Pilatus Aircraft: A Swiss Success Story Turns 80

by J. Kasper Oestergaard, European Correspondent, Forecast International.

Pilatus is headquartered in Stans, Switzerland, at the foot of the Swiss Alps. The Alpine location has shaped the company’s history and core competency and resulted in a legacy of rugged, versatile aircraft suited for operation in the most difficult conditions. Source: Pilatus Aircraft

Pilatus Aircraft Ltd, based in Stans, Switzerland, south of Lucerne, is a successful and growing manufacturer of military trainers and general aviation aircraft. The company will celebrate its 80th anniversary in December 2019. The company was founded in 1939 as a small maintenance outfit set up to work for the Swiss Air Force.  Its first aircraft, the SB-2 Pelican, was developed in the early 1940s and made its maiden flight in 1944. The breakthrough came in 1959 with the piston-powered PC-6 Porter, which was later updated with turboprop engines and has remained in production to this day, with the last aircraft expected to be delivered this year. The success of the PC-6 was followed by the larger PC-12 turboprop announced in 1989, with the first delivery in 1994. For decades, the company focused solely on the turboprop segment of the market, but recently expanded into the business jet market with the entry of the Pilatus PC-24, a twin-engine light/medium-light jet. Expanding into business jets would seem to be the natural step for a successful manufacturer of turboprop aircraft, but it is also a risky move given the large investment required and the increased complexity. Pilatus has invested about $500 million in developing the PC-24. So far the expansion into business jets has been a big success for the company.

Pilatus in Brief:

Sales CHF1,092 million ($1,119 million)
Operating Income (EBIT) CHF157 million ($161 million)
Backlog CHF2,089 million ($2,141 million)
Employees 2,283 (52% in production; 93% in Switzerland). 150 new jobs created in 2018
Aircraft Delivered (2018) 128 (18x PC-24, 80x PC-12 NG, 27x PC-21, 3x PC-6)
Core Competency Development and manufacture of robust and versatile STOL aircraft
CEO Markus Bucher (since 2013)

Financial figures are all for 2018.

Over the past five years, Pilatus has nearly doubled its order book from CHF1.2 billion in 2014 to CHF2.1 billion in 2019, mainly due to the launch of the PC-24. Thanks to the ramp-up in PC-24 production, a sharp increase in sales in 2019 and beyond is expected. Higher sales, combined with a decrease in PC-24-related R&D, will likely translate into higher operating income. Also of note is the CHF315 million increase in shareholder equity since 2014.

Source: Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. 2018 Annual Report

The secret behind Pilatus’ success is the company’s niche focus and its core competency in the development and production of robust and versatile short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft that perform well even in the toughest conditions and environments. This is also something that is deeply rooted in Pilatus’ heritage and geographic location at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Buochs Airport, located just next to Pilatus’ home base in Stans, is owned 50 percent by Pilatus and 50 percent by the local canton Nidwalden.

Pilatus is privately held, and 100 percent of the share capital is owned by a group of Swiss investors, who acquired the firm in December 2000 with the intention of further developing Pilatus as an independent company and making it ready for an initial public offering (IPO) within three to four years. However, an IPO has yet to materialize. In December 2016, Reuters reported that Pilatus was considering an IPO for 2017, which at the time was expected to value the firm at around CHF3 billion.

Pilatus conducts its operations through three business units: General Aviation, Government Aviation (focused on trainer aircraft), and Other (maintenance, subcontracting). In 2018, 55 percent and 45 percent of revenues were generated by the General Aviation business unit and the Government Aviation business unit, respectively.

At the headquarters in Stans, Pilatus is currently constructing a brand new structure assembly hall (Hall S). It was originally slated for completion in mid-2019, but as of August 2019 no news on whether this schedule was met had been reported. The new Hall S will add 118,400 square feet of production area and is being built using local timber. Work in the new hall will focus on the PC-24. According to Pilatus, the new assembly hall will house all the processes required for the autonomous production of aircraft airframes.

Internationally, Pilatus owns and operates two independent subsidiaries. Pilatus Business Aircraft, based in Broomfield, Colorado, USA, was founded in 1996 and currently employs 107 people. In 2018, the company opened a new 118,000-square-foot aircraft interior and exterior completions center in Broomfield. About 70 percent of all PC-12s that come off the production line in Stans are finished to customer specifications (interior and exterior) in Colorado. Pilatus’ American subsidiary is also responsible for PC-12 and PC-24 marketing, sales and services activities in North and South America. The other subsidiary, Pilatus Australia, located in Adelaide, was set up in 1998 as a sales support center and is responsible for marketing of the PC-12 and PC-24 in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands. Pilatus Australia employs 44 people.

In 2018, the company’s largest market was the Americas with 32 percent of total sales, ahead of Europe (27%), Australia (22%), Asia (16%), and Africa (4%). Pilatus utilizes more than 1,500 suppliers in 30 countries on five continents, with 60 percent of order values going to Swiss suppliers.

Pilatus’ aircraft families include the PC-6 Porter turboprop, the PC-12 NG turboprop, and the PC-24 super-versatile business jet, as well as the PC-7 Mk II, PC-9 M and PC-21 turboprop trainers.

