Like a number of other airplanes first developed decades ago, the Piper Mirage has, in most respects, only gotten better over time. While the airframe and pressurization system is largely the same as it was in 1983, nearly every other part of the airplane, from the brakes to the interior to the engine to the avionics, has been upgraded over the years. The biggest downsides are that the Mirage has slightly less useful load and range than the Malibu, though in both of those cases, the figures remain quite respectable.
Of all the systems on the airplane, finding a satisfying avionics solution took the longest time. From the excellent previous-generation King system in the first Malibus, through the Meggitt years and on to the Avidyne era, the Mirage, along with the other PA-46s, has gone through a lot of panel changes. Some changes have been welcomed more by customers than others.
The G1000 panel in today's Mirage answers all the critics. Indeed, it's hard to imagine what kind of capability a customer might want that isn't a standard or optional feature on the Mirage. Just in terms of aesthetics, the Garmin glass is spectacular, with a pair of 10.4-inch PFDs with Garmin's SVT (synthetic vision technology) and a giant 15-inch MFD in the center. There's an autopilot controller just under the MFD (which takes a little getting used to if you're accustomed to reaching for it on the glareshield) and a data entry keypad that makes entering waypoints and frequencies quick and easy. There are dual ADAHRS (air data attitude reference system) and air data computers, as well as dual audio panels, all supplied by Garmin. As standard or optional equipment, customers get Garmin Safe Taxi airport diagrams, Bendix/King active traffic, TAWS-B terrain awareness, XM satellite weather and audio, Jeppesen ChartView instrument approach charts and more. It's a remarkably capable panel, as we've all come to expect from the G1000.
The GFC 700 flight control system is, finally, a fitting autopilot for such a capable airplane. You get airspeed hold, vertical speed, fully coupled operation including LPV approaches, and navigation steering. In the Mirage, pilots also will get to know and use the GFC 700's vertical nav utilities, since flying high is what this airplane is all about.
The interior is a noteworthy step up from other six-seat piston airplanes. I've flown many hours in Piper Saratogas, Lances and Cherokee Sixes with club seating, and as much as I love those airplanes, the Mirage offers an entirely different world of comfort. And Piper has during the past several years gotten the interior just right, making it comfortable while keeping the weight down as much as practical. The result is a cabin in which you can relax during the few hours it takes to travel a typical 700 nm trip. Even with reduced fuel and four adults in back for shorter trips, to around 500 nm, the cabin is still quite livable, even if the legroom is not quite up to Gulfstream standards.
Flying the Mirage
As you can see from the accompanying photographs, it was a cold, gray day in McKinney, Texas, when I met up with Piper's Bart Jones, who flew the Mirage, and Cutter Aviation's Larry Johnson to take some pictures of the Mirage and to go flying. Johnson has been selling PA-46s for a long time, and he knows the airplane intimately; I couldn't have asked for a better guide.
As with all the 46s, you get into the Mirage through the airstair door, which you close behind you. This is not something, by the way, that you would have the passengers do, although there are sensors to warn if the door is not closed. It's not hard to work your way up to the pilot seats, and once there, the comfort is excellent. This is, after all, primarily an owner-flown airplane, so getting the pilot seats right was critical. And Piper got them right. They are highly adjustable and nicely padded, and they offer the kind of head, shoulder and elbow room that are especially appreciated on those maximum-range legs.
Piper, with much help from Garmin, has done a good job of eliminating switches in the cockpit. This makes the single pilot's job much easier, though the cockpit still has the feel of a turbine airplane in many ways, with the use of an overhead panel for lights and electrics, the starter and the pressurization controls. The cabin pressure, by the way, is not handled through the G1000, as it is on some airplanes, no doubt because Piper was already happy with its admittedly simple and elegant controls. Also, there's no key, just a start switch, another very turbine touch.
On the ground the Mirage handles almost exactly like every other PA-46, though getting it slowed down requires the use of brakes, since it lacks a beta prop setting like the Meridian has. Throughout the flight, Larry counseled me on the proper use of throttle. It's all part of his philosophy on attaining long engine life, and I can sum it all up like this: Make small changes in power applied judiciously. The TIO-540 has a 2,000-hour TBO, and Larry is convinced that this approach gives owners the best shot at hitting that number.
On takeoff the Mirage feels very much like a Meridian, that is, heavy in the nose and a bit unwieldy. Our center of gravity, of course, was toward the front of the envelope. With people and bags in back, the feel is lighter.
Going out of McKinney, which is north of Dallas, we were on an IFR flight plan, and we were kept low, 4,000 feet, as we headed south around 40 miles down through the Dallas Class B.