Many piston singles have much of the avionics capability of turbine-powered airplanes, but the Piper Matrix now has it all. Late last year Piper certified the same Garmin G1000 flat-glass avionics system in the unpressurized Matrix, and its pressurized sibling, the Mirage, that had been offered earlier in the turboprop Meridian. The claim that the Matrix and Mirage piston airplanes match a turbine is accurate and complete.
A G1000 flat-glass cockpit is hardly new in piston airplanes because nearly every model in current production uses avionics derived from that system. But I can't think of other piston models that offer such complete capability and redundancy.
The Matrix cabin is the same size that it has been since the PA-46 series was launched with the introduction of the Malibu in the 1980s. But as soon as I settled into the left seat of the Matrix, I felt like I was in a much bigger airplane. In fact, it felt like I had just stepped into a newly designed light jet.
Much of that feeling comes from the standard three flat-glass displays instead of the two that are standard in other pistons that I can think of. And the MFD in the center is the huge 15-inch model that Garmin first built for light jets, with a 10.4-inch PFD on each side.
Then there is the flight guidance panel with dedicated knobs and buttons for selecting each mode and value used to fly the airplane through the Garmin automatic flight-control system. Some current production jets lack the logical design and central panel placement of the flight guidance panel in the Matrix.
The redundancy of the Matrix and Mirage avionics systems is as complete as in the jets. A handful of other piston singles have dual electronic gyro systems (AHRS) and a second air data computer (ADC) that are now standard in the Matrix and Mirage, but the Pipers have, as do the jets, the capability to switch any data from one side to the other after a failure and continue full-capability operation of the displays and the autopilot system.
It is a terrific and welcome surprise to see a full engine-instrument crew advisory system (EICAS) in the Matrix, complete with dedicated master caution and warning lights. With EICAS, all system status and warning information is displayed on the flat glass in plain language with no need for gauges or system warning lights. The alert messages are color-coded for urgency and presented in vertical ranking in the order of importance. Designing EICAS into an airplane is a costly and complex process, so there are many current production jets that lack the full capability.
Of course there are the capabilities you would expect in any glass cockpit, such as display of traffic and terrain warning; Garmin's "SafeTaxi" chart that shows your progress over the airport; XM satellite weather; and Garmin's synthetic vision, which is becoming more widely available all of the time.
At first, Piper had considered offering a stripped-down version of the G1000 cockpit from the turbine Meridian in the Matrix and Mirage. But leaving out redundant displays and sensors would have required an all-new certification effort. It also became clear that pilots buying the Matrix or Mirage are not interested in less of anything in the cockpit. So the very complete G1000 system from the turboprop Meridian — with minor display differences for engine indication and so on — was adopted for the pistons as standard equipment.
The Matrix has been popular with pilots since its introduction in 2008. The six-seat cabin is undoubtedly the most attractive aspect of the airplane, but pilots also appreciate the reduction in complexity compared with the pressurized Mirage, or turboprop Meridian.
Insurance underwriters have also contributed to the acceptance of the Matrix because lower-time pilots — who would pay more for coverage, if they could even get it, in the pressurized Mirage — are more insurable in the Matrix. For a host of reasons that are not easy to explain, pressurized piston airplanes have posted a worse safety record than their unpressurized siblings. The insurance companies have noted this and set their rates and pilot experience standards accordingly.
The Lycoming turbocharged 540 engine in the Matrix is essentially the same as in the Mirage, but air is not tapped from the turbo compressors to pressurize the cabin. That means the Matrix easily matches the speed of the Mirage, but pilots will need to use supplemental oxygen above 12,500 feet in the Matrix. The reality is we all spend more hours flying with a headwind than with a tailwind. The math just works out that way. So most of the time a Matrix pilot will be happy flying at an altitude that doesn't require oxygen into that lower headwind. When the wind turns big in your favor, it may pay to climb and don the cannula. And on every flight, the cabin size and baggage capacity of the Matrix are always the same as those of the Mirage, but there is more payload available because empty weight of the unpressurized airplane is less.