The Pilatus PC-6 was originally developed in the late 1950s as a piston-powered utility aircraft, but today features a single 550-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-27 turboprop engine and a modern glass cockpit. According to Pilatus, the aircraft’s unique STOL capabilities, reliability and versatility in all weather and terrain conditions have established the reputation of the PC-6 as a rugged utility aircraft. The cabin seats up to 10 passengers or over 2,200 pounds of cargo and can be easily reconfigured. Pilatus announced in 2017 that it will deliver the last PC-6 in 2019 after a production run spanning nearly six decades. To date, approximately 600 PC-6 aircraft have been built.

The Pilatus PC-12 NG is the newest variant of the company’s best-selling single-engine turboprop aircraft, with over 1,600 units produced to date. The aircraft is powered by a 1,200-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67P turboprop engine. According to Pilatus, the success of the PC-12 is due to its combination of a spacious pressurized cabin, low operating costs, first class flying characteristics, and the ability to operate on grass and other unpaved surfaces. Due to the aircraft’s versatility, the PC-12 has become popular for business travel as well as for use as a passenger and cargo transport and air ambulance, and for special missions. Operators include the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The PC-24 is powered by two Williams International (Rolls-Royce) FJ44-4A dual-channel FADEC-equipped turbofan engines each providing 3,400 pounds of maximum takeoff thrust. It seats six to eight passengers (executive) or up to 10 when configured for commuter transportation. The aircraft comes with seven layout choices: executive, commuter, combi, medevac, special mission and two quick-change configurations. The PC-24 can take off from runways as short as 2,690 feet (820 m) and has a maximum range of 1,950 nautical miles (single-pilot, four passengers, and an 800-lb payload). One downside is the PC-24’s maximum cruise speed of 425 kt/489 mph (787 km/h), which is 5-6 percent less than that of its competitors.

The PC-24 builds on the company’s almost 25 years of experience manufacturing and marketing the PC-12. It shares many of the features of the PC-12, including a spacious aft cargo/baggage compartment and wide cargo door, an easy-to-reconfigure cabin, and the ability to land on short, unpaved runways. This provides the PC-24 with an edge in the very competitive and cyclical market for light business jets. The 4-foot-wide cargo door makes it very useful for medevac missions and cargo transportation. According to Pilatus, the PC-24 is the only aircraft that combines the versatility of a turboprop, the cabin size of a medium-light jet, and the performance of a light jet. The PC-24 was revealed to the public at EBACE 2013, and the following year, Pilatus sold the first batch of 84 PC-24s in just one and a half days, and the order book was subsequently closed until receipt of feedback from the first PC-24 operators. The first PC-24 was delivered to launch customer PlaneSense on February 7, 2018. Pilatus reopened the order book in May 2019 with a base unit price of $10.7 million. By the end of 2018, 23 units had been produced and 18 delivered to customers. In the first quarter of 2019, Pilatus delivered five PC-24s.

Launched in 1994, the PC-7 Mk II is a light turboprop trainer aircraft. Pilatus markets the PC-7 as the ideal aircraft for basic training. The aircraft is powered by a 700-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-25C turboprop engine, and airframe and avionics systems are common with the PC-9 M. The close alignment with the PC-9 M allows air forces to take advantage of the combined infrastructure for maintenance on both aircraft types. The PC-7 is equipped with ejection seats, state-of-the-art instrumentation, and head-up displays. Over 150 PC-7 Mk IIs are today in operation in six countries. The latest customer is the Indian Air Force, which currently maintains a fleet of 75 aircraft.

The PC-9 M is a single-engine, twin-seat turboprop training aircraft powered by a 950-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-62. The PC-9 was launched in 1997 and is suitable for both basic and advanced training for military pilots. According to Pilatus, the aircraft is popular with instructors due to its broad training spectrum, modern cockpit environment, agility, and engine performance. The PC-9 features a substantially more powerful engine than the PC-7 Mk II, and also features a new wing profile, ejection seats, and a state-of-the-art glass cockpit with head-up displays. Since its entry, over 260 PC-9s have been sold to six air forces for their pilot training, including the Irish Air Corps and the Bulgarian Air Force.

The PC-21 is an advanced twin-seat turboprop trainer aircraft powered by a single 1,600-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68B. The PC-21 was developed to meet the growing requirements of air force training. According to Pilatus, training hours previously flown on jets can now be flown exclusively on the PC-21, generating substantial savings. Pilatus has also developed a fully integrated training system to accompany the PC-21, comprising the latest simulators, computer-based training, and pilot classroom instruction. Nine customers have bought a total of 211 PC-21s since the aircraft’s maiden flight in 2002.

For 2019, Pilatus expects to accomplish the following:

  • Complete a brand new structure assembly hall (Hall S) in Stans.
  • Reopen the PC-24 order book and double assembly volumes (tied to Hall S completion).
  • Commence construction of a new hangar, with offices at Adelaide International Airport.

Pilatus’ Strategic Focus is centered on the following:

  • Increased use of automation in production processes => productivity increase and lower labor costs.
  • Successful management of PC-24 production ramp-up.
  • Improved customer service.
  • Continued reinforcement of a network of Authorized Sales and Service Centers.

The future holds bright for Pilatus. The company has found a lucrative niche in the market for business and general aviation aircraft, is well-diversified across product types, seems well managed, and has strong financials.


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