Mirage or Nightmare?

Lycoming disputes reports that suggest 10 percent of Mirage engines have failed in flight. A federal court may decide whos right.

Owning a New Piper Mirage has proven a bittersweet experience for many pilots. While the airplane is a comfortable, high-flying cruiser, its complex and has a reputation for being needy of maintenance.

Even at that, however, Mirage owners were recently treated to some disturbing news that has both New Piper and Lycoming looking for improvements, although both dispute the results of a recent survey indicating poor engine reliability in Mirages.

In the meantime, a Dallas Mirage owner filed a $75 million class action lawsuit against New Piper in late September, claiming that New Piper and Lycoming knew of the Mirages engine problems for years but did nothing to correct them.

The bad news for owners came to light late this summer after Mirage owner Jonathan Sisk surveyed 92 fellow owners on their maintenance experiences with the airplane. Sisk owns a start-up called Enhanced Flight Group LLC, which has in mind not a lawsuit but some modifications to improve the Lycoming TSIO-540s tendency to run hot, especially the number five cylinder. (The lawsuit, by the way, is entirely unrelated to Sisks survey.)

Like most Mirage owners, Sisk had anecdotal information with the Mirages characteristic engine woes but even he was sobered by the results of his survey, which was mailed to 300 Mirage owners, netting about a 30 percent response.

Engine Failures: 1 in 10
In summary, according to Sisks findings, the Mirage appears to have shockingly poor engine reliability. Of 92 Mirage owners who replied to his mailed out survey, fully 10 or 11 percent reported in-flight engine failures that required immediate or emergency landings. (Some were stoppages, others significant power loss and/or imminent failure.)

The failures were the result of a range of causes, including rod and main bearing failure, turbocharger failures, case cracks, loss of oil pressure and one broken crankshaft. The Sisk survey doesnt reveal if any of these incidents involved injuries but there appear to be no fatal accidents caused by engine failures in Lycoming-powered Mirages.

As a crosscheck, we searched the NTSBs database for other engine failure-related accidents in the Mirage and found only one, which did involve a serious injury. On December 2, 1996, a rod failure caused by metal fatigue caused an engine failure and emergency landing at Myerstown, Pennsylvania.

Subsequent oil loss covered the windshield and the pilot was unable to see to land. He stalled and cartwheeled the airplane but survived with injuries. According to the NTSBs accident report, the Mirage had a factory overhauled engine.

Sisk intentionally protected the survey respondents identities, so we were unable to crosscheck against NTSB files. Worth noting is that in previous research, we have often documented engine failure incidents that don’t appear in the NTSB files if the aircraft lands without incident, as most of the Mirages did.

However, we spoke to one owner who owned two Mirages, one of which was a total loss after a 1994 accident following an engine failure in night IMC conditions in Pennsylvania, a crash that doesnt appear in NTSB records. The pilot emerged unharmed and although unhappy with the engine, he gives the airframe credit for crashworthiness.

On the other hand, neither he nor his insurance company was ever provided with a satisfactory explanation from Lycoming on why the engine failed. (The insurance carrier, Phoenix, no longer writes Mirage coverage, although it will cover Continental-powered Malibus.)

Poor Longevity
In addition to the 10 percent engine failure rate, the Sisk survey revealed something else about the Mirages Lycoming engine: Its highly unlikely to reach its 2000-hour TBO and is almost certain to need at least one top overhaul to reach whatever replacement cycle the owner is fortunate enough to achieve.

Only four or 4.3 percent of the owners Sisk heard from reached even 1500 hours without a major overhaul or replacement. Of 92 owners who replied to the survey, the average time in service before overhaul or replacement was 726.8 hours-a bit more than a third of the way to TBO.

The average time to top overhaul as reported was 637.6 hours but only two owners said they flew their airplanes to 1500 hours without a top overhaul. Forty one percent said they had to have top overhauls done before reaching 1000 hours.

