Piper Bets Big On Envelope Protection

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Viewed from over here in the cheap seats, Piper’s revelation this week that it’s retooling its M-Class line is more significant than it looks for two reasons I can think of: business/marketing savvy and for a clear signal on where general aviation autoflight might be going.

I’ve been watching Piper’s sales numbers for 10 years and conclude that it might be a textbook example of how a modern light aircraft manufacturer can survive. The company hasn’t favored me with a look at its P&L, but the sharks don’t appear to be circling so I’m going to assume it’s in the black or at least throwing off value sufficient to keep its investors happy. That may be the best one can expect these days.  It’s also a classic example of low-volume/high mix in the way that Lycoming and Continental are.

In 2014, according to GAMA data, Piper sold three Warriors, 45 Archers, eight Arrows, 10 Senecas, 23 Seminoles, 37 Mirages, 11 Matrices and 36 Meridians. That’s a total of 172 aircraft and down a little from 2013’s total of 188 aircraft. Anyone familiar with serial production will tell you that this much variety at low volume is challenging to build profitably and requires unrelenting cost control. If Piper’s persistent market presence suggests they’ve got this knocked, bully for them. Note that nearly half of all the airplanes produced are the high-margin M-Class—the Mirage, Matrix and Meridian. If there’s a market sweet spot for a low-volume manufacturer, I’ll bet that’s pretty close to it, even if the total numbers aren’t that impressive.

During the past seven years, Piper has moved an average of 38 Meridians a year and 30 Mirages. Those aren’t huge numbers, but then these are high six-figure or million-dollar-plus airplanes so it’s reasonable to expect that they have a nice margin to offset the rather more modest numbers on an Archer or an Arrow. Piper took a hit on the M-Class airplanes during the financial meltdown, but even so, it was still selling them. Volumes have recovered but not quite to the salad days of 2007 and 2008, when Piper sold more than 50 Meridians.

Piper has also been fairly canny about market realities. I thought its 2011 decision to cancel the PiperJet was one of the smartest I’ve seen an aviation company make. Light jet cert programs have proven to be nightmarish money burners with limited market legs. I wonder if Diamond wishes it had followed Piper’s lead. Maybe Cirrus has had similar thoughts. This week, Piper did another thing that looks smart to me and that might only occur to us pixel-pushing wretches in the media. It announced its new product revisions ahead of Sun ‘n Fun, not at Sun ‘n Fun. Finally, a company realizes that buzz is generated online, not at physical shows and press conferences. Having announced early, they’ll get attention at Aero, which opens Wednesday, and at Sun ‘n Fun next week. People going to those shows will put Piper’s booth on the to-do list. Second-day media coverage at the shows will sustain the interest. Marcomm folks (and CEOs enthralled with press conferences), take note. This is how it should work.

As for the airplanes, clearly Piper is looking to refresh the line and maybe find some step-up/trade-in buyers or siphon some sales for buyers shopping the TBM or a Mirage conversion. But there’s something else going on here, too, and it’s the confluence of avionics capability as a metric of airplane capability and value. Increasingly, what’s in the panel matters as much as what’s in front of the firewall; not for nothing are new 172s called G1000 Skyhawks.

As we reported in this week’s news story, the new M600 will have more power than the original Meridian—now renamed the Meridian M500—and a redesigned wing carrying more fuel. Piper gives the speeds as similar, at 260 knots max cruise, and a 1200-pound payload for the M600. I’ll get to a detailed comparison when I’ve seen the POHs, but at a glance, it looks like the M600’s performance edge is a bit of additional range and maybe some payload flexibility. It’s not going to outrun a TBM nor outhaul a PC-12.

The draw? A cutting-edge avionics package. That would be the new Garmin G3000, which we’ve reported on previously. I say “new” advisedly; it was announced six years ago. Garmin said from the beginning that this system would incorporate some version of its Electronic Stability and Protection system (ESP) that’s basically a background routine that automatically intervenes if the pilot gets the aircraft to near or outside of its operating envelope. When introduced, Garmin said ESP would have overspeed envelope protection and although I don’t recall them saying then it would have underspeed capability too, the version in the M600 will have that as part of a general EFIS technology upgrade that’s been available on new G1000s since 2010. It will be capable of avoiding stall angle of attack in circumstances where the pilot has ham-fisted the throttle and gotten too slow. I’m sure it will be festooned with all sorts of alarms and cautions, too.

