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EBACE: Piper hails M600 as 'true business aircraft'

A year after the M600 made its EBACE debut and secured European certification, Piper Aircraft is displaying two examples of its flagship turboprop at the show this year. The Florida-based manufacturer – which is also exhibiting its entry-level sister, the M500 – is well on the way to re-establishing itself in a business aviation market many thought it had relinquished when it axed its first jet programme, the single-engined Altaire, in 2011.

It comes, too, as healthy sales of Piper's piston-engined training aircraft to flight schools around the world have put the company on a firmer footing for some time. Production backlogs stretch reassuringly into the 2020s for some types.

The training market is certainly vital to Piper's long-term viability – the Brunei-owned company announced its biggest-ever deal at February's Singapore air show, a 152-aircraft commitment from a Chinese group that operates airline pilot flight schools. However, chief executive Simon Caldecott has the professional aircraft operator firmly in his sights in Geneva. The $2.8 million Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-42A-powered M600 is, he says, "a significant step forward for Piper Aircraft" and a "true business aircraft" that more people are viewing as a "highly attractive platform for Part 135 operations". He expects charter providers in Europe to run the rule over the M600 as a more economical alternative to light jets or single-engined turboprops such as the Daher TBM family.

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FLYING START

The M600 is a successor to the turn-of-the-century Malibu Meridian with a Garmin G3000 glass cockpit, higher-spec cabin and redesigned wing, giving it a range of 1,480nm (2,740km), almost 50% more than its M500 stablemate. Sales have been impressive since it gained US certification almost two years ago.

Last year, Piper shipped 35 M600s out of a total production of 155 units, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. This was up from 22 M600s in 2016, the first year the model was available on the other side of the Atlantic. This year has begun strongly too, with Piper saying the turboprop led "the company's performance success" in the first quarter, and targeting 71 deliveries for the year.

Following a series of appearances around Europe last year, the M600 has been spreading its wings, with a demonstrator appearing at the Singapore air show ahead of a sales tour in Asia and Australia, and another aircraft doing the rounds in South America. Caldecott admits that bringing the Meridian upmarket has meant Piper has had to address a very different audience to the flight schools, owner-fliers and utility operators that have formed the bedrock of its business.

"When you encroach into the $2 million price point, the expectations of customers are at a whole new level," he says. "So it was vital that we did not just increase the payload and range but put in the best avionics and improve the interior too."

While Caldecott also concedes that Piper's new turboprop will struggle to compete directly with the $5 million market-leading Pilatus PC-12, he maintains that interest in the M600 has come from TBM owners and even those considering buying small jets.

"While I wouldn't put us on the same page as the PC-12, you could argue that you can have two M600s for the same price, and could send your aircraft in two directions," he says. However, Daher’s smaller turboprops – the other main single-engined aircraft on the market – are definitely head-on rivals. "Our philosophy has absolutely been to take on TBM," he says. "Our claim is that we can do 90% of the mission at 75% of the price."

UPGRADES

While the M600 leads the charge for Piper in the business aviation sector, the company has also improved its other two six-seat products that ultimately derive from the 1980s-era Malibu – what it calls its M-class. When it launched the M600 in April 2015, it also revamped and renamed its Lycoming TIO-540-AE2A-powered Mirage piston single as the M350, and the PT6A-powered Meridian as the M500, adding Garmin G1000 glass cockpits and a range of other cabin features.

Earlier this year, it secured approval to install the next-generation NXi version of the flightdeck on the M350 and M500, and to offer this as a retrofit on fielded G1000-equipped aircraft. Piper will also upgrade the twin-engine Seneca V trainer to the NXi platform from fourth quarter deliveries. Its other trainer aircraft all now come fitted with Garmin avionics.

Piper's strong performance of late contrasts with bleak spells during its 81-year history that have taken it close to collapse several times. The company that launched the iconic Piper Cub in the late-1930s survived the rapid downturn in military production after the Second World War only to succumb to an even bigger crisis in the early 1990s when troubles in the US economy led to it entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The business re-emerged in 1995, briefly as "New Piper" before it was bought by Brunei-based investment outfit Imprimis Strategic Investment Corporation in 2009. Three years earlier, a newly confident Piper had entered the swelling ranks of very-light jet developers with the Williams International FJ44-powered PiperJet, later to be renamed the Altaire. Plans were made for a new production facility at Vero Beach, with first deliveries timed for 2014.

However, in 2011 Piper became one of several manufacturers to abandon their VLJ programmes, with newly appointed chief executive Caldecott – a long-time Hawker and Raytheon Aircraft executive who had moved to Vero Beach in 2009 to head the Altaire programme – declaring that it was the only logical option.

Despite forecasts in the mid-2000s that there would be demand for more than 1,000 of these aircraft, most airframers were struggling to attain certification, a critical mass of sales, or the finance to continue their operations. Caldecott says he faced the choice of piling more money and resources into the Altaire or diverting them to other programmes.

In retrospect, he believes the decision was right. "The area was starting to get very crowded. I think the Altaire would have been a great product, but I couldn't justify continuing to invest, so we repositioned our engineering team to come up with a better single-engined turboprop, and upgrade our other products," he says. While he does not rule out a return to jets at some point – "never say never, but right now, I don't see the business case" – he believes Piper has, as a result of his decisions back then, its strongest portfolio ever. Its training aircraft, all equipped now with glass cockpits, are perfect for the expanding flight-school market, particularly in Asia, while, alongside the flagship M600, the M500 "remains the lowest-cost, entry-level turboprop on the market, and is still great value for money".

Rather than deliver dramatic results in any one year, Caldecott says his mission has been to achieve "steady growth and long-term stability" for the company. "The current shareholders have been in place for nine years, and last year was the best year they have had," he says. "In fact, it was probably the best for 19 years."

With a clutch of multi-year deals from training schools and production on some platforms booked into 2024, the 40-year industry veteran believes that Piper is back on "solid foundations". At EBACE, he will be hoping to build on these foundations by increasing the M600's following in Europe's business aviation community.

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