Accessories such as mags, starters, alternators and turbochargers fared little better, with 16 percent of the owners saying they had suffered in-flight failure of major engine accessories. To be fair, we suspect that owners of other aircraft would report similar numbers on the accessory front, since such component failures are hardly rare.

But many Mirage owners complained about vibration-related damage, such as broken brackets, fatigued metal parts and bolts and screws that back out on their own.

A Tolerant Group
Give Mirage owners credit for one thing: As a group, they seem to love the airplanes attributes so much that theyre willing to put up with a host of mechanical sins and operational shortcomings.

Then again, a significant number of Malibus-both the Continental and Lycoming-powered versions-have been converted to Pratt and Whitney PT6A-34 turboprop propulsion by JetProp, Inc., an offshoot of the company that builds the Mooney Rocket. And evidently, JetProp doesnt lack for business.

Still, the Sisk survey revealed a number of unhappy owners in a section devoted to open-ended comments about Mirage ownership experiences. A couple confessed that theyve curtailed their flying due to worries about engine reliability.

Reliability is acceptable. Service life is awful, wrote one owner. Service costs are too high…safety is questionable. I now worry about every difficult flight.

Said another, I fly it at night IFR, but not IFR or night over mountains. He purchased a Mirage in 1999 with 280 hours on the airframe and an engine that had been topped at only 120 hours. A new factory engine was installed and the owner said at 55 hours, it was doing we’ll and I am happy.

I have reduced the amount of time I fly with my family as a result of my concerns about the reliability of the engine, wrote another Mirage owner. I experienced an extremely rough running engine when decreasing power at altitude. I was told it was a pressure magneto problem. When they were testing the aircraft for this problem, they did experience an engine out. Piper replaced the engine at 250 hours when they observed high amounts of aluminum in the oil and filter during the annual. The number five cylinder was the culprit.

Many owners complained about excessive engine vibration, something the Lycoming 540 series has always suffered. This leads to a host of problems, with cracked exhaust pipes and fittings high on the list.

Left turbo-Y cracked at 380 hours; left mag separated from accessory case at 474 hours. Left alternator bracket cracked at 600, wrote one owner.

Owners have tried various tricks to tame the vibey engine, including prop balancing, flowing cylinders and tuning the fuel injection system. Wrote one frustrated owner: Installed four-blade propeller to eliminate vibration. No way to eliminate all vibration with this engine…converted to JetProp.

As a group, Mirage owners seem to be taking Sisks findings in stride, however one owner told us discussions about it at the recent Malibu/Mirage Owners and Pilots Association in Baltimore were intense.

The lawsuit against New Piper, filed in U.S. District Court in Ft. Pierce, Florida by Dallas businessman William Montgomery on September 20th, seeks class action remedies for all Mirage owners whove encountered troubles. The filing includes a dramatic, high-budget video, a reenactment of a Mirage engine-failure crash. Thus far, were not sure how many takers the class action may attract.

Indeed, Mirage owners interested in litigation will have to think twice, since proving damages may be expensive and time consuming and the related publicity will only drive down the value of their expensive airplanes. For his part, Sisk is disappointed with the lawsuit, since his intent was merely aftermarket cooling improvements, not financial relief from New Piper.

Lycomings Response
Lycoming has been aware of the Mirages engine woes for some time, having established a warranty record. Against that backdrop, does it consider the Sisk survey statistically valid?

No, we don’t, says Lycoming general manager Mike Wolf. Wolf told us the company considers the Sisk survey to be accurate but doesnt agree with its conclusions.

Lycoming believes that the Sisk survey was done in good faith with good methodology but is unavoidably biased toward the negative because such open-ended surveys tend to elicit responses from owners whove encountered problems.

Says Wolf, you’ll inevitably hear from more angry and dissatisfied customers than from those who are pleased with their airplanes. (On the other hand, Mirage owners may be unique in wishing to defend their airplanes against precipitous loss of value. Also, having been disgusted with service issues, many have moved on to other aircraft or converted to JetProps.)