Raising cockpit Nannyism to the next level is hypoxia envelope protection, which is basically an aviation version of the dead man’s switch found in trains. This is not new with the G3000, either. Cirrus announced it in Perspective-equipped aircraft in 2010. In the new Piper aircraft, it’s simply combined with larger displays driven by touchscreens. When the aircraft is on autopilot, if the suite detects that the pilot isn’t engaged because no controls have been touched or radio traffic transmitted, it will assume a hypoxic non-response and automatically descend the airplane (on autopilot) to a safe altitude. This is what I call “between-the-ears” safety appeal. It’s comfort factor.

Hypoxia is responsible for an unknown number of accidents. Some that appear to be caused by something else might have been hypoxia. Or not. But there have been enough high-profile hypoxic accidents—most recently the TBM 900 accident that terminated near Jamaica and an SR22 fatal during the same week last year—that this capability may have definite appeal to the buyers of these airplanes. Or the spouses of the buyers.

In a way, this represents small GA aircraft trending toward fly-by-wire control laws without actually having fly by wire, even though that capability is in the works too. But do such things represent an overall improvement in safety? In perceived safety, yes. In actual safety, who knows? While hypoxic accidents are an uncertain percentage of the total, they’re occasionally the ones that make the evening news. But loss of control of some kind is a leading cause of fatal accidents and if such protective systems prevent a handful of those a year, we’re making progress. It would be silly to argue that real men don’t need envelope protection. Frankly, I’ll take all the help I can get since it’s abundantly clear that the training cudgel can do only so much.

In totality, the trend toward angle-of-attack indicators and autopilot or servo-based envelope protection represents two things: a technologically based solution to a genuine problem and something to sell pilots because modern digital processing has made it possible to build and certify such capability. That last bit is hardly trivial; the people who buy high-dollar airplanes—or maybe any airplanes—like gadgets and the more cutting edge, the better. If it has “safety” attached to it, better still.

That is, in part, why Cirrus has been so successful. The appeal of CAPS has, in my view, sold a lot of airplanes for Cirrus. But it has taken the better part of 20 years for Cirrus and owners to pull things together and capitalize on the airplanes’ inherent safety features enough to demonstrate better than a just-average accident rate. I don’t know if envelope protection will require a similar gestation period. Newer Cirrus aircraft do have it, but I haven’t isolated those accident numbers. And there is a tradeoff of sorts. The emergency descent feature works irrespective of terrain or traffic considerations; it’s just going to descend. Fortunately, there’s not too much terrain in U.S. that’s above its lowest descent limits.

As for single-engine turboprops, the accident rate doesn’t appear to be particularly high, perhaps because the pilots who fly them tend to be experienced and insurance companies require a tad more training for an owner looking for two million smooth on a $2.5 million airplane. But I’m sure they would rather insure an airplane with envelope protection than one without it.

Comments (14)

Your analysis that a pre-airshow public announcement is a smart way to do business fits my paradigm exactly. For almost a month, my Sun-N-Fun 'action list' has been sitting next to my laptop. As a serious avionics shopper this year, I zeroed in on last weeks AEA announcements and added still more items to it. Avweb's coverage was helpful. Having to discover new equipment during a show or -- worse -- discovering that there was something I should have looked at after I get home isn't a very good way to do business. Here's a personal example.

Being one of the "gadget guys" you described, I spend a lot of time in the four large vendor hangars at Airventure every year. I like to travel alone and slowly comb the aisles ... day after day. Last year, camped out and attending all week, I must have walked past Arpareo's booth a half dozen times and not noticed their ESG transponder display. Only because no one was standing in front of their small display case on one pass did I happen to notice and zero in on it. Had I known about it in advance, it would have been at the top of my priority list. This isn't quite as prominent an example as an "M" class buyer but -- still -- exemplifies your premise. Good comment.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 14, 2015 3:07 AM    Report this comment

My takeaway is that the flight systems in question are more for the professional pilot (small market) than for the amateur pilot (large market). I'd guess that this explains why Piper's scantly market arena continues to shrink. Arguably, the trend is industry wide. Aircraft manufacturers persist on increasing system complexity, suggesting fantasies of fly-by-wire technology, where the need for extensive pilot expertise is of absolutely necessary importance. Plainly, to fly these things, either you are thoroughly effective, current and proficient (smaller than small market) or you die.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 14, 2015 7:26 AM    Report this comment

"suggesting fantasies of fly-by-wire technology, where the need for extensive pilot expertise is of absolutely necessary importance."

Isn't that backwards? FBW should make flying the aircraft easier, not harder, especially if it includes envelope protection. Fly-by-wire need not mean a more complicated FMS (or even the need for any kind of FMS). And I suppose if one is considering an aircraft as expensive and capable as an M-class, the additional cost of this equipment is insignificant.

