With airline travel becoming more like riding an overcrowded city bus on a random schedule, hopeful discussions about the perfect personal airplane are even turning up in the mainstream media.
Enter the New Piper Meridian, a $1.5 million marriage of the Pratt and Whitney PT6, known icing, airborne radar, sophisticated avionics and simple systems clearly designed for operation by a single, non-professional pilot, the kind of guy who just doesnt trust piston engines.
Yes, there will always be below mins weather, thunderstorms and freezing rain that will park everything in the fleet, but with the Meridian, New Piper hopes it has created a design with the needed dispatch reliability and weather capability to be the serious traveling machine the world may want.
A Little History
Piper introduced the PA-46-310P Malibu in 1982 to compete with Cessnas P210. With a larger cabin and club seating, it was intended as a second-generation pressurized single. A piston powerplant in a pressurized single operates in a harsh environment, near its limits, thus the Malibus extensive problems with its Continental TSIO-520 werent surprising.
Piper put a higher horsepower Lycoming into the airframe and created the PA-46-350P Mirage in 1989. It, too, had plenty of engine problems. While things have improved, even the most rosy-goggled Malibu/Mirage owners accept high maintenance load and less-than-stellar dispatch rate.
Turbine power seemed to be the logical way to go with the PA-46 series. But could it be made to work? Over the years, weve seen a number of piston-engine airplanes that have been converted to turbines via STC, with results best described as uneven.
Piper is understandably nervous about turbine conversions of the PA-46s and is only providing limited support to owners of the converted airplanes, arguing that the STC process is not always thorough enough to address all technical issues.
Against that backdrop, the Meridian is not just a re-engined Malibu but a more extensive redo. The only common part between the two is the pressure vessel.
To obtain needed stability and control, the horizontal tail was enlarged 37 percent.
The wing is longer, with sparless tips and a large cuff was added at the wing root to assist in meeting the 61-knot stall speed requirement for single-engine airplanes. The cuff also allowed Piper to route all of the fuel lines outside of the pressure vessel, in our opinion a significant improvement in crashworthiness.
Overall, our view is that Piper has made a serious effort and has come closer than anyone else in building an airplane sophisticated enough to operate in most weather but simple enough to be flown solo by a well-trained non-professional pilot. The airplane is fast enough to be competitive with airlines, system redundancy is good and the Meridian should do well based at airports with modest services.
Of course there are shortcomings, but theyre relatively minor, unless you wish to carry lots of weight over long distances. Some nitpicks first: The flight decks overhead switch panel needs to be removed. Its a step backward in design, reducing forward visibility during descent and its hard-to-read switch labels will drive the bifocal set nuts.
Further, in the event of a crash, we think it increases the chance of head injury, which is why most manufacturers have avoided overhead panels in recent years. Frankly, those switches could easily be located elsewhere on what we believe otherwise is a nicely organized flight deck.
Overall, we like the Meridians system design. The one complaint we have is minor: Theres no button to cancel the gear warning horn, so it squalls during the slam-dunk descents ATC likes to give high-flying kerosene burners. (The horn tends to launch passengers, which is never good.)
Last, and a carryover from the Malibu, the cabin is not friendly to anyone much over six feet. In order to build seats with adequate impact protection, headroom for tall pilots and passengers is slim at best; a headset will bump the ceiling and in turbulence, youll bump it harder. We suspect this will be an issue with some buyers who expect undiminished luxury in a $1.5 million airplane.
The Basic Airplane
The Meridians PT6A-42A is thermodynamically rated at 1029 shaft horsepower. Its the same basic engine used in the King Air 200, but de-rated to a maximum of 500 SHP. In turbines, de-rating is good since temperatures remain cooler which improves longevity, already the PT6s strong suite. Because of the de-rate, TBO is 3600 hours and may go higher later.
For the owner, in addition to a long TBO and reliability, de-rating means that 500 SHP is available to about 25,000 feet. For an airplane certified to 30,000 feet, this means that the initial 1750 FPM rate of climb declines only when the engines temp limit is hit and power must be reduced by about FL250.
