Living With the Piper Meridian

We fly this most-affordable pressurized turboprop single on real missions to find out if it can deliver on its promise of luxury and performance for less.

A decade ago when Piper introduced its new single-engine turboprop, the Piper Meridian, nobody was quite sure what to make of it. How would it coexist in Piper’s lineup with the popular pressurized piston single Malibu Mirage, on which the Meridian is based? And perhaps most importantly, would a new, expensive-to-develop turboprop single save Piper from the financial brink or push it over the edge?

Well, those questions have been answered. After seven years in production, the Piper Meridian has been a star for the company, which is still in business and looking at moving up-market again, with its recently announced PiperJet. When I toured the factory a few weeks ago, Piper Meridian serial number 312 was moving down the line, and Piper plans to build 50 Meridians by the end of the year.

During its lifespan the airplane has gotten a number of upgrades, the most recent of which includes an all-new Avidyne Entegra avionics suite, an increase in maximum takeoff weight and a host of cabin enhancements. The latest Meridian sells for right around $2 million typically equipped, which is pushing the current asking price of the company’s emerging single-engine jet but is much less than any comparably equipped and performing pressurized turboprop available.

By any measure, the Meridian is an impressive step-up airplane, offering pilots the chance to fly in the kind of comfort, speed and style that simply isn’t attainable in a piston-powered airplane at any price. All of which are likely reasons that the Meridian remains a strong seller for Piper despite its premium price tag.

Like the Malibus before it, the single-pilot Meridian has the time-proven six-place (two occupants up front and a club seating arrangement in back) interior that’s become a staple in this kind of midsize airplane, from Piper’s own Seneca to the Beechcraft A-36. Even though it’s a strictly sit-down interior, the cabin part of the airplane-and there is an actual cabin door-is plenty comfortable.

From a passenger’s point of view, there’s a lot to like about the roomy Piper Meridian, with its fancy leather interior and fine fit and finish, especially when it’s compared with the smaller piston competition. The downside for the pilot is, as with nearly every other cabin-class airplane with this configuration, you need to go through the cabin to get to your seat.

And because there’s no external baggage compartment, you also need to load the bags through the cabin. That said, the baggage area, located behind the rear seats, is easy to get to-just fold the seat backs forward-and large enough (20 cubic feet) for a sizable load of up to 100 pounds of luggage.

The centerpiece of the Meridian, indeed the thing that makes it a Meridian, is obviously the 500 shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-42A turboprop engine (de-rated from better than 1,000 shp). It’s not a simple swap. The addition of a turbine engine changed nearly every system on the airplane, from fuel to pressurization to the airframe design itself.

Today a single engine makes more sense than ever, especially with fuel prices on the rise. On top of the immediate savings, it always has been and will continue to be a lot cheaper to take care of one engine than two. And with the engine de-rated to 500 shp, Piper is not asking a lot out of an engine that puts out twice as much power in other applications. TBO on the engine, and this should be music to piston owners’ ears, is 3,600 hours.

And make no mistake about it; there are compelling reasons to like the Meridian, reasons that I got to discover firsthand, because for this flight report, I got the chance to fly the Meridian as its customers do. Over the course of several days, I made several long trips in the airplane, trips to real places, for real reasons and with genuine schedules to follow. And when I came away from the experience (reluctantly), there was no doubt in my mind about what kind of an airplane the Piper Meridian is.

Turbine Dreams Fulfilled?

Like many of the pilots who actually upgrade to the Meridian, my experience is almost entirely in piston singles, flying them in the system for transportation. Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve flown between 120 and 150 hours a year in airplanes like SR22s, Saratogas, Trinidads and Skylanes.

But I’ve always known that there were some important things missing from all of them, things that made the difference between good transportation and great. And, for a price, the Meridian supplies nearly all of those missing elements and then some.

My first flight in the Meridian was after only a few hours of SimCom’s training program for the airplane. (Click here for the story on that experience.) By then I was just getting acquainted with it, and I was, to be honest, a little intimidated going in. And while there are a lot of things you need to pay attention to in a turbine airplane, the Meridian is really just a big single, a big, fast, complicated single, but a big single nonetheless.

