Photo Courtesy of Clint Goff
Let’s say you need a cross-country machine that will carry you, three others and bags to the destination with style, safety and speed. You’ve been flying for a while now, have a pilot’s license and instrument rating, filled your first logbook, started the second, and are ready to move up. What started as an expensive hobby with little practicality for actually going somewhere with any questionable weather is being viewed in a new light. You now possess the complete package of skills, credentialing, desire and a $750,000 budget to buy and fly an airplane with an abundance of capability. Sound familiar?
I get calls from this pilot frequently. As an active instructor in the owner-flown market, I am able to fly a lot of cool airplanes and offer no shortage of opinions. In fact, helping this type of pilot is one of the most satisfying aspects of my scope of work. Most of these pilots have already done a lot of homework, scouring Trade-a-Plane and talking with their local pilot community. But, when you are ready to stroke a three-quarter-million dollar check, you don’t want to make a mistake. Hence, I get lots of phone calls about this particular move up.
Interestingly, when pilots come to me seeking advice on their next airplane, they often have two very different airplanes on their radar: the Piper Meridian and the Cirrus SR22T. Very different but commonly contrasted by potential buyers. I’ve also received an unusually high number of email requests from readers of this magazine to compare the two airplanes. By the way, I really do love getting feedback from readers of my articles! This article is proof that Twin & Turbine will respond to their readers’ requests.
The Piper Meridian is a six-place, aluminum construction, turbine, pressurized, retractable gear airplane. The Cirrus SR22T is a four-place, composite construction, piston, non-pressurized, fixed-gear airplane. You’d think these two airplanes would never end up on the same want list, but they do. Why? They are both super cross-country machines that attract buyers who want the latest and greatest avionics, who will not compromise on safety, and who want something newer. They both accomplish the same mission, albeit with a few differences.
The Meridian first came out in 2001 as the first turbine ever created by Piper Aircraft. Based on the successful Malibu/Mirage airframe, which was built explicitly with pressurization in mind, the Meridian was a natural progression upward for the piston pilot who wanted to go higher and faster. With cabin-class seating, a huge panel for all the latest gadgets and the bulletproof PT6 turbine engine up front, the Meridian is a fabulous airplane. The Meridian will cruise at FL280 at an average of 265 KTAS and burn 39 gallons of jet fuel each hour. The no-wind range of a Meridian with full fuel tanks is about 750 nm (with reserves). It is comfortable, quiet and a real performer.
Today, the earlier Meridians are regularly trading at an average of about $750k. An early 2001 Meridian with no upgrades, original avionics and average airframe/engine times will trade for just under $650k. As you add upgrades, paint, updated interior and new avionics, the trading price will go up. The original Meridian shipped from the factory with an admittedly inferior panel. These original panels are nearly obsolete today as they are not WAAS functional or ADS-B compliant, and factory support is nearly non-existent. But, the Meridian is such a good airframe that many of the avionics manufacturers have targeted the Meridian as an airframe to devote their research dollars. Many of these airframes have had their entire panel torn out and refitted with some spectacular boxes. Several are upgraded to the “Dual G500TXi/Dual G750” panel which has tremendous functionality and appeal.
The new Engine Information System (EIS) from Garmin was recently approved for the Meridian. The autopilot in the Meridian is usually a trustworthy S-TEC 1500, or many have been upgraded to the safety-minded S-TEC 3100. Bottom line, an early Meridian bought today can have a panel with all of the safety features found on the newest of airframes. So, a buyer with a $750k budget can move up into the turbine world and enjoy all the benefits that a turbine and pressurization provide.
Who is this pilot who wants to burn turbine fuel? The same one who is looking at the Cirrus SR22T-G6.
The Cirrus SR22T is often contrasted with the bigger, faster, stronger turbines because it is a downright classy, super functional, and progressive airplane. The SR22 offers great looks, a smooth ride, an impressive safety record and all the gadgets.
The avionics suite in the latest version of the SR22T, the G6 model, is the best of the best. The whole cockpit is dominated by the Garmin Perspective-Plus avionics suite packed full of functionality. Huge, clear and colorful screens keep the pilot situationally aware and sometimes flat-out entertained. If you get tired of looking at the real world fly by, you can see it in either synthetic vision or use the infrared camera. Operating the Garmin Perspective-Plus never ceases to amaze me.
And that parachute…what a brilliant idea. Even if you don’t believe all the hype about how many true “saves” the BRS airframe parachute has recorded (more than 435 as of this printing), it is a great sales tool. Countless SR22T aircraft have been sold because the BRS made the owner feel comfortable about sitting behind a piston engine. Whether or not 435 “saves” have occurred or not is not the point; The point is that some lives have assuredly been saved, and the pilot who wants an SR22T G6 is very interested in safety.
The cruise speed in the Cirrus will be dependent upon altitude and exact version (turbocharged or non-turbocharged), but a good average would be 180 KIAS with a 16.5 gph fuel burn. Yes, you can go higher and faster and stick O2 tubes up your nose, but who likes to do that? Most Cirrus pilots fly at an altitude that is comfortable for the passengers, and as the altitude goes down, so does the cruise speeds. To hit anywhere near the advertised 200 KTAS cruise speeds, you’ll be in the flight levels sucking O2. Even so, any Cirrus is a good cross-country machine, with a range of 1,000 nm or greater with full fuel.
