The plan was simple. I would be transitioning from an unpressurized, high-performance single to a Piper Meridian. While I have a little experience in turbine airplanes, the idea was for me to make the leap in a week and to get to the point in that short time where I could handle the airplane on my own. Doable? I thought so, but still had some doubts.
Let’s face it. There are some major differences between a Cirrus SR22, the type of airplane I regularly fly, and a Meridian, and all of them have to do directly or indirectly with the fact that the Meridian is a turbine airplane and a pressurized airplane on top of that. It has systems I wasn’t very familiar with, and it operates in a section of the atmosphere that I’m not used to flying in. It really would be a whole new kind of flying.
Luckily I’d have help, in the form of SimCom’s five-day initial Meridian training program. The company really knows the Meridian. It has, after all, been conducting training in the PA-46 for as long as the airplane has been around.
SimCom has training centers for a wide variety of jets, turboprop and piston airplanes all around the United States, but the one I’d be attending was conveniently located right at Vero Beach, the home of Piper Aircraft. As you might guess, SimCom’s Vero location specializes in Piper training. There it provides courses for pilots brand new to the airplane, like me, and to those brushing up on the basics. The folks at SimCom are experts in the airplane, and they know how to help newbies make sense of strange new systems.
My instructor for the week was center manager Bill Inglis. I wasn’t the first guy to show up at SimCom who would be making the big leap, and Bill showed a knack for helping me make sense of things like pressurization controls, quick donning emergency oxygen masks and turbine starting procedures that were all pretty new to me.
The facility at Vero is set up to teach all things Meridian (in addition to a handful of other Piper products) and to teach them well and quickly. There’s a complex and realistic Meridian flight training device right on site. While it’s no Level D simulator, it isn’t meant to be. Instead it does an excellent job of teaching procedures and familiarizing students with a new platform. It has a wraparound color display, and the flight experience is convincing enough, but the real idea isn’t to fly it, but to use it to do things effectively that you can’t safely do, that you can’t afford to do or just don’t want to do in the real airplane.
While it’s not an actual type rating course, SimCom’s five-day and six-day initial courses in the Meridian sure seem like it. And while SimCom offers a shorter, stand-alone turbine transition course, it’s hard for me to imagine a better transition than the Meridian program. Because it uses actual hardware, numbers, procedures and handbooks, none of it is theoretical.
The course walks you through the systems of the Meridian, starting with basic airplane details, construction, dimensions, etc . . . and progresses through greatly detailed explanations and descriptions of the PT6. We went on to go over the fuel system, pressurization, the propeller (which is far more complicated than you might think), and generally got into all the nooks and crannies of the PA-46-500TP.
As we dove into the airplane, Bill used a series of excellent photographs, taken across the way at the Piper Factory, that showed the complex innards of the airplane. When diagrams and textual descriptions failed, the pretty pictures usually did the trick. And SimCom has an impressive collection of artifacts in the training room, including sections of an actual battle-damaged PT6, pumps, sub-panels and switches of all varieties. Almost without fail, when I had a hard time grasping some concept, Bill could produce some prop that would help him help me figure things out.
After a couple of days of book work, Bill and I hit the “sim.” The first order of business was practice in how to start the PT6. As I said, just about everything about a turboprop is different from a piston, and the start is the most different, and arguably the most critical of them all. Granted, in a piston airplane you can drain a battery or fry a $500 starter-I’ve done both-but with a turbine you can literally cook a half-million dollar engine if you’re not careful. That’s where the sim is worth its considerable weight in gold. Bill ran me through dozens of make-believe starts, beginning with normal ones and then progressing on to hot starts and hung starts. By the time I went out to fly the real airplane again, I could start it in my sleep, and I also knew what to do in the unlikely event that something went wrong.
The flight trainer wasn’t just a starting simulator, though. We used it for everything, normal and emergency procedures, including things like engine-out approaches, which while hard to pull off in the sim are simply not a good idea at all in the real airplane. We worked on emergency procedures for loss of pressurization and even practiced what to do when there’s smoke in the cockpit, a scenario for which Bill produced actual smoke in the cockpit.
The experience was hard work but incredibly valuable. And by that I mean that the training had real-world value. By the time I got into the actual Meridian to head up to New York and beyond, I knew the airplane well. Click here to read related article “Living With the Piper Meridian.Was there still more to learn? Of course, but the foundation to build that new knowledge, thanks to SimCom’s great course and Bill’s expert instruction, was rock solid.
In addition to Vero Beach, SimCom offers Meridian courses at its Scottsdale, Arizona, learning center. For pilots like me who are just getting to know the airplane, there are five- and six-day initial courses that go into all the details. And for those pilots who are brushing up on their skills, SimCom offers three- and two-day courses. For more information, including detailed course descriptions, visit SimCom’s website, simulator.com.