Has the Pilatus PC-12NGX moved the goal posts beyond the Denali’s reach.

The Beechcraft Denali is said to be a 103% photocopy of the PC-12—a comment Pilatus finds flattering. And it is, after all, an old truism that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

IT IS REMARKABLE that it has taken 30 years for the mighty Textron/Cessna/Beechcraft to seriously challenge the Pilatus PC12. And after seven years of development, they still have not got it right. This despite the PC-12 regularly selling almost twice as many aircraft every year as Cessna does C208 Caravans.

The other manufacturers look enviously at Pilatus and its ownership of the market. Every so often a challenger rises up to try carve out a share of Pilatus’s success.

One of the most promising was the Czech Aero Ae270 Spirit developed by famed plane maker Aero Vodochody (think L-39 jet trainer). Another was the Russian Myasishchev M-101T which first flew in 1995 – and was prominently displayed at air shows in South Africa.

The Aero270 first flew in 2000, and most impressively Aero obtained European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Type Certification in 2005 and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) type certification in 2006. And then, after this truly colossal effort and cost, they gave up and didn’t put it into production. What killed it was probably the belated recognition that no matter how good the basic aircraft, without a world-wide maintenance repair and overhaul support structure, there would be few buyers.

Meanwhile Pilatus just ploughed ahead with stoical Swiss thoroughness and has now sold more than 1750 PC-12s. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, the success of the PC-12 would seem to be obvious. When it was launched thirty years ago, back in 1991, most thought the PC-12 would never compete against the King Air 200 which had the then unassailable advantage of two engines. However, after Pilatus won worldwide orders from organisations such as the Canadian Mounties and the Flying Doctor service, the twin engine safety argument began to look a bit thin. And, thanks to its low stall speed and strong cabin, the Pilatus safety record went on to vindicate it. (See Box on the Kelner Airways crash).

                                    ‘I can’t see Textron shareholders being happy’

The big breakthrough came in 1998 when the FAA approved the PC-12 for Part 135 Night and IMC air taxi operations. This silenced the few remaining critics of the single engine PT-6 operations and opened up a massive new market. But this approval is not going to be easy for the Denali to get. The PC-12’s success must have been intolerable for all those hapless Beechcraft salesgirls who were losing three out of four possible King Air B200 sales to the PC-12. Something had to be done, so with Textron having taken over Cessna and Beech, in 2015 the huge corporation announced it would build a competitor to the PC-12. It reveals some measure of the challenge that, even with all their resources, six years later Textron have still not got a Denali into the air. And the date keeps slipping – from first flight in 2019, then to end 2021, and now – no one is saying.

The Denali has more than Mt Pilatus to climb to earn its place in this market. The challenges are massive: one of the biggest questions is whether the Denali can ever be financially viable, let alone profitable for Textron. And if not, what with the pressures on the bottom line from the long drawn out Covid-19 pandemic, will Textron bring the project to market?

The Denali production line represents a huge investment by Textron – and the return on investment is questionable.

Thirty years ago it cost Pilatus U$700 million to develop and certify the PC-12. Allowing for inflation, a realistic cost for the Denali would now be at least U$1.5 billion. From GAMA’s uncontested numbers, the total market for high performance single engine turboprops is around 100 aircraft per year. Given the Pilatus dominance, Textron will be lucky to sell 25 Denalis per year. If we generously assume that they can recover U$1m from each new aircraft sale towards the development costs it will take them 60 years just to pay back the present value of the R&D and certification costs. I can’t see Textron shareholders being happy with that.

And given the imperative of competition for the Denali to be better and cheaper than the Pilatus – there will be much pressure on the profit margin, so a contribution of U$1m (almost 20% of the sale price) per plane sold is probably out of reach for Textron.

So the big question is – is the Johnny come-lately Denali going to be able to make any inroads at all into the PC-12’s stranglehold on the market? The signs are not good.

As the Denali steps into the ring, let’s try find some positives: The tale of the tape measure and scales is a good place to start. Cessna/ Beechcraft slavishly copied the PC-12 to the extent that the planes are hard to tell apart. Beech have added a smidgeon of size – or fat – here and there. The external dimensions are almost identical. The length is just 3 inches longer, the cabin height is the same, but usefully, the cabin width is 3 inches wider. The Denali’s square-oval-shaped fuselage uses all-metal construction to create a flat-floor cabin 4 feet 10 inches tall and 5 feet 3 inches wide.

