Piper Malibu: A New Airplane for a New Day

Malibu: The first PA-46 closes in on 30.

Piper Malibu

Piper Malibu

Piper Malibu

Back in 1983, the new Piper Malibu was a revolution. In the nearly 30 years that have passed since its introduction, the ride has been anything but silky smooth, though the resultant product is a very satisfying one. Owners, it should be said, have pretty much always felt that way. There are options galore when it comes to buying one of these airplanes on the used market (as you’ll read in a bit), but Malibu/Mirage owners adore their airplanes, and rightly so.

When the Malibu was first introduced in 1983, it was very much the same airplane as it is today and a very different airplane, too.

The creation of the PA-46 was a risk that seemed worth taking when it was launched in the late 1970s. Piper, along with just about everyone else in aviation, was coming off a series of heady years in which tens of thousands of airplanes of every description were being sold — contrast this with today, when 2,000 airplanes is considered a big year.

There was probably no way for Piper to know that the Malibu would have as long a life as it’s turned out to have — even early airplanes are highly desirable and maintain their value well, thanks to a number of upgrade programs. Surely, there was no way for the company to know what struggles lay ahead. Those struggles included a few bankruptcies, several economic downturns and the complete transformation of the light general aviation market. Through them all, the PA-46 has been a steady performer for Piper.

The concept of the PA-46 was in many ways far from revolutionary. It was, after all, an all-metal pressurized six-seat cabin-class airplane. That was nothing that Piper or Cessna or Beech hadn't been doing for decades. The big difference was that the Malibu was a piston single, and that was big news.

It wasn’t the first pressurized single. Mooney had a highly unsuccessful model, the M22 Mustang, of which only a handful were built. It had all the downsides of a Mooney of the day, with its small interior and limited visibility, but none of the upsides, including the great economy and excellent speed per weight. It was never a player.

The Cessna P210, on the other hand, was a big success. Cessna sold more than 800 of them, though it is not a cabin-class airplane, but rather a pressurized version of the 210, which was an outgrowth of previous Cessnas. And as much as folks like the P210 (and continue to like it), its speed and cabin paled in comparison to the Malibu, which was a clean-sheet design.

How Piper achieved those two critical goals — speed and cabin size — was not easy. The wing is beautiful, long and thin — 43 feet long in fact; be careful for signs and snow banks. The cabin was intended to compete with those of cabin class pressurized piston twins of the day, like the Cessna 421 or Beechcraft Duke, and it did just that, for single-engine pennies on the big-twin dollar.

The cabin is still recognizably a PA-46, but its barely-post-disco styling and sparse creature comforts make it look positively antique compared with the cabin of today’s airplane.

So it's all too easy to forget what a trailblazer the Piper Malibu was. Today we take the concept of pressurized singles — even turboprop singles for granted, but in 1983 few pilots were ready to take that step. In his first review of the airplane in Flying,__ Richard Collins talked at length about the features a high-flying pressurized single would need to safely travel at the flight levels and he correctly identified several trouble spots for the airplane in the years to come — the exhaust and intake systems, the weather radar and the anti-icing system, which was de-activated on early airplanes waiting for FAA approval. Collins went so far as to suggest that if he had a Malibu, he might take it upon himself to get the system up and running pending FAA approval.

The airplane was outfitted with a beautiful King Silver Crown avionics package with full autoflight capability and flight director. The radar was indeed soon upgraded optionally to a wing-mounted pod from the unsatisfactory in-wing transmitter. Piper was listening. While the avionics system looks old fashioned by G1000 standards, it is still today a capable system.

The wonder of the Malibu was its economy. Collins reported that the airplane got nearly 200 knots on right around 17 gph. That was 20 knots faster on the same fuel flow as the P210 and with a much better cabin, the latter detail being my observation long after the fact.

What was the secret behind the economy? Well, the wing was a big part of it, and so was the 310 hp Continental six-cylinder TSIO-520 in the airplane. Designed to run efficiently while lean of peak, a foreign concept to many pilots of the day, the engine did just that, giving the Malibu a remarkable range, around 1,500 nm. Now, 310 horsepower doesn’t seem like much, and it isn’t. The Duke, for example, had 70 more horses … per side!

With the relatively modest engine, the Malibu suffered from marginal takeoff and initial climb performance compared with other single-engine airplanes.

But the bigger issue was heat, which Collins noted on his very first flight. The engine was remarkably unreliable, though whether that was a design or operator issue was and is hotly debated.

Eventually this led to Piper abandoning the Malibu and relaunching it with a whole new engine as the Malibu Mirage (the "Malibu" part being typically dropped from popular usage). The efficient Continental engine got swapped for a more powerful (350 hp) and slightly less fuel efficient Lycoming six-banger and the airplane received a number of other quality-of-life improvements, including a better anti-icing package (including a heated windshield to replace the hot-plate on the original), upgraded interior and improved avionics.

Still, there are people who prefer the original Malibu to the current airplane, thanks to its lighter weight, tremendous range and arguably better economy. There are, as you might know, a number of STCs available to upgrade the Malibu. You can even swap engines, substituting a Continental TSIO-550 for the ‘520 series engine, or even a Pratt turboprop, with the JetProp conversion.

Collins closed his piece by saying that, “Most of all, the engineers have given us an airplane that offers performance and comfort that people were only dreaming about for singles a few years ago. The Malibu is a remarkable achievement, and lessons learned in developing it will undoubtedly be put to good use in the development of other airplanes.”

Little did Collins know that those lessons would be applied to the Piper Malibu itself, and other PA-46s that would follow. Or maybe he did know.