No one makes it easier for a pilot to step up to a turboprop than Piper Aircraft. Product-wise, Piper's PA-46 M-Class pistons provide the perfect transition platforms to the turbine-powered PA-46 Meridian. From a price/performance perspective, the Meridian arguably delivers the best bang for the buck among turboprop singles. And operationally, no OEM has made a turboprop that's easier to operate than the Meridian. "It's a turboprop airplane for the man who's never flown a turboprop, so we want to make it as simple as we can," said Bart Jones, Piper's chief pilot, as we did a walkaround of CGAMM at the Piper factory in Vero Beach, Fla. "This is the most simple turbine engine airplane I've ever flown."
The brand-new Canadian-registered Meridian would be starting homeward the following day, but the owner had graciously allowed Piper to use it first to show off the current generation of Piper's flagship product, which includes a new interior soft-goods upgrade introduced a year ago. With its 260-knot top cruise speed and 30,000-foot ceiling, you need to climb up to altitude and go somewhere to get to know this airplane. Mindful that AMM was headed to Canada, far from its balmy birthplace, we decided to give it a proper tropical send off and filed direct for Key West, 200 nm south-southwest, at flight level 240.
Simple to operate or not, a turbine engine is a different animal than a piston, and even similarities to its M-Class siblings—Matrix, Malibu and Mirage—go only so far. "It's the same-size fuselage, it's the same wingspan, but it's really a very different airplane, structurally, from the piston airplanes," Jones said. "There's only about a 20% parts commonality." The Meridian's wing, for example, is substantially different than the piston PA-46's, primarily to accommodate its 170-gallon fuel capacity, 50 more than the PA-46 pistons can carry. And, its maximum ramp weight, at 5,134 pounds, is also some 700 pounds heavier. But, the Meridian's 850 shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-42A, de-rated to 500 shp, more than makes up for the added weight. To provide enough rudder authority for the extra power, the Meridian's empennage is 37% larger than on piston PA 46s, and it employs an electrically operated rudder trim tab, rather than the pistons' bungee spring mechanism used for rudder trim.
The Meridian's big tail provides plenty of rudder authority in the landing configuration.
A number of changes have come to the Meridian since the first delivery in 2000, most notably the switch to the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit from the standard Avidyne Entegra flight deck in 2009. More modest but impactful enhancements have been ongoing. In 2011, LED interior and exterior lighting systems, Bose headsets and side pockets in the cockpit for iPads became standard. The new soft-goods package introduced a year ago continues the enhancement trend. Aircraft interiors have been getting more attention from OEMs lately, particularly in aircraft where the owner sits in the back, which is increasingly the case with Meridian buyers. "It used to be 90% of customers were pilots, and only 10% had professionals flying for them," Jackie Carlon, Piper's Director of Marketing and Communications, had told me earlier that morning. "In the past few years, 80% are pilots, and 20% use professional pilots."
Before the soft-goods upgrade, all M-Class Pipers had the same interior packages and options, but now, Meridian interiors have higher-quality carpets, leathers and side panels, and buyers have access to more options than before. "We have lovely materials for the other [M-Class] aircraft, but not the high-end we now use on the Meridian," Carlon said. Additionally, the leather and Kydex used on the Meridian's side panels have been replaced by Izit, a luxurious synthetic leather that wears better than the real thing. Today's Meridian also has forward-folding pilot and copilot seats (both fully adjustable), making it easier for generously sized pilots to get in and out of the cockpit. The flight deck is dominated by the G1000's 15-inch center display screen flanked by PFDs in the pilot and copilot positions, with little else cluttering the panel.
Piper puts the accent on ease of operation in its Meridian turboprop single, even eliminating the need for a prop lever, as (not) seen on the pedestal.
The major challenge in transitioning to a turboprop is the management and care of the engine, and Piper has greatly simplified the process in the Meridian. There's no prop lever. Once the engine spools up, it turns the prop at 2,000 rpm at all times, leaving only the throttle to control the power. "Push to go, pull to slow," Jones said.
Another simplifier: In other turboprop installations, the engine's condition lever typically is used to vary ground idle, as the power demands for onboard equipment can change with environmental conditions. The Meridian's ground idle—a minimum of 63% NG—is about 11% higher than a typical turboprop's, high enough to provide power on the ground in all situations. Thus, the Meridian's condition lever is simply a two-position fuel control: on or off.
