A trip to Gstaad in a Pilatus PC-12 is the ideal way to see the majestic Alps from the best possible angle, writes Ben Griffiths
Cycling around the snowcapped Matterhorn at 15,000 feet while nibbling a sugar-dusted almond croissant makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The jagged peak of this king of mountains fills the view from the windows of the Pilatus PC-12 I am flying in, while the various updrafts and downdrafts buffet the aeroplane, making it feel as if we’re driving over a badly rutted road.
Inside all is leather upholstery, shiny metal, wood and comfort, while outside inhospitable craggy mountains sail past, breathtakingly close to our wingtips, it seems. There are certainly worse ways to spend a Tuesday morning, particularly when a mere two hours earlier I was sitting down to coffee in Oriens Aviation’s luxuriously appointed hangar at Biggin Hill airport, where the company sells and maintains Pilatus aircraft.
With a turboprop machine like the PC-12, the pilot and passengers are treated to an almost airliner-like experience, but of course they are completely freed from set routes and scheduled flight times.
With this form of private flying, it is perfectly possible to turn up minutes before departure, jump in and go.
With our destination of Gstaad programmed into the avionics suite, a small detour to the Swiss-Italian border to see one the most famous of the Alps was easy. The view more than makes up for the additional time spent aloft.
Looking down on the Alps from an airliner gives no proper perspective. Only when you’ve whizzed along the mountain passes feeling as if you’re scraping your wings on the crags do you understand how rugged this country is. It may be a trick of the eye – the peaks are actually hundreds of feet below us – but the vagaries of mountain flying mean you can’t relax for a second.
The arrival into Gstaad is equally impressive and perfect to demonstrate the short-field performance of this PC-12 NG aircraft. The runway appears from behind a hillside at the foot of the valley and we set up our approach. Flaps down, gear down, slowing the PC-12 to landing speed as we follow the instrument landing route despite it being a gin-clear day. Best to be safe when surrounded by rock faces that are potential traps for the unwary. As we near touchdown, the nose is lifted into the flare and our wheels kiss the tarmac with a whispered squeak.
Immediately the pitch of the five blades on the Hartzell propeller is turned coarser so that the full, flat profile of them faces the airflow, acting like a huge speedbrake to bring the aircraft quickly to taxiing speed.
Gstaad airport – actually in the neighbouring village of Saanen – has to be one of the most impressive in Europe, if not the world. A stunning new wooden building houses a comfortable lounge and arrivals area.
This is enhanced further when a 1960s Bentley S3 once owned by Sir Roger Moore purrs alongside to collect us for a glamorous ride to our five-star hotel Le Grand Bellevue. Our PC-12 will be having almost as comfortable an overnight stay. The hangars themselves feature rotating floors finished in wooden parquet where even the most expensive private machine will feel at home.
The food at Leonard’s restaurant in Le Grand Bellevue is exquisite and locally sourced where possible. The cheese made from the milk of cows and goats grazing nearby is spectacular, particularly when accompanied by the excellent local wines.
Gstaad is an easy day trip. The tiny but picturesque village centre is barely a mile long yet boasts some of the most upmarket brands on the planet, as well as a smattering of longstanding local businesses from the dairy store to bakery and chalet-style gourmet burger stand.
Suitably rested in Swiss style after a deep sleep and a chance to experience the mountain air with coffee on the private terrace, sadly it’s time to hop back in the Bentley for the short drive to the airport. The PC-12 has already been prepared and is resplendent on the tarmac. Feeling like 007 himself, it’s a few steps to the aircraft and up into the cockpit.
The PC-12 fires back into life and our route back to Biggin Hill is programmed into the flight management system, an incredibly intuitive set of screens and keypads that quickly allow flightplans to be uploaded or edited on the fly. It’s a short taxi to the end of the runway.
Stopping, we spool up the engine against the brakes for a shortfield takeoff and soon leap into the sky as we accelerate us to full power.
All too soon our flight over Europe comes to an end and we’re making our descent back into gloomy London, the skyscrapers of the City and Docklands standing out against the grey clouds. The welcome sight of Biggin Hill’s landing lights appear before us as we settle on to the final approach.
Ben Griffiths writes for Spear’s
For more information on Bellevue Gstaad, visit https://bellevue-gstaad.ch/