““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
High-performance piston aircraft don't like operating much above 18,000 feet and to get them to do so you have to outfit them with temperamental accessories such as superchargers, turbochargers and intercoolers that are prone to break, shorten an engine's useful life or both.
A pilot also must operate these airplanes with great care, as ham-handedness on the throttle or inattention to performance gauges and fuel/air mixture settings tends to have expensive consequences.
Even operated properly, high-performance piston aircraft rarely make it to recommended overhaul intervals without some kind of costly maintenance event along the way. (Fortunately, most of these problems can be detected and diagnosed on the ground.) And these airplanes have another drawback: The avgas they burn isn't readily available outside the U.S.
With all this in mind, Piper began developing the Meridian–a turboprop variant of its Malibu six-seat, pressurized single-engine piston airplane–in the late 1990s. While the 30-year-old Malibu and its newer unpressurized sibling, the $869,000 Matrix, remain popular, Piper correctly saw the market for a low-cost, entry-level single-engine turboprop to woo operators of notoriously maintenance-hungry piston twins, as well as to provide an easy-to-transition-to turbine airplane for those flying piston singles.
For the most part, the strategy worked brilliantly. Now more than a decade into production, the Meridian remains Piper's cash cow. Before the recession, it was selling 50 new copies a year. Now, it is rebounding from the downturn and expects to sell an estimated 30 new copies this year at around $2.2 million each. This makes it an attractive alternative for those who don't need the speed, payload or range of two other popular turbine singles, the TBM-850 and the cavernous Pilatus PC-12, which new cost $1.2 million to $2.4 million more, respectively. The Meridian is simple to fly, relatively inexpensive to maintain, and, for a turbine, gets good fuel economy. At 27,000 feet, you can see true airspeed of about 262 knots while burning 37 gallons per hour. You can buy a really nice used one for under $1 million.
Is the Meridian perfect? Well, no.
The fuselage dates back to the Piper Navajos of the 1960s, when the average American male weighed 170 pounds. If the pilot played middle linebacker, he's probably not going to comfortably fit in the cockpit and the passengers in the facing club four seats better like each other, a lot. Overall, the cabin offers 120 cubic feet of space and measures 3.9 feet high, 4.2 feet wide and 12.2 feet long including the cockpit and the 20 cubic feet of baggage stowage behind the rear passenger seats that holds 100 pounds. (You have to fold the seats forward to access it.) The Meridian does not have an external baggage hold. Aircraft entry is via a 3.8-foot-high, 2-foot-wide main cabin door aft of the left wing. There is no room for a lavatory or galley, but the average Meridian flight is usually under an hour so you really don't need them.
However, you will need headsets if you want to talk much to anybody in the Meridian's cabin, which even by most turboprop standards is a noisy place. Try conducting a conversation without them and you'll end up passing notes and sucking on throat lozenges.
With full fuel, a Meridian has a range of just under 1,000 nautical miles (much less if you're bucking a headwind) and early model years (2001 through mid-2003), have a lower gross weight and payload capacity. They can hold everything an average guy needs after his wife kicks him out of the house: himself, the dog, a box lunch and set of golf clubs, or about 350 pounds. The addition of little metal strips on the wings, called vortex generators, boosted gross weight and payload of later models by 242 pounds. The VGs change the wing airflow pattern at slow speeds, allowing the airplane to maintain its 61-knot stall speed even at heavier weights.
Most Meridians are flown single-pilot and are, in fact, owner-pilot aircraft. However, with the continuing fuel price insanity, more are finding their way into corporate flight departments, albeit small ones. The airplane makes a lot of sense for operators whose average hop is 400 nautical miles or less. You can load up the cabin–but not the tanks. A Meridian actually has a lower per-mile operating cost, once you factor in fuel and maintenance, than a six-seat piston twin such as a Beechcraft G58 Baron, according to Conklin and de Decker's David Wyndham (who supplies most of the statistics for these articles). It also climbs quicker, flies higher and is 60 knots faster.
The primary reason is the Meridian's Pratt & Whitney PT6A-42 engine, which has been used on King Air twins for decades and is extremely reliable. It's rated for 1,000 shp (shaft horsepower), but Piper derates it on the Meridian to just 500 shp. That means it is operated significantly below capacity. There is a lot less wear and tear and there are fewer failures between 3,600-hour overhauls, which cost an average of $200,000.
The quality of the factory paint and interior is fairly high for an airplane at this price point, but periodic refreshing is a good idea. Hillaero in Lincoln, Neb., has done many Meridians and Carol Swigart there said you can do the whole smash–new exterior paint, new leather on the seats and a new cabin headliner–for about $60,000 at a good shop. Swigart noted that her Meridian customers aren't much for adding cabin electronics.
That's mostly a result of the airplane's value and the same applies to instrument-panel upgrades. Over the years, the Meridian's factory avionics have evolved to increasingly sophisticated glass-panel systems from Meggitt and Avidyne. The Garmin G1000 system, in a three-screen layout, is currently aboard new aircraft. Limited upgrade options are available, but almost none of them make financial sense, and even a 10-year-old panel on early Meridians is more than adequate for most operations. It's sort of like ordering HDTV if all you watch is the Weather Channel. But you'll have to excuse me now. I'm loading my dog and golf clubs aboard the airplane.
Max Out a Malibu
If you want even better performance than a Meridian offers, you can purchase a used piston-powered Malibu and take it to Rocket Engineering in Spokane, Wash. There, $580,000 buys a JetPROP DLX conversion that involves replacing the stock piston engine with a new Pratt & Whitney PT6A-35 turbine. The result, according to Rocket: 60 more horsepower than the 500 shp Dash 42 engine on the Meridian; seven gallons per hour lower fuel burn; dramatically better short-field performance; and a 41-percent faster initial climb (3,000 feet per minute versus the Meridian's 1,741 feet per minute). Rocket owner Darwin Conrad said the company has done 260 conversions since 1995 and that the upgrade is particularly popular with European owners. Typical combined cost of a used Malibu and the conversion is less than $1 million.
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