good few logged as a demonstrator pilot for the NGX – his is the voice of experience.
So, who buys the plane? “The vast majority of PC-12 owners sit in the back with only a little higher than 10% (rising to 15%-20% in the UK) preferring to fly the aircraft themselves,” he says.
“Customers are typically business owners who have had a liquidity event – either an investment in their business or a partial or full sale. They buy the aircraft to use mainly as a business tool but also for leisure.”
Also extending the time before overhaul to 5,000 hours represents a major improvement for commercial operators of the aircraft in lower maintenance costs, he says.
A big selling point is the cavernous cargo door. “The very large cargo door, euro-pallet-sized in dimension, means you can load a great deal of cargo – up to 2,236lbs – without dragging it through the passenger cabin.” Seats may be removed for extra stowage. Planned in partnership with the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (RFDS), the high-tailed PC-12 range was designed to accommodate freight or stretchers loaded through the rear door. For leisure flights, a full set of skiing gear, snowboards or even motorbikes, fit inside the interior, which can accommodate 40 Ft³ (1.13M³).
Another key selling point is the range’s high residual value, says Brenninkmeyer. “The PC-12’s residual value is exceptional. A 10-year aeroplane is worth between 75% to 80% of its new value. There’s no other aircraft that comes close to that.” (We will hear a lot more about residual values a little later).
But with a price tag of $5.369m for a typically equipped executive aircraft, why buy a PC-12 NGX when you can buy a faster, arguably sexier jet? “The jet of a comparable price will have a lot smaller cabin,” he explains. “The NGX has a similar sized cabin to jets costing around 60% more than the NGX but offers the short-field capability that no jet can offer, at any price point; the PC-24 comes closest. Operating economics are typically half those of a light jet.”
Covid-19 has added wind beneath the model’s wings, believes Brenninkmeyer. “With more people favouring personal transportation and shying away from public transportation in an increasing climate of pandemic, bio-security consciousness, the PC-12 is the ideal platform for those wishing to experience personal aviation for the first time.”
The vast rear cargo door is equally at home accommodating family gear on a flight to the beach or oil crew equipment en route to the west Texas oil fields.
The aircraft is typically equipped in executive configuration, which has a plusher interior and a toilet. Most executive interiors are configured to carry six seats in the back but seventh and eighth seats can also be added and are supplied with every aircraft. That makes virtually all PC-12s a nine-passenger aircraft including the co-pilot’s seat, which is approved as a passenger seat. The basic commuter PC-12, without the executive interior or toilet, has seating for up to nine passengers in the back or 10 if you include the co-pilot’s seat. But very few PC-12s are configured this way.
An airborne room with a view. The PC-12 NGX features 10% more window area than its NG predecessor, inspired by its jet-powered sister – the PC-24.
There has been an increase in special missions use with, for example, the Irish Air Corps acquiring an additional PC-12 due to Covid-19 and the need to transport test kits. “We have seen an increase in enquiries for purchasing PC-12s – generally new entrants are looking for a good deal on a used aircraft and for those who have previously considered purchasing new, the pandemic has catalysed a final decision to proceed.”
Richard Koe, MD of aviation data and analytics provider WINGX, confirms that the PC-12 range has had a good Covid-19 crisis. “The PC-12 has been the busiest business aviation aircraft since the pandemic broke in March 2020,” Koe told Corporate Jet Investor. “Compared to 2019 activity trends, the PC-12 has also been amongst the most resilient, with a 16% decline in flight hours, compared with a 22% decline for other turboprops and a 25% fall in activity for all business aviation aircraft.”
Since mid-July 2020, the PC-12 has sustained a moving seven-day average activity of over 1,000 departures, more than its activity trend in February in the run up to the crisis.
The PC-12’s versatility also has found favour in the charter sector plus cargo and air ambulance. “Whilst fractional, government and private flight department traffic on PC-12s is significantly behind normal, charter activity is robust, within 10% of normal levels,” said Koe. “The PC-12 average sector length so far this year is 1.2 hours, with notably more robust activity trends in sectors over two hours, indicating its relative popularity for longer trips. By mission type, the PC-12 has seen increased activity this year compared with last in cargo and ambulance activity.”
The range is also showing its resilience in the North American market. Whilst overall business aviation flight activity in North America has fallen 25% over the period, the PC-12’s trend is down by only 18%, according to Koe. So far this year, the PC-12 has logged more than 230,000 departures in North America, about 80% of global activity on this platform and over 5% of all business aviation activity in the North American region. He identifies the key operators as: Planesense, Boutique and Tradewind, respectively marking out robust demand on the East Coast, West Coast and Caribbean.
Two men who know the US PC-12 market intimately are Dustin Cordier, jetAVIVA, President and Jason Deifik, sales director. Cordier praises the PC-12 by borrowing the words of US writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. “Thoreau says: ‘It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see’,” Cordier tells me. “Most aircraft have a lot of deficiencies, but the owner sees the one thing they need in the airplane. But the PC-12 is much bigger than that – it doesn’t have just one thing it’s good at.”
