From medical emergencies to law enforcement, these machines enable agencies to protect and save lives.
By Woody McClendon
The airborne public service community performs vital missions within society which demand much of their flightcrews and require reliable aircraft so their missions aren’t compromised by mechanical problems. Popular turboprop manufacturers serving this community well include Daher with its Kodiak and TBM aircraft, Pilatus with the venerable PC-12, and Textron with its reputable King Air and Caravan series.
King Air 200 series first came to market in 1974. Since then, more than 7000 have been built in various iterations. Its latest version – the King Air 260, is still in production. The larger Air 350 began deliveries in 1990. It features a fuselage extension of almost 3 ft, vibration and sound insulation, and 2 Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) PT6-60A engines generating 1050 shp apiece for a top speed of 310 kts.
King Airs have become popular airplanes in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) community. The US Army uses them extensively for transport missions and, in heavily modified form, for ISR tasks. Moreover, 50-plus US law enforcement agencies have reconfigured King Air 200s for their own types of ISR mission, usually with easily convertible interiors to serve VIP assignments.
ISR missions usually require the airplane to fly between 10,000 and 15,000 ft. At those altitudes, a King Air 200 can loiter for almost 8 hours, providing continuous datalink imaging of a subject to ground units and command and control centers.
The air medical community adopted the King Air 200 early on as a patient transport aircraft. Its large cabin, long range, and good takeoff and landing performance made it a good fit for recovering patients from small, out-of-the-way airports and flying them to specialized hospitals hundreds of miles away.
Equipped with onboard oxygen, 110V AC power for medical devices, and cabinets to house medical gear, the King Air 200’s ample cabin is ideal for supporting sick patients in a comfortable environment for them and for medical crewmembers.
Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls SD, operates 4 King Air 200s, each of them flying some 1000 hrs a year, transporting patients from Minnesota to Montana to specialized care facilities within Sanford’s medical network. The King Air 200 is ideally suited for this mission. Its long range manages the distances easily, and the medical crews working in well-equipped cabins keep patients stabilized until their arrival at the hospital. Sanford is but one example of the many flight operations around the US for which the King Air is the ideal airplane.
Single-engine Cessna Caravan was first offered in 1984. With a number of design upgrades over the years, almost 3000 of them have been put into service. Many serve as ISR platforms for law enforcement agencies throughout the US. The Caravan can loiter on site for almost 7 hours. Its large cabin provides plenty of space for surveillance gear, and at least 1 analyst station – all with the low-cost structure of a single-engine airplane.
CNC Technologies, a company in California, specializes in designing and configuring highly sophisticated systems for airborne law enforcement missions. They are completing Caravans that will enable a number of agencies to perform surveillance missions, as well as enforcing traffic rules and keeping criminal activities, such as drugs and weapons trafficking, under control.
Eric Weidner, COO at CNC, explains how the company has developed a strong market presence supporting law enforcement agencies at every level with datalink-based systems. “We work with folks at all levels of government to create systems for a variety of security missions,” Weidner says. One of them is an overhead surveillance and tracking network. He continues, “Our system includes an airborne datalink network that serves local police, state and federal agencies. Their teams are able to work closely together on a real-time basis, checking intrusions and other anomalies the instant they are detected.”
PC-12 was first produced by Switzerland-based Pilatus Aircraft in 1994. Soon thereafter, Chris Finnoff, a prominent aviation businessman in Denver CO who had successfully sold Piper Cheyennes and King Airs, negotiated an exclusive sales franchise with Pilatus for the US. It was another success for him, with more than 240 airplanes in total sales through 2018, when he stepped aside and sold the business to another entity.
Although PC-12 enthusiasts pictured PC-12s replacing King Airs on a wide basis, there was concern about a single-engine airplane increasing the risk of flying in bad weather or overwater, as compared to multi-engine planes. In the PC-12’s early days, there were a few engine-out forced landings, one of them at night in the Sea of Japan. Amazingly, there were no fatalities in these incidents.
Pilatus worked proactively at increasing powerplant reliability. With a number of system improvements, some in cooperation with P&WC, they succeeded. There has not been an inflight engine failure in a PC-12 since 1999 – with the exception of several from fuel exhaustion, which is hardly the airplane’s fault.
Almost 2000 PC-12s have entered service since the type’s introduction in 1994. The latest version of the airplane, the PC-12 NGX, includes an autothrottle system that actively assists the pilot in better engine management and further reducing the risk of problems.
The PC-12 cabin is among the largest of any turboprop. Only the King Air 360 cabin is larger, with 3 additional feet in length. It features a cargo door that extends 4 ft 4 inches high and 4 ft 6 inches wide, and swinging up and out of the way for cargo or patient loading, which is a challenge even in larger corporate jets, such as Gulfstreams and Challengers. Flight nurses and medics love the PC-12 for its big, easy-to-manage door, through which their patients are put aboard the airplane by a special-purpose lifting device.
The PC-12 early on found a place in air medical operations. “To get as close as possible to trauma patients, we fly into a lot of small, unimproved airports around the US,” says Tim Buffington, chief pilot at Air Methods. “The PC-12 offers the best takeoff and landing performance of any turboprop, along with decent payload and range, so we’re able to do a better job serving patients in those remote parts of the country.”
Air Methods has increased its PC-12 fleet by almost 30% in the past decade. Buffington adds, “The PC-12 offers the lowest operating costs of any airplane we could use in our business.”
Kodiak 100. In 2019, Daher announced the acquisition of Quest Aircraft – the original manufacturer of the rugged, unpressurized Kodiak 100. At the time of the acquisition, there were already more than 270 examples in operation in 67 countries, serving a variety of missions with humanitarian organizations and government agencies.
Fitted with Garmin G1000 NXi avionics and powered by a P&WC PT6 that enables short takeoff and landing, prominent Kodiak 100 operators in the United States include the Department of the Interior US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Montana-based aerial firefighting company Bridger Aerospace.
TBM turboprops have served special missions for decades. The French armed forces, for example, have been operating TBMs since the early 1990s to perform liaison duties between their operational bases throughout Europe. Average activity for this fleet is approximately 4000 flight hours annually. “The most recent operator is the French national flight test center, which purchased a fleet of 4 TBM 940s for use in liaison, training, and testing duties,” declares Daher Director of TBM Sales & Promotion Philippe de Segovia.
Daher advertises its TBM turboprops as platforms with retrofit capabilities for a host of special missions, including emergency medical services (EMS). The company reports that it has medevac TBM operators serving remote locations in countries like Argentina.
Turboprop airplanes play a vital role in air medical operations, moving patients with critical health problems over distances that are impractical, or impossible, in helicopters. While helicopters save more than 40,000 lives a year, a large number of these patients require further transport to specialized facilities hundreds of miles away. Along with other patients who also need longer-range transport, turboprops account for an equal number of lives saved every year.
In their law enforcement roles, turboprops provide the ideal loitering platform for real-time surveillance of criminal activities. Their contribution to facilitating the interdiction and apprehension of major criminal actors is key to the success of dozens of such operations every week in
The constant stream of improvements in turboprop airframes and onboard systems ensures that they will continue to play an important role in saving lives and keeping
Woody McClendon has flown Challenger 604s on overseas trips, and Learjets, Citation IIIs, and King Air 350s in North and South America. His book When the Angel Calls relates his experiences over 10 years as a medevac pilot. He has written for Pro Pilot for more than 25 years.