A turbo-prop aircraft is the ultimate upgrade for serious private pilots. The Socata TBM-700 and Pilatus PC-12 offer near-jet like performance with the flexibility and short-field capabilities of a light aircraft and increasing numbers of owner-pilots are choosing these highly-capable aircraft for business trips, hobby flights and, for the more adventurous, to fly over the poles or around the world. But which is best?
“This aircraft is very easy to fly and has great performance,” explains Jacques Lemaigre du Breuil who bought his first Socata TBM-700 back in 1991. His company, JetFly , now operates six on a fractional scheme for owners throughout Europe. “It’s the best aircraft you can fly by yourself. You fly the approach at 80 knots, with no risk of shock cooling the engine and you can get into short strips. On takeoff, just apply 100% power and keep it there to flight level 170. Its 2,000 feet per minute climb lets you climb above the weather very quickly. It’s also very reliable and, best of all, the operating costs are about a third of Citation Bravo.”
He has taken the TBM-700 further and faster than any other owner. He holds two world speed records in the type. He got the first for flying around the world in 80 hours in an unmodified aircraft, beating the previous record by about 33 days. In a testament to the engine’s reliability, they had no problems at all and they didn’t even need to add any oil. His second record, emulating Charles Lindbergh, was a solo non-stop flight from Teterboro, New Jersey to Le Bourget, Paris.
An eighty-minute trip from UK dealer Air Touring in Biggin Hill, London to Siegerland, Germany is more typical. The plane climbed quickly to 27,000 feet and cruised at a top speed of 297 knots. Access to the aircraft is via a large door behind the wing and it seats four passengers in club configuration plus the pilot and co-pilot. The interior is roomy by light aircraft standards, but modest in comparison to business jets. The cockpit is very well equipped with electronic primary flight displays, terrain and traffic avoidance systems and weather radar, a moving map GPS display and a superb autopilot. The plane comes with Bose noise-cancelling headphones for crew and passengers and these make an already quiet aircraft even more comfortable.
Although simple to fly, the aircraft itself is very sophisticated. It is pressurised, de-iced and has a powerful Pratt and Whitney PT6 turboprop engine. It is designed for instrument flight up with the airliners and private jets. On the demonstration flight, the plane shrugged off light icing, lousy weather and the night landing was a cinch thanks to the ILS- and GPS-coupled autopilot.
Like the TBM-700, the Pilatus PC-12 has a single PT6 engine, full-deicing, pressurisation and a comprehensive avionics fit. The main differences are the size of the aircraft and its longer range. If the TBM-700 feels like a scaled-up and grown-up light aircraft, then the PC-12 is more like a scaled-down airliner. The cabin is bigger than a Beech King Air’s or a CitationJet’s and it has a proper air stair as well a cargo door. It has room for nine passenger seats in ‘commuter’ configuration and between six and eight in ‘executive’. The executive interior also includes a WC (not available on the TBM-700), which is a must given the aircraft’s 2,200nm maximum range.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police fly PC-12s from short, country airfields in the word imaginable conditions. The aircraft is available in combi cargo plus passenger configuration and Sauber Petronas, the Formula One race team, use one to ferry engines and other parts around Europe, but owner-pilots tend to be less utilitarian and go for the deluxe interior with tilting, swivelling leather seats and lots of space.
Test flying the plane at Pilatus’s factory in Stans, Switzerland is an adventure in itself. Stans is a military airfield surrounded by mountains. Fitting in between Air Force jet fighters, the departure procedure includes several steep turns and demonstrates the PC-12’s manoeuvrability and rapid climb. In flight, the PC-12 it is very precise and stable with well-harmonised controls. Like the TBM-700, its speed means that it is vital to stay ahead of the aircraft, but it is possible to slow it right down to 90 knots and manoeuvre it like a training aircraft. On a regular runway, the PC-12 will take off in 1800 feet with a full load in all conditions and the enormous flaps and reversible prop allow a slow approach and rapid stop in just few hundred feet. The trailing link landing gear makes landings smooth and impresses the passengers. The layout of the cockpit instruments and displays is tidy, logical and everything is easily within reach. Very Swiss. Most owners buy the optional 5” electronic flight displays for pilot and co-pilot. An angle of attack indicator is an important safety feature, which is standard on the PC-12 but not available on the TBM-700. Otherwise the equipment fit is very similar to the TBM-700.
Bruno Schroder, director of Schroders PLC, a substantial investment group, has owned a PC-12 since 1997. He bought it because he wanted a plane that could carry six passengers, luggage and dogs to his castle in Scotland. In five years, he’s flown 1,300 hours in it including four round trips across the Atlantic. From his base near London, “I’ve flown as far west as Anchorage, as far east as Parkistan, as far south as Capetown and I’ve been up over the North Pole.” It’s clearly a plane than can go long distances. Mostly, though, he uses it for shorter business and pleasure trips: “this week I’m going shooting outside Berlin so I’m flying out on Thursday night in time for dinner and I’ll be back in London on Friday night. Taking all the guns and ammunition on commercial flights would be a sweat and a half. I like the PC-12 because it goes further, has a bigger cabin and takes more people. I think it’s a superb machine.”
Neither plane presents a challenge to an experienced pilot with an instrument rating. Owners typically upgrade from complex singles like the Beech Bonanza or Piper Malibu with several hundred hours under their belt. Conversion training on both types takes a week or two but a safety pilot is recommended until you are fully comfortable with the aircraft. Both aircraft are so capable that they are going to be limited by the pilot’s competence in most circumstances.
A well-equipped PC-12 with an executive interior runs $3.3m compared to $2.5m for a similarly equipped TBM-700. Price aside, they are both very capable, high-performance self-fly aircraft but they have subtly different characteristics and missions. The TBM-700 has a higher maximum cruise speed (300 vs. 270 knots) while the PC-12 has more range with more load-carrying ability (2,261nm vs. 1,678nm) and a bigger cabin. Jacques Lemaigre du Breuil explained the differences best: “If the TBM-700 were a car it would be a Porsche and the PC-12, itself a very nice aircraft but different, would be a Range Rover.”
This article was first published in The Robb Report Collection in 2003. Since publication Socata has announced an upgraded version of the TBM-700 called the TBM-850 which has better performance. Prices correct when the article was originally written.