The SUV of the skies

Pilatus’s new PC-24 can carry more than a tonne of cargo and is the only non-military jet that can land on grass or gravel. Rohit Jaggi takes the controls

The PC-24 is a trailblazing entity: a “super-versatile jet”
The PC-24 is a trailblazing entity: a “super-versatile jet” | Image: Pilatus Aircraft

It’s not often that an entirely new class of transport comes into being, but the PC-24 private jet, from niche Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus, can make a strong claim to be just that.

The light jet seats up to 12 people, including pilots – but it is far more than just a passenger plane. It can carry more than a tonne of cargo, or four passengers and at least a couple of motorcycles. It has a huge cargo door 1.3m wide by 1.25m high to the rear of the fuselage on the left: a door that size is rare in a private jet, as an aircraft’s fuselage needs to be extra strong around one. There may be larger private jets, but without a door of this kind, it’s hard to load any sizeable items into them. There’s more. The PC-24 can tackle short runways with a steep, difficult approach. It’s speedy with a respectable range. And it can land on gravel or grass runways – the only jet to boast such an ability short of military weightlifters like the giant Boeing C-17 Globemaster.

Pilatus, Switzerland’s only manufacturer of private jets, has a history of producing aircraft with astonishing abilities. The Pilatus Porter PC-6, designed in the 1950s and produced right up to this year, was a tailwheel plane dreamt up at a time when most aircraft were already using nose wheels – but that layout helped make the aircraft able to land in the sort of forest clearing only helicopter pilots would normally consider. The Pilatus PC-12, launched in 1994 and also powered by a single turboprop engine, took many of those attributes and added sophistication, such as cabin pressurisation, earning a reputation for carrying huge and unwieldy loads, economically, to almost anywhere. It can seat up to nine passengers, has a large cargo door and can land on unpaved airstrips. A fair few motorcycle enthusiasts use PC-12 aircraft to transport their toys around.

But the PC-12’s speed is limited to 285 knots (528kmph) by the fact that its turbine engine drives a propeller (propellers limit the altitude of planes because up high the air is too thin to bite on), while its owners began saying they wanted more speed and more altitude to get above both airline traffic and bad weather. 

Thus, the PC-24 was born. It is alone in its category of “super-versatile jet”; it has all of the qualities of the PC-12, but adds about 155 knots of speed in the cruise; and, importantly for a fast aircraft certified for single-pilot operation, it is even easier to fly.

The cargo door measures 1.3m wide by 1.25m high, which is rare in a private jet
The cargo door measures 1.3m wide by 1.25m high, which is rare in a private jet

I had flown to Pilatus’s factory in Stans, next to Lake Lucerne, in a PC-12 operated by UK Pilatus distributor Oriens Aviation, hand-flying most of the way to familiarise myself with the feel of the aircraft and remind myself that it certainly rewards precise flying. Let its attitude shift by a degree or two and you will swiftly diverge from your intended flight path.  

Pilatus is based at the Buochs airfield. Sleek wood, glass and metal buildings – the oldest of which had a cameo appearance in the 1964 movie Goldfinger – contrast with all the shades of green and brown that make up the surrounding, steeply vertical Swiss countryside. Production of the PC-12 and PC-24, plus the PC-21 military training aircraft, takes place here in an environment high-tech enough for a Bond villain. 

Walking around the PC-24, a number of design features stood out. The large cargo door is placed so that a pickup truck can safely be backed up to it, making loading and unloading awkward items easier. The wing has a complex system of spoilers and flaps to make slow flight possible. And the main landing gear has tyres that run at a lower pressure than usual on jet aircraft to make landing on rough ground safer. 

To be able to operate away from airports, jets usually need an auxiliary power unit – a small turbine engine to power heating and air-conditioning systems when they are on the ground. On the PC-24, however, the right-side Williams International FJ44-4A turbofan engine has a “quiet power mode” that gives the plane the functions of an APU without the weight penalty of hauling around a separate power plant. Even better, the time spent in that mode is not counted towards its generous 5,000-hour flight time between overhauls, a key element of an aircraft’s running costs. 

The spacious cabin can be configured in luxurious executive format with seats for up to eight, or in a commuter format with seats for up to 10 passengers, plus one more in the co-pilot’s seat. With the cargo-area bulkhead moved forwards, fewer seats can leave more room for stuff. Flying with just one or two pilots frees up the entire 14.2cu m cabin, which is 7m long. And finally, in medical evacuation mode there is room for three patients on stretcher beds, plus accompanying medics. There’s not much constraint on how one can use the aircraft.

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Up in the cockpit, four huge screens present navigation information derived from global positioning satellite (GPS) and radio-beacon sources. The PC-24 also, though, has an inertial reference system that is rare in this class of aircraft. In addition, there’s synthetic vision, a traffic alerting system and autothrottle – levels of assistance that mean it really can be flown by an owner who flies regularly enough to keep in practice, but is not a professional pilot.

Taxiing from the factory to the adjacent airport meant crossing a main road – assisted by pilot-operated traffic lights to stop the traffic. That done, and lined up on the runway, the two Williams engines put out 1,551kgf of thrust each to push the PC-24 along and away from the ground smartly. At a maximum take-off weight of 8,300kg, it can climb to its ceiling of 13,716m in just 26 minutes. That means it can quickly get clear of bad weather and into the thinner air where turbofan engines are most economical. And that, in turn means its range, with four passengers and sensible reserves of fuel, is 2,000 nautical miles (3,704km). Even with a full payload of 1,134kg its range is 1,182NM (2,189km). 

Buochs airport has a challenging approach, which involves flying around a mountain before being able to see the runway, and quickly turning to establish a stable final descent. In the PC-12 that translates into quite a high workload – but in the PC-24 it was easier. I could feel exactly what the controls were doing, but without needing to put in a lot of effort.

The aircraft doesn’t need much runway, either. At sea level, on a paved runway, take-off distance is 893m and landing distance is even less. That means it has a larger number of runways to use than most light jets. But the ability to use gravel or grass strips is the real game-changer – according to Pilatus, it doubles the number of landing sites available worldwide.

For some, that combination is crucial – which is why Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service was pretty well first in line for the aircraft to use alongside its PC-12s for longer flights. The earlier Pilatus carved out a reputation as the all-terrain SUV of the skies. But with the PC-24 jet the Swiss planemaker has taken that niche of aviation to new heights.

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