The Denali will use a few composite components, including the winglets, weather radar housing and a number of fairings. The wing is a new design of primarily aluminium construction with a few titanium components. The wing features four large, electrically driven Fowler-type flaps for good low-speed handling during short takeoff and landing operations.

Carrying four passengers, the Denali will fly 1,600 nm at a max cruise speed of 285 knots. At the aircraft’s 31,000-foot service ceiling, the Denali’s 7.55 psi cabin differential will be the equivalent of an aircraft flying at 6,130 feet. It will maintain a sea-level cabin up to 18,500 feet.

It has always seemed to me that the PC-12’s vertical tail is a bit short – but then there is no asymmetric thrust. Still, the Denali’s tail is 14 inches higher – but will that mean a more expensive hangar? As the Denali is fractionally larger it means that, to make up for the extra size and weight, it has a more powerful engine, which uses more fuel – which adds more weight and cost.

             ‘stick with a tried and trusted engine’

Textron made their biggest mistake with the engine choice. Despite what must have been copper bottom assurances from General Electric, the Denali’s Catalyst engine is responsible for much of the delays – and the headaches that will come from getting it into service. There’s a lesson here: if you design an all new airframe – stick with a tried and trusted engine, as the airframe is then the main part to get right.

When the Denali was announced in 2016 the GE Catalyst engine was a huge and much needed leap forward. Unlike the clunky mechanically controlled PT-6, the Catalyst has full FADEC. That makes engine management easier, but it presented enormous redundancy challenges for an aircraft designed to be a single-engine air taxi.

The Catalyst has had a long gestation. So far it has completed over 2,300 hours on a test bed. But it still has not flown – even on its King Air 350 test bed. Given its provenance from GE, eventually through, it should be worth the wait.

In the meanwhile, Pilatus leaned on Pratt & Whitney hard enough to get them to finally make their PT-6A the PT-6E – with FADEC, single lever power control and an optional auto throttle. So the big FADEC advantage of the Catalyst was gazumped by Pratt & Whitney.

Textron makes the all-important claim that the Denali will have 15% better direct operating costs,l thanks to a longer TBO and reduced regular maintenance. But now that advantage has also been lost as Pilatus and Pratt & Whitney have increased its time between maintenance by between 40 – 100%.

The Textron spin doctors also claim that the Catalyst is more environmentally friendly than the PT-6 as it is more fuel efficient than the older mechanical turboprops. That may give some Tesla driving Denali owners a warm fuzzy feeling.

Perhaps because Cessna wanted to distance their brand from all this traumatic birth pain, it has been rebranded by the Textron parent from the Cessna Denali to the Beechcraft Denali. This means that it competes head to head with the King Air 260.

Other than a fractionally small increase in size and specifications over the Pilatus, the only thing that the Denali has going for it is Beechcraft’s large sales and support distribution network around the world. However, the challenge set by Pilatus is again high, with the Swiss maker having been awarded first prize for market support for the past 19 years.

The regulatory challenge facing Textron in getting the Denali to compete with the PC-12 is also huge. For a new engine and new airframe, the FAA will probably require at least 2000 hours of operational history to approve it for night and IFR Part 135 air taxi operations. This will take a few years and it is unlikely that commercial air taxi operators will be prepared to wait that long, taking even longer for the required operational history to be built-up.

In the meanwhile, Pilatus has not been resting on the laurels of its overwhelming market dominance. With the release of the PC-12NGX two years ago, the design has been updated and has made the NGX a worthy competitor to the Denali’s new bells and whistles. Apart from the optional, but very popular FADEC single lever engine control and autothrottle, the PC-12NGX, features Honeywell Epic-based EFIS but with enhancements that they call the Advance Cockpit Environment (ACE). For the boss in the back there are also new interiors from BMW Designworks.

Each side tries to claim small or non-existent advantages. Textron claims that the Denali’s flat floor cabin is the largest in its class and offers the versatility to easily convert between passenger and cargo configurations. It goes without saying that Textron copied Pilatus in the use of their innovative huge cargo loading door cut out from the side of the cabin. The Denali has individual adjustable climate controls for each seat and larger windows than even the Pilatus NGX upgrade. And it has a forward refreshment cabinet. I wonder which one will have more cup holders. Like the PC-12 it has an optional belted potty for an air hostie.

With all this hype and expectation – when will the Denali finally be available? Best guess is that certification is still two or three years away. And given its terrible return on investment – there must be a good chance that Textron will just cut their losses by cancelling the whole misbegotten project.

Denali’s higher tail may look better but will be harder to hangar.

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