"It's the Swiss Army Knife of airplanes."
So says Eric Zipkin, President of Tradewind Aviation, about the Pilatus PC-12 turbo-prop—which makes up the core of the Tradewind fleet (the company operates 15 of them).
Zipkin and Tradewind chose the PC-12 for its combination of big aircraft features (30,000-foot service ceiling, which allows it to fly above weather when necessary; 300 mph cruise speed) and small aircraft advantages. The PC-12 is designed for short routes (fewer than 400 miles, perfect for the Tradewind route system), and to land and take off on short-fields, such as St. Barth (2,170-foot runway) and Nantucket (2,696 to 6,303-foot runways). The plane seats six to eight people, making it perfect for a family- or friends-charter, or getting to know people you've just met.
Zipkin says Tradewind had a lot of choices among aircraft when it started flying in 2002, but it went with Swiss company Pilatus—making the knife comparison even more apt. Zipkin emphasizes that the core appeal of the Pilatus PC-12 was reliability and short-field capability. (Translation: You'll be on time and you can feel safe landing on a short runway.)
"It was a clean-sheet design," says Zipkin, using airline parlance to mean that the plane was designed from scratch. In particular, the cockpit avionics minimize distractions, allowing the pilot to concentrate on flying by freeing him/her from many standard management tasks.
The PC-12's workhorse reliability is a result of the market niche for which it was designed: remote locations (servicing oil rigs on the North Slope of Alaska, flying to remote game lodges in southern Africa), places where maintenance is spotty or non-existent. "The plane was designed for an extreme environment," Zipkin says. The Tradewind route system, by comparison, is a cakewalk.
The remote-airports market niche meant that the PC-12 had to be designed for single-pilot operation. Tradewind, by choice, uses two pilots. Zipkin says "It's the single best thing you can do to increase safety because the pilots cross-check each other." (It also allows the pilot not flying the route to service the cabin.)
The PC-12 is nimble because the wing was designed for short-field runways. "It's one uninterrupted expanse of wing," says Zipkin. "Two-thirds of each wing consists of flaps," which produce the lift on take-off. Increase the PC-12's take-off weight by 60% and the take-off distance required increases only 48%, thanks to the wing design. It is also very stable at low speeds; the PC-12 is designed to land at 70-80 mph. "Close to the ground, the PC-12 is operating at highway speeds," says Zipkin.
That means Tradewind can fly to smaller, less congested airports, for example Chatham rather than Hyannis on Cape Cod—a big factor in the summer. It also means the plane's maneuverability is perfect for St. Barth, where the wind is often a considerable factor in landing.
Quite simply, "It's the right plane for Tradewind's mission.”