PiperJet Is Born Again

PiperJet Altaire Piper Aircraft

Visitors to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention in Atlanta in October got the first public look at the results of a major transformation from the original proof-of-concept PiperJet. Even the name has changed. It's now the PiperJet Altaire, and the new look and functionality are much more jetlike than the original's. The basics of price, performance and ramp size remain the same, and the Altaire will still be powered by a single, tail-mounted Williams International FJ44-3A turbofan. But that's about it. Pretty much everything else has changed from yesterday's prototype, which has been flying since July 2008.

When Piper first conceived of its idea for a "very light" or "personal" jet, the competitive field was crowded. And the idea of small-jet travel was generating great excitement — not only within the general aviation press, but in the mainstream media as well. Piper would be left way behind if it didn't come up with something to compete for headlines with the likes of Cessna and its Mustang, Eclipse, Diamond, Cirrus, Adam and others. But attrition has thinned that field significantly since then, and for some of the survivors, the economic crisis has pushed light-jet development to the back burner. The dramatically redesigned Altaire demonstrates that Piper remains committed to pressing on with its jet-powered ambitions.

The bad news for PiperJet fans is that all the changes will delay the Altaire program by about nine months. First deliveries are now scheduled for early 2014. The good news is it's going to be a much better airplane in a lot of ways. Price and performance remain basically unchanged: $2.6 million (typically equipped) for a six/seven-place, 360-knot, 1,300-nautical mile jet (1,200 nautical miles with an 800-pound payload). But despite the fact that the ramp footprint hasn't grown, the cabin is now nine inches taller (55 inches at its highest point) and four inches wider. And Altaire buyers can now order an optional modular lavatory — not a glorified potty seat, but a real lav, Piper said, with solid walls and a door. With its newly developed 61.5-inch-diameter round fuselage, more-streamlined engine nacelle and redesigned nose, the Altaire looks sleek and attractive, a lot more like it was purpose-designed as a jet in the first place.

"We rethought the original concept of the PiperJet," said company Executive Vice President Randy Groom, "and we decided to move beyond a 'personal jet' to an airplane that can certainly still serve in that role, but offers much more in cabin size and comfort for possible corporate or commercial applications."

Groom also acknowledged that, though savvy jet buyers will always heed the cold, hard numbers, a beautiful shape will surely help captivate the eye.

"You notice people who fly in jets always look back over their shoulder as they walk away from it," Groom said. "We wanted to appeal to that emotion. We wanted a great-looking airplane."

Piper started the redesign with one of the most basic principles in designing a corporate jet. "It's the cabin, stupid." The old proof-of-concept PiperJet had a fuselage cross-section borrowed from the PA-46 Mirage/Meridian assembly line, round on the top, flat on the bottom.

"It's great for our Meridian, Mirage and Matrix customers," Groom said. "But that cross-section had been stretched and tugged as far as it could really go, and our jet customers wanted more."

Though the overall airframe footprint remains the same, the born-again Altaire cabin interior is much larger and has a 12.5-inch-wide drop-down floor. Though 4 feet 6 inches is still well short of qualifying as "stand-up" status, the expanded dimensions put the new cabin in the same league as the Citation Mustang and the Embraer Phenom 100, both twinjets. In fact, the Altaire's cabin is 34 inches longer than a Mustang's and an inch taller for an overall advantage of 30 cubic feet in pressurized volume.

In explaining Piper's thinking, Groom cited the example of how the market has evolved for single-engine turboprops such as the Pilatus PC-12. He sees the end result of that evolution as where he hopes Piper can start with the Altaire. The Pilatus was launched as a personal airplane, but businesses saw its value as an efficient corporate transport — sometimes as supplemental lift to complement an existing jet fleet, Groom said. And there is also the success of the PlaneSense PC-12 fractional-share program. Groom said the market has evolved similarly for Daher-Socata's TBM series of single-engine turboprops and, to a lesser extent, Piper's own Meridian turboprop single. To appeal to an expanded group of buyers, Piper chose to take the time to redesign the PiperJet around a more spacious cabin. And with the economy still struggling, the timing for market entry in a couple of years looks like it just might be an advantage.

"This is a great time to be developing a new airplane," Groom said.