Wolf says Lycoming researched its files-warranty and service claims, service difficulty reports and so on-and estimates inflight failures to total just over a dozen to the low teens in a fleet totaling about 500. Unfortunately, Lycomings data may be only a bit more complete than the NTSBs, says Wolf, but the company has been diligent in tracking as many failures as its been made aware of.

As for the complaints about engine life, Wolf concedes that the Sisk survey is probably accurate on that count. On the other hand, he argues, topping a highly stressed engine such as the TIO-540-AE2A used in the Mirage shouldnt necessarily be considered out of the ordinary.

The twin-turbocharger variant of the 540 was certified specifically for the Mirage and Wolf says its a highly loaded engine, we sold to customers knowing full we’ll that it operates in an extreme environment. Wolfe says owners shouldnt expect it to deliver the same service history as the O-360 found in an Archer, for example.

The Mirage power plant has a pair of turbochargers and must provide both induction boost and cabin pressurization at altitudes as high as 25,000 feet. Cooling-or lack thereof-has always been an issue at high altitudes.

Youre dealing with different expectations for that engine and I think owners know that going in, says Wolf. As for TBO, the stated 2000 hours is in no way a warranty or an expectation but merely an upper end service guideline, says Wolf.

We would expect the main power section to reach TBO, but not necessarily the top end, says Wolf, when we asked about high oil consumption and very short runs before top overhauls. Since it was introduced in 1988, the engine has been through a number of piston ring designs and other significant tweaks. Yet many Mirage owners still describe the engine as troublesome.

Better Bearings
Whether Sisks survey is statistically valid or not, in late August, Lycoming issued Special advisory 59-800 for Mirage owners calling for replacement rod bearings for the TIO-540-AE2A. Earlier in the year, in May, advisory 56-500 was issued to deal with replacement main bearings.

Specifically, for engines shipped after August 25th, 1995, 59-800 calls for an oil change every 10 hours, with filter and suction screen inspection until rod bearings of increased durability are installed. (The bearings were supposed to be available by press time. The entire cost of installing them will be borne by Lycoming, regardless of warranty state.)

According to the advisory, engine failures involving rod bearings probably occurred due to delamination of the bearing surface. Lycoming said it has found no apparent operational and dimensional cause for at least two occurrences of bearing-related engine failures.

However, to reduce the likelihood of such failures in the future, Lycoming has instituted a mandatory replacement program to equip Mirage engines with more durable rod bearings. The main bearing replacement is called for only if metal is found in the oil or filter, a condition that makes some owners nervous.

For its part, New Piper has established a 24-hour hotline for Mirage owners to obtain information and advice on obtaining replacement bearings. A New Piper spokesman told us that the company will provide airline transportation for any owners stranded by bearing-related engine troubles, regardless of warranty state.

Full Circle
Having drawn attention to the Mirages engine woes, Sisk is exploring developing cooling modifications that would correct one problem his survey revealed: High temperatures in the number 5 cylinder. (Contact Enhanced Flight Group at 859-253-2599, ext. 115.) Although Lycomings Wolf concedes that the number 5 cylinder may run hot, the company doesnt believe this is a factor in any engine stoppages.

Meanwhile, what should a potential buyer of a Mirage do? Is the airplane simply too snake bit to consider for purchase? Our view is no, but the airplane hardly tops the recommended list, either. The Sisk survey confirms what most Mirage owners have known for years: No one should have any illusions about this airplane being a low-maintenance ride with long engine life.

Any owner going into a Mirage should expect top overhauls at intervals as short as 200 to 300 hours and, evidently, reaching 1000 hours is a gift. As owners point out, nothing matches the Mirages ability to cruise at 200 knots relatively efficiently.

But that speed and efficiency comes at the price of a tender engine and high overall maintenance costs. Nothing weve seen from New Piper or Lycoming thus far appears to change that.

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