Thinking of buying a Meridian?

The Meridian is Piper’s pinnacle of aircraft design and manufacturing.  And, they have lots to be super-proud about.  The Meridian that rolls off the assembly line at the Piper Factory in Vero Beach, FL today is a fabulous airplane with a bunch of pilot-friendly changes that make flying a Meridian quite intuitive.  But, it’s taken them a long-time to “get it right”.  If I could pick any phrase to describe the Meridian it would be, “It was a long time a’comin…”.  To know the Meridian that is made today, we really need to know how the Meridian came about.  Let’s go back into history…

There’s no doubt that Piper had been “out maneuvered in the marketplace” by Rocket Engineering in the 1990’s.  While Piper was busy building Mirage’s in the early 1990’s, Rocket Engineering was busy changing the game.  In the early 1990’s Piper was battling an image crisis when they went to the Lycoming engine for the better-equipped Mirage.  The Lycoming engine had some early troubles that were plaguing the Mirage with bad press.  Crankshaft failures and less-than-stellar performance were buoyed by the fact that the Mirage really had a much better interior (as compared to the Malibu) and that there was (and still is) no real competitor for the PA-46 in the marketplace.  So, while Piper had their head down trying to fix the Lycoming problems and manufacture lots of Mirage’s, Rocket Engineering was busy ripping the under-whelming Lycoming off and replacing it with the best turbine engine on the planet.

When Piper first saw that they’d been outflanked by Rocket Engineering, they probably should have just gotten out the checkbook and bought the whole of Rocket Engineering.  Then they could have proceeded to reverse-engineer the Jetprop, make a few changes, drop the name “Jetprop”, and start selling turbines from the factory in Vero Beach.  But, that’s not what happened.

In an effort to play catch-up, Piper then shifted their R&D team to attempt to make a better turbine PA-46 than the Jetprop.  And, they then had the now-flying and now-selling Jetprop entering the marketplace to use as a template, so the job was much easier for them.  Piper could not just copy the well-designed and well-crafted Jetprop.  They had to make some changes.  They had to try and make it better.  Some owners were buying brand new Mirage’s and flying them directly to Spokane for conversion, and they had to stem that tide.

Anyone familiar with the Jetprop can attest that it is a true “STC” conversion.  By this, I mean that there are some arguable shortcomings in the end product, mainly because the airframe was not originally designed for a turbine engine.  It has been “converted” and this “conversion” translates into a few less-than-perfect systems.  Piper wisely wanted to create systems on the Meridian that would be easier to use, more safe, and create more performance.  Knowing they could not use the same engine as found on a Jetprop, they decided to move up to the -42A.

Bigger Engine: A huge error that Piper made was to use the PT6-42A engine for the Meridian.  The idea behind the bigger engine was great…more power=more speed and more climb.  But, the bigger engine caused all sorts of design issues.  The bigger engine is heavier, and I mean a LOT heavier.  If you took a PT6-35 (Jetprop engine) and sat it next to a PT-6-42A (Meridian engine) in the hangar, you’d notice that the -42A is MUCH more robust.  It has a more metal, more stages of power turbine, and more weight.  All of this translates into more fuel burn, but not more power…only because the -42A engine has been derated on the Meridian to 500SHP.  This same engine is found on a bunch of King Air 200 series airplanes at 750+ SHP.  But on the Meridian, the airframe needed a derating to 500 SHP.  So, it’s got a bigger, more robust engine…but it doesn’t develop significantly different horsepower than the Jetprop.  This bigger, thirstier engine created a whole host of challenges to overcome.

Move the CG: To handle the additional weight of the engine, the engine had to be moved aft to keep the CG in balance.  So, the natural outflow from this decision was to remove the forward baggage on a Meridian, effectively moving the engine toward the pilot.  Not a big deal, but the forward baggage can be very handy at times and the Meridian is the only PA-46 with no forward baggage.

More fuel burn means more fuel needed: To handle the additional fuel required by the bigger engine, Piper had to add fuel capacity.  They figured out how to add the additional fuel by adding wing root protrusions, but it came with a corresponding increase in weight, drop in useful load, decrease in speed, and reduction in range.  Especially in the early Meridian’s, the useful load and range can be paltry.

Bigger tail: The Meridian had a hard time meeting the FAA’s requirement that the airplane stall at a speed below 61KIAS.  The bigger engine up front created a greater need for negative lift on the horizontal stabilizer. To correct the problem, a larger tail was added to the Meridian…and a correspondingly higher weight penalty was noticed. More aluminum = more weight.

Some welcome changes: While the engine choice created some negative ramifications, there are some welcome changes to the Meridian (as compared to the Jetprop).  Here’s a partial list:

* Prop lever gone?: There’s no “prop” lever on a Meridian.  The prop is managed by a prop governor and there’s no need (or ability) for the pilot to make any adjustments. The only levers on the Meridian are the throttle and the condition lever.