The Altaire has 170 cubic feet of cabin space. There are also 20 cubic feet of pressurized aft baggage space and a 20-cubic-foot unpressurized baggage compartment in the nose, large enough to carry golf bags. With the 70-cubic-foot cockpit area, total pressurized volume is 260 cubic feet, more than a Mustang (230 cubic feet) and a little less than a Phenom 100 (282 cubic feet). The new, round fuselage shape and redesigned windows give the cabin a much airier feel to go along with its more generous volume. The drop-down floor is 12.5 inches wide, and because the redesigned Altaire has no spar carry-through (the fuselage sits atop the main spar, à la the Beechcraft Premier 1A), there should be less stumbling involved in getting around the cabin. With a view to serving passengers of larger size, Piper also widened the entry door to three feet but stuck with the basic functionality of the Meridian door, which has proven to be one of that airplane's strong suits.

As you board the Altaire, you'll find yourself literally facing one of the cabin's most innovative features. The space immediately opposite the door can fulfill a number of functions. It can be used for extra storage, a seventh seat, a refreshment center or the previously mentioned lavatory. The best part is that each of those options is available in modular form. So you can use the space for cargo on a morning flight, then reinstall the lav for a trip later in the day. And then drop in the refreshment stand another time. Piper estimates about two hours' work to swap modules. Groom believes that most buyers will opt for at least the lavatory when ordering an Altaire. For many passengers, the security of simply knowing that private space is available can make a refreshing difference on a long flight, even if it's never used.

The Altaire's seats were designed and will be constructed by Millennium Concepts in Wichita, Kansas. They are able to withstand 26 Gs forward motion and 32 Gs downward. Making that G-rating is important for Piper, since having seats with that level of passenger protection might waive the 61-knot FAA stall-speed limitation for a single-engine aircraft.

It is expected that the Altaire will have stall speeds "in the 70s," Groom said, which is faster than any single-engine airplane that we know of. This could prove one of the chief certification challenges that Piper will encounter in working with the FAA on approving a single-engine jet. The rules on slow-speed performance for singles were written with lighter aircraft in mind. Certifying a single-engine jet represents breaking a lot of new ground. Groom said Piper has been in constant contact with FAA certification authorities to ensure they are on the same page with logical certification requirements for the Altaire. Piper estimates a published landing distance of 2,075 feet over a 50-foot obstacle under standard conditions.

That segues neatly into a discussion on the new wing. Though the span and the airfoil remain the same as those on the old PiperJet, there is an increase in wing area of 30 square feet — all in the chord. Vince Warbington, director of engineering for the Altaire project, said this change had as much to do with adding fuel capacity as with the need for extra wing area to lift the new fuselage. Based on the added wing area and its increased lift, Piper engineers were also able to change the flaps to a simpler drop-hinged design in contrast with the more complex Fowler flaps on the existing PiperJet. The simpler design will help make the Altaire easier and less expensive to produce and less complex and costly to maintain, Warbington said. Another benefit of the increased chord is allowing more room to work for the engineers to simplify the landing gear installation, again leading to easier production and maintenance — and thus lower costs for PiperJet operators. Warbington also hinted that the larger wing would make a great platform for a stretched version of the Altaire.

It's interesting that, though the airplane we've been looking at for the past few years used the same fuselage cross-section as that of the PA-46 Mirage/Meridian, Warbington said Piper could have used only about half the existing PA-46 tooling to build the Altaire. So coming up with totally new tooling for the Altaire's all-new fuselage does not represent as much of a production-cost penalty as might be expected. Another benefit of reinventing the fuselage — all lighting has been designed from scratch with modern low-voltage LEDs. That means the resulting lower-gauge wiring is much lighter and temperatures much lower. So insulation requirements are much less of an engineering and production burden. Interior panels are also designed to be easy to remove, with two or three screws each.

Another one of the big advances with the Altaire is its two-zone climate control system. Even some much larger jets don't have this feature, and the unhappy choice has always been between having the passengers refrigerated in the cabin or the pilots slow-roasted in the cockpit. In the Altaire, each area will have its own climate control, keeping everyone on board comfortable.

