Special mission turboprops
Cost effective platforms gain popularity in different roles.
Pilatus PC12NG Spectre is used for surveillance, command and control, personnel transport, EMS, ISR and cargo carrying. With 330 cu ft of cabin volume and a large loading door, it can go from a 9 pax transport to full cargo layout in quick change. Spectre is finding more use now as an ISR platform and can carry deployable EO/IR sensor—shown at right. Big cabin also lends itself to medevac. It can also carry a lot of cargo or troops for airdrop. Currently 15% of PC12 sales go to special missions.
Pilatus is another strong player in the special-mission segment. Marketing VP Tom Aniello says, "We definitely view it as a growth market—particularly as we gain notoriety for our reliability, ruggedness and efficiency."
Aniello adds, "The special mission market is very important to Pilatus and is one of 4 primary markets. This segment accounts for 15% of annual PC12 sales. We have seen demand grow significantly over the past several years as more PC12s have entered special-mission roles and been successful. As special-mission operators get pressed to do more with less budget, the PC12 provides them with many options to conduct multiple operations at a much lower cost than traditional twin-engine or rotary-wing special-mission platforms."
According to Pilatus, special-mission PC12s are used in roles that include air ambulance/medevac, command and control, cargo and personnel transport, utility drop and jump operations, ISR, border protection, drug enforcement and disaster response. Aniello notes, "The main thing our customers tell us is attractive about the PC12 is how versatile it can be as a multirole platform. It's very easy to reconfigure the PC12 to different roles depending on the agency's need. It gives them a lot of options in a very cost effective and efficient aircraft."
The Spectre is a special-missions version of the PC12 that features a retractable EO/IR sensor lift in the tailcone. Additional features include an operator's console in the spacious 330 cu ft cabin and an optional utility drop/jump door that is installed inside the standard cargo door. Customers typically provide their own sensors and unique communications equipment. Pilatus builds and installs the basic Spectre systems and equipment at its Broomfield CO location. For unique and complex configurations, the OEM partners with integrators such as Lockheed Martin or Sierra Nevada Corp.
The US Dept of Defense, with a fleet of more than 40 PC12s, is the largest fleet operator of special-mission Pilatus aircraft. Designated U28A, these aircraft provide a manned fixed-wing on-call/surge capability for improved tactical airborne ISR in support of Special Operations Forces.
According to the manufacturer, the fleet has recently passed the 250,000 flight hour milestone, and has achieved a mission availability rate of 96.5%.
According to Aniello, more than 80 PC12s are operating in dedicated air ambulance service worldwide. Australia's Royal Flying Doctor Service operates a fleet of 31 PC12s in an air ambulance/medevac capacity. Other fleet operators include the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Finnish Air Force and US Customs & Border Protection.
Aniello says, "We're seeing more state and local governments adopt the PC12 as a versatile and efficient multimission aircraft—Texas Dept of Public Safety and Phoenix Police Dept, to name just 2." In closing, Aniello says, "Word spreads quickly in the close community of special mission operators and the PC12 has created an excellent reputation for itself by being extraordinarily reliable, versatile and cost efficient."
Quest Kodiak was originally designed as a missionary aircraft. But its ruggedness is attractive for military and other government buyers for rough areas. Most recently Northrop Grumman began teaming with Quest to develop an Air CLAW special mission aircraft for ISR. Advanced ISR sensors are being packaged for the Kodiak which has a loitering time of up to 10 hrs. Kodiak is being used for aerial surveillance, medevac, cargo transport and parachute ops. US Dept of Interior has purchased 9 Kodiaks all on floats. Presently 12% of Kodiak sales are for special missions.
In Mar 2012, Quest Aircraft—makers of the single-engine Kodiak turboprop—entered into a partnership with Northrop Grumman to develop "Air Claw"—a new special-mission aircraft.
Under the agreement, the 2 companies will develop and market the Air Claw as an ISR aircraft to military, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and to foreign governments. The Air Claw will be equipped with advanced ISR sensors and provide a stable platform for operators to loiter for up to 10 hrs.
According to VP Sales, Marketing and Customer Service Steve Zinda, "We see the special-mission market as a growth opportunity and it's a major focus in our business plan. The Kodiak is well suited to the needs of special-missions operators, especially in unimproved airfield operations. That's where the Kodiak shines."
Currently, 12% of the Kodiak fleet is flying in the special missions role and is used for aerial surveillance, air cargo drop and parachute operations. The US Dept of Interior is the largest operator of Kodiaks with 9 aircraft, all on floats.
Today, most special-mission Kodiak aircraft are in use with governmental agencies. Certified in 2007, the Kodiak is a modern utility aircraft design. It offers "outstanding STOL performance, rugged construction, high useful loads and low operating cost."
Zinda adds, "There is a large fleet of aged assets in the field that need replacement. Along with those aged assets there are many international markets looking for budget-friendly options to some of the traditional special-mission aircraft. Kodiak provides customers with a cost-effective solution for their special mission needs."
Doing more with less
Today's socioeconomic realities find government agencies and other organizations tasked with ever-increasing demands and ever-decreasing budgets. These are common themes heard repeatedly throughout the special-missions market—and they have operators re-evaluating legacy fleets and sharpening their pencils when planning for future special-mission platforms.
In many cases, advanced technologies—such as lighter, smaller and more advanced sensors and communications equipment—allow smaller airframes to do the same (or better) job at lower cost.
Likewise, manufacturers of turboprop aircraft routinely team with highly capable systems integrators to offer both innovative and technically sound solutions to satisfy the appetite for highly versatile aircraft that combine multirole capability with low acquisition and operating cost. For the nimble operator, that's proof that they can do more with less.
Stuart Lau is a senior account manager for CAE Flightscape. He leads the IHST HFDM Working Group and acts as an IHST liaison to the Global HFDM Steering Group. He is also a pilot for a large international airline and a safety and accident investigation committee member. Lau has been associated with Pro Pilot since 1996.