Piper Malibu Mirage

Still dominating the high-performance single-engine piston class it effectively created, Piper’s PA-46 Malibu Mirage is every inch a modern classic.

Words: Dave Unwin   Images: Jim Lawrence

With the Atlantic Ocean looming large in the windscreen and the altitude tape dropping faster than the Government’s popularity, I kept my finger on the speedbrake’s trigger and the airspeed nailed to 185kt. Having descended almost 6,000ft in one minute, I levelled out, retracted the undercarriage, stowed the speedbrakes and added a little power. “So you see, Dave,” said Piper’s Bart Jones, “even if you do lose the pressurisation, an emergency descent doesn’t take long!”

Gleaming in the wan sunlight of a January dawn the Mirage looked exactly like what it was ? probably the world’s most desirable personal piston-powered aircraft. Piper has enjoyed tremendous success with the Malibu series as, almost as soon as the first one was delivered in 1983, discerning pilots appreciated the sleek, sophisticated singles’ many fine features and high build quality.

Over the years the PA-46 has continued to evolve and has matured into a potent and popular personal aircraft that is not only comprehensively equipped, but very well made. Indeed, as Bart and I commenced the preflight, it became increasingly apparent to me that this aircraft has been built to a specification, and not a price. Moving in closer, one of the first things that caught my eye was the propeller, which is not only of the curved ‘scimitar’ type but also has a remarkably broad chord.

It is driven by a 350hp Lycoming TIO-540, fitted with dual turbochargers. The next notable item is the wing. Although some aspects of the aircraft ? such as the cowling and fin ? seem almost typically ‘Piper’, the wing bears no resemblance to the broad chord ‘Hershey Bar’ fitted to the classic PA-28 series. Instead, it features a high aspect-ratio wing, fitted with large, single-slotted flaps and relatively long, narrow-chord ailerons.

As you’d expect with such a serious travelling aeroplane, one of the many options is that it can be fully equipped for flight into known ice, with pneumatic rubber boots on the leading edges of the wings, fin and tailplane, de-ice for the prop, and a heated windscreen. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone not exercising this option, as to fly in heavy IMC you need weather radar and the ability to safely penetrate conditions of known icing.

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A small pod beneath the starboard wing houses the weather radar. It can also carry up to 2.2kg of baggage, while another baggage bay on the port side towards the rear can carry up to 1.8kg and is good for tie-downs etc. The main baggage bay is located aft in the cabin, behind the seats, while an additional 45kg can be carried in the nose baggage bay.

The wide-track undercarriage features a large LED taxi light on the nosewheel, and is complimented by powerful LED landing lights in the wing’s leading edge. The nosewheel retracts aft and the mainwheels inwards. In common with some other Piper retractables, the mainwheel wells are not covered by doors.

Before climbing aboard I stood back for an overview of the aircraft. It possesses considerable ramp presence, and almost seems larger than it is. The impression of it being more than a piston single is enhanced as you board. Firstly, it has an airstair, and I can’t think of another piston-powered single that does. Then, as you enter the cabin the impression is one of opulent spaciousness. The luxurious cabin is beautifully finished in wood and leather ? it just reeks of sumptuousness. The four seats are arranged in a club-class configuration and look extremely comfortable. However, I must admit that I didn’t investigate further, as the only seat I’m ever interested is the one in which the pilot sits.

A piston single in disguise

For the photos Bart opted to fly from the left seat, and once the shoot was completed we landed and changed over. Incidentally, Bart was the perfect pilot to introduce me to the Mirage. Not only is he Piper’s Chief Pilot, but he has been involved with the Mirage and its turboprop sibling, the Meridian, for nearly 25 years.

Having adjusted the very comfortable seat and strapped myself in, I began to acquaint myself with the layout of the controls. Once again, the overwhelming impression was that this isn’t a piston single. Indeed, it was only the mixture control that gave it away!

The avionics suite is, unsurprisingly, a fully integrated Garmin G1000. Having flown with the G1000 in just about everything from piston singles and diesel twins to turboprops and light jets, I have come to appreciate just what a great system it is. In much the same way as Dynon dominates the LSA market, the G1000 really is the integrated avionics suite of choice in certificated GA types. It is fed by dual ADAHRS units and when combined with the powerful GFC 700 autopilot produces an avionics suite that would shame many airliners.

Furthermore, the way all the information is presented is equally astonishing. The panel is dominated by an enormous (15 inch) MFD in the centre, which is flanked by twin 10.4 inch PFDs. An analogue ASI, AI and altimeter are immediately to the left of the pilot’s PFD, with a row of four annunciator lights directly above the pilot’s PFD. On nearly all turbine-powered aircraft the switches for most of the electrical systems ? such as the lights, starter and generator ? are in a neat overhead panel, and I particularly liked how most of the Mirage’s electrical services are grouped together in the same way.