It also means that theres lots of power available for cruise, making the Meridian faster than many turboprop twins. Piper advertises a max cruise speed of 262 knots TAS at FL290 but we actually saw 263 knots TAS at FL270, slightly faster than book. The downside of de-rating is that the engine still has the rotating mass of a 1020 SHP engine and thus requires the fuel to rotate that mass. Fuel burn down low, where the engine is loafing, is correspondingly higher than it would be for an engine not de-rated.
Meridian pilots will have to learn to fly high all the time or suffer reduced range. In a Malibu, its okay to poke around at 3000 feet after a missed approach, waiting for better weather or motoring to an alternate. In a Meridian, youll have to scoot above 10,000 feet, otherwise fuel burn may make endurance dicey.
Pipers promotional material states endurance as 5.1 hours at max cruise with 45 minutes reserve. Our observations indicated fuel flows right at POH claims but we saw no way to meet the claim of 5.1 hours plus reserve at max cruise power. Piper told us it had to guarantee performance at FL300, even though it has never been a legal cruising altitude.
According to Piper, 170 gallons of Jet-A provide for a still air range of a bit over 1000 nautical miles. However, we recorded a 261-pound-per-hour fuel flow at max cruise at FL270, making endurance on the order of four hours without reserve. Allowing for flight to a legal alternate and then another 45 minutes, 700 to 800 miles may be the limit. Even then, youll have to climb assertively into the mid-to high 20s and stay there. Piddling about down low at higher power settings will cut endurance substantially.
For a single-pilot airplane, we like simple and the Meridian is that. For example, intake air doesnt reach the engine via a big ram air scoop, as is usual on PT6 installations.
Thanks to the de-rating, the Meridians PT6 doesnt need the ram effect. Instead, it has two NACA ducts under the nose, which are non-icing so theres no need for ice vanes or an inertial separator. Nor is there inlet de-icing, thus no bleed air is wasted, sapping performance.
The Meridian essentially has a full-time inertial separator to keep precip out of the engine, protecting it from ingestion while removing opportunities for pilots to make expensive mistakes.
The engine installation has a few other thoughtful points. Engine oil has the usual dipstick but also a sight glass and theres a check valve so that if the pilot forgets to secure the dipstick, the oil wont blow out of the engine.
For those who recall older Piper singles with numerous fuel tanks requiring a plumbers permit to understand, the Meridian is a pleasure. The fuel is either on or off and since Piper recognized that such systems lend themselves to imbalance between tanks, the system automatically senses this and turns on a pump to correct the imbalance. When balance is restored, the system shuts off the pump, keeping the pilot in the loop with annunciator lights.
The 28-volt electrical system is powered by a 200-amp starter-generator with a 135-amp back-up alternator. Both run during normal operation, however, theres no paralleling circuit so the alternator doesnt do much unless the generator quits.
Storage is via two lead-acid batteries. If the entire ship goes dark, theres a heated NiCad battery that lives in the fairing behind the radome tucked under the right wing. It will power the peanut gyro attitude indicator for 30 minutes. The pressurization system has a 5.5 PSI differential, allowing for an 8000-foot cabin at about FL250. At FL290, the cabin is just above 10,000 feet, which illuminates a warning light and sounds a chime which can be silenced. Theres an emergency bleed system that automatically kicks in if the cabin reaches an altitude of 12,500 feet, even if the environmental control systems are switched off, an excellent safety feature.
A vapor cycle air conditioning system typical of PT6 engine installations is used in lieu of an air cycle machine for climate control because the engine idles too slowly to run an ACM. We thought that the cooling system was adequate on a 90-degree Florida day.
Cabin entry is through an airstair door. We were advised that the original door cables on the Malibu didnt stand up well and that a number of changes were made. Weve seen flimsier looking airstair doors on pressurized airplanes so well hazard a guess that the current door will probably endure well.
The cabin reflected a noticeable attention to detail and quality. With potential buyers of a Meridian expected to drive top-end automobiles, the interior of a Meridian should be at least as well appointed.
Piper has made a good start, in our view. The leather seats are attractive and comfortable, although we would expect armrests in an airplane of this price and, as noted, more headroom would be nice. The sidewalls and ceiling coverings are relatively spartan, but tasteful.
