Piper Mirage

Piper Mirage Robert Goyer

My introduction to the Piper Mirage has been an unusual one, to say the least, because I came to fly the progenitor of the PA-46 line only after I'd flown all of the others, some of them a lot. Before the Piper Mirage, I'd flown three of its spinoffs, the turboprop powered Meridian, the unpressurized Matrix and even the aftermarket stepchild, the JetProp, a Malibu converted by a third-party company to Pratt & Whitney turboprop power.

It was mostly by chance that I flew the piston version last, but it's no mistake that there are so many variants. There are two main reasons for the success of the PA-46. First, Piper got the airframe right. With its comfortable cabin — luxurious by piston single standards — airstair door and airy feel, the PA-46 is an airplane that makes you feel as though you've arrived. The ramp appeal is considerable. And passengers — whether looking at it from the ramp or nestled inside — understand that right off the bat.

Second, like it or not, much of the success of the PA-46 has to do with the fact that it is a low-wing airplane. When you think of all the high-wing light jets out there — that's right, there aren't any — you quickly get the idea that there's something desirable about the low-wing configuration. Part of it is ease of design and manufacturing and the cost of production; it's simply a lot easier and cheaper to put the fuselage of a complicated airplane on top of the wing rather than hang it from it. Even if the opposite were true, designers would doubtless put the wing on the bottom, since the cabin ambience is simply far superior that way.

The latest iteration of the Mirage has achieved a level of development that is very satisfying. Everything seems right for it, from the engine to the avionics to the interior, to the point where it's hard to say what one would do differently to it. It seems as though Piper has gotten the airplane just right.

Radical Idea, Conservative Design
With the introduction of the Malibu in 1983, Piper made a name for itself as a company that was willing to take chances by innovating in areas little touched by its competitors.

Remember that Piper was no stranger to building pressurized or cabin-class airplanes — its Cheyennes were among the hottest turboprop twins available, and up until the market dive of the early '80s, they were a profitable product too.

The Malibu was a cabin-class pressurized piston single against which not one of its traditional rivals could compete. Indeed, there was some question about just what kind of customers would be interested in such an airplane. Would it be high-performance- single owners moving up or owners of turboprop twins moving down, or would pilots skip the other two markets altogether by buying a Malibu as their first transportation airplane?

As it turned out, the answer was "all of the above." Piper sold around 100 Malibus a year off the bat, and this at a time when airplane sales were taking a beating.

As radical as the niche was, the design was largely conventional. The PA-46 was and is a low-wing sheet-metal airplane with an airstair door. Piper smartly gave it everything a Cheyenne pilot would want, from pneumatic boots for the wings and tail to weather radar. From the start it was a serious transportation airplane done up right. And more to the point, Piper knew just how to build it. It'd been building similar designs for more than a decade.

The one unusual design element is the wing, a long, thin affair that is as different from Piper's patented, wide-chord "Hershey bar" Cherokee wings as could be. The high-aspect ratio wing, critics say, makes for a slightly bumpier ride in turbulence and a slower roll rate, while adherents point to the greater high-altitude efficiency of the design. It is sure hard to argue with efficiency, which in the original PA-46 helped give the airplane its tremendous range.

The engine-wing combination gave the airplane a range of approximately 1,500 nm, remarkable for a single-engine airplane with a respectable useful load. It was also plenty fast, from around 195 knots at an economy setting to around 215 knots at high-speed cruise.

Piper changed gears five years after the introduction of the Malibu when it came out with an updated version, the Mirage. The most noteworthy change was to the 350 hp Lycoming TIO-540, the engine that it still uses today. It is more powerful and delivers slightly faster airspeeds, but it also burns more fuel, so the range, while good, isn't what it used to be. The Mirage also got a new, much nicer interior, better radar, heated windshield (to replace the hot plate on the Malibu) and a 200-pound weight increase to help offset the additional weight of the new systems, especially the heavier engine. It was a more substantial-feeling airplane with a nicer interior and better features and systems all around, though even with the gross weight increase, it still lost a little useful load in the upgrade.

In 1999 the airplane got the beefier wing spar of the Meridian, the turboprop version that Piper would introduce the following year.

Today's Mirage
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.

Once we were given the OK to climb, we had at it. With its additional power compared with the original Malibu's, the Mirage climbs well (and uses much less runway on takeoff). For our climb that day, from 4,000 feet to FL 200, we used a typical cruise climb setting — 125 knots in the airspeed select (the so-called "filch" button) on the GFC 700, 35 inches of manifold pressure and 2,500 rpm. That rewarded us with a rate of climb of around 1,000 fpm, though we were a bit light and it was a cold day, both of which, obviously, helped rate of climb.

At the airplane's sweet spot, between FL 200 and FL 230, you get very good true airspeeds at a reasonable fuel flow — we were looking at just over 200 knots true at 20.7 gph. If there's a big advantage to be gained (in terms of weather avoidance or to get a push) by climbing higher, the airplane does fine up to its ceiling of 250, though the fuel flow goes up a bit to manage the temperatures, especially on warm days. This is not, I hasten to add, an airplane for pilots who might occasionally venture up into the midteens or flight levels. It's all about flying high.

Mirage pilots have plenty of tools at their disposal for getting back down without chopping power. Gear speeds are high enough that typically even a slight reduction of power gets you down to first-notch deployment speeds, and approach flaps can come in at the same speed. There are also speed brakes, great for descending at a rapid clip without pulling back on the throttle too much. One of the toughest transitions for many pilots of high-performance airplanes coming to the Mirage as their first pressurized ride is getting used to using rates of descent that in nonpressurized airplanes would overtax their ears or those of their passengers. In the Mirage, it's not an issue. Those same devices — gear, flaps and speed brakes — give the Mirage pilot the ability to keep the speed up when ATC makes that request.

The Mirage lands like the cabin-class airplane it is. That is, you fly a stabilized approach to an attitude and landing, much as you would in a heavier, faster airplane. That said, many pilots new to the airplane, myself included, tend to want to approach a bit too fast, which was also my tendency in flying the Meridian. The Mirage flies very solidly at Cirrus-like approach numbers and actually lands more predictably and easily at those speeds than when flown a bit faster.

Just as it first did back in 1982, today's PA-46 makes a compelling argument that a pressurized piston single done right makes a lot of sense for pilots who want to go places with family, friends and co-workers and do it in pressurized comfort.

Piper is now offering the Mirage at a lower price. The specially equipped airplane (no radar, no active traffic) that I flew for this story was stickered at right around $1.07 million, around $150,000 less than it would have been just a year ago. The new lower prices made it nearly impossible for us to find an available airplane for me to fly and photograph for this story — the airplane pictured here was the only unsold Mirage in the country at the time. For more information, visit piper.com

Exclusive to the iPad: Download the March edition for more about the Mirage, including a look back at the first PA-46.


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