Flight test: Piper Meridian
PUBLISHED: 17:09 12 April 2018 | UPDATED: 10:18 13 April 2018
Philip Whiteman TW11 9DA
The dream of touring in a turboprop of one’s own is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Words Colin Goodwin and photos Philip Whiteman
Usually ‘Old Timers’ wins it, but sometimes I delay the pleasure of reading Peter R March’s words and skip to my second-favourite section of Pilot: the dreaming department − specifically, the regular advertisements placed by Plane Trading and AT Aviation.
My whole life has been spent poring over classified advertisements in car magazines, dreaming and scheming and carrying out complicated man-math calculations.
Nowadays, since being bitten by the aviation bug, the time spent dreaming of lottery wins has doubled. Poring over aircraft for sale ads is even more riveting than car classifieds because there’s a lot more to buying an aeroplane than a car. For starters, my driving licence allows me to drive anything from a Smart ForTwo to a McLaren 720S−anywhere, anytime, and in any weather.
The cost of servicing a Ferrari, of course, is more than it is for a Ford but the difference is not as ridiculous as it is between a Piper Cub and a Beech King Air. But it’s more complicated and fascinating than that. The pros and cons of one particular aircraft versus another are more subtle, and require more research and use of a calculator.
You may remember that a few years ago we looked at the advantages of a modern Rotax-engined light aircraft for training versus the traditional Piper PA-28. Light on the juice, cheap to run, the Rotax machine looked like a shoo-in. Trouble is the steep purchase price of close on £100,000 made the case for a nicely refurbished and well kept £35K PA-28 look extremely attractive. You can carry out a lot of maintenance and buy a lot of fuel with £65,000 in change…
Putting it into practice
I can blather on all day on the above subject, and today that’s exactly what I intend to do. The Editor and I are scoffing bacon sarnies in Lydd’s café while we wait for Phil Greenhalgh to arrive. Greenhalgh has an addiction to scanning the classifieds that matches mine except for the slight difference that he puts his money where his eyes have fallen.
His latest purchase is currently being pulled out of one of Lydd’s hangars. It’s a 2003 Piper Meridian that was bought almost a year ago but has been in his hands only for the last few months due to some epic clowning around by a maintenance organisation that had been given the simple task of snagging the Piper for flight and carrying out its annual. We’ll skip the details because even thinking about it is bringing Greenhalgh close to tears of exasperation.
Despite these hold-ups, Greenalgh is very excited about his new aircraft and is so evangelical he has offered to take Whiteman and Goodwin to Jersey for a sandwich and a cup of tea. I’m somewhat excited a) because I’ve never been in a single-engine turboprop aircraft and b) because Greenhalgh is a class rating instructor and has said that I can have a go at flying it.
“I’ve owned quite a few aircraft over the years,” explains Greenhalgh, “from three Pitts Specials to L29 and L39 Delfin and Albatros jet trainers” (he imported them from Eastern Europe for himself and others) “via a Cessna 172, Piper Twin Comanche and Cessna 340A.” The big Cessna twin is the most recent touring aircraft he owned and is the one that was shown the door to make way for the Meridian. “I spent a lot of time doing the maths for all the possible options,” he says, “including sticking with twins. I also looked at a new Cirrus after bumping into the importer at Headcorn and hearing the sales pitch.
Clearly a very modern and capable aircraft but one with a glaring disadvantage: its very serious purchase price. A Cirrus to the spec I’d have been interested in would have cost over $1million and at today’s exchange rate that’s over £800,000.”
Have a look at the separate and very comprehensive table (‘It’s all in the figures’, p.30) to see exactly how the costs compare between the various options that faced Greenhalgh including servicing costs, fuel usage etc, but suffice to say at this point that the Meridian cost £585,000, leaving a running cost budget (from not buying a new Cirrus) of £215,000.
The Meridian uses the same amount of fuel doing 140 knots at 2,000ft as it does doing 250 at FL250 so, clearly, gadding about VFR-style makes no sense at all − which means that our flight to Jersey will be IFR. Greenhalgh has filed a flight plan for our route because Whiteman and I are hedge hoppers and don’t understand this sort of thing.
The Meridian is a smart looking machine. Greenhalgh is clearly a perfectionist and starts apologising for its interior, saying that the seats need a bit of renovation. “Just fly the thing for a bit,” is my advice, “especially after your experience with the maintenance people.” Neat airstairs fold down and Whiteman takes up position in the back with his Leica while Captain Greenhalgh and First Officer Goodwin turn left.
