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PC-21taking the GCC trainer market by storm

Posted 12 November 2012 · Add Comment

With Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar having adopted the PC-21, the type is now the trainer of choice for the three largest of the GCC's six air forces. Jon Lake looks at the reasons why.


Hot on the heels of the November 2009 order for 25 aircraft from the UAE and the May 2012 order for 55 from Saudi Arabia, the Pilatus PC-21 basic trainer has scored another sales success in the GCC region with an order for 24 PC-21s from the Qatar Emiri Air Force.

Pilatus is now tantalisingly close to its aircraft becoming standardised across the GCC.

Ironically, the PC-21’s main rival is the Hawker Beechcraft (formerly Raytheon) T-6 Texan II, which is a derivative of Pilatus’ previous PC-9 trainer. But, despite the advantages enjoyed by a US-supplied aircraft type, the PC-21 is proving extremely competitive and has already won orders in Switzerland (eight aircraft), Singapore (19 aircraft), and been evaluated by Australia and Spain.

Though it took the proven PC-9 as a starting point, the PC-21 is a completely new design, intended to replace different aircraft used across the spectrum of the elementary, basic, advanced (lead-in), and even the advanced (tactical weapons) training phases.

The PC-21 is being promoted by Pilatus as a flight, attack and systems trainer (FAST), with docile enough handling to be able to undertake early phase flying training, yet with sufficient performance and handling and with the right embedded training systems to be able to replicate the ‘fast jet experience’ well enough to be a great advanced trainer, too.

And, says Pilatus, it does so while offering lower operating costs because it is powered by a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-68B turboprop engine, rated at 1,600-shp (1,190kW), which drives a five-bladed, graphite, Hartzell propeller.

Pilatus claims that the direct operating cost of the PC-21 is less than half of that of its nearest competing jet FAST type (and 40 times cheaper than a modern fast jet fighter), and that it costs about one quarter of a modern lead in fighter trainer (LIFT) type aircraft. Performance is impressive for a turboprop, with a maximum speed of 370kt and a sustained low-level cruising speed of 320kt.

Like most of its rivals, jet or turboprop, the PC-21 has tandem cockpits with three large colour liquid crystal displays (LCD), head-up displays (HUD), hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls and Martin-Baker MkCH16C zero-zero ejection seats in each.

More unusually, the cockpit is covered by a bird strike-resistant canopy with all-round vision, and without a separate windscreen. And, uniquely in its class, the PC-21 has a new short-span wing with a swept leading edge and a high-speed profile, which gives good performance and fast-jet type handling on approach.

The aircraft can be fitted with under-wing hardpoints for the carriage of stores, including fuel tanks and a range of weapons, but can also emulate the use of advanced air-to-air missiles and radar. All of this means that not only can the PC-21 simulate a modern frontline fighter in some limited aspects, rather it can give the student pilot a really convincing replication of flying and operating a modern fast jet, and can be a genuinely useful preparation for frontline types, though most customers so far have procured it to operate alongside the very types of elementary and advanced trainers that it could easily also replace.

In the Gulf, the UAE announced an order of 25 PC-21s for the United Arab Emirates Air Force at the 2009 Dubai Airshow. The aircraft will replace the UAE’s aging fleet of Pilatus PC-7s. But an advanced trainer is also being sought, with the Alenia M-346 provisionally selected. The first UAE PC-21 made its maiden flight on November 22 2010 and deliveries began in the first quarter of 2011.

Saudi Arabia signed a contract with BAE systems to provide 55 Pilatus PC-21 aircraft (along with 22 BAE Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer aircraft) in May 2012. First deliveries will begin in 2014.

Saudi student pilots will transition from the Cirrus SR-21 to the glass cockpit PC-21 and will then go on to fly the Hawk 65/65A (with an analogue cockpit) before finally progressing to the new Hawk AJT (which has a modern glass cockpit). This leaves an obvious requirement for a glass cockpit upgrade for the Hawk 65/65A, or for a follow on Hawk AJT buy to replace these aircraft.

Qatar announced an initial order for 12 PC-21s on April 20 2012 but subsequently doubled the number to 24. A contract was signed to this effect on July 30 and this covered provision of the aircraft as part of a wider training system, including ground-based training devices, as well as maintenance and logistics support.

The 24 PC-21s to be delivered to Qatar will equip a new QEAF Air Academy, which will receive its first aircraft in the middle of 2014 and where training will commence during mid-2015.

PC-21 operations will be directly supported by Pilatus under a long-term incentivised performance-based support contract.

Qatar previously sent pilots overseas for basic training, conducting advanced training on the Alpha Jet in-country.

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