by Rick Durden
Are things really improving in the general aviation market or is the current bump in sales just an illusion? One indication that airplane makers are bullish is an emerging focus on the six-place market. Until recently, a buyer seeking a new, six-place airplane with fixed gear had only one issue to resolve: want a turbocharger in a Cessna 206 or not?
But during the last year, Gippsland has certified its utilitarian and impressive Airvan (see Aviation Consumer, November 2002) and New Piper has just brought back the Saratoga which, possibly to show respect for its line age, it now calls the 6X or, technically, the PA-32-301FT. This is a significant re-do of the original design, with an emphasis on flexibility for cabin seating, fancier appointments and a primary flight display thats in keeping with the all-glass cockpit trend.
The Wayback Machine
The original Cherokee line consisted of boxy, four-place, rectangular-winged airplanes that essentially varied only in horsepower. In the late 1960s, a major fuselage stretch created a six to seven-place version, with a nose baggage compartment, the Cherokee 6. It had the roomiest fuselage of any U.S.-made six-place airplane and proved, with club seating, to be the most comfortable.
Creative marketers advertised the size of the doors and cabin by photographing the loading of a spinet piano. Indeed, the cabin size and high useful load made the airplane popular with night freight and bush operators where speed wasnt crucial. However, the Cherokee 6 didnt stand up quite as well to daily pounding as did its competitors and eventually it found its niche with ever increasing numbers of pilots whose families had outgrown smaller airplanes.
During the boom years of the 1970s, Piper made what was probably an expensive but smart decision to taper the wings of the Cherokee line. The Six became the Saratoga. The redesign noticeably bumped up its cruise speed and significantly improved its handling in roll while retaining its benign stall characteristics. A cowling redesign boosted the speed a bit more before the airplane was taken out of production during the upheaval days of Pipers bankruptcy.
While having aviations dependable family hauler back in production is good news, even more encouraging is that its re-introduction was coupled with certification of a glass panel, the Avidyne FlightMax Entegra. Airline technology has worked its way down the food chain, so the 6X has discarded vacuum pumps as even the standby attitude indicator is electrically powered. Pricing is competitive with the Airvan and Cessna 206, as the basic IFR, steam-gauge 6X is $365,500 and the glass cockpit version with Garmin mapcomms is priced at $413,000.
Since its the flashy part, well cover the glass cockpit first. In general, we have some concerns about glass cockpits simply because they present so much information and are, frankly, so interesting to look at that pilots are spending too much time head-down in the cockpit, particularly in terminal areas.
The presentation, viewability in bright sunlight, graphics and color are first rate. While a description of everything it will do is beyond the scope of this review, suffice to say that as installed on the 6X, its generally user friendly and after some degree of effort to learn its capabilities, one would tend to feel lost without it.
On the 6X, it can be powered up prior to engine start so that it can find itself before taxi. However, were hard bitten enough from harsh experience with voltage spikes to suggest that the system not be powered up until the engine is running. Its a no-go if either the pilots side primary flight display (PFD) or right side multi-function displays (MFD) fail, even for VFR.
Alignment takes only a few minutes, which weve observed a majority of pilots spend idling at the tiedown anyway, so it shouldnt be a big deal. We like the fact that on powering up the system, the Avidyne demands that the pilot enter the fuel quantity aboard before going on to the next page in the display, thus its less likely the pilot will neglect to think about fuel and will advise the computer accordingly.
The Avidyne system is a solid-state air data attitude heading reference system (ADAHRS) using micro-electronic mechanical sensors and air-data information rather than gyros and vacuum pumps. While theres a concern about a screen going dark, were told that the chance of that happening is less than a vacuum pump dying.
Nevertheless, should it happen in flight, an electrically powered standby attitude indicator lives conveniently nearby, adjacent to an airspeed indicator and altimeter. The critical failure item for instrument flight in the 6X is no longer the vacuum pump; the risk path has migrated to the electrical supply.
Surprisingly, the 6X has but one alternator. Should it fail, the battery will power the systems for 30 minutes. Were uncomfortable with a system where a battery failure demands a landing within 30 minutes. While the internal battery in the standby attitude gyro is good for an additional hour, nav information is gone and there are too many places where it wont be possible to fly an approach and land within 30 minutes.
In our opinion, a $400,000 airplane needs to have more redundancy, such as dual alternators. Further, with a digital ammeter, the loss of a diode in the alternator may not be noticed by the pilot and the battery may discharge without adequate warning.
PFD In Flight
The PFD in the 6X proved to be largely intuitive, although there were times we had to puzzle out a reading simply because the method of presenting the information was new to us. Our experience has been that flying a PFD for even a few hours is followed by a strong reluctance to return to steam gauges.
