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Wed, Oct 22, 2003

ANNRep: Does The Piper 6X Deserve The Fuss?

ANN's First In-flight Impressions of Piper's Newest Heavy Hauler

By ANN Editor-In-Chief, Jim Campbell

A revitalized New Piper Aircraft has put a lot of emphasis on targeting it's latest bird for a new generation of flyers that are interested in serious utility, serious value and a serious lack of hassle.

That's a serious order to fill.

The Piper 6X seems well-designed to fit that role. Yes; it's absolutely a barely-disguised refinement on the Cherokee 6/Lance/Saratoga line that dominated the 6 place market for so long with excellent manners and "reasonable performance," but the 155-165 KT 6X and 6XT shows that going back to the drawing board and sharpening one's pencil is the right thing to do when a tough market (literally) demands it.

So... what's the fuss?

A new 3600 pound (GW) 6 seat Piper 6X will set you back some $336,000 and the Piper 6XT all of $356,000 -- but deliver as much as 1440 pounds of people and go-juice as far as 804-850 (X/XT) nm down the road at cruise speeds of 148 KTs/154KTs (6X/11K/Long-Range Cruise, 6XT/15K/LRC). Both the Piper 6X and the Piper 6XT are powered by 300 HP Lycoming engines giving the aircraft top speeds of 155 kts and 165 kts respectively.

No doubt about it, Piper's homage to the (rightfully) legendary Piper Cherokee 6, which built "a solid reputation for value, utility, performance and reliability" is evident throughout every lengthy inch of the bird. The 6X and 6XT refine this much repeated theme with new state-of-the-art avionics packages (though a glass panel option, says Piper Chief Suma, will have to wait for next year in order to meet his quest for a properly integrated avionics system) and improved aerodynamic styling. Piper also (unabashedly) meets GA insurance concerns head-on with this bird, "The Piper 6X and Piper 6XT are high performance aircraft that insurance companies will look upon favorably due to their fixed-gear configurations."

All that said, a flight in a new Piper 6X, despite the absence of an Indian nom de plume, shows that while this is, outwardly, a new bird for Piper; it's a Cherokee, through and through. Our first chance to wring this baby out in the fevered skies of a 92 degree Florida day (cumulus bumpies in every quad) found us with a 140 hour airframe that had served as the first 6X off the line. Fit and finish appeared good, and the interior dimensions of the bird are a welcome relief to those of us who respond all too readily to the mating call of the Quarter-Pounder (with cheese, thank you). The new panel is huge... it seems to have enough room for any serious IFR mission as well as enough room for a home entertainment system... and in our demo bird, the unused space to the right was pretty noticeable.

The bird features Piper's new use of a series of upper level rocker switches (Mags, Master, et al) at just above eye level and the new cowling seems to suggest a slightly better (leaner) picture off the nose. With over 1000 pounds of fuel, Piper-Pilot and an ANN LardButt on board, the first 6X shows none of the shortcomings a first bird off the line tends to exhibit--this was a tight bird. Taxi agility is tight and responsive, with solid braking available, and excellent (non-braked) turning abilities noted through the long taxi to Rwy 4 at VRB. Overall layout brings just about everything readily to hand, though the manual rudder trim is still quite a reach forward and under the center of the panel.

Faster Than A Speeding Cherokee 6....

Lined up and hammered at the threshold of 4, the Lycoming IO-540-K1G5 and a Hartzell three blade produce reassuring acceleration and the first hint that Piper really has learned it's lesson with it's published performance numbers in that it was obvious that meeting the quoted 2028' T/O requirements over a 50 foot obstacle was going to be child's play -- even with another 400+ pounds on board to gross it out. Initial climb rates flirted closely with 900 FPM and held up well through 3500 feet. Initial control feel was pure Cherokee, with a high degree of rudder coupling, modest roll pressures and a tightly defined pitch profile. A fair amount of torque is easily countered with rudder trim (though rudder pedal actuation is not the workout it used to be) and the site picture over the nose seems a little less cluttered than the fatter "6" cowlings of old. Temps, throughout the flight, remained very manageable -- even in extended climb and through extended slow flight.

A short run at 3500', with a reciprocal check-up, at 24 squared offered some surprisingly good speeds for such an inefficient altitude -- 144-146 KTs. Stability and control offered agile, though solid, handling with a particularly well defined static pitch profile and a tightly managed dynamic series after 10-15 degree, stick-free, excursions. The aircraft remains yaw-dominated and is happiest with every turn led solidly by rudder, more so as you let this puppy slow down. A coordinated series of 45 to 45 degree reversals revealed modest pressures and control displacement, producing a low to moderate workload and some pleasant maneuvering. Cruise visibility seems a tad improved, probably by what appears to be a slightly sharper cowling.

