PIPER MATRIX - Flight Test

It is not all that often that you get the opportunity to fly a brand new aircraft model, so when I got the call to go test fly the brand new Piper Matrix I jumped right on it. I called my buddy Bob Duprey, himself a former Mirage owner and currently flying a Meridian, and headed off to Vero Beach. He represents Piper’s customer demographic profile and I thought his personal insights on owning the other two members of the PA-46 family would be helpful in evaluating the new Matrix.

“It is an exciting time at Piper aircraft. While the rest of the economy seems to be enveloped in the “sub-prime slime”, Piper is set to deliver 272 new aircraft this year, up from 216 in calendar 2007”, or so says Mark Miller, Chief Corporate Spokesman for Piper Aircraft. “Of that, 100 units are for the Matrix and the entire years production run is sold out”, he added. Piper clearly identified the need for niche market aircraft that would allow the thousands of aircraft owners who had purchased a Cirrus or Columbia in the last five or so years, an aircraft to “step up” into. It needed to be an airframe that offered the same amenities and similar performance with a higher payload and more seats, so Piper set about the task of simplifying the PA-46 Mirage. By removing the pressurization, in flight radar and de-icing system, Piper was able to achieve significant weight savings from its pressurized sibling, that translated into more range and payload. In fact, the Matrix features a 1421 lb useful load, approximately 340 lbs more than the Cirrus and the Colombia that Piper believed their customers would be stepping up from.

Indeed, Piper hit the nail on the head. “20 of the 21 Matrix we have delivered to date were purchased by former Cirrus or Columbia owners”, said Bob Kromer, one Matrix was purchased by a former Cessna 182 owner”, he added. Kromer synopsized the Matrix development effort like this; “Basically, what we sought to offer here was a cabin class experience, 180 to 190 knot performance with no oxygen (at 10-12,500 feet) and better speed and range at higher altitude for a seven hundred and fifty thousand dollar base price. The airplane comes standard with air-conditioning, and so far 80% of the aircraft ordered were delivered with the de-ice package and optional speed brakes.”

The Matrix delivers just that. Sitting high on its gear and utilizing an air-stair door adds to the “big airplane” feeling. The Matrix represents the top of the food chain in the piston single market. It is clear Piper spent a lot of time listening to its customers, and the attention to detail is obvious. The Matrix even features a 110 volt plug (operated off an inverter) under the aft seats so you can power your laptop or DVD player while in flight. The air conditioning system is straight out of the Mirage and yields far greater cooling capacity then is actually required, creating an ice cold cabin even here in Florida on an 85 degree day. The instrument panel features the same Avidyne Entegra displays and Garmin 430 / S-TEC radios and autopilot that are featured in the Cirrus so for a new Matrix owner, that part of the transition should not present any particular problems. The Avidyne package is a separate story by itself, featuring an updated weather and lightning avoidance package as well as an enhanced traffic avoidance system that incorporates audio traffic alerts that include azimuth and altitude. This is T.A.A.(Technically Advanced Aircraft) technology at its finest.

Finally, it was time to go out and fly the airplane. Both myself and my buddy Duprey, were interested is seeing how the lighter airframe handled compared to the Mirage and the Meridian. Lining up on runway 11R at Vero Beach, I brought the power up on big turbocharged Lycoming to its maximum manifold pressure of 42 inches and released the brakes. The aircraft reached rotation speed and left the runway far faster than its pressurized brother. The lighter airframe also revealed itself in a slightly more sensitive pitch feel. We climbed the aircraft to 6,500 feet to sample the handling characteristics of the Matrix.

45 degree left and right bank turns, minimum controllable airspeed and stalls were all absolutely routine. The plane tracks like it is on rails and the stall characteristics are very benign for an aircraft that weighs more than 4,300 lbs. In fact, we did one stall with the fuel imbalance light illuminated, indicating at least a 60 lbs difference between the left and right tank and all it did was gently roll off in the direction of the heavy wing.

The noise level in the cabin at cruise was slightly higher then in the Mirage, but that was to be expected. It was low enough so that passengers could converse without headsets. Descent and landing are easily accomplished without the use of speed brakes, but my personal experience tells me they might come in handy for those “slam dunk” arrivals you might expect to get in congested airspace. The 165 knot gear extension speed allows you to use the landing gear as speed brake as well.