It was afternoon, already hot and humid, when we taxied out from Vero Beach to go get familiar. In the right seat was Piper Demo Pilot Stan Riker, and in back was SimCom Center Manager Bill Inglis, two guys I’d get to know well over the course of the next week. Stan fed me the procedures, which I’d learn for myself by heart over the next few days.

We got the PT6 started and taxied out. To spare the brakes, and you do want to spare the brakes, you need to learn to use the beta setting on the four-blade Hartzell, which you activate simply by lifting the throttle over the stop and going back a little further. The beta setting twists the prop into a flatter pitch, effectively slowing your forward progress, so you can use it to slow down after touchdown and for taxi turns and the like. It was a revelation to a piston guy like me.

Before takeoff Stan helped me through the checklists, explaining briefly what each item was for. The list is pretty extensive, so it took a long time to get through it. And even though I was still pretty hazy on things like why and when we go to manual on the ignition, and even what ignition was, it was the first step to learning how all these things go together in the grand scheme.

As I said, the PT6 in the Piper Meridian is de-rated to 500 shp, which might not sound like a lot until you move the lever forward to set the power and the airplane comes alive. It accelerates quickly, and rotation, which comes at 85 knots, happens in a hurry.

Climbout is at a higher angle of attack than I’m used to in a high-performance single. But the cool thing about the Meridian is that because its power output stays strong as you climb, you can keep heading up at high rates of climb through the flight levels, even at the cruise climb airspeed setting of 145 knots, which you can hold through 25,000 feet.

Speaking of airspeed climb, the Meridian for the past couple of years has featured the S-Tec/Meggitt Magic 1500 attitude-based autopilot in place of the underperforming S-Tec 55X rate-based unit that appeared on earlier Meridians. It’s hard to say enough about the upgrade, as the 1500 offers more features, including airspeed hold mode, and an excellent yaw damper. And the performance, including much enhanced stability in all flight modes, is light years beyond the 55X.

As I said, on that first flight the idea was for me to get a feel for the airplane, and I did just that. A couple of weeks before my trip to Vero, somebody told me that it flies like a big Saratoga, and there’s something to that. In spirit, the Meridian is a very honest airplane, easy to hand-fly, nicely responsive for an airplane with a 43-foot wingspan.

It was a pretty typical summer afternoon, and we dodged buildups on our way up to the mid-teens. Leveling out at 17,500, Stan and Bill talked me through the procedures for setting power and keeping an eye on speeds and temperatures. Unlike every piston airplane I’ve ever flown, the Meridian is very capable of exceeding its maximum operating speed (Mmo) in level flight. And Stan showed me what to look for in terms of torque and inlet turbine temperatures, two values I’m not at all used to keeping track of. In case you hadn’t figured it out already, the Piper Meridian is not a fadec airplane. You need to set power and manage things yourself.

Even though school was out for the summer-FlightSafety International, that is-the traffic pattern back at Vero was busy. We worked our way in among trainers and twins and helicopters, and I found no surprises in the way the airplane flies. In fact, the Meridian flies at very piston-like speeds and with very piston-like behavior.

Landing the Meridian is surprisingly straightforward, though you do need to make sure the nose gear is straightened out before touching down. If you don’t, the airplane can dart on you, an event I experienced just once, and let me tell you, it gets your attention. Luckily, it wasn’t particularly difficult to get it going straight again.

As I briefly described, there are bonus features, too. Once you’ve got all three tires down, you can get the airplane stopped in a hurry by using the beta and reverse features on the four-blade Hartzell prop. With this, the field length required can be downright cozy. There are runways you could get into in a Meridian that you couldn’t get it back out of. While it’s restricted to paved, hard-surface runways, the Meridian can typically operate out from the same kinds of runways as high-performance piston singles, which greatly adds to the airplane’s versatility and to the value proposition, even when compared with some significantly faster and more expensive airplanes.

Flying the Meridian for Fun and Profit

The idea for this evaluation was for me, after I’d been through SimCom’s five-day initial class on the Piper Meridian, to go fly the airplane for a few days like a Meridian owner would. Stan was in the right seat, trying his best to let me do as much of the planning, flying and strategizing as possible.

