High-performance singles – and by that we mean 150 knots and faster – are the aviation equivalent of a roadster; theyre meant to go places and most do. But the majority of fast singles have four seats and thus not much payload for an owner with a growing family.
Hence the six-place single and, more specifically, whats come to be known as the cabin-class single. There arent many of these to pick from; really just three, Pipers Saratoga and the Malibu/Mirage series and the 36 series from Raytheon/Beechcraft.
These aircraft have proven attractive because theyre fast and have reasonable payload. In a pinch, they can even carry six people. (The Saratoga and Malibu are better at this than the Beechcraft.)
Many owners who gravitate toward these airplanes do so because theyll comfortably haul four people or five and a lot of baggage if the backseaters are kids. And when the kids enter the picture, the inevitable question soon arises: How safe is this airplane?
In this article, continuing our examination of general aviation accidents record, well look at how these three models compare with each other and with GA aircraft overall. In previous issues, weve investigated trainers, fixed-gear cruisers and four-place high-performance singles.
As in our previous safety reviews, we looked at all of the accidents for these types during the five-year period between 1994 and 1998, relying on raw NTSB records for our data. For this examination, however, because of its relatively low population, we expanded the range of accidents for the Malibu/Mirage to 10 years, from 1992 to 2001.
As weve reported previously, the NTSB sometimes assigns probable cause for accidents and sometimes doesnt, irrespective of the accident reportage. In the interest of consistency, weve assigned our own accident categories when none exist. Admittedly, this involves some guesswork.
The usual cautions apply, which is to say NTSB data is often sketchy, incomplete and occasionally flat out wrong. Moreover, although the accepted way of establishing statistical safety comparisons is to calculate an accident rate based on exposure – hours flown – the best we can do is an informed estimate.
We calculated the relative accident rates for each model using the estimated hours flown provided by the Aircraft Bluebook Digest multiplied by the total number of each model that appears in the FAA registration records. The average hours-flown numbers are based on price surveys at time of sale and may or may not reflect reality.
Thus, while weve made every effort to make these comparisons accurate, theyre hardly airtight, given the lack of accurate data. We feel it only fair to make this caveat crystal clear.
In our view, the hours-flown estimates for these aircraft do pass the sniff test for reasonable estimate, however. The aircraft covered in this report are expensive and bought for a purpose: serious traveling. We believe, therefore, that most arent ramp queens; theyre flown frequently.
Even if we dont have unassailable hours-flown data for these aircraft, we believe theres enough information to draw some general conclusions.
When we reported on the accident records of trainers and fixed-gear singles, we noted that pilots seem to have trouble landing these things. When owners move up to six-place cabin-class models, they still have trouble landing.
And taking off.
Runway loss of control leads the list of accident causes for all of these models. That didnt surprise us but what did is that the Malibu has the highest overall percentage of runway prangs. The airplane is not particularly difficult to land but plenty of pilots seem to lose control of it in crosswinds or on narrow, short runways.
Speaking of short runways, the Malibu is not a good choice for short field ops, in our view. Several pilots came to grief trying to coax a heavily loaded PA-46 off a too-short runway.
One pilot attempted a near-gross weight takeoff on a hot summer day on a 2300-foot runway with a high obstacle at the departure end. Everyone aboard survived but there were two serious injuries and the airplane was destroyed.
Of all three models reviewed, the pilots of Malibus seem most inclined to venture outside the weight and balance envelope. Of 63 accidents we examined, four of the aircraft were overgross and out of CG, one by as much as 955 pounds and 2 inches aft of limits. With a useful load in the 1500-pound range, Malibus arent stingy haulers. But gross-weight takeoffs should be approached cautiously on marginal runways, especially those with obstacles.
The Malibu tied with its stablemate Cherokee Six/Saratoga in one dubious distinction: a quarter of all the accidents it suffers are caused by engine failures of some kind. (We filtered out the fuel exhaustion and mismanagement accidents that also cause engines to quit; they appear as a separate category.)