It’s a bit cramped slipping into the driving seats but Philip has plenty of room in the back. Phil G will fly us out to Jersey and, hopefully, I will sit on the left on the way back. This Meridian rolled off the line just before the introduction of comprehensive glass cockpits and before the launch of Garmin’s G1000 system and its rivals. I’m not a fan of vast glass cockpits or, rather, I don’t think they’re well suited to eyes-out-the-window VFR flying. For the type of flying that you’ll be doing in a turboprop it’s a different matter.
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That said, I still like the way that individual sections on Greenhalgh’s Piper, such as engine function, have their own display. Although I’ve used them on and off for years, I still find Garmin’s 530 units tricky to use. There are two in the Meridian, one for each of us, as well as doubled up EFIS screens.
I don’t use a check-list in my RV-7 because it’s so straightforward and simple to operate and because I fly it almost every week. The Meridian is a different matter, particularly for someone who hasn’t flown behind a turbine before. Actually, the check-list isn’t that complicated. The parts that are unfamiliar to me concern the powerplant. There are things like automatic fuel pumps and generators that have to be switched on and off at various stages of the preflight check.
Also, the Meridian has cabin pressurisation and de-icing so there are a few more things to check. Greenhalgh runs through the list, explaining everything as he goes through and then fires up the turbine. I was hoping for the sexy crack-crack-crack that you get in a JetRanger as the igniters set fire to the Jet A1 but there’s just a gradually increasing whine. It’s still exciting and other worldly when you’re used to the racket and vibration of a large capacity flat-four piston engine.
Goodwin at the controls
We’ll now hit the fast forward button so that miraculously we are on the apron at Jersey airport having had our baguettes at the local garden centre (there’s always something you forget in flight planning and we didn’t realise that Jersey Aero Club doesn’t do tucker on Tuesdays−there should be a Notam!). Greenhalgh has paid a week’s wages for handling. “You can operate the aeroplane off grass and therefore we could have parked it on the grass here,” he explains “but although the engine is always running on inertial filter, I daren’t risk it sucking up something that might do it damage.”
Now I am in the left-hand seat it is time to pay much closer attention to the checks and explanations. The general environment is very familiar. Even those who’ve flown Piper’s more modest products, like Saratogas, will feel at home.
With a list each, Phil runs me through the checks. They’re split into groups with Cabin first, which is very logical and covers items such as checking for three greens, flap position, annunciator panel, stall warner − only the check for oxygen contents and pressure are unfamiliar. Most of the items headed ‘Before Engine Start’ are obvious with only a bit about bleed air concerned with the Pratt & Whitney PT6A turbine.
We need at least 23.5 volts for the engine start which is why Greenhalgh was very thorough shutting down after our arrival. You can’t hand swing a turboprop even if your nickname is Popeye. The start itself isn’t fully automated because once I’ve hit the button Greenhalgh will be moving the red Condition Lever. He’ll push this forward when the Ng gauge reads above 13%.
The next line in the list is printed in red ink and warns that ignition should occur within ten seconds and that ITT (Interstage Turbine Temperature) should not go above 1,000ºC for more than five seconds. The next section is headed Aborted Engine Start and is also in red ink. Presumably any cock-ups in these areas will cause Greenhalgh’s bank account to flame out.
But all is well and the four-blade prop is humming away nicely as it turns at 1,200rpm. Before-taxi checks done, we’re off towards the holding point for our departure where we’ll do the engine run-up. Phil taxies us off the apron because he doesn’t want me to hit the hangar or anything. “Hey Phil, I’ve got stacks of taildragger time and if I can taxi a Luscombe in a crosswind I can manage this big tricycle.” How wrong: I’m having a lot of trouble simply following the yellow line. There’s plenty of snaking and braking to try and keep it straight.
“Are you riding the brakes?” asks Greenhalgh with a note of concern in his voice. “There’s a lot of thrust from the prop even at idle. To slow it down apply a bit of beta thrust.” To do this I have to lift the thrust lever and move it back. Sure enough there’s a muffled roar and the Meridian slows down. Taxying in this way, with occasional burst of beta, saves the brakes and makes going in a straight line much easier.
Safely at the hold we carry out the engine run-up checks, which include making sure that the reverse lock-out works (presumably it’s spectacular if you select reverse pitch in flight), and that the overspeed governor works. Then we move to the before takeoff checks, which are straightforward and include raising the flaps and normal stuff like checking the QNH and clearances.
