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February 1, 2008
By Thomas B Haines
Here’s the situation: You’re one of the thousands of pilots who bought one of the new-generation high-performance, four-place singles over the last decade. Now the kids and the dog are bigger, your golf game is more serious, and your family has grown to love the utility of flying your own airplane. You don’t want to give up the performance and simple systems that come with your Columbia or Cirrus, but you need more room and a step up. What’s next?
A very light jet may be too big of a step up for some, both in performance and cost; plus, if you place an order today, you’ll be years in receiving your airplane. In addition, some of the VLJs don’t carry much more than four-place piston singles.
Piper Aircraft’s dealer network was flooding the company’s marketing department with just such real-life scenarios. Among the company’s inventory, the turbocharged Piper Saratoga TC was at best a lateral step from a performance standpoint and even with its six seats, it didn’t offer much more in the form of payload. The Mirage offered a cabin-class step up, but with significant systems complexities in the form of pressurization, weather radar, and de-icing boots. Those systems all added weight, which put the Mirage’s useful load not far off the four-place airplanes’.
Piper marketing and engineering huddled to find a way to fill the growing niche. Designing an all-new airplane was out of the question from a timing and cost standpoint, especially with the company already pouring resources into the PiperJet VLJ development. The stately Saratoga is already a derivative of a 40-year-old design that has been tweaked and primped to the max. The Mirage is a derivative of the 25-year-old Malibu. As a more modern design, the Mirage is relatively less expensive and more efficient to build than the legacy PA-28 and PA-32 lines (nee Cherokee) from whence the Saratoga emerged.
Cessna Aircraft has mastered the art of filling market niches in its jet line by tweaking models to offer its customers size and performance alternatives at a variety of price points. So, taking a tip from the Cessna playbook, Piper staff began “de-contenting” the Mirage to reduce cost, complexity, and weight to create a logical step up for those used to flying lighter piston singles. The result is the Matrix, a Mirage without the pressurization, weather radar, and deicing boots (although the boots are an option on the Matrix).
The resulting Matrix surprised even those who know the Mirage well. “It changed the personality of the aircraft when you take the weight and mass out of it,” said Bob Kromer, Piper’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Indeed, it does make for a lighter handling airplane that sits higher on its gear.
Depending on options, the Matrix weighs 150 to 180 pounds less than the Mirage. All in all, 288 parts are either changed or modified on the Matrix as compared to the Mirage. Both airplanes use the same 350-horsepower Lycoming TIO-540 with dual turbochargers and dual intercoolers—all managed by an automatic wastegate controller that maintains the selected manifold pressure during climbs and descents. Other changes include the removal of the plumbing, gauges, wiring, and outflow valves associated with the pressurization system. Without the demands of pressurization, the Matrix doesn’t need the same fuselage strength as the Mirage. So the engineers have created lighter weight stringers and ribs for the Matrix, further reducing weight. Similarly, the cabin windows are lighter. Removing the weather radar pod both reduces weight and drag. Matrix pilots will get their weather information via Sirius Satellite as uploaded by WSI and displayed by the Avidyne Entegra multifunction display. Removing the optional deicing boots further reduces weight and drag, but it appears that most Matrix customers will opt for the system, which comes at a $55,000 price, but allows for flight into known icing conditions.
The same 14,000 BTU air conditioning system as in the Mirage is standard on the Matrix. Because the Matrix cabin isn’t pumped up with warm bypass air, the big air conditioner easily cools the cabin to meat-locker like conditions even on the hottest days. One new system to the Matrix is a built-in 50.1-cubic-foot oxygen system—necessary to take advantage of the airplane’s ability to fly as high as 25,000 feet. In the pressurized Mirage, oxygen use is for emergencies only and thus a one-time-use chemical system is all that it requires.
Finally, one other standard feature that pilots will appreciate and one that will be new to those stepping up from lighter airplanes is a relief tube—allowing even small-bladdered pilots (and passengers) to take advantage of the Matrix’s 1,000-nm range.
After all the mixing and machinations, what you end up with is an airplane that slightly outperforms the Mirage and with a higher useful load and for what Piper calls a “compelling” price of $757,000, which is about half million dollars less than the Mirage’s typical $1.2 million price tag.
More important, for the target audience—those wanting a step up to a larger cabin and more payload, the Matrix offers a useful load of about 1,421 pounds as compared to a typical useful load of less than 1,100 pounds for a well-equipped Cirrus SR22, Columbia 400 (now Cessna 400), or even six-seat Bonanza G36. In addition to the payload, the Matrix cabin is larger, offering six seats in a club configuration that is entered through an airstair door rather than over-wing doors. And one thing about those doors: Doors on most every non-pressurized airplane tend to be temperamental—often leaking and subject to flexing and opening in flight. The Matrix retains the characteristics of the Mirage’s pressurized door with a tight seal and easy-to-use beefy handle actuating multiple locking pins. It’s a small thing, but one you’ll appreciate on every flight.
The Matrix price puts it about $150,000 to $200,000 higher than the high-performance singles and even the two six-seaters on the market, the normally aspirated Bonanza and Saratoga TC.
Part of the reason for the big price differential between the Mirage and the Matrix is that Piper plans to build 100 Matrixes (Matrices?) next year. By placing orders for such a large number of components, Piper was able to further drive down the price of the Matrix, at least for one year. So far, all 100 airplanes are earmarked for Piper dealers and 25, as of mid-December, had been retailed to end customers. Deliveries began in January.