Normal seating is for a pilot and five passengers with club seating in the cabin. The left middle seat can be replaced with an optional beverage and entertainment center. Because only 250 to 300 pounds of fuel can be carried with six people aboard and because a number of insurance companies give a break on premiums for five-seat airplanes, we predict that most buyers will opt for the beverage center rather than the sixth seat.
Baggage space is entirely inside the pressure vessel behind the rear seats and limited to a maximum of 100 pounds. If you have more than 100 pounds, strap them to the seats because you cant put people in them due payload limits.
Consistent with single-engine turboprops, weight is a serious consideration in the Meridian. Small turboprops confront designers with major headaches to provide enough fuel for reasonable endurance and still have any useful payload.
There are few airplanes that can launch with full tanks and full seats and the Meridian isnt one of them. Piper sells the Meridian with few options but even so, with some optional equipment, the normal useful load of a Meridian is between 1450 and 1500 pounds.
Theres no zero-fuel weight, so its simply a matter of adding up weights and getting them in the right spots for balance. Maximum usable fuel amounts to 1140 pounds, leaving about 310 to 360 pounds for the cabin: Two people and an overnight bag. With 1200 pounds of people and baggage in the cabin, only 250 to 300 pounds of fuel may be carried; about an hours worth.
Clearly, this is not an airplane for Part 135 charter operators. Its an airplane for the wealthy, Type-A individual who goes places alone or with one passenger. If market research suggesting that potential Meridian buyers only carry a passenger or two, the tight payload restriction wont be an issue.
Overall, the avionics in the Meridian are more than satisfactory. The EFIS is made by Meggitt Avionics and consists of six flat-panel LCD displays-if the two optional copilot panels are installed-providing flight and engine information.
The ADHARS (air data and attitude heading reference system) displays flight information on a primary and secondary flight display consisting of two of the flat plates mounted vertically in front of the pilot and two (optional) in front of the copilot.
The upper screen displays an attitude indicator along with airspeed, altitude, heading, rate of climb and trend information for any parameter thats changing. It also can display the nav and ILS needles.
The lower plate is usually an HSI and a navigational display. Should the upper display fail, everything can be moved to the lower. Engine information is displayed on two plates with engine parameters in digital and analog format, something we found helpful when setting power.
Should any engine tolerance be exceeded, the display for that item changes color to match the red of the pilots face. All exceedences, as theyre called, are recorded by the onboard computer, to be downloaded later for analysis.
Should one of the two displays fail, all of the information can be compressed and displayed on one screen. The systems is flexible, allowing for various HSI displays as well as placing the radar information on the HSI screen.
Like an inertial unit, the system uses accelerometers to measure movement in all directions with a computer translating the accelerations into heading and attitude information on the primary flight display. It has to align itself before flight, which takes three minutes with the airplane motionless. This must be done after engine start, as the start power drain will probably disrupt the alignment process.
The system does allow you to taxi to a more secluded area of the ramp for it to align, so theres no need to aggravate fellow ramp dwellers with a long idle.
The radios are dual Garmin GNS 530s, the capabilities of which are well known within the industry. We would expect no less in an airplane of this price. The only mediocre item in the avionics package, in our view, is the S-TEC autopilot. Being rate based, its not up to the level of the AHRS for precision. The mode control and annunciation doesnt tell when a mode is armed or captured. Also, the autopilot has no attitude information and cant give a pilot guidance in a go-around in low weather. We suspect that buyers will soon be demanding a more capable autopilot thats more in keeping with the otherwise user-friendly, low workload airplane.
When taxiing, theres significant residual thrust with the power lever at idle. To avoid riding the brakes, most taxiing is done in Beta or neutral thrust. Consistent with the keep-it-safe-and-simple philosophy, the Meridian is one of the few turboprops with a squat switch that locks out Beta and reverse in flight, a feature we like, given the accidents caused by inflight selection of Beta or reverse.
Nosewheel steering is not as uncomfortably heavy as in the Malibu; however, its unpleasant enough that its not in keeping with the overall level of engineering on the airplane. We suspect that most pilots will rapidly give up on trying to manhandle the nosewheel via rudder pedals and simply steer with the brakes.