Lined up and ready to go, I’m expecting lag as I push the thrust lever forward but it’s less than I thought. Acceleration is linear and strong, and thankfully it’s not difficult to keep us tracking straight down the centreline. Concentrating on looking forwards rather than fixating on the airspeed indicator, the Meridian lifts off somewhere around eighty knots.
We’ve not used flap for takeoff so it’s just gear up and a gentle left turn to fly the Benix5A instrument departure to the first waypoint, Perch. First impressions are of excellent stability and reasonably heavy controls, but no more so than a Bonanza’s or a Saratoga’s. As soon as we’ve made the turn the autopilot goes on and we start to climb to our first cleared altitude.
Although Phil has a full IR, to fly the Meridian he’s had to do an additional ground examination on high performance aircraft (HPA) and also a type rating for the Piper PA-46 M500TP Meridian. Both the HPA exam and Type Rating were straightforward and not too time consuming to add to his collection of certificates. He did both with Oysterair.
Aside from the fact that we’re flying IFR so there’s far less decision making, the Meridian isn’t so fast, at least at low level, that I can’t keep up. Climbing to our target cruising altitude of FL170 we’re covering the ground no faster than my RV-7 would be−slightly slower in fact.
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Once we’re a bit higher it’s a different matter. This flight is a bit too short to climb to FL250 where the Meridian will cruise along at 250kt, but on a flight from Lydd to Cannes, say, that’s where you’d be. At FL170 the Piper is beautifully smooth and, with ANR headsets on, pretty quiet and an extremely serene way to travel.
It’s almost a pity that the weather is so good today because, to show this aeroplane off properly, it would have been fun to have climbed through clag and rain to get up into the sunshine on top. I like this. When I am rich I will buy a Meridian like this one and then, to go with it, another Piper−a Cub with 65bhp and no more than half a dozen instruments: two Pipers at opposite ends of the performance spectrum.
But now it is time to concentrate as we start descending towards Lydd. Easily done by simply dialling up the desired number on the autopilot, but with one important caveat: “It’s quite easy to break through Vmo,” explains Greenhalgh, “as you descend and the true airspeed comes down towards indicated airspeed. You need to be ready to reduce power.”
We have now left controlled airspace and can have a play around over Kent before landing back at Lydd. Greenhalgh is, to put it mildly, very generous but I’m conscious that messing about at 2,000ft is burning up a lot of fuel. Anyway, I don’t need to fly the Meridian around for the rest of the afternoon to realise that it is a very docile and unchallenging aircraft to fly in and around the circuit.
There’s only one thing, apart from the smoothness, that tells you that you haven’t got half a dozen pistons in front of you and that’s the turbine throttle response. As already described there’s not too much lag −t he issue is more the position of the power lever and the amount of thrust that’s produced by the engine. Greenhalgh has already recommended that I move the T-bar lever not by grasping the top of the T but by holding it by the shaft and having my fingers around it to be able to control it more finely.
This becomes even more relevant in the circuit as we fly downwind towards base leg. “I’d go out wider,” says Phil, “to give yourself more time and space.” Good advice for I’m taking a path that would be perfect in the RV but tricky when there is an undercarriage to lower and flaps to set. On to base leg and, thanks to Phil’s advice, we have time and the picture looks good. I’m waiting for him to say “I have control” and take over but the threshold is looming and he’s not said anything.
The Meridian is very stable and the speed is right. There’s a bit of a crosswind that even the windsock hasn’t noticed. We have because we’re crabbing in a bit. Greenhalgh had mentioned earlier that a surprising amount of footwork can be required. In concentrating on keeping the speed stable I’d forgotten this bit of advice but I bet Phil hasn’t. Fortunately, as all taildragger pilots will agree, your feet are naturally ready for trouble. A bit of correction is required but there’s never a worry that the Piper will do anything other than track down the centreline.
A lift of the thrust lever and a nudge backwards and the prop goes into beta and we slow down. Excellent!
Mr Greenhalgh’s stunning new toy is in one piece and, equally important, my good friend and paymaster Mr Whiteman is in one piece in the back and still smiling.
I’ve got a relative who’s done rather well for himself and has a stunning collection of very expensive classic cars, and a place in Antibes. For several years I’ve been trying to persuade him to take to the air, primarily for him to buy me a Hawker Sea Fury but also so that he can fly his family down to Cannes without having to trouble his travel agent.
This Piper Meridian would be the perfect aircraft for the job and Phil Greenhalgh has done the sums to prove it.