Fuel management is equally simple. The fuel cross-feeds automatically, keeping the tanks balanced. Should an imbalance occur due to differences in feed rates caused by the plumbing system or other factors, a fuel pump automatically engages, increasing fuel pressure on the overloaded side and accelerating its fuel feed until the imbalance is corrected.
The Meridian's bleed air system is manual, which may require more attention than would an automatic or electrically operated one, but keeps the aircraft's systems simple. Bleed air needs to be out or off during engine start to ensure all the air is used for cooling the engine, without any being diverted to run other systems.
The most critical operation of any turbine engine is getting it started. "That's where you have the lowest air flow and the highest temperatures," Jones said. "Once you get started, if you never shut it down, it would probably run forever." The Meridian's auto-start function takes the pucker out of the procedure. After the G1000 completes its self-test, put the fuel pumps and igniter switches located on the overhead panel to manual and push "auto-start," which starts the engine spooling. At a minimum of 13%, you introduce fuel. The igniters fire, and the ITT and NG both climb. Just monitor the display to ensure both numbers are rising. At 56% NG, the starter automatically disengages. Turn the fuel pumps to "auto," and turn off the igniter. The engine is now started. Now, turn on the generator, alternator, avionics and cabin pressurization, and push the bleed air in. Finally, test the standby gyro, the standby battery, and if it's a hot, humid day like it was in south Florida, and you're so equipped, turn on the air conditioner, too. All you need now is permission to taxi. (Because this was a Canadian-registered aircraft, Piper needed special permission from the FAA to conduct the demo.)
Taxi speed is controlled by using the throttle in the beta range to change the prop pitch, varying it from positive to slightly negative. Push forward to go forward, pull back to put negative pitch in the blades and slow down or stop.
The Garmin G1000 flight deck brought the plane into the modern turboprop age, increasing situational awareness and reducing panel clutter.
When the throttle is advanced on takeoff, the engine delivers a surge of power at 2,000 rpm, which can induce shimmy if you're barreling down the runway. For beginners, Jones recommends holding the brakes while advancing the throttle, and once the engine reaches 2,000 rpm, release the brakes, and the Meridian tracks straight down the runway. Keep the power coming forward to 1,250 to 1,300 foot-pounds of torque.
Rotation speed is 80 knots. The Meridian doesn't feel like it's ready to fly at that speed, but it is. We climbed out at 125 knots and once past 1,000 feet AGL, pitched the nose down for a climb speed of 145, which gave us about a 1,100 fpm vertical speed. Passing through 7,000 feet, approach asked us to increase our climb rate for traffic, and we went back to 125, producing a climb of about 1,700 fpm. Make sure you advance the throttle as you climb; turbines aren't turbocharged, and power will drop off with altitude, just as in a normally aspirated piston engine.
Twenty-three minutes after takeoff, we reached our requested altitude of flight level 240. We pulled back to cruise power—about 1,200 foot-pounds for us, according to the power tables. The OAT was -20C, and once things settled down, we showed a TAS of 264 knots and a fuel burn of 266 pounds per hour. Cabin altitude was about 7,500 feet.
"It's not a PC-12, and it's not a TBM, but this will do 250 knots true at 25,000 feet on 37 gallons per hour all day long, and ain't nobody touches that from an efficiency standpoint," Jones said.
Meanwhile, the fuel range ring—showing where we'd be when we ran out of fuel—revealed the Yucatán Peninsula was within reach, triggering thoughts of a tropical idyll with the young Canadian. Indeed, after traveling on piston power, an aircraft like this seems to put a whole new world of possibilities within reach. Perhaps Jones sensed my enthusiasm getting out of hand. "People who haven't flown turbines think that the restrictions are minimal," he said. "However, in reality, you actually change one set of operating restrictions for another. The fact that you have to go high [for fuel economy] means you may face stronger headwinds going westbound in the wintertime, whereas if I'm in a Mirage, I can stay down at 10,000 feet, and my fuel burn doesn't change. We've had customers get out of Mirages, transition to Meridian, and a couple of years later, get back into a Mirage because it fits their mission better. It is all about the mission profile that the customer is flying."
Along with great looks and outstanding price/performance ratio, the Meridian offers an updated soft-goods package and new interior options, adding to the level of comfort and refinement in Piper's flagship.
