Visitors to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention in Atlanta in October got the first public look at the results of a major transformation from the original proof-of-concept PiperJet. Even the name has changed. It's now the PiperJet Altaire, and the new look and functionality are much more jetlike than the original's. The basics of price, performance and ramp size remain the same, and the Altaire will still be powered by a single, tail-mounted Williams International FJ44-3A turbofan. But that's about it. Pretty much everything else has changed from yesterday's prototype, which has been flying since July 2008.
When Piper first conceived of its idea for a "very light" or "personal" jet, the competitive field was crowded. And the idea of small-jet travel was generating great excitement — not only within the general aviation press, but in the mainstream media as well. Piper would be left way behind if it didn't come up with something to compete for headlines with the likes of Cessna and its Mustang, Eclipse, Diamond, Cirrus, Adam and others. But attrition has thinned that field significantly since then, and for some of the survivors, the economic crisis has pushed light-jet development to the back burner. The dramatically redesigned Altaire demonstrates that Piper remains committed to pressing on with its jet-powered ambitions.
The bad news for PiperJet fans is that all the changes will delay the Altaire program by about nine months. First deliveries are now scheduled for early 2014. The good news is it's going to be a much better airplane in a lot of ways. Price and performance remain basically unchanged: $2.6 million (typically equipped) for a six/seven-place, 360-knot, 1,300-nautical mile jet (1,200 nautical miles with an 800-pound payload). But despite the fact that the ramp footprint hasn't grown, the cabin is now nine inches taller (55 inches at its highest point) and four inches wider. And Altaire buyers can now order an optional modular lavatory — not a glorified potty seat, but a real lav, Piper said, with solid walls and a door. With its newly developed 61.5-inch-diameter round fuselage, more-streamlined engine nacelle and redesigned nose, the Altaire looks sleek and attractive, a lot more like it was purpose-designed as a jet in the first place.
"We rethought the original concept of the PiperJet," said company Executive Vice President Randy Groom, "and we decided to move beyond a 'personal jet' to an airplane that can certainly still serve in that role, but offers much more in cabin size and comfort for possible corporate or commercial applications."
Groom also acknowledged that, though savvy jet buyers will always heed the cold, hard numbers, a beautiful shape will surely help captivate the eye.
"You notice people who fly in jets always look back over their shoulder as they walk away from it," Groom said. "We wanted to appeal to that emotion. We wanted a great-looking airplane."
Piper started the redesign with one of the most basic principles in designing a corporate jet. "It's the cabin, stupid." The old proof-of-concept PiperJet had a fuselage cross-section borrowed from the PA-46 Mirage/Meridian assembly line, round on the top, flat on the bottom.
"It's great for our Meridian, Mirage and Matrix customers," Groom said. "But that cross-section had been stretched and tugged as far as it could really go, and our jet customers wanted more."
Though the overall airframe footprint remains the same, the born-again Altaire cabin interior is much larger and has a 12.5-inch-wide drop-down floor. Though 4 feet 6 inches is still well short of qualifying as "stand-up" status, the expanded dimensions put the new cabin in the same league as the Citation Mustang and the Embraer Phenom 100, both twinjets. In fact, the Altaire's cabin is 34 inches longer than a Mustang's and an inch taller for an overall advantage of 30 cubic feet in pressurized volume.
In explaining Piper's thinking, Groom cited the example of how the market has evolved for single-engine turboprops such as the Pilatus PC-12. He sees the end result of that evolution as where he hopes Piper can start with the Altaire. The Pilatus was launched as a personal airplane, but businesses saw its value as an efficient corporate transport — sometimes as supplemental lift to complement an existing jet fleet, Groom said. And there is also the success of the PlaneSense PC-12 fractional-share program. Groom said the market has evolved similarly for Daher-Socata's TBM series of single-engine turboprops and, to a lesser extent, Piper's own Meridian turboprop single. To appeal to an expanded group of buyers, Piper chose to take the time to redesign the PiperJet around a more spacious cabin. And with the economy still struggling, the timing for market entry in a couple of years looks like it just might be an advantage.