I can hear my Papaw speaking from the grave, “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole! Are you crazy?!” I’m going to stir the pot with this article as it seems to me there is only one type of turboprop pilot with as much passion for their steed as a King Air 350 pilot – and that is a PC-12 pilot. Owners are justifiably passionate about their favorite airplane because both are singularly outstanding. But which one should a prospective buyer purchase?
Those who frequently read my writing know I am a big fan of the King Air 350. They are fast, super comfortable, carry a load and hold value well. But, there is a true competitor to the King Air 350 in the PC-12. Most PC-12 owners would argue the PC-12 is the frontrunner if competition between the two airplanes existed. And, in all honesty, competition does exist in the marketplace every time a buyer wants an airplane to move six to 10 people, plus bags, in comfort, over a long distance. One or both of these airplanes will likely be on the shortlist, and my goal is to highlight some of the considerations when contrasting these aircraft.
When it comes to cruise speed, the King Air 350 is going to win every time. With an average cruise of 305 KTAS, it can fly more than 45 KTAS faster compared to the PC-12 (260 KTAS average). Of course, some are faster, some slower – all dependent upon factors such as the power setting chosen by the pilot, the cruising altitude and the OAT. But while the PC-12 is slower, it counters with a better range. With two wings worth of fuel feeding one engine, it can fly well past the bladder limit of most pilots.
Either airplane will carry a load, and I do mean a load. I’ve had a King Air 350 filled with 10 people, each of them toting bags, and we still climbed out at 2,000 fpm and flew more than 3 hours in pressurized comfort. Similarly, I’ve flown a PC-12 from Europe to the United States with the entire baggage area full, overflow bags belted into the remaining rear seats, and all other seats full of people. I remember jumping off the runway at Reykjavik, Iceland, in that fully loaded PC-12 and thinking, “What a great performing airplane!” Both airplanes will haul an incredible load, making weight and balance issues a near nonissue.
While both have good avionics suites, the two avionics suites are very different. Any King Air 350 built since 2004 will have some sort of Pro Line avionics, and the PC-12 will probably have a Honeywell panel. Both have a similar footprint in the hangar, both are totally insurable, and both have excellent resale potential on the market.
But, aside from these similarities, let’s explore the stark differences. Those differences center around the maximum gross weight (MGW) and the fact that one is a single-engine and the other a multi-engine.
The King Air 350 is certificated in the commuter category, and as such has an MGW of over 12,500 pounds. This means the pilot will require a BE300 type rating. While the BE300 type rating is obtainable by most pilots, the stress of going through type training is significantly higher than that of an airplane with an MGW of less than 12,500 pounds. Training for any non-jet airplane below 12,500 pounds only requires “initial training.” A type rating requires a full-blown FAA check ride with a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), and “initial training” can be provided by any insurance-approved, appropriately rated flight instructor. Plus, the cost of the BE300 type rating is higher than training that doesn’t lead to a type rating.
But the main difference between the two airplanes is obvious: one is a single-engine and one is a multi-engine. The ramifications of that fact are probably what will drive your buying decision making. And I’m not talking about the, “I don’t feel safe in a single-engine airplane” mentality, but rather the operational ramifications of flying a single-engine versus a multi-engine.
The venerable PT6 engine found on both airplanes has earned its reputation as being incredibly reliable. Even the most vocal of the population who demand power redundancy in aviation will quietly admit that the chance of failure in a properly maintained PT6-equipped airplane is remote, save a pilot-induced fuel starvation issue. This is not a “single versus multi” discussion in terms of safety, for both airplanes are incredibly safe. The discussion needs to hinge upon the operational differences between the two planes.
There are some buyers who need a multi-engine airplane for insurance reasons. Sometimes a buyer will have super high insurance coverages that demand the most conservative approach to aviation. When “normal” limits of coverage won’t cut it, sometimes the single-engine airplane won’t cut it either. In these cases, flying with two pilots will probably also be required. But typically, the PC-12 is considered a very safe risk for an insurance underwriter, and I don’t think any buyer needs to worry about the single versus multi debate from the standpoint of reliability. A buyer needs to understand the advantages of a single in terms of efficiency. Efficiency is where the single-engine shines when compared to a multi-engine.
The simple fact that two fuel tanks (usually in the wings) feed one engine means that any single-engine airplane will have a better range than a multi-engine comparison. And, the single will have less engine reserve costs, fuel expenses and operational costs. For this reason, much of the business aviation world is turning to the single-engine turbine.
Think about it: Every turbine airplane manufacturer is turning to the single-engine turbine. Cirrus Aircraft, Daher TBM, Piper Aircraft, and now Textron Aviation is producing (or about to produce) a turbine single. I believe Beechcraft (now Textron Aviation) is about 20 years late developing the single-engine Denali, which is supposed to take flight for the first time late this year. Had Beechcraft pushed its research and development team to produce the Denali 20 years ago, the PC-12 would probably not enjoy the huge presence it enjoys today. Nevertheless, I have no doubt the Denali is going to be a solid airplane that I suspect many King Air aficionados will readily accept because of its deep roots in King Air soil.
So, the question that needs to be asked to determine which airplane is right for you is, “Are you emotionally driven by efficiency or by power?” Those who are driven by efficiency will quickly gravitate to the PC-12. Those who are driven by power will gravitate to the King Air 350. Now, this doesn’t mean the PC-12 is not powerful nor the King Air inefficient. It simply means the PC-12 is more efficient than the King Air 350 and the 350 is more powerful than the PC-12.
A PC-12 owner will tell you how the PC-12 will show up at a destination on a 600-nm flight only 15 minutes after the King Air 350. They’ll also love to compare fuel bills at that destination. The PC-12 owner will also say phrases like “engine reserve,” “prop reserve” and “cost per nautical mile.” That PC-12 owner will revel in the knowledge that their operational costs are the lowest in the market for an six to 10 passenger cross-country machine.
On the other hand, a King Air owner will love cruising at nearly jet-like speeds, thrill at the rate of climb (even when heavy), and smile when advancing the power levers on the takeoff roll. Power is certainly seductive, and the King Air 350 seduces well. The King Air pilot will say things like, “Fuel is cheap these days,” and, “Yeah, I got the Blackhawk conversion.”
Interestingly, I rarely see the owner of a smaller single-engine turbine (Meridian, TBM, JetPROP) move up to a King Air. Anyone who operates one of these smaller, single-engine turbines is absolutely driven by efficiency and could not stomach the thought of burning 100-plus gph when flying anywhere. But, I’ve also never seen a Cessna 421 owner move up to a small, single-engine turbine. Those pilots will almost always move up to a King Air or another multi-engine turbine. The point I’m making is mindset is the critical factor.
Personally, I find both airplanes are the tip of the spear in their respective categories, and a well-informed buyer cannot go wrong with either selection. As the pilot, I would happily build my career upon either steed.