The plan was to fly up to White Plains, New York, on Friday night, hop up to Westfield, Massachusetts, for a family memorial service on Saturday morning, then pop over to Buffalo, New York, for a quick visit with family and friends, before heading back home to Austin, Texas. All in all, the trip was composed of several discrete trips of varying lengths, which I hoped would provide a good test of the versatility and comfort of the airplane.

Our first trip was from Vero Beach to HPN, and it was a trip that I was pretty sure was at the outside limit of the Meridian’s range, and I was right. But breaking the trip up into a couple of legs, with a fuel stop in Kinston, North Carolina, made the 1,200 nm trip only marginally longer than if we’d gone nonstop.

250 Cubed

A rule of thumb for remembering the general performance of the Piper Meridian is the rule of 250 cubed-it will deliver right around 250 knots at Flight Level 250 on 250 pounds of fuel per hour. With just less than 1,200 pounds of fuel available, that’s around four hours with a 45-minute reserve. In real life it will often do better than that. Piper advertises a max cruise speed of 260 knots true, but we saw better than that on several occasions throughout our travels.

For the first part of the trip, Stan and I were accompanied by Bill Inglis, who was riding along on the first leg up to New York. With the three of us and our light bags, we were still able to fill the airplane with jet-A and keep it right at maximum weight. If we’d had another passenger along, we would have had to leave out some fuel.

As it was, that wouldn’t have been much of a problem, as our two legs were each around two hours in length, which is less than half of its typical endurance. This is one of the chief criticisms of the Meridian, that it is range and payload limited, and it is. If you’re looking to regularly fly maximum range trips with the seats full, this is not the airplane for you, and Piper will tell you as much. But if you’re looking for a personal airplane that will fly shorter trips with the seats filled or longer ones with just a couple of passengers, the Meridian offers a lot of capability for a lot less than the competition.

The first leg of the trip, up to Kinston from Vero, was mostly flown in the clear at Flight Level 270, though we did have to divert for one particularly well-developed storm. At FL 270 you can often actually see the weather ahead. The airplane’s ceiling, by the way, is 30,000 feet, though because of RVSM, for which it’s not approved, that altitude is not typically available to it.

The Avidyne Entegra avionics system has been standard on the Piper Meridian for the past couple of years now. It is easily the best panel of any airplane in its class, though glass has been late in coming to turboprop singles for some reason. And buyers have the option of adding all kinds of safety options, including C-Max charts, TAWS, Stormscope and XM Weather and Avidyne’s Narrowcast datalink package, all of which were included in the airplane I flew. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say just how beautiful the three-screen installation is, though more practical considerations, like its dual AHARS and air data computers and integrated engine monitoring capabilities, are what make it worth the money. Nice.

Heading out of Kinston up to New York, I had my first taste of summertime icing in a single-engine airplane. We were at 27,000 feet heading towards Norfolk looking at a ground speed of 311 knots when we started to pick up ice. Strange as it might seem, my first reaction was, “Cool.” Not only did the July ice make it seem as though I was flying a real airplane, but there was finally something I could do about the ice. The Meridian is fitted with boots, it has a heated windshield, prop, static, pitot and stall, as well as a wing inspection light for keeping track of the ice at night. As it turned out, the light-to-moderate rime we were getting was no match for the boots, and as we flew north (go figure) we left icing conditions and had an uneventful arrival into the New York area.

Stan has a lot of time in all of Piper’s airplanes, and one thing he mentioned that got me thinking was just how much more refreshed he always feels after a long trip in the Meridian compared to a similar trip in a piston airplane. And that’s just how I felt after nearly five hours in the airplane. The difference, Stan offered, is the greatly reduced vibration of the turboprop compared to a reciprocating engine. Which is funny, as the greater vibration of the turboprop is often offered by the jet guys as a reason not to buy a King Air. As you can guess from historic King Air sales, the argument never worked very well.

After leaving Bill in New York, Stan and I continued on our way, popping up the next morning to Westfield, Massachusetts (BAF). The trip was interesting because it was really short, just more than 20 minutes. Since it didn’t make sense for us to go up to the 20s for the leg, we stayed low, 17,500, and looked at some high fuel flows-turbines do much better up high than down low-though at least we were looking at them for a short length of time.

