My introduction to the Piper Mirage has been an unusual one, to say the least, because I came to fly the progenitor of the PA-46 line only after I'd flown all of the others, some of them a lot. Before the Piper Mirage, I'd flown three of its spinoffs, the turboprop powered Meridian, the unpressurized Matrix and even the aftermarket stepchild, the JetProp, a Malibu converted by a third-party company to Pratt & Whitney turboprop power.
It was mostly by chance that I flew the piston version last, but it's no mistake that there are so many variants. There are two main reasons for the success of the PA-46. First, Piper got the airframe right. With its comfortable cabin — luxurious by piston single standards — airstair door and airy feel, the PA-46 is an airplane that makes you feel as though you've arrived. The ramp appeal is considerable. And passengers — whether looking at it from the ramp or nestled inside — understand that right off the bat.
Second, like it or not, much of the success of the PA-46 has to do with the fact that it is a low-wing airplane. When you think of all the high-wing light jets out there — that's right, there aren't any — you quickly get the idea that there's something desirable about the low-wing configuration. Part of it is ease of design and manufacturing and the cost of production; it's simply a lot easier and cheaper to put the fuselage of a complicated airplane on top of the wing rather than hang it from it. Even if the opposite were true, designers would doubtless put the wing on the bottom, since the cabin ambience is simply far superior that way.
The latest iteration of the Mirage has achieved a level of development that is very satisfying. Everything seems right for it, from the engine to the avionics to the interior, to the point where it's hard to say what one would do differently to it. It seems as though Piper has gotten the airplane just right.
Radical Idea, Conservative Design
With the introduction of the Malibu in 1983, Piper made a name for itself as a company that was willing to take chances by innovating in areas little touched by its competitors.
Remember that Piper was no stranger to building pressurized or cabin-class airplanes — its Cheyennes were among the hottest turboprop twins available, and up until the market dive of the early '80s, they were a profitable product too.
The Malibu was a cabin-class pressurized piston single against which not one of its traditional rivals could compete. Indeed, there was some question about just what kind of customers would be interested in such an airplane. Would it be high-performance- single owners moving up or owners of turboprop twins moving down, or would pilots skip the other two markets altogether by buying a Malibu as their first transportation airplane?
As it turned out, the answer was "all of the above." Piper sold around 100 Malibus a year off the bat, and this at a time when airplane sales were taking a beating.
As radical as the niche was, the design was largely conventional. The PA-46 was and is a low-wing sheet-metal airplane with an airstair door. Piper smartly gave it everything a Cheyenne pilot would want, from pneumatic boots for the wings and tail to weather radar. From the start it was a serious transportation airplane done up right. And more to the point, Piper knew just how to build it. It'd been building similar designs for more than a decade.
The one unusual design element is the wing, a long, thin affair that is as different from Piper's patented, wide-chord "Hershey bar" Cherokee wings as could be. The high-aspect ratio wing, critics say, makes for a slightly bumpier ride in turbulence and a slower roll rate, while adherents point to the greater high-altitude efficiency of the design. It is sure hard to argue with efficiency, which in the original PA-46 helped give the airplane its tremendous range.
The engine-wing combination gave the airplane a range of approximately 1,500 nm, remarkable for a single-engine airplane with a respectable useful load. It was also plenty fast, from around 195 knots at an economy setting to around 215 knots at high-speed cruise.
Piper changed gears five years after the introduction of the Malibu when it came out with an updated version, the Mirage. The most noteworthy change was to the 350 hp Lycoming TIO-540, the engine that it still uses today. It is more powerful and delivers slightly faster airspeeds, but it also burns more fuel, so the range, while good, isn't what it used to be. The Mirage also got a new, much nicer interior, better radar, heated windshield (to replace the hot plate on the Malibu) and a 200-pound weight increase to help offset the additional weight of the new systems, especially the heavier engine. It was a more substantial-feeling airplane with a nicer interior and better features and systems all around, though even with the gross weight increase, it still lost a little useful load in the upgrade.
In 1999 the airplane got the beefier wing spar of the Meridian, the turboprop version that Piper would introduce the following year.