Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Piper Mirage: Pistons, Pressure and Class
The most comfortable piston single in the sky
Just as the Mooney 201 rescued its namesake company from oblivion in 1976, in the mid ’80s, the Malibu offered Piper Aircraft the only light at the end of the tunnel that wasn’t a train. After the whirlwind uphill ride of the ’70s, general aviation sales were tumbling all across the board, but the Malibu was an instant success.
With a wing loading of almost 25 pounds per square foot, the Mirage plows through turbulence with more aplomb than a Bonanza or Mooney. All three models have about the same wing area, but the Mirage’s short chord and long span (43 feet) generate a high-aspect ratio for good high-altitude cruise and a slightly better 12-to-one glide ratio. If you’re level at FL220 with terrain that’s near sea level below, you can glide close to 50 miles. Just be sure to pick the right direction.
Handling is about what you’d expect of a two-ton single. Some pilots feel that the airplane flies better when its heavy rather than light, providing a more solid feel in turns and better control harmony. That’s a characteristic shared with the Saratoga HPs, the Seneca V and even the old Aztec.
Another similarity between the Mirage and most twins is that descents are best made power-on. The Mirage employs a pair of Precise Flight SpeedBrakes as standard equipment, and deploying them converts an aerodynamically clean airplane into a dirty one. It’s possible to descend at a good rate with the power up and the spoilers extended. Once you’re close to the airport, you can throw the wheels and the first 10 degrees of flaps to the wind at 165 knots.
Extend the flaps to their full 36 degrees, and you’ll find the Mirage’s low-speed handling to be among the best in the industry. Dirty stall is 58 knots, and if you subscribe to the 1.2 Vso rule for minimum approach speed, you could theoretically amble down final to as slow as 70 knots. Piper is a little more conservative and recommends 78 knots for short-field efforts. In smooth air, you could pull off either speed, because the Mirage provides plenty of warning before the stall. A reasonably competent short-field approach should allow you to touch down and grind to a stop in well under 1,000 feet. As always, remember that takeoff distance is the more critical number, and you’ll rarely get off in the same distance as landing.
Despite how well-entrenched the Mirage has become as a mainstay of general aviation, the competition is heating up. While it’s true that there’s currently no other pressurized piston airplane in production (the German Extra 400 isn’t produced any longer), Darwin Conrad of JetPROP LLC in Spokane, Wash., has experienced remarkable success with his STC converting basic Mirages and older Malibus to Pratt & Whitney PT-6A turbines (nearly 200 converted so far). Piper’s own Meridian offers another turboprop alternative to the Mirage, though at a price of nearly $1.9 million.
The new wave of VLJs may affect the Mirage market. The latest word on the P&W-powered Eclipse 500 is that its list price will be around $1.6 million, and the Diamond D-Jet with a single Williams turbofan will allegedly sell for about $1.4 million sometime in late 2007. Further up the food chain, the Adam A700 will cost about $2.2 million, and the new Cessna Mustang will list at $2.6 million or so. The HondaJet will probably top the class, and the new Cirrus entry may bottom it, though that airplane is still something of an x factor.
At full sticker, the Mirage lists for $1.1 million, cruises at least 100 knots slower than any of the aircraft listed above and flies behind piston power. No matter how well Lycoming has refined the airplane’s TIO-540 powerplant, it can’t hope to match the reliability of the turboprop competitors or the pure jets in the VLJ class.
That may or may not limit future Mirage sales. The Mirage can be operated down low on about 20 gph—that kind of economy is a benefit the VLJs will never match (though diesels probably will). Turbines must fly high to realize any efficiency. Similarly, the Mirage can handle approaches at 75 to 80 knots if necessary—you’d be ill-advised to try that speed in a VLJ.
The fact is that, at the moment, no one has delivered a VLJ at any price, so for a little while, at least, the Mirage may be the only new pressurized single you can buy for around one million. We’ll have to wait and see if the VLJ market turns out to be as robust as so many people hope it will be.
SPECS: 2006 Piper Mirage PA46
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Labels: Piston Singles