This isn't to say I necessarily agree with the increasing complexity of otherwise simple aircraft (such as the glass-panel LSAs out there). But on the other hand, how much would be saved by ripping out the fancy computer screens and instead put in Piper Cub-basic instrumentation?

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 14, 2015 8:39 AM    Report this comment

"... there is a tradeoff of sorts. The emergency descent feature works irrespective of terrain or traffic considerations; it's just going to descend."

This is exactly the sort of one-trick-pony thinking that gives "automation" a bad reputation. I sure as Hell wouldn't want to be a Garmin attorney who had to explain to a jury why their multiple-six-figure box flew the plaintiffs' loved ones into the side of a mountain that their box "knew" was there.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 14, 2015 9:41 AM    Report this comment

Gary, it should be backwards but it is not. Complexity leads to perplexicity. I operated several G1000s and Avidyne Entegra Glass panels and consistently flew accumulating over 1200 hours in them. I was current and proficient then. Now, I infrequently fly a Cirrus SR22 and find a strong need to prepare myself much more seriously than when jumping from one "simple" round dial aircraft to another.

On envelope protection.

A graphic display accurately indicating where the aircraft position is relative to the "safe" envelope is, IMO, all that is needed. KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 14, 2015 10:43 AM    Report this comment

Paul - regarding the hypoxia protection feature, are you certain the system simply takes the aircraft down to a set altitude regardless of terrain below? That seems quite odd considering the existing capability of GPS navigators to map terrain and provide, at a minimum, visual and aural terrain warnings.

How hard could it be to have the hypoxia protection system direct the aircraft to the nearest sustained low terrain (i.e., not a deep mountain valley between high peaks) and maintain 2,000 ft. AGL while heading for a non-impaired altitude? Seems like a very easy task for a FBW system with envelope protection.

In any event, given the advances in avionics technology in recent years, and given the existence of auto-land systems in commercial airliners capable of handling Cat III ILS approaches for many years now, it also seems odd that some high end aircraft don't already have fully autonomous flight available. It could be sold as a form of "flight protection" that in the event of pilot incapacitation or lack of attention, the ship takes over and completes the flight, including digital communications to ATC. Program in your entire flight and let the aircraft handle itself whenever the human pilot isn't actually manipulating the controls.

Posted by: Duane Truitt | April 14, 2015 11:01 AM    Report this comment

I don't know if this is just a product of being from a younger generation, or because of an innate aptitude, or because I've been working with advanced avionics and systems for a living for ten years... but I flew an RV-6 with bare-bones VFR steam gauges for 10 years before it was upgraded to a Skyview. Granted, I don't fly IFR, but I don't find the airplane any harder or more complex to operate than before; the only time I have to touch the Skyview on a normal local flight is to change the altimeter setting (which you would do on any altimeter) and maybe zoom the map in and out. The part that I really have to think about is engine management--that is, having to babysit the engine and manually adjust the fuel-air mixture.

It does amuse me that so many of those who "just want a simple airplane" and insist on not wanting to fiddle with knobs and settings in the cockpit just to fly the airplane, are the same ones who would fight to keep the mixture and carb heat knobs that they have to fiddle with just to keep the engine running.

Posted by: Bob Martin | April 14, 2015 11:37 AM    Report this comment

Envelope protection is just one of those great ad on features that will most likely save lives. I think having some sort of software/servo to keep the airplane in a safe mode will be interesting to track. Will it make GA safer? Time will tell, we can still manage to find ways to not keep flying the airplane.

Airbus Industries has had a envelope protection via it's fly by wire control system whereby limited bank angles and limited pitch can be achieved. However, we have seen loss of control without flying the airplane using primary instrument flying techniques.

Here is my take, written several years ago.


Posted by: Michael Dempsey | April 14, 2015 1:56 PM    Report this comment

There is/was another airplane with built-in envelope protection (at least for the underspeed side); it was called the Ercoupe. With no rudder pedals and deemed "unspinnable", it was supposed to keep licensed passengers-in-command that were numb to the training cudgel from killing themselves along with their non-licensed passengers. It was conveniently priced at under a million dollars. And glass panel? That would be the big picture-window in the FBO lobby that faces the ramp!

Posted by: A Richie | April 14, 2015 2:41 PM    Report this comment

"...it also seems odd that some high end aircraft don't already have fully autonomous flight available. It could be sold as a form of "flight protection" that in the event of pilot incapacitation or lack of attention, the ship takes over and completes the flight, including digital communications to ATC. Program in your entire flight and let the aircraft handle itself whenever the human pilot isn't actually manipulating the controls."