In addition to the complete attitude, heading, altitude and speed information on the PFD, basic information on engine power setting and navigation data from the Garmin 430s is right there for the viewing, as is what youve asked the autopilot to do. Command bars for a flight director are present but thus far, no flight director has been certified; we assume thats only a matter of time. The MFD defaults to detailed engine information. For the normally aspirated airplane, the EGT and CHT for each cylinder are displayed. For the turbocharged version, only TIT is shown; there is no EGT information. Theres a lean-assist mode that flags the first cylinder to peak and this makes whatever method of leaning the pilot wishes to use easy to do.
We particularly liked the fact that as we set manifold pressure and RPM, the system provided a readout of percentage power in both digital and analog.
This was handy as New Piper has stayed with what we feel is antiquated and user unfriendly performance information in the POH. The airplane we flew had about a 50-degree EGT spread when rich of peak. As we pulled the mixture into lean of peak, the spread rapidly went to zero, with smooth engine operation coupled with a significant drop in CHTs. And thats valuable in this airplane because it doesnt have cowl flaps. We found that CHTs ran too hot for out liking when rich of peak.
To our amazement, as soon as the mixture was pulled lean of peak, the pointer on the percentage power indicator disappeared and the digital readout went blank. In our opinion, thats a shortcoming in the software, especially as fuel prices climb and high CHTs (as high as 434 degrees C) may mean premature cylinder replacement.
The MFD has a moving map, with assorted scales, containing terrain information on which ground-based NEXRAD radar can be overlayed and routes plotted for input into the autopilot. The Entegra system uses weather data delivered via Orbcomm and Avidyne has announced a new XM Radio data receiver as an option. With the moving map displayed in place of engine data, an abbreviated engine data page is shown in a box in the upper left corner. Navigational information appears in a box in the upper right hand corner.
The 6X is better compared to a minivan than an SUV. It carries the family in roomy comfort more effectively than it would haul hunters into remote strips. The low wing is not conducive to rough field ops as gravel and other debris will beat up the lower wing and flaps. Useful load limitations mean the 6X excels in carrying the bulky family stuff rather than the heavy, hunter gear. With a generous 102 usable gallons of fuel, a moderate power setting will allow the 6X to remain aloft six hours or more. While advertised as having a 1400-pound useful load, thats not realistic. The 6X we flew, with the Avidyne system, leather seats and the amenities youd expect in a personal airplane in this price range, had a respectable 1271-pound useful load. With a gross weight of 3600 pounds (3615-pound ramp), filling the 102-gallon tanks means that 659 pounds can be carried in the cabin, or three hefty people and baggage.
Tilting toward the opposite extreme, put six 200-pounders in the cabin and youve got room for less than 12 gallons of fuel. In the real world, a family of two adults and four kids and baggage can figure on three to four hours of endurance, which isnt a bad tradeoff. If club seating is a must, no other single-engine piston will match this, except the Bonanza A36, a pricier airplane.
For pre-flight, most things that need to be examined are easy to see, although the wheel fairings cover much of each tire. New Piper is offering locking fuel caps, a step forward in our opinion. However, theyre flush with the wing surface, rather than the umbrella type, which have a cover over the opening to the fuel tank. In our experience, flush fitting fuel caps have a tendency to leak water as they age so keeping after the O-rings is a must. We would prefer to have the umbrella-type caps. While its true that sumping the fuel should detect water, the 6X still has its low-point strainer under the center section of the wing. To drain it, theres a lever inside the cabin and no convenient way to sample the drained fuel for water.
Inside the airplane, we found that New Piper has created an interior quality level commensurate with the cost of the airplane. Seating is comfortable with adequate leg and headroom, although taller pilots are cramped somewhat. Theres more than adequate elbow room. The club seating may preclude reclining the crew seats to any extent and require that the aft passengers intertwine legs.
We have observed that pilots often remove one or both of the aft facing seats, creating a huge amount of storage area or general stretch out room for what becomes a luxurious airborne limousine. As some insurance companies have higher rates for six-seat airplanes than for five, removing one seat might make financial sense.
One thing we think New Piper should improve is the seatbelts. The shoulder harness requires separate attachment to the seatbelt, rather than being a continuous strap, as is the norm on automobiles and other aircraft. Were surprised that four-point inertia reel harnesses arent standard for the front seats. Further, another ergonomic shortcoming is the overhead rocker switches for electrics. We consider these to be both a moderate injury threat in a crash and difficult to read for those us with presbyopia, which is virtually everyone who can afford this airplane. We would prefer these switches to be on the panel, where theres plenty of room for them.
