Pilatus Aircraft, founded in 1939, is the only Swiss company to develop, produce and sell aircraft to customers around the world: from the Pilatus Porter PC-6 to the PC-12, the PC-21 military trainer, and the PC-24—the world’s first business jet designed to be able to use short, unprepared runways.
It now has more than 2,000 employees at its headquarters, making it one of the largest employers in central Switzerland. The company’s home base, Airport Buochs, is owned 50 percent by Pilatus and 50 percent by the Canton Nidwalden. Total Sales in 2018 reached CHF1,092 million (around $1.1 billion) and net earnings were CHF157 million. The total number of employees at what is a 100 percent Swiss-owned company stood at 2,283 at the end of 2018; and it had delivered more than 3,800 aircraft.
The history of Pilatus as a manufacturer began with the SB-2 Pelican, first built in 1940 and designed for use in mountain regions such as the Swiss Alps. But it was the P-2 and P-3, for the Swiss Air Force, that brought Pilatus its first “enduring success.” The PC-7, developed from the PC-3 and incorporating a turboprop engine, was used for pilot training by the air force and also by Swissair, the then-national airline of Switzerland.
However, the company sees its “real breakthrough” as coming in 1959 with the Pilatus Porter PC-6 utility single. This was an “exceptionally rugged aircraft,” with versatility and excellent STOL credentials. Growth in sales on the international aircraft market was swift, and the PC-6 is still very much in demand.
These days, the mainstay of the company’s success is the PC-12 single-engine turboprop, the new PC-24 twin-engine “Super Versatile” jet, and on the military side its PC-21 trainer, which is selling well to air forces around the globe. At NBAA-BACE 2019, the company (Booth 12609) is displaying examples of both its PC-12 NG turboprop and PC-24 jet (Static SD804).
Pilatus Aircraft was born on December 16, 1939, when Emil Georg Bührle set up a small maintenance outfit to work for the Swiss Air Force in Stans, in the heart of Switzerland. In early March 1940, construction started on the production buildings, and in early June, a workshop opened with 65 employees performing assembly and overhaul work on the Swiss-built EKW C-35 twin, and repairs to the German Messerschmitt Bf-108 four-seat single, both serving as reconnaissance aircraft for the Swiss Air Force. Then 1941 saw the approval of a project for a new single-seat training design, the P-1, for the Swiss military, but the project was abandoned.
The official company inauguration took place on February 5 that year in the presence of General Henri Guisan. The Swiss Aviation Office ordered the planning and construction of a five-seat, slow-flying aircraft designed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. This aircraft was named the SB-2 “Pelican,” but despite the prototype taking flight in 1944, the design did not enter series production.
Then, in 1943, Pilatus had a second attempt at its own aircraft with the development of a two-seat trainer, the P-2, which made its first flight on April 27, 1945. The World War II period had given birth to a full-fledged aircraft manufacturer.
The company subsequently also built gliders, set up service stations, and carried out manufacturing for other aircraft producers such as de Havilland (fuselages and tail booms for Vampire and Venom jet fighters). The P-3 and P-4 were produced before development work started in 1957 on the Pilatus Porter, the PC-6 STOL aircraft. This made its first flight (HB-FAN) on May 4, 1959.
In 1960, a Pilatus Porter with the markings “YETI” flew to Nepal to take part in a Swiss expedition, setting a new world record when it landed at an elevation of 5,500 meters (18,045 feet) above sea level. In 1964, a PC-6 production license was granted to Fairchild Hiller in the U.S.
The Twin Porter PC-8D made its maiden flight on November 15, 1967. Meanwhile, Pilatus continued to grow its ambition in civil and military aircraft production. In 1979 it acquired Britten-Norman, a British company producing the Islander twin and Trislander three-engine aircraft. For some years, the subsidiary was Pilatus Britten-Norman, before being sold again in 1998.
By then the Pilatus workforce had reached around 250, and it was about to design an aircraft that would set the stage for further solid growth—the PC-12, powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6A turboprop. Development work started in 1987 and in 1991 the first PC-12 prototype (HB-FOA) completed its maiden flight (on May 31). FOCA (the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation) approved the type on March 30, 1994, and the U.S. FAA followed suit on June 15 the same year.
With sales prospects looking good in North America, in 1996 Pilatus Business Aircraft was established in Broomfield, Colorado. By 1997 Pilatus was rolling out the 100th PC-12 and by 2001 the workforce exceeded 1,000 for the first time. From that point on Pilatus has never looked back, as its development accelerated. December 2004 marked the production of the 500th PC-12 as the fleet reached one million flying hours.
In 2005 the PC-12 received an upgrade, with an increased maximum takeoff weight, improvements to the ailerons, new wing-tips, new pilot seat, and other minor modifications. FOCA type approval for the new PC-12/47 model came on December 14 and from the FAA on December 23.
This led in 2007 to another upgrade and the first appearance of the PC-12 NG, with upgraded glass-cockpit avionics, at the NBAA Convention in September. The aircraft was a sales success: it was certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the FAA on March 28, 2008. Pilatus by this time had produced 788 PC-12s, as it switched production to the PC-12 NG.
By 2010 the Swiss manufacturer was celebrating the delivery of the 1,000th PC-12 in July of that year, and by August 2013 it delivered the 1,200th. Emboldened by success and a much-improved financial position, Pilatus had started to develop a twin-engine jet that would have unique capabilities akin to those of the PC-12, but with greater range and speed.
At EBACE 2014 in Geneva, with great fanfare, Pilatus opened the PC-24 order book, and starting May 20, it saw the first three years’ production—some 84 aircraft—sell out in only one and a half days. The PC-24 rollout celebration at Buochs Airport, adjacent to the Stans manufacturing facility, took place later that year, on August 1, with some 35,000 visitors from Switzerland and beyond joining the party.
The following year, in 2015, the PC-24 “Super Versatile Jet” made its first flight. It was May 11, and PC-24 Prototype P01 was airborne in only 1,900 feet, climbing to 11,900 feet in three minutes before landing 55 minutes later. The second PC-24 prototype P02 was unveiled to the U.S. public for the first time at the NBAA Convention in Orlando in October 2016. The third and final PC-24 prototype, representing the series production standard, made its maiden flight on March 6 that year. Meanwhile, the PC-12 continued to sell steadily, and by June 2017 the OEM was handing over the 1,500th PC-12 to one of its leading customers, the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia.
On December 7 Pilatus celebrated dual type certification of the PC-24 by EASA and the FAA, leading to the first delivery of the type, to PlaneSense in the U.S., in February 2018. Development continued as deliveries commenced, with June seeing a PC-24 make the type’s first landing on an unpaved runway, in Woodbridge, England. The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia took delivery of its first PC-24, with medevac interior, in November 2018.
In October 2018, Pilatus opened a PC-12/PC-24 completion center in Broomfield, Colorado. All PC-12s and PC-24s for delivery to the U.S. are now completed in the new facility. Pilatus plans to deliver 80 PC-12s and 40 PC-24s this year.