The news yesterday that Piper was undertaking a review of its Altaire single-engine jet program raised eyebrows because it is unusual, to say the least, to announce such reviews—they are most often conducted behind the scenes and very quietly. In fact, we seldom learn about the existence of such reviews until after the company has decided to axe the program in question, such as when Cessna decided to discontinue its large-cabin Columbus program a few years back. That decision was, of course, the result of an in-house review of the program, a review that no one outside of Cessna knew about until after company leadership had decided to kill the program and about which no one cared after the decision had been made.
With Piper's announcement, the opposite approach was taken, and it makes one wonder why the company chose to let the world know that it was uncertain about its highly touted jet program. Such an announcement can only have a chilling effect on sales.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the jet, it is a Williams FJ44-powered single-engine jet with the engine mounted in the tail. A proof of concept was completed and flown a few years ago. It was essentially a stretched PA-46 fuselage with a new wing and tail, on which was mounted a Williams FJ44 turbofan.
At NBAA 2010, the company announced major design renovations to the project, in part to improve the jet’s ungainly looks but also to improve its cabin and flying characteristics, especially those having to do with the jet’s high-mounted engine, which can cause control issues when thrust is applied. The look of the new design was nearly universally applauded, and first deliveries were pushed back on the schedule to some time in 2014.
Performance was tempting. The $2.7 million jet would have a top cruise speed of 360 knots, a ceiling of 35,000 feet (very high for a single), and a range of up to 1300 nm. It would also, as of last year, have a new cabin, based on a new fuselage design, meaning the entire Altaire, from wing to fuselage to powerplant to avionics, would be new. The costs had to be great.
While we haven't heard much about the progress of the program, it's natural to fear that there might be performance concerns.The jet's future relies on it getting an extraordinary exemption to the single-engine max stalling speed figure of 61 knots, and Piper also needed to figure out a way to get the jet to its ceiling of 35,000 feet, something that has never been done in modern times with a single-engine airplane of any kind.
The concerns were spotlighted when Piper announced that its CEO, Geoffrey Berger, and head of operations, Randy Groom, were let go at the same time as the program went under review.
Competition might be a factor, too. In the past few months there have emerged a few "new" competitors. Last week at NBAA 2011 Eclipse Aerospace announced that it was going to produce an updated version of the light twinjet, with first deliveries starting in 18 months. The new model, dubbed the Eclipse 550, will cost $2.7 million (sound familiar?) and feature autothrottles, synthetic vision, dual digital FMS and more. As I said it is a twinjet, too. Moreover, Cessna has done a good job of holding the price line on its Mustang, which still goes out the door for around $3 million. More substantial and 4,000 pounds heavier than an Eclipse, the Mustang is a solid performer in the market, especially with just the type of buyer that Piper is hoping to court for the Altaire.
The big advantage of the Altaire, according to Piper, is that it has great operating economies because it is a single. But with its one Williams FJ-44-1AP, which puts out about 1250 pounds of thrust, the cost advantages over a pair of Pratt & Whitney PW610F engines in the Eclipse (a total of 1800 lbs of thrust), are noteworthy but perhaps not enough to tempt operators to give up that additional engine. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that orders for the Altaire, even after the upgrades announced last year, have fallen flat. And under these circumstances, it must be hard for Piper’s owners, the Brunei investment concern known as Imprimis, to keep making the investment in an expensive program with few assurances that this investment will pay off.
One thing is certain. If it does decide to redouble its efforts on the Altaire, it will cost Piper a lot more money to get the jet to market.
Does it make sense to do that? Is the jet a good bet to be a winner and to earn lots of orders and sales for years to come once the economy recovers? Or would it be in Imprimis' best interests to cut its losses and make Piper the best turboprop-and-piston airplane manufacturer it can be?
Those are precisely the questions that Piper and its parent company are addressing. What answers they will reach is officially unknown, even as there are concerns that Piper's single-engine jet might remain a mere developmental footnote in aviation history.