I also liked the alpha-numeric keypad ? so much easier for inputting information. It is located at the bottom of the centre console, which also carries the throttle, prop and mixture levers, plus the hand wheels for elevator and rudder trim. As the combination of a powerful engine and large three-bladed prop probably meant that regular rudder trimming would be required, I was pleased that the trim wheels were so logically sited.

Surprisingly ergonomic

Overall, I thought that, for a relatively complex aircraft, the panel was very clear and uncluttered. In fact, I was impressed at how neatly and logically the cockpit was laid out. Of course, you may well be surprised that I was surprised, but trust me ? though the science of ergonomics has been around for about sixty years, it is still not fully understood by every manufacturer.

As mentioned earlier, power is provided by one of the great ? if not the greatest ? flat-six aero-engines, Lycoming’s ubiquitous O-540. This version features fuel injection and dual turbochargers, making it a TIO-540-AE2A. Having cranked the motor into life, I was impressed that it doesn’t need cowl flaps and surprised that it isn’t fitted with FADEC.

While taxiing out I managed to miss our taxiway, which gave Bart the opportunity to demonstrate the Mirage’s small turning circle.

As we continued towards runway 11R I found that I had to dab the brakes occasionally, as the Mirage wanted to roll faster than I was prepared to let it ? and of course there is no ‘beta’ mode on the prop.

Out at the run-up point we concluded the pre-take off checks and reviewed the various speeds. With just under half fuel and only two POB, we were almost 300kg below the maximum takeoff weight of 1,977kg, but despite this the acceleration was far from startling. As I was soon to learn, the Mirage is not an over-powered aeroplane, but does what it does through clever aerodynamics, not brute force.

The Vr was 75kt, and I thought that the stick forces at rotation were definitely on the heavy side. However, we had a distinctly forward C of G, and I am sure that even a small amount of weight further aft would reduce the stick forces. They’re not uncomfortably high, just noticeably so.

Gear up, flaps up, and as soon as we were clear of the busy Vero Beach circuit, Bart instructed me to trim for 125kt and climb to our cruise altitude of 17,500ft. The best rate of climb is achieved at 110kt, but at this speed the forward field of view is slightly compromised due to that long nose.

Anyway, the faster, flatter climb still yielded in excess of 1,200fpm, while I was surprised at how low the rudder pedal loads were. I trimmed them out anyway, because I always like to be in trim, but even with the trim set neutral the pedal forces required to keep the slip ball centred were not high. As we soared skyward we punched through some ‘light chop’, which immediately revealed the inadequacies of the three-point harness. Okay, maybe it’s just me ? but I’ve always felt that the only restraint system better than a four-point harness is a five-point harness.The Vno is 168kt, and if you hit a big bump at that speed you’ll wish you had a proper harness.

Upon reaching our cruise altitude I engaged the outstanding GFC-700 autopilot, set power and rpm for max cruise and then sat back to record the all-important numbers for true airspeed and fuel flow. The Mirage quickly accelerated to a TAS of 195kt for a fuel flow of around 80lit/hr. However, the wing works best in the low-to-mid-twenties where it has a max cruise speed of 213kt – achieved at 34ins/MP and 2,500rpm. Pulling the power back gives a more representative speed of 208kt and, as the aircraft can carry up to 454 litres of useable fuel, this confers a range of about 1,000nm with a 45 minute IFR fuel reserve. Pull the power right back to economy cruise and, while the TAS drops to around 170kt at 17,500ft, the fuel flow reduces significantly while the range grows to almost 1,200nm. (In case you’re wondering, the reason we levelled out at 17,500ft is that any higher and we’d have had to file IFR.)

Nevertheless, though we weren’t at the heart of the Mirage’s optimum operating envelope it was apparent to me that this really is a serious travelling machine. I imagine most Mirage owners file IFR and climb up to the mid-twenties, where the wing is in its element.

High-class handling

Bart then directed me to descend rapidly to 8,000ft for some general handling, so I disengaged the autopilot, drew the power off and lowered the nose. The Mirage has a strong airframe, and its Vne of 198kt IAS is usefully high, as is the landing gear extended (Vle) speed. Although we were descending at a good clip, I was curious to discover just how quickly height can be lost should an emergency descent be required. Of course, high rates of descent can also be useful when flying into busy international airports, where controllers will sometimes hold you at altitude before issuing what is known in the States as a ‘slam-dunk’ approach.

Bart was keen for me to see how quickly you can come down if you need to, so having slowed to the Vlo of 165kt by pulling the power back and pushing the prop up, I extended the speedbrakes, lowered the landing gear and dived to maintain 185kt. (The gear limiting speed, Vle, is 195). This generated a 5,500fpm sink rate!

