Why Pistons Endure
I took a ride over to Vero Beach on Friday to visit with Piper and fly the new Matrix for a flight review. During the course of that trial, Piper's chief pilot, Bart Jones and I, got to talking about the place of piston engines in the current market and why the technology is so persistent.
It's an easy answer. Nothing works better or more efficiently for small airplanes than piston engines. Jones has been around Piper for more than 20 years and has flown everything from Cheyennes to Meridians to all the piston models. Despite hours of turbine time and often the choice of either, he likes piston-engine aircraft for the same reason most of us do. They're familiar, we know how to make them work and they just get the job done at affordable cost. Much has been made of single-lever control but I noticed in flying the Matrix the prop and mixture are just transparent to me. They're like the clutch in my truck—operated by autonomic muscle memory. Dream as we might about small, fuel-efficient turbines for light aircraft, these aren't likely to happen for the foreseeable future unless the laws of thermodynamics are bent in favor of higher efficiency.
When Piper announced the Matrix in 2007, the aviation press brain trust figured they were nuts. Who was going to buy a non-pressurized Mirage? A lot of owners stepping up from Cirrus SR22s it turned out, once again demonstrating that journalism and marketing exist in separate universes. Matrix buyers saw something the rest of us didn't. Motoring along at 10,000 to 12,000 feet at 180 knots without oxygen in a comfortable cabin is a nice way to travel. With four people, two four-hour legs will put you half way across the continent. The Matrix can overtop weather if it has to, but Jones told me he usually doesn't bother, preferring to avoid the cannulas and masks if possible. I'm not sure I'd drag an airplane into the 20s now either, although there was a time when I felt just the opposite.
If Continental pulls off a 350-HP diesel, it could be somewhat transformational for an airplane like the Matrix. With 30 percent better fuel economy, an owner could tanker a lesser fuel load and pick up more payload or translate that into greater range with the same payload. I suspect more people will opt for the payload rather than the range. Four hours in any light aircraft is more than enough for all but the hardiest souls and they're not likely to be carrying passengers who aren't equally robust. (In any case, the Matrix is one of the few light aircraft with a crew relief tube.)
Gutless in Milwaukee
"Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to need your cooperation today. The flight is completely full and in order for everyone to have room to place their baggage in the overhead bins, we're asking you to place only one item in the overhead and the other under the seat in front of you."
I fear no contradiction in saying that the above is the most widely ignored instruction in all of aviation. It ranks right alongside "the check is in the mail" and "I know I put the gear down," for utter, futile meaninglessness. Yet, knowing full well that it will be profoundly ignored, cabin and flight crews say it a million times a day.
I think I may be among maybe five people on the entire planet who actually follow the requested practice because even though I am ill-tempered, foul-mouthed and fundamentally anti-social, I still like to think of myself as courteous to my fellow man. So I'm the guy that gets on the airplane near the end of the boarding process, only to find the selfish $#@^s who boarded before me, have put all their stuff in the overhead so they'll have an expanse of nice comfy footroom and the cabin crew has to disrupt the whole show to find a spot for my roll aboard, probably in the baggage bay.
So on a recent Air Tran flight—I'm starting to like this airline—I was presented with an opportunity to stuff it to the flaming $#@^s who have been doing this to me for years. For an extra $10, Air Tran will put you in Zone 2 boarding which these days is really near to the top of the boarding order. It's really a pretty good deal.
There were barely a dozen people on the airplane and when I got to my seat, the overhead was wide open for my two bags. Up goes the roll aboard, up goes the backpack and then…I couldn't do it! Even though there would be no consequences for hogging more than my share of space and inconveniencing my fellow travelers, I couldn't muster the will to do it. Even little wrongs are still wrongs. Taking only a little more than you deserve is still taking too much.
Sigh. All I can say is thanks Mom and Dad. You musta wired me right.