Takeoff acceleration is brisk, about what youd expect for the power and weight. Because temp limits arent an issue, setting torque is the only concern. The power lever is somewhat twitchy so the best approach seems to be to bring the power half way up, release the brakes, and aim for about 50 pounds below the desired torque, allowing it to drift close to the target value.
If you exceed max torque, the analog and digital readouts turn red. Theres some margin for error, however. But if you have an exceedence, your foul-up is recorded for maintenance to snicker at later. Theres a noticeable need for right rudder on the takeoff roll and during climbout, but the airplane tracks predictably, with no darting or wandering as long as control inputs are relatively smooth.
Raising the nose requires a tug and we learned that its not difficult to over rotate momentarily. Visibility in the climb, even at best rate, is adequate.
The flight controls are cable actuated and we found them to be well harmonized with good feel and sensitivity, even when maneuvering at altitude.
There was no noticeable breakout force or lag in any of the controls but we did find it necessary to lead turns slightly with rudder for coordination, a bit unusual in most modern designs. Slow flight was comfortably stable and the stall break was quite docile.
Level flight at FL270 carrying 1200 foot-pounds of torque generated a TAS of 263 knots and a fuel flow of 261 pounds per hour. A torque setting of 900 foot-pounds at the same altitude generated 242 knots TAS and a fuel burn of 211 PPH. Should the engine quit at this altitude, you could glide some 80 nautical miles, giving a decent operating radius for selecting a landing site, better than even a turbocharged single cruising in the teens.
The combination of a high-aspect ratio wing and the need to fly this airplane high to keep fuel burns low means that the problem of an engine failure is more easily managed than in an airplane that doesnt urge its pilot into the flight levels.
So while you dont have the redundancy of two engines, youve got enough glide range to save the day in most cases. Thats a benefit, in our view, even if it doesnt address the emotional warmth of having two motors.
Gear speed is 168 knots, so dedicated speed brakes arent needed. Steep descents mean the power lever will be retarded far enough to trigger the aforementioned gear warning horn.
Instrument approaches at anything from 100 to 140 KIAS with 10 degrees of flaps are stable and solid but small power changes are tricky because of the sensitivity of the power lever to any movement.
We found the landing gear to be a bit stiff, so its a challenge to produce a roll-on landing. On the plus side, theres enough residual thrust at idle to flare to a pleasantly nose-high touchdown without gymnastics.
Reversing on rollout slows the airplane effectively but doesnt pin you against the belts; reverse is not so powerful as to blow a lot of junk off the runway into the prop. Slipping into at least Beta is a good idea to save the brakes.
Is this the perfect personal airplane? Not quite. But its a significant step in that direction as a sophisticated, fast design intended to be flown by the amateur pilot.
Theres no question that both initial and recurrent training will be essential for safe operation and were sure insurance companies will require periodic training.
Would we buy a Meridian instead of a used Cheyenne or King Air 90 series? Thats not easy to answer. The Meridians lack of head and legroom is off-putting to taller pilots and theres no solution to it other than a bigger airplane.
While an owner could put a lot of fuel into and do a lot of maintenance on a used twin turboprop for the difference in price under a Meridian, the system simplicity, reliability and avionics of the New Piper single are compelling, in our estimation. Its a totally modern airframe. However, any owner who wants to fly six people and baggage over moderate distances will be out of luck with this airplane.
If we were based at an airport with only about 3000 feet of runway, we wouldnt consider a twin and a Meridian might be perfect. We think Piper has done a good job on the airplane but it cant afford to rest on its laurels.
If this is but one of the first generation of single-engine, pressurized turboprops, there will likely be better ones, perhaps from the German company, Extra. Piper will have to remain wary of potential competition.
Contact- The New Piper Aircraft, Inc., 2926 Piper Drive, Vero Beach, FL 32960; 561-567-4361; www.newpiper.com.
-by Rick Durden
Rick Durden is an aviation attorney and a contributing editor to Aviation Consumer. He lives in Michigan.