Speaking of cockpit creature comforts, Piper did not forget that the Altaire will likely be used as a personal jet by significant numbers of buyers. So rather than shoehorning "the help" into a cramped, tiny space up at the pointy end, the Altaire features a generously sized cockpit, with comfortable seats that are easy to get into and out of. The stylish and comfortable Millennium-designed crew seats are also a reflection of Piper's recognition that a large number of those sitting in the front seats will also be the ones writing the checks.

Also, cockpit eye candy in the Altaire goes well beyond the upholstery. Even before the redesign, it was known that the PiperJet project shared the distinction with the HondaJet of being the launch customers for Garmin's G3000 avionics suite, the newest and most advanced integrated avionics package earmarked for Part 23 turbine aircraft. The G3000 back end is very similar to the now-ubiquitous G1000. But what meets the eye — and the fingertips — is significantly different.

Dominating the view in the cockpit are the three expansive 14.1-inch-diagonal display screens - two primary flight displays (PFDs) and the center-mounted multifunction display (MFD). That's not unlike the G1000. But what really sets the G3000 apart are the two console-mounted GTC 570 touch-screen controllers. With their 5.7-inch-diameter screens, the controllers provide pilots with home-computerlike, icon-driven command software built on Garmin's new "shallow" menu structure. That is, it's specifically designed with the human factor in mind, so it's not necessary to mine down several layers to find the desired page. And it's equally easy to navigate backward using "back" and "home" keys, should you find yourself headed down the wrong cyberpathway. That translates to being able to access more systems and sensors with fewer page sequences and keystrokes (or more accurately, key touches). The pair of console-mounted GTC 570 touch screens control everything from transponder codes and idents to remote audio and intercom functions. They are also used for entering and editing flight plan data and accessing weather, traffic — even entertainment and custom display options. Old-school knob spinners can still use the single set of mechanical concentric knobs, a mechanical volume control and a map joystick, should they so desire.

Of course, the G3000 has all the now-familiar features available on the G1000, such as synthetic vision, datalink weather, traffic, GFC 700 automatic flight control system, checklists, geo-referenced airport diagrams, FliteCharts, SafeTaxi and more.

As enjoyable as it will be to sit inside the Altaire — either up front or in the back — stepping outside and taking that satisfying look over the shoulder will also be a pleasure. Piper has made available three color-palette choices for coordinating the interior upholstery and exterior color schemes. The mock-up in Atlanta was done in "Northstar." The Altaire's round fuselage and new, more-jetlike oval windows add a lot to the airplane's visual appeal. So does the redesigned, more-rounded nose and lower windshield angle. At the back end, there's a new nacelle cloaking the 2,500-pound-thrust Williams International FJ44-3AP, and it makes a big difference. Gone is the "beer-barrel" shape of the proof-of-concept airplane's nacelle, replaced by a much more flowing look.

The new nacelle shape is not just for eye appeal. Because the PiperJet's engine is necessarily mounted above the fuselage centerline, increasing power tends to push the nose down, and reducing power can cause it to pitch up. PiperJet's Exhaust Angle Control Technology (EXACT) system automatically bends the exhaust nozzle to redirect the thrust based on the Altaire's pitch attitude, power settings and so forth. The Altaire's new nacelle shape incorporates refinements to the system, and Groom said that flight tests have shown that EXACT lives up to its acronym.

The new-design engine nacelle is also positioned lower and farther aft. Besides further optimizing the thrust line, the new arrangement means that, should the engine's rotor self-destruct, it would not buzz-saw through the Altaire's tail section and depressurize the cabin — a big safety consideration and very pleasing to certification authorities. The tail surfaces are also redesigned, lower and with a more attractive shape. Some observers speculate that the tail configuration would nicely accommodate a pair of engines mounted on either side in the standard light-jet configuration, so it isn't hard to imagine larger siblings of the Altaire, with expanded fuselages (a round fuselage lends itself to easy stretching) and another engine strapped on the back.

For now, though, Piper is happy with one. Groom is convinced that the lower costs of the single are key, and that people's perception of turbine engine reliability has come a long way. The continued success of single-engine turboprops suggests that much of the old prejudice against singles may be crumbling as their reputations for reliability and safety continue to build.

So the next couple of years will ultimately decide how buyers will respond to the siren call of the single-engine jet. But Piper has done its part to make that decision that much more attractive.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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