The fuel selector is just forward of the flap handle-yes, manual flaps are back on the 6X-and it clearly shows the tank selected as well as being guarded against inadvertently selecting the off position. We like the fuel quantity display on the MFD because its easy to read and is color coded to yellow and red as the fuel supply dwindles, something that might deter pilots otherwise determined to run the airplane out of gas.
When running through the start-up list, its apparent that effort has been spent on the checklist. It has been nicely reworked and flows smoothly and sensibly. The Entegra system was aligned by the time we had finished listening to the ATIS, taking care of routine housekeeping tasks and getting our taxi clearance. Taxiing the 6X seemed easier than older models of the Cherokee 6, which sometimes responds to rudder reluctantly. Ground handling was responsive and the turning radius was more than satisfactory for maneuvering in tight spots.
Acceleration on takeoff is satisfyingly brisk. As with the Cherokee 6, one notch of flaps produces a smooth liftoff, even though the POH states that a normal takeoff is with the flaps up. Short field takeoff is with two notches of flaps. There is significant P-factor during the roll, which the nosewheel effectively handles. But this becomes noticeable because the nose rapidly swings left when the nosewheel leaves the ground. Vx is 80 knots with two notches of flap and Vy is 90 knots with the flaps up. Vy generated over 750 FPM on an 85-degree F day at 500 feet MSL.
The POH recommends a cruise climb of 100 knots. We observed that it didnt significantly reduce the rate of climb but did help with forward visibility and CHTs. The CHTs went to 435 degrees F rather quickly, a concern in our view.
Level in cruise, we liked both the ease of setting power with the percent power display and programming the autopilot. At 6000 feet and 65 degrees F, at 65 percent power, leaned to peak EGT, we flew crosswind runs on reciprocal headings. This yielded an observed true airspeed of 144 knots, with a fuel burn of 15.2 GPH, beating the book speed by about 4 knots.
We congratulate New Pipers practice of being accurate or even slightly conservative on speed claims. Increasing to 75 percent power at the same altitude, we observed a fuel burn of 18.5 GPH at 50 degrees F rich of peak, which also matched the book. True airspeed was 151 knots, 3 knots faster than book for our weight. Fuel consumption increased to 20 GPH at what we felt was a better mixture setting for engine life; 100 degrees F rich of peak. The POH calls for operating at 50-degrees F rich of peak, which, in our view, produces unacceptably high CHTs values. Following book recommendations rewarded us with CHTs over 400 degrees F and we simply think this is too high for cylinder longevity.
Frustratingly, as stated, the software shortcomings of the Avidyne engine monitor discouraged lean-of-peak operation, even though the engine will cooperate.
Maneuvering flight is sprightlier than one might expect for a family minivan. We flew steep turns at nearly the forward CG limit and these were easy with the airplane remaining stable throughout and control forces predictable. Slow flight at 5 knots above stall speed was solid, yet responsive enough to compare it to aircraft in its class that have a STOL kit installed.
Speed control was positive at all times and control authority was more than adequate with the ailerons not losing effectiveness. Flap extension results in a noticeable pitch up.
Stalls, power off and power on, broke about the time the control wheel reached full aft travel, with no inclination to roll off so long as the ball was kept centered. Simply reducing back pressure had the airplane flying again, but it needed substantial power to start climbing again.
The autopilot system made coupled instrument approaches a piece of cake, although the 113-knot flap speed means that flaps cant readily be used at speeds needed to mix in with traffic flow in a terminal area. One notch of flap on an instrument approach provides a deck angle that allows you to see the runway ahead much more easily than when the flaps are up and the long nose is in the way.
Its essential to slow the airplane down to the recommended speed on short final, about 75 knots with full flaps, because the 6X will well and truly float if any extra speed is carried, even when loaded. Theres also a definite need to get the nose well up into the air prior to touchdown to avoid smacking the nosewheel first.
The oleo strut main gear will reward a pilot who makes the effort to get the nose up in the flare with pleasant touchdowns. Strong control authority at low speed leads us to believe that the max demonstrated crosswind component of 17 knots is conservative ; a sharp pilot could handle more.
Overall, the 6X is akin to stepping into a comfortable pair of walking shoes, not for leaping tall buildings in a single bound. You can rely on it to get you where youre going without a lot of strain. There are some shortcomings we would like improved, such as the need for a redundant electrical supply, the restraint system, removal of the overhead switch panel and making the power setting and performance data of the POH easier to use, perhaps placing it in tabular form.
If we had a need for a utility hauler in this class for commercial work, wed go get a Gippsland Airvan or a Cessna 206 because they are built to take the pounding. But for a piston-powered family carrier with a comfortable cabin that will keep the spouse and kids happy and has the room to stow all their stuff, the 6X is probably the best choice on the market.
Contact – New Piper, 772-567-4361, www.newpiper.com.