Whereas the Mirage might be considered a business airplane, Piper believes the Matrix will be mostly used for personal transportation. Anyone sliding into the left seat of a Matrix from a Cirrus or Columbia will find that while cabin access is easier through the airstair door, flight deck access is a bit tighter as you maneuver between the two pilot seats to find your place. But once settled in, the cockpit will be familiar certainly to Cirrus pilots and even to Columbia pilots who own the early models that featured the Avidyne Entegra panel. The most recent Columbias carry Garmin G1000 panels.
Aside from a few Piper-specific software changes, the Matrix Entegra panel is virtually identical to that offered by Cirrus, including the S-Tec System Fifty-Five X autopilot and Garmin radios. Among the new features offered by Avidyne and debuting on the Matrix is the TWX670 Tactical Weather Avoidance System, which is basically a new digital generation of lightning detection system optimized for close-up detection. You’ll recall that the ubiquitous Stormscope, now owned by L-3 Communications, was developed 30 years ago by Paul Ryan. Avidyne purchased Ryan’s company two years ago. It’s clear that he hasn’t given up on his quest to perfect lightning detection technology. In addition to the TWX670, the other avionics upgrade option is the Avidyne TAS610 active traffic advisory system. The dual-antenna system, also developed by Ryan, not only shows traffic position on the multifunction display, but also uses audio alerts to call out conflicts, such as “Traffic one o’clock high, two miles.” We had such callouts during our demonstration flights and the system definitely allows the pilot to focus his attention outside the airplane for traffic rather than staring at a display first and then looking up to find the target. The two optional systems add $18,5000 to the price.
The basic Entegra package includes a primary flight display with small engine control gauges on the upper left and a flight director. In addition to a plethora of map choices and detailed engine management pages, the standard MFD features the aforementioned MLB700 WSI InFlight aviation weather system and Sirius digital audio entertainment package piped through the Garmin audio panel and intercom. The package includes the ability for the pilot to exchange text messages with the ground and to automatically provide position reports through the Internet. Also included is the Jeppesen CMax electronic approach chart system that shows aircraft position on approach charts and taxiway diagrams.
Those coming out of the fixed-gear singles may fear a retractable gear landing system, but Piper’s has proven reliable and simple. If the hydraulic uplocks fail, the gear simply free falls down and locked. In addition to the optional speed brakes, which can be deployed at any speed, pilots can lower the gear at up to 165 knots indicated airspeed and then speed up to 195 KIAS for even more descent performance.
With the pressurization and weather radar off the table, it is the folding feet that are likely to be the biggest concern for a pilot moving from a fixed-gear single—especially from an insurance perspective. But, according to Piper Chief Executive Officer Jim Bass, it’s not an issue. Piper has briefed all of the major insurance companies on the Matrix. Sample quotes for pilots moving from high-performance fixed-gear singles show premiums climbing only in proportion to the higher hull value. There is typically no rider for the retractable gear for pilots who participate in the SimCom training program provided with each Matrix.
While the Matrix is a big airplane, its simple systems make start up and go as uncomplicated as it gets. Once the Avidyne system runs its internal checks, you’re on your way with the usual autopilot, mag, propeller control, and flight control checks. Rotation feels a bit lighter than with the Mirage, as do roll and pitch in general. It’s still no sports car, though. The Matrix is a solid flying machine with its long wing providing a smooth ride both at high altitudes and right down to the numbers on an instrument approach. One thing to consider for those stepping up is that the Matrix features a 43-foot wingspan—too large to fit in most T-hangars designed for typical singles, which usually have about 35-foot wingspans.
To sample performance at altitudes where pilots are likely to fly an unpressurized, but turbocharged airplane, I took the Matrix first to 10,500 feet where at 75 percent power, the airplane turned in 185 knots true airspeed on 21 gallons per hour, leaned to peak turbine inlet temperature. Donning oxygen cannulas and climbing to 15,500 and using the same 32 inches of manifold pressure and 2,500 rpm, demonstration pilot Stan Riker and I saw 198 KTAS on the same 21 gph. There, the Avidyne system calculated we were using 78 percent power. Further up, at 17,500 feet with the same settings and fuel flow, the airplane showed us 203 KTAS at 77 percent power. Even there, the engine was still capable of 100 percent power and a climb rate of about 1,000 fpm. While the Matrix is legal to fly at up to 25,000 feet, oxygen masks rather than the more comfortable cannulas are required above 18,000 feet. There, the airplane will tool along at up to 215 KTAS.
With the full 120 gallons of fuel, the typical Matrix can carry 680 pounds of passengers and gear—which equates to four 170-pound passengers and no bags. At 17,500 feet and a high-speed cruise setting that yields 202 KTAS, according to the pilot’s operating handbook, the airplane can fly for 988 nm with a 45-minute reserve. If you dial the fuel down to 100 gallons, you can carry those same four people plus 120 pounds of baggage between the nose compartment and the aft cabin compartment. Then the range is shortened to 868 nm. If you’re willing to fly at a long-range cruise setting that yields just 148 KTAS, the Matrix will take you 1,240 nm with reserves.
With its big cabin separated from the flight deck, wide center of gravity envelope, versatile fuel versus payload options, good performance, and backed by Piper’s robust service network, the Matrix does just what Piper designed it to do—provide a new choice for those examining a matrix of options for a step-up airplane.
E-mail the author at email@example.com.
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
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