Creature Comforts

Inside the beast, noise levels are manageable even with 300 ponies beating their brains out just a few feet ahead, though optional interior packages can mollify those issues a great deal says a Piper insider. The ride, despite Florida's sun-induced daily 'bump and grind' offers a surprisingly solid ride for a 3000+ pound airplane and the Dutch roll behavior is sedate. It's a really nice ride.

Slow-flight remains the exercise in child's play it always was... even without the older Hershey Bar wing. Flap extension produces very little trim excursion with the first notch, a noticeable pitch positive influence with the second, and a nearly full correction (pitch negative) of that with the final notch. None of the trim excursions is problematic, and a quick tweak of the trim wheel (if you haven't paid the freight for electric trim and you know that you want to...) fixes everything quickly. The bird handles down through 75 knots equally well, no matter what flap configuration. With full flaps, the 6X offers a pitch force fall-off as it nears the stall, and a light amplitude/high frequency vibration about 5 KTs before the big non-event. The amplitude of the buffet takes on some urgency as the stall occurs but roll and yaw remain fairly active (even with an obligatory force degradation) and the rudder becomes a pretty obedient ally in keeping things leveled out. As forward, CG-wise, as we were, we couldn't coax much more than a pitch buck and a lot of buffeting out of the bird but a few rudder swings showed no tendency to get ugly and the mere lessening of positive pitch pressure got us back to the flying game quite handily with little evidence of a secondary departure (not that there was one, to begin with).

Cleaned up, the 6X stalls about 5-7 KTs faster, with a slightly more pronounced buffet (in terms of amplitude), and a somewhat more aggressive pitch buck... though using the word 'aggressive' in this case is a waste of syllables in that everything remains very mild and non-threatening. A few rounds, cranking and banking at 60-70 degrees, while trying to coerce an accelerated stall to get out of hand, was a wash -- as not only does the 6X do its buffet and pitch-buck routine, but shows NO tendency to overbank or turn turtle. You're not going to need a seeing eye dog to read this thing's intentions throughout its stall or a basic unusual attitude series.

Gear Down And Welded...

Heading home, our chores in the pattern were only as complicated as the FlightSafety traffic dictated (known as the Aluminum Overcast in busier times), and a quick GUMP check got us settled in well for an 80 KT final and a round-out at 70. Full-flaps produces a good drag/deceleration combination that allowed for an easy touchdown that could well have been accomplished in under 1000 feet if we weren't playing touch and go. One nice change in the 6X over the Cherokee 6 of old is the fact that the yoke doesn't swing up (relative to the pilot) with full aft displacement, making for a more manageable flare. Cross wind chores are easily countered by aileron, though a slight crab (with a corrective rudder kick at touchdown) really brings the workload down significantly. The joy of this bird is that it marches obediently to whatever the rudder tells it to and with no small urgency. A no-flap approach is a bit flatter, and only a bit hotter, though one needs only add a few knots (if that) to give yourself the requisite safety factor (though, to be honest, it isn't really all that necessary--the 6X LOVES 70-80 KTs) and a slightly less aggressive flare will get you planted readily.

Repeat After me: SOLID

OK...  that's the CliffsNotes version (which only proves what a long-winded blowhard I can be...), but I gotta tell you, that if this is the first step out of the gate for a REALLY New Piper in a Post-9/11 world, it's a good solid effort. The aircraft is a solid value... it's GOT payload, its GOT speed, and its GOT room. It's also a nice solid (notice that word, SOLID... again) ride that is going to be a fast favorite for the obligatory parents, kids and family dog in search of a weekend adventure. Couple this with some pretty impressive developments in the manufacturing end of things (that will produce better and more cost effective aircraft), and what we think we know of Piper's immediate plans for the future (new products every six to twelve months and an eventual jet... even though it may come about as the result of a partnership or acquisition) and you have to tell those ready to plant Piper 'six feet under' that they need to go elsewhere to find bad news. Mind you, this is not your Father's Piper... this is something better, a Piper (the 6X in particular) that truly understands that this is a difficult market, with a need for tightly defined mission-capable airplanes that people will actually be able to operate and own affordably and safely. The 6X is heckuva good first step in a post-9/11 aero-unfriendly world.

The 6X is the latest offspring in a family that originally wrote the rules for the 6 place/entry-level GA market... and the 6X and it's heavy-breathing sibling, the 6XT, seem to be well-positioned to maintain (if not, expand) that role. Nicely done. More info to follow.



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