Duane: I have to ask, what purpose would the onboard human pilot serve, if the [box] had the authority to assume control and execute the entire mission, end-to-end, when - in the box's programmed opinion - the onboard human pilot demonstrated an incapacity to operate the aircraft safely? This is where "capability" intersects with "authority." That's the essence of autonomous control.

You may assert that "the human is in control," but s/he's really not - not if/when the box is given the authority to decide when the pilot is incapable. By attempting to put a human in the control loop, all you've done is increase the system's complexity by an order of magnitude, and jeopardize the inherent safety advantages of an autonomous system. Why would anyone do that?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 14, 2015 5:14 PM    Report this comment

"Airbus...the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations in Madrid on Saturday that pilot training should be revamped to put more emphasis on hand flying."

Forget "fully autonomous flight" and the guard dog. Humans may be more effective than fly-by-wire gadgetry. And it's cheaper too. The "Envelope protection" methodology has been upgraded to two dope slaps rather than one.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 14, 2015 11:20 PM    Report this comment

Tom - The main reason to straddle betwixt the boat and the dock, as it were, on phasing in autonomous flight is that it is a change in paradigm that does not and will not occur instantly. People today expect to be in charge of the machines, not the machines to be in charge. It will take a generation perhaps before pilots are willing to become passengers, or (as regulators and insurers) are willing to allow other people to become passengers who until now have been pilots in command

It will be a transitional affair, I think, starting small with, as I described above, autonomous flight already serving mainly as backup to an inactive PIC (exactly as does the new Piper "hypoxia recovery" system in the M600).

The M600 also includes an auto-missed approach system too, though it still requires the pilot to add power manually. Later on, perhaps not much later on (a year or two?) we'll probably see auto-throttles in high end GA aircraft like the M600, and a full auto-missed approach system. That technology is decades old in airliners, so really it's only a matter of another existing gizmo being certified in a light aircraft.

Finally - maybe half a decade to a decade out, we may start getting into mostly-autonomous flight but still requiring a licensed/current PIC available in the cockpit. Then maybe two decades or more for fully-autonomous flight, but only on the most capable light aircraft like the M600 or its equivalents by other manufacturers. And then even more time before this technology drops down-market to the four place piston singles.

Maybe my timeline here is off by a few years, but it is going to be incremental - even though all the technology already exists today and is already producible at economically feasible costs, especially if the Part 23 reforms open up the competitive pipeline. With the latter, perhaps the transformation could be accelerated such that we're going to see all of the above in a mere decade or so. I'm impatient for this, as I expect you are, Tom.

Meanwhile bugsmashers will still be able to climb in their Super Cubs and 172s and kitplanes and use only round gages to get their $100 hamburgers or go sightseeing to their hearts' delights. The vision of autonomous flight is going to be mostly for serious transportation flyers looking to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently and as safely as achievable.

Posted by: Duane Truitt | April 15, 2015 6:07 AM    Report this comment


"Phasing in" autonomous flight is akin to phasing in pregnancy. You either are, or you aren't (pregnant or autonomous). Thomas Edison used to joke that, when he set out to invent the electric light bulb, it was not his intention to improve the candle. Autonomous flight control systems are not improved autopilots. They're completely, fundamentally, different. Many pilots don't understand that. I've concluded that even more don't WANT to understand that.

But the fundamental, existential difference is that in a truly autonomous system, there is absolutely no provision made for the input of third-party opinion into the runtime. None. The closest you get, is the ability to convey requests to the autonomous system, in real time. But any truly autonomous system has complete authority to decide whether and how to comply with any requests.

Incremental half-measures like the ones you describe ultimately are both self-contradictory and mutually exclusive. They also would be vastly more complex than a straight-up autonomous system. Like two pilots fighting each other via dual controls (sound familiar?), the end results always would satisfy no one. In the end, only one "pilot" can be in control.

When I was young (yes, I once was), I had to reassure my trembling grandmother that she would survive a journey with me, aboard a high-rise elevator that had no human operator. Deja vu.

"The vision of autonomous flight is going to be mostly for serious transportation flyers looking to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently and as safely as achievable." Pretty much. And that's where I foresee the growth coming to GA. Meanwhile, there always will be guys like us who will want to serendipitously bore a crooked hole in the sky on a sunny afternoon. I fully support retaining the autonomy to do exactly that - for as long as I can.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 15, 2015 12:12 PM    Report this comment

With the recent interest in hypoxia protection, lets hope the FAA does not latch onto that one as they did for sleep apnea or we will all be wearing oxygen masks full time. Or maybe CPAPs with oxygen injection, yeah that's the ticket...

Posted by: A Richie | April 15, 2015 2:53 PM    Report this comment

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