Trimmed for a landing speed of 84 knots, the Matrix is rock solid in pitch and roll with no sign of any adverse yaw, even in the convective South Florida air. Both Bob Duprey and myself over rotated in the flair the first time we attempted to land, no doubt due to the lighter pitch feel of the Matrix, but the ailerons and rudder feel the same as the other PA-46 family members.
Stable as a table, this airframe makes a great instrument platform. The aircraft flies like a much heaver aircraft then it actually is, and I suspect it will take someone transitioning from a Cirrus a while to get used to that.

The ramp appeal of the Matrix is impressive and the “money seat” as my buddy Bob calls it, (that is the aft forward facing seat on the copilot side) is going to please even the most discerning non flying spouse. Apparently, Bob is speaking from experience here. I took that seat while he flew the Matrix and I could stretch out my 6 foot 1 inch frame, and ride comfortably without the use of headsets

The big Lycoming TIO-540-AE2A, makes 350 h.p. at 2500 rpm has a 2,000 hour T.B.O. and has been used in the Mirage variant of the PA-46 family. That engine has proven to be a reliable and durable power plant with a good track record. Like all turbocharged high performance air cooled aircraft engines, it is not particularly tolerant of poor pilot technique, but in this installation there aren’t even any cowl flaps, indicating that Piper was able to certify the engine, pass the requisite climb demonstrations and not overheat the power plant.

It isn’t all good though. Burning around 25 gallons an hour, I can’t help but wonder what five to six dollar a gallon avgas is going to do to sales. I suppose if you can afford to buy one, the fuel costs are probably far less of an issue, but $150 an hour in fuel still hurts. The front seats in the Matrix suffer from the same affliction as all PA-46 family aircraft suffer from and that is a lack of headroom. Piper claims to have addressed this with some new type of seat foam, but I still found myself smacking my head against the ceiling even in moderate turbulence. Fuel management is fairly simple but requires that you change tanks about every thirty minutes to avoid an imbalance and care must be taken while switching tanks to avoid switching it to “off”.

I have read in several aviation publications and on more than one web / blog site, a tremendous amount of skepticism about the Matrix as it relates to who actually needs one and who is going to buy one. The very fact that the aircraft’s production run is sold out for the first year only proves that Piper clearly identified a viable market niche and delivered the right product to fill it. Step up marketing is nothing new in aviation, but the ultimate consumer testimony comes from Bob Duprey, who after flying the Matrix said, “Had the Matrix been available at the time I bought my Mirage, I would have purchased the Matrix, flew it for a few years and then stepped up to the Mirage and then the Meridian”. This coming from a guy who has been there and bought that, speaks volumes about the slot the Matrix fills in the Piper line.

The bottom line is that Piper has done it all right. The Matrix has found its place in the proverbial “step up” food chain. It allows Piper to introduce its prime customer demographic to a model line with vertical mobility all the way up to the yet to be certified Piper Jet. Since product development of a new design takes years and years, the Matrix will own this market for a long, long time.

The people at Piper have always been great to deal with, and every time I’m there I “take the tour” through the factory. There must have been seven or eight Matrix on the assembly line in various stages of completion; number 31 was at the head of the line. The level of activity throughout the facility was high and the mood was truly upbeat. Outside on the ramp, a lucky pilot was taking delivery of his new Matrix. Everyone seemed to have a spring in their step and a smile on their face. We happened to be there on the day they mated the wing for the new Piper Jet to the fuselage for the first time. I can’t wait to fly that. Yes, these are indeed good times at Piper, who just a few years ago teetered on the brink of extinction, when the factory was racked by three hurricanes in two years. Such are the fortunes of an aircraft manufacturer.

By Michael Leighton a 4,600+ N.A.F.I. certified Master CFIIMEI-ATP, & A&P mechanic and former F.A.A. Accident Prevention Counselor. He operates an aircraft management, maintenance and crew services company located in South Florida. You can reach him via e-mail at av8tor0414@aol.com, or find him on the web at http://web.mac.com/mkleighton.

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