As for the pressurisation system, it functioned so smoothly I was unaware of its presence. Cabin pressurisation runs at about 5.5psi, which equates to a cabin altitude of about 4,000ft when the aircraft is at its optimum altitude of 18,000ft.

Once level at 8,000ft, I began to assess the Mirage’s stability and control. On machines in this class it’s more about stability than control ? it’s much more important that it is easy to fly on instruments than have a crisp roll-rate.

As mentioned earlier we had a well forward C of G and the longitudinal stability was, as you’d expect, distinctly positive. It returned to the trimmed speed after just two long wavelength low-amplitude phugoids. Directional stability was also positive while the lateral stability was barely neutral. Control around all three axes was adequate, although to be fair the roll rate isn’t particularly sprightly. And anyway, if you did start chucking it about, your passengers would soon start giving you grief.

Slowing down for an investigation of the slow-speed handling proved interesting as, despite its ability to cruise in excess of 200kt, the slow side of the speed envelope is comparable with that of many other piston singles. With full flap and a touch of power, the ASI tape was actually well below the 60kt mark! A fully-loaded A36 Bonanza stalls at 59kt, and while we were a long way from the 1,977kg MAUW, I was still impressed that such a large, fast aeroplane could also fly so slowly.

Having explored the Mirage’s slow-speed handling with a variety of different flap and landing gear combinations, it was time to try a few circuits.

Landing like a jet

As we commenced the descent back towards Vero Beach I tried the ‘Highway-in-the-Sky’ presentation, and found it very easy to use. To those of us who learned how to hold on an NDB or fly an approach using the ADF, it is fair to say that instrument flying has got a lot easier over the last 25 years.

The airspace around Vero Beach was busy, and the active traffic presentation on the PFD was especially welcome. To speed up the descent I briefly selected the speedbrakes out ? and to my chagrin forgot to close them. They are actuated by a trigger under your left hand, and I think that this should be spring-loaded to the closed position. (There is an annunciator on the MFD, but it was too subtle for me.)

Although we’d taken off just after dawn, by now the air was heating up rapidly, and it was getting a little bumpy in the circuit. Joining downwind for Runway 11R, I selected the first stage of flap as we passed abeam the numbers and lowered the gear before commencing the turn to base. On base, I lowered the second stage of flap and trimmed out the slight change in pitch. As we turned final the nose slightly blocked my view of the runway, but the application of landing flap smoothly pitched it down, which greatly improved the view.

Easing the throttle lever back saw the speed dip to 90, and another small power reduction on short final saw us crossing the fence bang on the Vref of 80 knots. The flaps are effective, and as Bart had recommended that I land the Mirage like a jet I took care to simply arrest the descent rate, fly parallel to the ground and just let it settle with only a slightly nose up attitude.

Although the touchdown was slightly on the firm side it was perfectly acceptable, and as we climbed away from the touch and go Bart said, “just give the rudder a quick doublet”. I did so, Bart re-engaged the yaw damper, which promptly grabbed the yaw and instantly damped it out without hunting at all. I was impressed.

The second landing was a real squeaker, and as we powered back up into the sky for the third and final circuit I was enjoying myself. However, pride comes before a fall, and though initially all went well, I thought that I’d try a fully held-off landing. Unfortunately I’d inadvertently left a smidgen of power on and this, combined with the fact that by now we were very light, meant that the Mirage floated a considerable distance in ground effect.

The actual touchdown was smooth, but the fact that I’d used up about half the 2,230 metre runway before I got the wheels on the ground took the shine off. I should’ve done as I was told, and landed it like a jet. If you try for a fully held-off landing then that efficient high-aspect ratio low-wing will guarantee a prolonged float!

Still at the top of the class

In conclusion, I would say that it is easy to see why the Malibu Mirage is such a popular aircraft. The original PA-46 essentially created the high-performance single-engine piston class that it continues to dominate more than 15 years after it first flew.

However, the very advanced systems mean that, although it is an extraordinarily capable machine, you don’t have to be an extraordinarily capable pilot to make full use of its extraordinary capabilities. A competent pilot with an Instrument Rating and a few hundred hours on an Arrow or Comanche should be able to convert onto the Mirage relatively easily.And bearing in mind that this aircraft can carry six people while cruising at over 200kt and 22,000ft ? yet comes over the fence at 80kt ? you can see the appeal.

As we walked away from the aircraft Bart told me that Mirage production is already sold out for 2012. “So you keep that one as a demonstrator?” I asked. “Oh no,” he grinned, “that’s sold. The customer is picking it up this afternoon!”

Indeed, if you’re looking for a high-performance pressurised piston single then the Malibu Mirage is the only game in town and, having flown one, it’s not hard to see why. It is ? literally ? in a class of its own.