Message 20.03.2023

Back to (Air) Space – Claude Nicollier flies the PC-21

Astronaut and Test Pilot Claude Nicollier flies the Pilatus Next Generation Trainer. Leading a life packed with aviation, Claude Nicollier made space for a test flight on the 21st century trainer. His verdict was: “Wow, it flies like a jet!” Pilatus Aircraft Ltd

He has experienced things that most people can only dream of. Spread over many airborne vehicles, Claude Nicollier spent thousands of hours flying conventional aircraft. On top of that he has logged more than 1,000 hours in space during his four space missions. After being launched on a PC-21 into Swiss airspace together with Factory Test Pilot, Reto Obrist, he gave his thoughts on Pilatus and our advanced trainer.

A career up there

Arriving with train to Stans, we picked up Claude Nicollier and his flight equipment that he brought along for the day. Having retired from the European Space Agency, NASA and the Swiss Air Force, he has kept some gear and he sometimes goes flying in his own Piper Super Cub. Flying in the Swiss mountains is something that still receives his attention on the side of being an honorary Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and teaching the master’s course: Space Mission Design and Operation.

A day at Pilatus

The goal for this day is a test flight on the PC-21, but first we do a brief presentation of the company and the PC-21 Training System. In accordance with an aviator’s pledge: “mission first, safety always”, Claude Nicollier is equipped with the relevant flight safety equipment by Guido Frey, SME Aircrew Life Support. He checks that the G-suit, lifejacket, and helmet is well-fitted and goes through the ejection procedure for emergency purposes. Thereafter we have a quick lunch where we get to hear about the fascinating life of an astronaut.

Demonstrating the PC-21

The flight is planned for 14:00 and one hour before, the flight brief takes place in one of the briefing rooms at the flight department. The flight will consist of a demonstration of the aircrafts general handling qualities, aerobatics, a mission system demonstration and finally some traffic circuits around Buochs airfield. Claude Nicollier will be at the controls for general handling, aerobatics, and some of the circuit work.

Back on the ground

The flight is a success. Claude Nicollier greets us with a big smile after the flight and explains with enthusiasm how the PC-21 compares to other flight experiences.

Claude Nicollier, thank you very much for flying the PC-21 today. How does it feel to fly the Next Generation Trainer?

It really felt great, and I had a really good time! It flies like a jet, which is a wonderful training means for future jet pilots.

You went into space four times between 1992 and 1999 on a space shuttle. Take us on the flight, how does it feel when you look down at the earth from there?

It’s always a special feeling when you look down at the earth. My space flights were on so called “low earth orbits” where you stay closer to the earth. However, seeing the earth as a celestial body and not like a flat surface; to go around the earth 16 times per terrestrial day at 28,000 km/h, is an absolute superb feeling. You realize that the earth is very small. It is also beautiful – at night you see all the city lights. Then you see a sunrise in about 20 seconds. Then you have beautiful views of the mountain ranges and deserts during a one-hour day before the sunset. Seeing earth from space is for me associated with great admiration and emotions.

You have also flown the PC-9 in a career that has covered millions of miles. How do you rate the differences to the PC-21?

The PC-9 is a great airplane. It’s a turboprop that flies like a turboprop. The PC-21 is a turboprop that flies like a jet. This is the most striking difference to me between the two. All Pilatus products are very good, from the P-3 that I flew in my military training in the 1960s, across the PC-7, to the PC-21 that I got to fly today.

“Live Each Day as if it Were Your Last” is one of your life mottos. Never been afraid?

No, I always try to put my fear aside. I was fortunate to never have any extraordinary critical situations in my career. In space this didn’t happen either, although the likelihood for this with the shuttle was relatively high, with two major accidents in 32 missions. When you do exploration and space research, you accept more risk. I’d like to add the following to that motto: “learn every day, as if you were going to live forever.”

What do you associate with Pilatus and our airplanes?

I have known Pilatus a very long time as company with lots of innovation, new products, and quality. I have great admiration for the company. Pilatus has been equally successful in the civil and military world. With the PC-21 today, a new category of airplanes was revealed to me – it’s a wonderful airplane.

Which projects are still pending?

I’m at the stage in my life where I wish to share, rather than experience new things myself. I am privileged to have experienced what I did and now I share my experience with students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), with the public and in schools.

To have been in space is probably a supreme privilege, a wish that many have. Is there anything else you really want to experience?

I now want to have close contact with my family and with people. Both to share life experience and emotions, but also the technical aspects of human space flight. It’s a great pleasure for me to be able to do this, especially in field of education.

Do you think we’re the only ones in the universe?

I’m convinced that universe is full of life – but I have no proof. We can however prove that most stars are surrounded by planets and the duration of life on earth is about three billion years. We have now evolved to a species that for the last 10,000 years have been asking questions about its own origin, which is quite remarkable. I think that if we find other life in the universe, it will probably be a relatively simple form of life, but it could also have evolved way beyond what has happened on earth.

What advice would you like to give to Pilatus?

Continue the way you are doing. The products you are producing are extraordinary.