Autopilot controllers in jets are almost universally mounted up high, usually at the top of the panel, as in the Mustang. But in the Meridian the controller is right below the MFD. This is not an issue in terms of ergonomics. It's easy to see and easy to reach. The problem is that it is placed exactly where you would expect a multifunction controller, or keypad, to be. On several occasions, I reached over to the autopilot controller to input a flight plan leg or change the range display. There's no doubt that pilots would get used to the location, but it will take a few flights.
That said, the functionality of the autopilot system in the Meridian G1000 is a thing of beauty. And, getting back to my earlier question about whether an avionics upgrade can change an airplane's flying character … here's one way: The autopilot has some new tricks. In addition to giving the Meridian rock-solid flight control, the system gives the pilot a much higher level of vertical nav capability than before, a great tool to have for pilots moving up to turbines. And it tames the steep turns, formerly up to 30 degrees of bank at higher rates of speed, by dialing down that bank to 22 degrees max while giving the pilot a reduced rate setting with the push of the "bank" button for predictably smooth arrivals.
There is a new overspeed recovery submode built into the system, too. In a descent it will predict an overspeed condition (VMO is 188 knots indicated) at around 175 knots and will issue an overspeed warning on the PFD as well as flight director cues to pitch up. The system works to give the pilot a heads up to avoid overspeed before it happens.
And all of it is accomplished with fabulous ease of use, something that could not be said for previous Meridian autoflight systems. While the most recent autopilot in the series, the S-Tec Magic 2100 system, was a solid, good performing digital autopilot, the GFC 700 is simply better across the board. This is, finally, a flight control system that befits the airplane.
The spring weather in the South Central part of the country was spectacular, with a huge high-pressure system bringing clear skies and light to moderate winds. Even up into the flight levels the air was smooth, too. I had been looking forward to doing some actual instrument flying in the new airplane, but make-believe IMC was as good (or bad) as the weather was going to get.
Our first leg was, as I said, up to Tyler, Texas, with Bob Kromer in back playing the part of busy executive. Well, it wasn't much of an act. With John and me up front being his personal pilots, Bob had his laptop out and work documents spread out on the big fold-up table. The cabin, for those of you not familiar with it, gives the passengers a true entry-level cabin class experience, and the creature comforts, with big comfy leather seats and a terrific airstair door, are way beyond anything you'll find in a run-of-the-mill piston single. When he was showing off the then-new Matrix (which has the same, though unpressurized cabin as the Meridian) at Piper's home of Vero Beach, Florida, last year, Kromer had the inspired idea to put a Saratoga on the ramp right next to it. And he encouraged the journalists to climb into the "cabins" of both airplanes. If I had had any illusions about there being any kind of a comfort contest there, they quickly dissolved. The PA-46 cabin is a huge step forward.
With the Meridian, you get even more. The advantages of a turboprop are, of course, high power up to high altitudes. The major disadvantage is the very high fuel burn when you can't go high, because of winds, short legs or ATC restrictions. Our relatively short trip up to Tyler, a 1.4-hour flight each way, thanks to a dead-90-degree, 30- to 40-knot crosswind at altitude, was the kind of trip that makes you think twice about going up high and paying for the fuel in the climb or staying lower and paying for it in cruise. We stayed lower and it seemed to be a wash. At 19,000 feet we were looking at fuel flows of around 285 pounds per hour, which is about 50 pounds per hour more than we would have burned at 27,000 feet, if we climbed that high.
Another G1000 advantage is its remarkably accurate fuel management utility. On top of Piper's excellent, no-brainer automatic fuel balancing system, fuel management is one area where few pilot resources, other than general awareness, need to be invested. And there's another great little fuel tool, an FOD (fuel over destination) readout on the MFD. As the flight progresses, you just keep your eye on that figure. If conditions cut into your reserves, you know it's time to think about an alternate.
In an airplane like this, most of your time is spent in cruise at higher altitudes. With synthetic vision standard, there's not much on it to see for most of the trip.
But when the risk is at its highest in airplanes like this that often travel to airports off the beaten path, synthetic vision earns its keep. With that in mind, our next destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico, a high-altitude airport in a location that sees a lot of private jet and turboprop travel. The day was warm and despite the lack of bad weather -- yes, some people will complain about anything -- it seemed like a good test for the airplane.
For pilots moving up to turbine power, one of the most intimidating skills to learn is the start sequence. There is, admittedly, a lot at stake -- Pratt isn't giving away PT-6s -- so it's important to be methodical and get it right. But there's no magic to it; in many ways, it's the other way around. There's not all the finger crossing and magic tricks associated with starting a big bore piston engine on a hot day. In general, turbine engines just start.
It's a small thing, but the start sequence illustrates just how smartly designed the G1000 installation in the Meridian is. For the start, the pilot-side PFD reverts to a start mode that gives you all the info you need to monitor. There's no checking from one spot in the panel to the other to make sure all the parameters are good: It's all there right in front of you. Once the NG stabilizes, you introduce the fuel and your eyes go right back to the same spot in the PFD to monitor the ITT, prop rpm and NG again.
While the G1000 doesn't increase the payload of the Meridian, which is, for many prospective owners, one of the airplane's biggest shortcomings, it does make weight management an easier task than ever, with a built-in fuel and weight totalizer that makes calculations quick and painless. True, you can't use it before you get into the airplane. But with four seats in back and an extra seat up front for a nonflying passenger, the Meridian does have a lot of loading flexibility, much more than the four seaters a lot of its step-up customers are used to flying. And with 140 gallons of usable fuel, there's always the option to leave fuel out for trips less than maximum range.