Tom and I arrived for M-Class VRB 2015 earlier than needed, so we did what any other “drinking the Koolaid” aviator would do…we went to the airport to hang out and see what sort of aviation excitement we could drum up. Fortunately, we picked the right day for our adventure since Thursdays are one of the days that The New Piper Factory offers tours. Tom made the phone call and we were making the walk from CJ Cannons (nice local restaurant on the field at KVRB) over to Piper within minutes. I was excited because I’ve wanted to take the tour for a long time.
Initial observations: We were part of a group of 6 people in attendance, but the only pilots in the group. The others were locals who just wanted to pass some time. A retired employee led our group, and did a super job of allowing us access. We were escorted at all times, but we were allowed to interact with the employees and get up-close to the processes. We walked by lots of “specialty areas” where employees were building particular parts of the airplanes. It was impressive to see the amount of work that is completed at the factory. I assumed that many of the parts were built at outside vendor facilities, but it appeared to me that most were built at Piper. For example, the main landing gear for the PA-46 (a complex one-of-a-kind part) came in as a raw piece of aluminum, and all of the fabrication and machining was accomplished at Piper.
Building impressions: Ironically, I had the pleasure of visiting the Bell Helicopter/Osprey Factory (Amarillo, TX) a few weeks prior to my Piper tour. It was new, huge, sparkling clean, and had all the latest technology. In stark contrast was the Piper Factory. Although everything was quite clean and orderly, the building itself was a disjointed conglomeration of steel structures that gave the impression of an old house that had been “added onto” many times. Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m not throwing stones at Piper for having an old building…I’m a huge fan of keeping expenses low and “using what you’ve got” in the best manner possible. In fact, the age of the building added a bit of history to the experience that was refreshing. Yet, I can tell that the hodgepodge jointed buildings definitely limits the production processes. Whereas raw material goes in one side of the building and out the other as an aircraft at Bell Helicopter, it is not so at Piper. The aluminum goes in a big door, but then gets moved both horizontally and vertically several times, and the finished product goes in and out of many doors and buildings before the final product is complete. I think Piper is doing well with what they have, but I think their engineers wish they had a better building.
The PA-46 line: Although the sub-assembly manufacturing was interesting, the assembly line was downright fascinating. We saw at least 7 airplanes in various stages of construction, and were allowed to get up-close and personal. We saw the wing area first, and got to see how the wing skin is mated to the wing structure. The sheer size of the wing is downright impressive. To see the wing standing on-edge (leading edge down) is awe-inspiring. I was blown away by the perspective. Next, we saw the fuselage having components added. The final stage in the “main line” was the installation of the engine and prop.
Something different: We then went upstairs to the avionics department and saw the Garmin products being assembled. The G1000 looks simple and streamlined on the front, but behind the panel there are a maze of wires and fittings that would impress anyone. One thing that was interesting was a “Pulse-Oximeter” that is now being added to the panels. The panel I viewed was a Mirage, so even the pressurized versions will get something different. And, I also saw the “blue button” that has been promised with the M500. Interestingly, I saw this same blue button on Mirage panels being configured as well. We’ve heard rumors of the M600, but there was no mention of that airplane at all. And, there were certainly parts of the factory that we did not get to see, including the interior shop and the paint shop.
Overall impressions: I left Piper in amazement that they can make any money at all. Not because they are doing a poor job (they are not) or because they produce a poor product (they’ve got a SUPER product)…I was amazed at the complexity. Airplanes are super-complex structures with a myriad of subordinate systems all jammed into a frame that must be supersensitive to overall weight. I’ve been to many, many factories that produced complex finished products. In my previous career I had the pleasure of serving joist, t-post, store-fixture, steel deck, and steel building manufacturers and visited those factories regularly. But an aircraft factory…that is a level of complexity all its own. Every facet of the process required a professional, and every detail is important. The processes and numbers of different moving parts was overwhelming.
One other big impression: There’s no doubt that the PA-46 line is the backbone of Piper. I’m not sure of the production numbers, but there were FAR more PA-46’s rolling off the line than any other airframe. As a PA-46 instructor, it was good to see the PA-46 be the critical cog for Piper. There’s no doubt that the design team that imagined and created the PA-46 back in the early 1980’s hit a home run. Even today, there is no real competitor to the PA-46 in the marketplace, and the future of Piper looks bright because of the PA-46. Unquestionably, with the death of the Piper Jet and the low production numbers of the unpressurized piston airframes, the PA-46 has been, is now, and will be the future of Piper.