Our next leg that afternoon was over to Buffalo, which is 400 miles distant, a pretty typical leg length for many travelers. And it’s a distance where the Meridian really shines, as it has plenty of time to get up to altitude, hit its stride, and then get down the road. Again we hit light ice at our flight planned altitude of 28,000 feet, and again the deice equipment did a nice job of taking care of it. We were in the soup for much of the trip and flew a not-too-low ILS at BUF, all of which underscored the Meridian’s big-metal capabilities in a little-metal package.

We took a day off from flying to spend time with family and friends in Buffalo and to sample the local specialties. The buffalo wings are rightly famous, of course, but don’t miss out on trying a beef on weck sandwich at Charlie the Butcher’s, just a block from Prior Aviation, the FBO at KBUF.

Piper PA-46-500TP The aircraft flown for this report is factory demonstrator Piper PA-46-500TP Meridian with typical equipment. In addition to the standard Avidyne FlightMax Entegra flat-panel three-screen (two PFDs) avionics suite, the airplane has a pair of Garmin GNS 430 navigators, the S-Tec Meggitt Magic 1500 autopilot, the Garmin GTX-330 digital transponder, L3 WX-500 Stormscope and the Bendix/King IHAS integrated hazard avoidance system (displayed on the Avidyne MFD) with terrain and traffic alerting. All figures are from the manufacturer and are for standard conditions unless noted.Approximate price as equipped… $2,000,000 Engine… 1 Pratt & Whitney PT6A-42A turboprop Horsepower… 500 shp TBO… 3,600 hours Propellers… Hartzell 4-blade, 82-in dia, constant-speed, full feathering, reversible Seats… 6 Length… 29.6 ft Height… 11.3 ft Wingspan… 43 ft Wing aspect ratio… 10:1 Wing area… 183 sq ft Wing loading… 27.8 lbs/sq ft Power loading… 10.2 lbs/shp Max ramp weight… 5,134 lbs Max takeoff weight… 5,092 lbs Standard empty weight… 3,417 lbs Standard useful load… 1,717 lbs Usable fuel (gallons/lbs)… 170/1160 Payload with full fuel… 557 lbs Max zero fuel weight… 4,850 lbs Max landing weight… 4,850 lbs Never exceed… 188 kts Maneuvering speed… 127 kts Ceiling (certified)… 30,000 ft Pressurization… 5.5 psi 8,000 cabin… @ 25,000 feet Max cruise… 260 kts IFR range, max cruise… 1,000 nm Rate of climb… 1,556 fpm

The trip from Buffalo to Austin, a 1,500 nm voyage, was, again, outside the range of the Meridian, so I picked a halfway point, St. Louis, and headed for the downtown airport (KCPS), an easy 2.5-hour trip. From there, Austin was just another 2.3, and I was back home. I reluctantly handed the keys back to Stan.

After six legs and 12 flight hours over a period of four days, in addition to SimCom’s five-day initial course, I felt very comfortable with the airplane. Would I have loaded up my family and taken them off on a cross-country flight? Absolutely, though I doubt the insurance company would have approved until I’d gotten a few more hours in type. In fact, the airplane is perfectly suited for just the kind of personal and regional business use I need, and I couldn’t help but compare it with all the piston singles I’ve flown over the years. Is it a fair comparison? Of course not. The Piper Meridian is bigger, faster, more sophisticated and at least four times more expensive. Did that stop me from wanting one in the worst way? Not a bit. It apparently has that effect on a lot of pilots.

Interestingly enough, the advent of very light jets, some of which are in the same price class as the Meridian, haven’t done anything to slow PA-46-500TP sales. That might be explained by the fact that VLJs are still hard to come by-only two, the Mustang and the Eclipse, have earned certification, and there are long waits for them. The other explanation for the Meridian’s continued success just might be that people just want the airplane. Even after the VLJ revolution has taken full hold, it’s just possible that there will remain a place for the Meridian, a sophisticated, comfortable, solid and good performing airplane that does exactly what Piper says it will, and then some. And it will remain an airplane that pilots like me can transition to without much fuss but with a well-deserved sense of pride.

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