PC-12 Popularity Helps Pilatus Launch Jet
It takes 70,251 rivets and 5,000 man-hours to fabricate a Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop, and when each PC-12 rolls into the final assembly process in Halle 9 at Pilatus’s Stans, Switzerland factory, the precise time and date when the airplane will be finished is noted on a label attached to the fuselage. This is no rough estimate, and Pilatus (Chalet A122) means exactly what the label says, according to Pilatus sales and marketing executive Fred Muggli. If the label, for example, for PC-12 serial number 1418, says May 22 at 1500, then that is precisely when that aircraft will be done.
Such clockwork precision is a hallmark of the Pilatus factory, tucked into a small corner of a former military airfield in Stans, where 1,500 employees have already built about 1,200 PC-12s along with PC-7 MkII, PC-9 M and PC-21 military trainers and the PC-6 Porter single-engine utility turboprop, which has been in production in various configurations for more than 50 years. Pilatus military trainers are flown by more than 30 air forces around the world.
The PC-12 prototype first flew in 1991 and is now displayed on a stand outside the Stans factory. Production of the PC-12 began in 1994, and in the early days of the program, Pilatus executives thought that the market might support about 250 of the model, but that obviously was much too conservative.
And now the Pilatus production line is about to expand, with the unveiling in May of the PC-24, a big step for Pilatus into the business jet market. Although Pilatus has kept the PC-24 under wraps, more than 300 engineers, including PC-12 designer Oliver Masefield, have been working on the program for the past few years. Two buildings at Stans are dedicated to the PC-24, a stack of temporary office cabins stacked in a cubelike structure plus a new hangar where prototype construction is under way. Entry into service of the PC-24 is planned in 2017.
While PC-12 wings and fuselages are manufactured at PZL-Świdnik in Poland and shipped to Stans, a Pilatus hallmark is the company’s high level of vertical integration. Parts as small as bushings and tiny fittings are all manufactured in Stans, and Pilatus has refined its capabilities, moving from riveted-together wing spars on the smaller trainers to fully machined single-piece spars on each of the PC-12’s wings.
Pilatus isn’t afraid of composites; it has a complete composites manufacturing shop where parts such as PC-12 dorsal fins, engine cowls and other parts are built. But Pilatus airframes remain primarily riveted aluminum construction, and that is not likely to change, according to Muggli. Long-time PC-12 operator Sauber F1 Team also employs Pilatus to build the composite wings for its Formula 1 racing cars.
From the assembly line where PC-12 fuselages are mated to wings and all the necessary components and parts attached and stuffed into the airframe, the nearly completed airframes are rolled into the paint hangar then to Halle 9. Wings are painted before mating with the fuselage, then final painting is done after most assembly work is completed. Halle 9 is one of the largest free-standing wooden hangars in the world, and inside this quiet building, Pilatus technicians do all final checks such as landing gear swings, cabin pressurization tests, compass swings and so forth, before the airplane emerges for a production flight test. After the flight test, the airplanes return to Halle 9 to be fitted with interiors and any final preparations prior to delivery.
Pilatus is proud of its record of zero defects, not just on delivery, but usually always during the production flight test, too, according to Muggli, something that few manufacturers are able to achieve.