It is this versatility that is the key to its success with corporations and individuals. “It’s one of those very rare birds – especially for the size of aircraft – that is accepted both by the private Part 91 market and the Part 135 [charter] market.”
While not the fastest of aircraft – with a maximum cruise of 290 KTAS (knots true airspeed) – it is one of the most versatile. “It’s equally at home flying the family and all their gear down to the beach or a crew and all their equipment out to the West Texas oil fields,” says Cordier.
“It’s that Swiss Army knife. It just does what you need it to do in that specific mission you want it to fill.”
“It’s one of those very rare birds – especially for the size of aircraft.”
The cockpit is designed to offer the advanced avionics of high-end business jets tailored for single pilot operations.
Deifik returns to the subject of the giant rear cargo door. “A big plus for Part 135 use is there is no pulling bags through the cabin. The rear cargo door and the flexible seat configuration means it’s just so easy to get in and go.”
Depreciation is another important factor. “The amount of times I’ve heard people talk about the PC-12’s strong residual value cannot be understated. That’s really the unsung story,” says Deifik. “You can sell this airplane a few years after purchase for very close to what you paid for it. It’s very difficult to say that with confidence about other planes.”
Like Koe from WINGX, Deifik thinks the PC-12 is faring well during the Covid-19 crisis. “In 2020 from the beginning of the year to November 3rd, there were about 40 transactions of NG aircraft – up from 29 in 2019. So, a 25% increase year-over-year.
“How much of the increase is from buyers putting things on pause for Covid causing pent up demand is difficult to tell,” says Deifik. “There’s some of that but it also goes back to the PC-12’s versatility, ease and affordability of operation.”
Cordier picks up the theme of depreciation in the age of Covid-19. “That’s a point of emphasis for the Covid period. We are seeing a lot of first-time buyers – people who want to get into business aviation and away from commercial airlines.
“They say: ‘I don’t really know what I want’, so residual value takes on even more importance. They don’t know if they are going to stay in private aviation, or if they plan to upgrade or get out. So, the reassurance that the bottom is not going to fall out of their investment is even more important at this time of uncertainty.”
For a global view of the PC-12’s residual value, I turned to David Crick, MD at aircraft valuations, inspections and appraisals company DavAir, based in Manly, Australia. He began with a caveat. Calculating residual value is difficult as the NGX is new to market, with no secondary sales to use as comparisons and only a few dozen actively operational with a similar amount being produced and ready for market absorption, he said.
But insight about the NGX’s residual value could be deduced from her older sister the NG model. “With the OEM and the aircraft itself both providing a robust platform for value buoyancy, we have seen in previous PC-12 models that value depreciation is a shallower curve for the PC-12 than for a number of competing aircraft in the marketplace – including corporate jets,” said Crick.
“For example, the PC-12 NG version is known to retain approximately 75% of its value after 10 years of operations. That is assuming a standard operating profile with OEM-required maintenance through the period. Other aircraft models may only retain half of their original amount, and some even less.”
Welcome to the new office. The NGX features updated Honeywell avionics.
Crick believes the NGX will enjoy the same value profile. He attributes the performance to a wide range of factors including the range’s successful track record established over several decades, the Swiss OEM’s strong reputation for build quality and high level of service offered to operators and buyers.
“Pilatus assists the aircraft to retain value by appearing not to discount new market entries like some manufacturers as well as not ‘flood’ the market with too many being produced to be absorbed into the marketplace,” said Crick. “There appears to be a supply and demand balance that provides a robustness of values year-on-year.”
The PC-12 range has also won industry respect for its range and performance, avionics package, modest maintenance requirements and its longevity, he says. “One of the primary appeals of the aircraft in the marketplace is the large cargo door at the rear of the aircraft,” confirms Crick. “For charter and passenger services this is helpful however even more helpful for medical transport options like the Australian RFDS operations.” Its short field performance and non-bitumen runway capability also contribute to the value retention of the model. “It seems a very good ‘combi’ aircraft for pax/freight/medical mission specifications.”
So how will Covid-19 impact its valuation? Crick confirms the pandemic appears to be impacting all models of corporate aircraft with respect to value and transaction amounts.
Medium-sized business aircraft appear to be hardest hit, according to Crick. “Anecdotally, the larger long-range business jets have a value impact of within the range of 15-20%, for medium sized corporate jets, 10-15% and for smaller or light jets, around 5-10%. For the PC-12 aircraft, we are only seeing an impact on value of around 5%, if at all from pre-Covid transaction amounts.”
Back in the cockpit of the NGX at Biggin Hill Airport, Brenninkmeyer tells me from the right seat: “The traditional key selling points of the PC-12 apply to the NGX, which is still a PC-12 at its core. It has versatility, the ability to haul a sizeable load in and out of small, unprepared strips in pressurised comfort and yet is equally at home mixing with the jets at international airports. It has a large cabin, low operating costs and per-seat carbon emissions and industry-leading after-sales support and residual values. The NGX even has the stick and rudder feel of the NG.”