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Thu, Apr 03, 2003

New Piper's New Airplanes

Of course, we had the company's press releases all lined up for you in yesterday's ANN; but our reporters on the ground at SnF dug deeper, to bring you more information, on the new 6X and turbocharged 6XT.

Here is their story:

New Piper's President, Chuck Suma (right), told us that the company did some heavy soul-searching recently, to see if they could build what the market's looking for.

As Piper's Director of Marketing and Sales, Molly Martin Pearce, told us, "There's not been a show I've attended, when people haven't asked me when we're bringing back the Cherokee Six."

Suma said the market is showing Piper that, "As people transition out of 4-place aircraft into 6-place, they're looking for an airplane with a reasonable price." He went on to say that they also wanted reasonable operating and overhead costs, including insurance.

The Saratoga is perfectly-good airplane, like a spiffed-up, faster big brother to that Cherokee Six, but it has that retractable gear -- and that means higher maintenance costs, and higher insurance costs. Why not, Piper insiders reasoned, build a stiff-leg Saratoga?

The fact that there once was a short run of fixed-gear Saratogas some twenty-plus years ago, merely fanned their enthusiasm. Most of the requisite parts were already available in the parts bins; the parts had already been certified; and there has been a lot of progress since then, that could be incorporated into a more-modern product.

"But wait, there's more!" as the ads say: the new airplane could also incorporate the best features of America's utility champ, the SUV. Mr Suma said, "We built an entry-level SUV" for the airplane family. "It's very utilitarian," he said, "lots of fuel, lots of people -- this should attract a lot of four-place move-ups."

Versatility and Utility are the Keys:

The new 6X and 6XT are basically a straight-leg Saratoga, with a versatile "SUV-style" interior and utility. As such, it's a member of the PA-32 family. With some folks' insurance having risen 30 or 40% since the terrorist attacks, the fixed gear may be seen by many as a double blessing. As for a speed penalty, Greg Sharpe, Piper's Project Manager on this (and the Meridian makeover) told ANN, "We don't have the certified numbers, but it looks like the speed difference, at cruise, is maybe one, two knots." That's the tradeoff for increased payload and range, and one less lever to deal with.

The "SUV concept" brought a lot of innovation to the relatively "proven" basic design. The 6X doesn't look old at all -- it looks like a brand-new machine. Part of that is the Saratoga's sleeker wing and the modern aerodynamics of the wheel pants. Part is the overall attention to fit and finish, that gives this new machine the look of a truly "new" machine: gaps around the doors are uniform; panels are perfectly-mated -- the whole airplane looks "of a piece."

The "SUV influence" also adds a bunch of utility -- even the rear seats are removable, á là modern SUVs.

The interior is a good-looking vinyl -- light weight, tough as iron, good-looking -- and with insets that promise unprecedented comfort, for that kind of treatment.

President Suma said, "It's for the aviation family with two or three kids, some equipment -- it's really like an SUV."

The option list has a lot on it, including leather for the interior; but that, of course, weighs more, isn't as easy to clean (remember those kids?), and brings the entry-level price level up. In fact, if someone wanted to buy every option (air conditioning, trim, paint, avionics), one could add "probably $75-85 thousand" to the base price, according to Suma. Picking judiciously from the extensive option list would give the owner the plane he wanted, and stay close to that entry price, ideal for today's leaner stock market investors.

Really short lead time, from concept to flight...

Greg Sharpe (not holding the seat) gave a lot of the credit for the incredibly fast production cycle to John Gallo (holding the seat), New Piper's VP of Product Operations, and his "Factory of the Future" concept. Quick response is a hallmark of Gallo's new operation, and the results prove it out. The X6 took just about 90 days, from drawings to flight.

As Greg said, "The program went surprisingly well... We started in mid-January. We had an experienced group that knew the airplane pretty well." Added to that good news is the fact that New Piper still builds a lot of spares for the Saratoga. "We build wing spares [for the Saratoga], so we had a lot of the parts available."

The FAA, which has a longstanding relationship with New Piper, didn't waste any time. They knew what questions needed to be answered, and they got their answers, and the paperwork proceeded in a smooth manner. The fact that nearly everything had already gone through certification was a big help, as well as the fact that, "...we're as conservative as the FAA (and our test pilots are probably more so)" grinned Sharpe.

When can you get one?

Deliveries for the 6X will commence in August; the 6XT is slated for September delivery. Molly Martin Pearce says several of the new machines are already spoken for; nearly all the rest were ordered by Piper's dealer network.


Although we covered the basics yesterday, there is one correction to the official literature: the useful load is not 1404 pounds -- it's 1440. the 6XT has a little less available load, of course; and it flies higher -- useful in hot climates, and the West.


Prices for all the options haven't yet been set; but the base airplanes sticker at $336,000 and $356,000, depending on whether you want that turbo.



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