* Additional beta safety: Piper added a “squat switch” to the nose gear on a Meridian, which precludes a pilot from going into beta (reverse prop) in flight.  The Jetprop only has a “gate”, which requires careful guarding.  This is a good safety improvement, for sure, as going into beta in flight is usually not survivable.

* No pilot-controlled engine de-ice: It’s got engine de-ice, but the system is always “ON”.  There’s no pilot-inputs. Incidentally, this benefit is a two-edged sword as the good engine deice impacts the flow of air into the engine, and the fuel burn goes up as a result.

* Moving the Fuel: The fuel system in the Jetprop requires that the pilot move fuel from the main tanks to a Header Tank via submerged pumps that used to move 100LL.  This means that the pilot must switch the tank selector from the left side to right side every 15 minutes or so to keep the wings balanced.  Not so in the Meridian…Piper made the system automatically moves the fuel and the pilot does not have to make any switch changes in “normal operation”.

* Pressurization/environmental system: The Meridian pressurization/environmental system is more robust than the other PA-46 brethren.  The heating on a Meridian is better than any other PA46 and it is a little easier to use, with fewer buttons, levers, and dials to move.

* Engine controls: Piper added an “over-torque protection” system on the Meridian that really does help protect the engine from pilot-error.  A Jetprop pilot can torch an engine if handled improperly.

The other bad decision made by Piper: It could be argued that the -42A engine was an OK move by Piper (especially in light that the same engine will be used on the M600)… but there’s no doubt that Piper totally screwed up by installing Meggitt Avionics in the first Meridians.  While I’m OK flying with the Meggitt Avionics from a safety standpoint, it is a FAR less desirable installation in the marketplace.  They had a LOT of expensive failures in the early years and Piper quickly picked up a bad rapport due to the crappy system. There are still a lot of early Meridians flying with Meggitt Avionics, and they are safe, but they are not desirable.  My biggest argument against the early Meridians (with Meggitt Avionics) is the impracticability to provide a WAAS upgrade. I think the WAAS GPS approach should be almost-mandatory in every PA-46 airplane as it creates a stable approach every time.  But I’ve yet to fly with Meggitt Meridian that has WAAS.

Lack of performance: Even with the bigger engine, the Meridian did not out-perform the Jetprop.  The heavier weight, lower useful load, increased fuel burn, shorter range, and lack of baggage translated into an airplane that really was not better than a Jetprop.  All a Piper salesman could accurately “sell” were more “safety improvements” and the fact that it is a “from-the factory” turbine PA-46.  That’s not much of a “plus-list” to try and convince a buyer to spend a million extra dollars.  In the early years if you wanted a brand-new turbine PA-46 it was cheaper (and arguably better) to just buy a Mirage and fly it to Spokane.

Piper’s launch of the Meridian: Piper launched the Meridian in 2001 and they sold quite a few quickly.  But, the heavier weight, lower useful load, increased fuel burn, and crappy avionics made everyone realize that the first Meridian’s were not ideal, and Piper was going to have to make some adaptations quickly.  Meridians were selling, but the Jetprop folks were smiling widely.

The first changes: Piper knew the useful load had to be increased.  The only way this could be fixed was to add vortex generators to the wings so the airplane would fly slower than 61KIAS at a higher MGW.  But, as with all adaptations, there’s a “side effect”.  Whereas the “gross weight increase kit” provided a much-needed increase in MGW, it also cruises slower because of the vortex generators.  Interestingly, the fastest Meridians today are the early ones that have not received vortex generators.

More changes: In 2003 Piper changed to Avidyne Avionics. This was a HUGE and welcome relief to buyers as the Avidyne is WAY better.  Although it was better, it was still not ideal.  The financial impracticability of adding a WAAS conversion is my biggest argument against the Avidyne Meridian.  Today (2014) the WAAS upgrade to the Avidyne Meridian costs $11k, and that is highway robbery.  The other problem with the Avidyne Meridians is the panel space for GPS installations.  Basically, the space provided only allows for a G430/G650 sized installation. If you like the G530/750, you want to avoid the Meridian as it just won’t fit.  This is not a big deal in the Avidyne Meridians because the Avidyne screens are so big.  But, plan to install a G650 as the premium GPS installation.  The G650 is not as user-friendly as the G750, simply due to screen size.

Ever more changes: In 2009 Piper moved to the Garmin G1000 panel.  Finally, Piper got it right.  The G1000 is intuitive, attractive, works great, and the marketplace loves it.

The Meridian that rolls off the factory line today has a G1000 panel, a higher MGW capability, and an interior that is simply gorgeous.  The new Meridians have a well-refined interior that has all the latest and greatest amenities such as great interior lighting, electric yaw trim, foldable seats, and super-good looks.  Plus, there’s some niceties on the outside too…the External Electric Power is on the tail (away from the spinning prop) and there’s a baggage area behind the radar pod.  It took Piper a LONG time to make the Meridian a great airplane, but the newer Meridians are really nice.