We started down 75 nm out from Key West, where winds were from 130 at 15 gusting to 20, and runway 9 was in use. Jones briefed me on the approach and landing, reviewing flap extension and airspeeds, and approximate foot-pounds of torque to use. But, what about putting it in reverse on touchdown to bring the Meridian to a shuddering stop in a matter of feet? "By the time the nose gear is down, the speed is probably going through 60. It takes a few seconds for [reverse] to spool up, it makes a lot of noise and throws up a lot of dust, and it erodes your prop," he said. "You're not thrown forward in the seat because you're not going that fast. In other words, it's usually not necessary." So, when would it be needed? "I never use reverse," Jones said. One more way the Meridian keeps things simple.
Coming over the numbers at 80 knots, I closed the throttle as instructed, and a few moments later heard myself say, "Wow!" at the surprisingly smooth landing we had made. "It's that big tail," Jones said. "You can just grease it in every time—even with the fairly stiff landing gear."
As we turned off the active, Jones offered a final summation of the Meridian's place in the turboprop single world. "If you want to go 1,000 miles with four or five people every day, this is not your airplane," he said, alluding to competing brands he had mentioned earlier. "But if you want to go 600 miles every day with three or four people and do it at half the cost, this is your airplane."
And, Jones might have added, if you want to do it with simplicity.
The Meridian's VGs
|Introduced on the Meridian in 2003, Micro Vortex Generators, the small aluminum fins on the wings and horizontal stabilizer that improve controllability at low airspeeds and reduce stall speed, may have saved the turboprop by increasing its full fuel useful load some 70%—from 350 to 560 pounds. Anni Brogan, president of Micro AeroDynamics (MAD), which makes the vortex generators (VGs) and flight tested the initial installation, recalls Piper executives of the time as saying, "We've got airplanes in the inventory with six seats we can't sell—we can only carry enough weight to fill two of them." The Anacortes, Wash., company has been making VGs exclusively for some 25 years and has 86 STCs for installations on more than 500 aircraft models ranging from the Piper Cub to King Air C-90, with kits for aftermarket installation priced from $695 to $3,950. Illustrated instructions make the VGs easy to install for any aircraft mechanic, though the modification requires sign-off from an IA (FAA licensed Airframe & Powerplant mechanic with Inspection Authorization) before the aircraft can be returned to service, Brogan notes. In addition to standard equipment on the Meridian, MAD VGs are available as factory options on Maule Air, Thrush and American Champion aircraft, and now the GippsAero GA8 Airvan. Whether or not VGs saved the Meridian, Brogan is proud of the many pilots she knows they've kept alive. "We've had a number of calls, more than 90 now, from people letting us know our product saved their lives," Brogan said. "I understand the weight increase is important, but really, what VGs are doing is saving lives. They're a great safety improvement to an airplane for very little cost and very little downtime."|
Training To Fly The Meridian, SimCom Style
|What does it take to be pilot in command in the Piper Meridian turboprop single? Along with the financial wherewithal, if you want to insure the aircraft, you'll need training from a provider such as SimCom (www.simulator.com), headquartered in Orlando, Fla., which offers programs for the Meridian, as well as Pilatus PC-12/PC-12 NG and Daher-Socata TBM 700/850/900 turboprop singles, and some 30 other aircraft ranging from pistons to jets. SimCom training is included in the purchase price of a new Meridian.
Before arrival, trainees receive manuals, checklists, a written exam on V-speeds and emergencies, and other study materials to prepare for the course. All are advised to arrive with a fresh instrument proficiency check, so they can devote attention to learning the aircraft instead of relearning instrument procedures. For pilots of new Meridians who have little or no Garmin G1000 experience, on-site training starts with a two-day G1000 course. The five-day initial Meridian program itself includes 30 hours of ground school and 10 hours of simulator time. Pilots operating Meridians with legacy panels use a Meggitt panel-based simulator, and a G1000 sim is available for the rest. Courses are limited to a maximum of two pilots.
Pilots are transitioning into Meridians from Piper M-Class pistons, from Cirrus aircraft and a few from Mooneys, said John Wernk, SimCom's Piper Program Manager and TBM Program Manager. One trainee had a total of just 120 flight hours. "He was VFR only, so we didn't do any instrument work," Wernk said, adding that one needn't be a high-time pilot to handle the Meridian. "I think Piper did a really good job of simplifying the airplane," he said. "It's designed with a lower-time pilot in mind. You don't have to switch fuel tanks, there's no prop lever and the ignition comes on when you need it to."
Pilots who arrive in their Meridians can opt to have an instructor fly right seat on the way home, a service formerly included as part of the training. About 10 to 15% of pilots avail themselves of the service, Wernk said.