The Cirrus is certainly going to be cheaper to operate. With a fixed gear, the chance of a gear-up landing is eliminated, so insurance costs of a Cirrus will be about half of that of a comparably priced Meridian. If you are a 1,000-hour instrument-rated, middle-age pilot with no accidents or incidents, you’ll write a check for about $5k for your annual premium to ensure $750k worth of airplane. The same coverage in a Meridian will cost you north of $12k. There’ll be differences in premium with age, experience, flight time and other variables, but plan on insurance for the Meridian to be more expensive.
I think the Meridian is a vastly better icing platform. Wing deice boots beat weeping wings any day. The deice fluid is messy, detracts from useful load, and deice fluid can be consumed to a point of exhaustion in flight. The Meridian has a more robust icing platform along with the ability to climb to the higher flight levels, which is often too cold for airframe icing to occur. Plus, the additional raw power of the Meridian provides a good escape mechanism. If I’m in icing in any airplane, I want an exit strategy and lots of additional thrust to give me options. Although the Cirrus is a FIKI airplane, the Meridian is far more robust.
Mission & Training
Even though the Meridian has two more seats, rarely will the Meridian operate with more than four people onboard. The useful load of the Meridian with full fuel is only about three to four people and bags (depending upon the size of the occupants), so it should be construed by a buyer to be an “easy four-place airplane” and an “occasional six-person airplane.”
The Cirrus SR22T-G6 will also carry the four people and bags, but like the Meridian, it will not carry that load with full fuel. But, with the low fuel burn provided by lean-of-peak (LOP) operations, a little bit of fuel goes a long way. A Cirrus SR22T will carry two mid-sized adults and bags and full fuel, but if you want to carry more people, you’ll swap fuel to keep the takeoff weight under control. And, though the Meridian will burn more fuel, it goes much faster and jet fuel is cheaper to operate. Even so, the fuel costs in the Meridian will be more, but it does more with that fuel burn. Speed is addictive, and the Meridian has lots more speed.
You might want to go for a Cirrus SR22T-G6 if 80 percent of your missions are of shorter duration. It is no secret (but few owners seem to be able to grasp the fact) that speed translates into big differences on long trips but is inconsequential on the short trips. If you fly a 150 nm trip, the Cirrus will more than likely show up only a few minutes later than the Meridian. And, the Meridian will gobble the fuel on what will probably be a low altitude flight. I’ve got a Cirrus client in Texas who owns car dealerships around the state, most being within 200 nm of her home airport. She’s considered upgrading to a Meridian, but the Cirrus does such a good job on those short trips that it just doesn’t make sense to upgrade, even though she could afford the upgrade easily.
Concerning training, the Meridian will require more days and more money to complete the training. A typical initial training event in a Meridian will be four to five days and cost more than $6k. Cirrus has one of the most envied training programs in the new airplane industry, with Cirrus Standardization Instructor Pilots (CSIPs) all over the country. Initial training in a SR22T will certainly cost less and take less time. The systems on a SR22T-G6 are simply less complex and take less time to learn.
Age & Experience
I frequently fly with pilots with more money than flight experience. I’ve seen 300-hour pilots attempt to move up to a Meridian. Sometimes this does not go well. The insurance underwriter will often add huge training requirements to the policy and make the premiums gargantuan to buoy their risk. Last year I had a client who had a training requirement of 100 hours of dual instruction and a first-year premium of $35k. We were able to complete the training requirement, but the cost to that owner was substantial. We see 50-hour initial training requirements in the Meridian quite regularly.
On the flip side of this equation, I’ve trained a 300-hour pilot in a Meridian and had it go extremely well. This pilot had an instrument rating, tailwheel experience, a commercial pilot license, and he wrote a well-worded letter to the aviation underwriters to explain his need, training desires and commitment to operational safety. The insurance provider helped this pilot and offered a really good policy at a reasonable rate. My point? A pilot needs to be able to look introspectively and determine if the pilot ability exists. An early jump to a turbine might be very doable for you with minimal experience, but most cannot easily make the jump. If you are a low-time pilot, a year or two in the Cirrus SR22T-G6 might be the right answer.
There’s another demographic that might want to consider the Cirrus SR22T-G6 over the Meridian: pilots over 70 years of age. It is no secret that the pendulum has swung from the good ole days of insurance being available and cheap to the place we are today, where insurance is expensive, hard to bind, and not for the marginalized. The marginalized are those who have a previous claim or accident, those with limited experience, and those over 70 years of age. Insurance companies are thinning their portfolios in an effort to curtail losses, removing those who have the greatest potential of a claim.
The biggest loser in this magic trick is the pilot who has been an excellent pilot for decades but has tripped over the age of 70, and now insurance companies are shunning providing insurance. Simply put, it is easier to get insurance in the Cirrus, and it could be the better platform for the pilot who is entering the twilight years of piloting. I don’t mean to offend anyone with this point, but I think I’m right. The pendulum will swing back to affordable and available insurance someday, but for now, it is just hard on anyone over 70 years of age.
The good news for potential owners of either of these airplanes is that they are both super-sweet airplanes. They are both still being made today (which means parts and support are excellent), they have stunning good looks, and they both have a proven track record of safety. If I were to open my hangar door to either of these airplanes, there’d be a big smile on my face. So, consider closely your station in life, your mission, your budget, and your desire to fly a best-of-breed airplane.