So…how’s it fly?: The Meridian is a very nice flying airplane, just like all the PA-46’s.  Start-up is straight-forward and normal for a turbine.  Taxiing is the same…no bad habits.  The takeoff roll is easy to handle.

Climb: On climb-out at MGW, normal rates are 1,300fpm down low, and as the climb continues the rate goes down, but not significantly.  At FL180 the Meridian will climb at 1,000fpm and through FL250 it’ll do a little less than 1,000fpm climb.

Cruise: In cruise the Meridian will be normally flown “as high as possible” because the fuel flow is lowest and the cruise speeds are high.  Rarely will I fly the Meridian at a lower altitude, and only because the destination is not far away or due to excessive headwinds up high.  In cruise the fastest Meridians (with no vortex generators) will cruise at 265KTAS and consume 39gph.  In the Winter (colder temps), the speed will eek up slightly…I’ve seen 269KTAS and heard of slightly higher, especially in the early non-VG birds.

Descent and landing: The Meridian has a slight advantage over the Jetprop in decent because it can be flown at a higher IAS on descent.  Whereas the Jetprop is limited to 171IAS, the Meridian can be flown up to 193KIAS.  But, power is still reduced on descent to keep the Meridian from over-speeding.  Just like the Jetprop, the descent from FL260/270 will start about 90 miles from the destination (with no ATC limitations).  The Meridian flies nicely on approach (as do all PA-46’s) and is easy to land.  Once the mains and nose wheel touchdown, the throttle can go into beta (reverse), which I think is one of the best reasons to upgrade from a piston to any turbine.

Considering values: The best Meridians are the newest ones with the G1000 avionics.  These are really nice airplanes.  But, the problem is that they are quite expensive.  If your budget is over $1.3+m, then this is worthy of consideration.  If you have a lesser budget, then you’ll want to consider an earlier Meridian, but be sure to look at the useful load and make sure you are OK with the avionics installed.  Don’t be fooled by an earlier Meridian being advertised with a G530W.  The “W” means it is a WAAS-approved unit, but some of the early Meridians won’t have the ability for the autopilot to fly a WAAS approach with an autopilot, and as we say in Texas, “That dog won’t hunt!”.  Take the airplane on a test flight and make sure it’ll fly a WAAS approach with the autopilot.

Top reasons to buy a Meridian over a Jetprop: There’s some really good reasons to buy a Meridian over a Jetprop.  Here’s a few worthy of discussion:

* It’s from the factory: There are some buyers that will not consider a Jetprop because it is a converted airplane.  They simply like “from the factory airplanes” and will not consider any other. If you are one of these guys, then the Meridian is your only turbine choice.

* Simpler pilot workload: To me, this is the weakest reason to go for a Meridian, but it does exist.  The systems on a Meridian are not simpler to understand than a Jetprop, but they do require less pilot input.  Engine anti-ice, prop management, fuel transfer, and environmental control are all easier on a Meridian.  But, when things go wrong…when you are not using the “normal” checklist…a pilot must understand the systems.  And, the systems on the Meridian are not any simpler than the Jetprop, they only require less pilot manipulation.  It is not a “safer” airplane than the Jetprop, nor is the Jetprop safer than the Meridian.  They are both safe, and both require a pilot to fully understand the systems.

* More Meridians: There are 500+ Meridians that have been made by Piper, and about 300 Jetprops.  And, as time progresses, that number should widen.  It could be argued that the Meridian will hold its value better in the future since they are more prolific.

* Newer is better? If you think newer is better, then you’ll want to get a Meridian.  Very few post-2008 Mirage’s will be converted because they have the G1000 installed.  Garmin will not allow Rocket Engineering to integrate the Jetprop conversion with the G1000.  So, if you want new, go Meridian.

* Nice interior: The interior of the Meridian is simply gorgeous.  It is an absolutely fabulous interior.  It’s not just nice because it’s new…it’s nice because it’s well designed.

* A good option for the Meggitt Meridians: There is a G950 upgrade available for the Meridian. With this installation, the old Meggitt Avionics are ripped out and a Garmin panel that is VERY similar to the G1000 is installed.  This makes the early Meridians quite desirable because it makes the fastest Meridians available with good avionics.  Consider the price-point, but I’ve flown in several of the G950 Meridians, and it is a really nice installation.  Another great option of the dual G500/G750 installation.  I’m seeing these airplanes more and more in the marketplace, and I think they are SUPER!

My personal assessment: To me, if you’ve decided you want a PA-46, it all comes down to the budget.  To me, turbine is always better than piston.  But, that comes with a big price tag.  I’m personally motivated by efficiency, and the Jetprop is certainly the cheaper to operate and maintain.  But, if you like from-the-factory airplanes, definitely go for the Meridian.  It really is a fabulous airplane that flat-out performs.

About Joe Casey

ATP, CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G Commercial Pilot - SE, ME, Rotorcraft, Glider US Army AH-64 Pilot and UH-60 Instructor Pilot and Instrument Flight Examiner
This entry was posted in Buying an Airplane, Thinking of buying a PA-46? and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.