Which is better, the JetPROP or the Piper Meridian? As an active instructor in the PA46 world, this proves to be one of the most debatable topics and one of the questions I hear most often.
I’ll first relate that they are singularly outstanding airplanes, and I really appreciate attributes in both. But there are also key differences, and a prudent buyer should be aware of those differences before making a purchase.
Let’s review the similarities first. Both airplanes offer the same size cabin, cruise at about 260 KTAS, achieve a range of around 750 nm, and climb to FL270 from a sea-level airport in about 20 minutes. Both have a “bulletproof” engine and see a similar acquisition cost for an equivalently equipped model. They are special airplanes well-matched for the owner who wants turbine reliability and power, pressurization and a great platform for true IFR flying. The differences between the two airplanes center around three things: engine, baggage space and operational costs.
The JetPROP was introduced in the late 1990s and was a huge hit from the beginning. It is a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) that is applied to a piston PA46 (usually a Mirage). The piston engine is removed, along with nearly everything firewall-forward, and a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 is installed (usually a PT6-35). The result is a phenomenal increase in climb rate and speed. Where the Mirage can have trouble climbing at 600 fpm (depending upon the density altitude and weight), the JetPROP can climb around 1,800 fpm, sometimes more. The average Mirage cruise speed is usually about 200 KTAS, but the JetPROP cruise can reach 260 KTAS easily. The marketplace took notice of the stellar performance of the JetPROP, and there are now more than 330 JetPROP conversions. It is easily one of the most trusted and popular conversions in the market.
When the JetPROP was introduced, Piper Aircraft also took notice. They were already eying the potential of a turbine PA46, but when the JetPROP released, Piper really amped up the research and development to create the Meridian. The Meridian has since evolved into a fabulous platform for the owner-pilot who wants a from-the-factory airplane.
Comparing the Systems
Since the JetPROP is a conversion, some systems heavily depend upon the systems that were original in the piston PA46 – systems that can sometimes be complex and require a pilot who is knowledgeable of their intricacies. For instance, the JetPROP has a complex fuel system that requires the pilot to change the fuel lever to level the fuel from right to left. Also, the heating system has four separate heat controls and the intake system has an ice door that must be managed. The systems are not hard to operate once trained, but they cannot be mismanaged or trouble awaits.
With the Meridian, Piper wanted to make a turbine that is easy for the pilot to manage, with systems requiring little or no management at all. As a comparison, the Meridian fuel system is ridiculously simple and requires no pilot input for the whole flight. There is no ice door to manage, and the cabin heating is a rheostat that simply requires turning to adjust the temperature. I’d attest that Piper did a great job of reviewing every system to make operations as pilot-friendly and straightforward as possible.
I also think the Meridian offers better safety systems as compared to the JetPROP. The wing deice boots are much larger and more effective, the cabin altitude warning system is far more robust, and there’s not a prop lever to manage.
But while simplicity and safety abound in the Meridian, it comes at a cost. Because there is no ice door, effectively the ice protection is always “ON.” So, the Meridian burns more fuel in climb and cruise. It even burns more fuel just sitting on the ground idling. A Meridian will burn more than 20 gph just sitting at idle on the ground. It has a bigger engine and bigger costs more.
The PT6-42A bolted on the Meridian is what I call the “big block” PT6. In fact, the -42A engine is the smallest of the big-block PT6s, and the -35 is the biggest of the small block PT6s. The -35 actually produces more power (560 hp) than the -42A (500 hp), but the -42A will produce 500 horsepower up to a higher altitude, and the JetPROP loses power as altitude is increased. This translates to an engine that is never ITT limited at altitude, so the pilot need only manage the torque as a climb progresses. In the JetPROP, the pilot will manage both torque and ITT as the climb progresses.
To me, one of the biggest advantages of the JetPROP is the nose baggage compartment. The Mirage has a nice baggage area that remains in a JetPROP, whereas the Meridian offers no nose baggage area at all. I normally don’t put very much in the nose baggage, but it is nice to have a place to put smaller items that may be less-than-comfortable to put into the cabin such as fuel strainers, rags to check oil and various cleaners.
So, which P46T should you purchase? There are two distinct buyers for each. First, if you are a from-the-factory kind of pilot, preferring an airplane not modified by a large STC, then the Meridian is for you. But, if you are driven by efficiency and don’t mind an STC-airplane, then the JetPROP is a consideration. JetPROP owners tend to be pilots who revel in having the most efficient airplane. A -35 JetPROP will cruise with a fuel burn of about 32 gph, while a Meridian is going to burn 39 gph for the same speed.
Answer this question: Would you rather own a showroom-condition, numbers-correct, low-mileage, stunning 1963 Corvette Stingray Split-Window Coupe; or a brand-new, decked-out, gorgeous 2020 Corvette? Both will cost you about the same to buy in like-new condition, but they will drive completely different. The 1963 Corvette will have a small block V8, standard-shift transmission, timeless good looks and it’ll probably appreciate as the years progress. Whereas, the 2020 Corvette will have the best-of-the-best electronics, incredible creature comforts, automatic transmission and the biggest engine Chevy could find.
If you are leaning toward the 1963 Corvette, then chances are you would want a JetPROP. You’ll say that changing fuel tanks, turning the ice door on and off and pushing buttons to adjust the heat is no problem for the acquisition and fuel to be gained. Driving a standard transmission is not harder than an automatic transmission once you know what you are doing. Plus, the standard gives the driver driving options, right?
Or, if you like the sounds of the 2020 Corvette then you are probably a Meridian buyer. To know you have improved safety gadgets, advanced avionics and a newer airplane that is likely to have smaller maintenance costs trumps any efficiency issues that may arise in your mind.
The cool part to me is that I like both a 1963 and a 2020 Corvette. And I like both the JetPROP and the Meridian. Piper has sold nearly 600 Meridian/M500 airframes, so they’ve clearly got a good product. And the JetPROP continues to sell strongly with JetPROP owners as some of the most fanatical about their steeds, often owning their airplane for decades, not years.
Whichever you choose, you cannot go wrong. They are both fabulous platforms and great cross-country performers. I’m excited every time I get the chance to fly one, and I fly one or both nearly every day. The P46T, whether a JetPROP or a Meridian, is simply a great airplane.