For most other models weve reviewed, engine failures rank third or lower as a cause of accidents and, in any case, they dont often account for such a high percentage of accidents. The Lycoming-powered Mooney M20 series and the Commander are two exceptions among lighter singles. In both of those models, engine failure accounts for a higher percentage of wrecks than in the Malibu.
In case youre wondering if Lycomings current crankshaft crisis has anything to do with this, we would surmise that it doesnt. We found 21 Malibu accidents involving engine failure. Eight of those were in Continental-powered Malibus and, in the Lycoming Mirages, none of the engine failures involved broken crankshafts, according to the NTSB data.
We could see no smoking-gun pattern among the failures in either engine brand. Some were catastrophic failures involving pistons, rods and/or the oil system while others appeared to be the result of a smattering of causes and defects, a few maintenance-related.
Aviation safety experts often argue that more and better training would keep pilots from running out of gas. In expensive cabin-class singles with their high-limits coverage, the insurance companies insist on additional training and often require it to be recurrent annually.
Pilots still run these airplanes out of gas, however. But in all three aircraft, this ranks behind or ties with controlled flight into terrain as an accident cause.
As noted, owners dont buy cabin-class singles for the $100 hamburger run; they go places. And that means IFR flying in real weather and that inevitably leads to weather-related accidents, of which all three aircraft have their share.
What caught our eye was the number of inflight break-ups suffered by the Malibu. Break-ups account for 8 percent of the total accidents but they amount to less than half that for the other models. For lighter singles – the Mooneys and Bonanzas, for instance – break-ups are a rarity.
All of the Malibu break-ups were weather-related, either thunderstorm encounters or icing encounters, or both. Given the kind of long-distance, high-altitude flying that Malibu owners do, weather encounters are inevitable.
However, based on this accident review, we think its essential that Malibu drivers give any kind of convective activity or turbulence a wide berth, bearing in mind that deviations around storms at mid to high altitudes may still expose the airplane to turbulence and lightning risk greater than that found at lower altitudes.
Further, its no secret that a hand-flown Malibu at high altitude requires careful attention to control input to avoid upsets. Flying a PA-46 at altitude without an autopilot is both demanding and fatiguing.
CFITs for all of these aircraft are divided between flights into terrain while in IMC and merely running into obstacles on takeoff or landing due to inattention to altitude. Unfortunately, CFITs are usually fatal for all the occupants, especially if they occur on approach.
The avionics industry is busily engineering a fix for CFITs in the form of affordable ground prox equipment for light aircraft, something were happy to see. But the short-term solution is to simply train enough to avoid sinking below the black lines on an instrument approach and to mind the altitude both before entering and after exiting the clouds.
Lack of currency and proficiency is often the first link in the chain of events leading to a CFIT crash – or any crash. This shortcoming is easily correctable with airplane or simulator training.
Although weve explained how the limited detail in NTSB data and lack of hours-flown information makes calculating accident rates iffy business, we think theres still something to be learned from these accident examinations.
Note that the Malibu overall rate is higher than average for this group of three aircraft and its also higher than average for all the aircraft we have previously compared. Based on previous comparisons of other GA aircraft, we estimate the fleet average accident rate is about 3.8 accidents per 100,000 hours.
At 5.3/100,000, the Malibu appears to be above that range. And in calculating hours flown for the Malibu fleet, weve given it the benefit of the doubt by calculating the total based on the current total fleet. In other words, we didnt adjust the estimated hours downward to allow for lower fleet numbers at the start of the accident survey period. Yet even at that, the Malibu and the Piper PA-32 series appear to have higher overall accident rates than the Beechcraft 36 series, whose overall rate is below average for all GA piston aircraft.
We can understand why the Malibu has a less impressive record than the Beechcraft. Its flown in a more demanding environment and, in our view, requires more pilot training and proficiency to handle safely. Were not sure why the PA-32 series appears to have such a high overall accident rate. Its not especially difficult to fly, land or takeoff and has plenty of power to haul what its expected to haul. And owners dont seem inclined to overload it, as with the Malibu.
We have concerns about the apparent high rate of engine failures in the Pipers but as for the rest of the accidents, the patterns could clearly be improved with better training and attention to proficiency, particularly with regard to landing and instrument approach skills.