VERO BEACH — Indian River County has high hopes for more jobs at Piper Aircraft Inc. after the manufacturer unveiled three new or improved airplanes Monday.
Piper officials say the most important of those three, the new M600 turboprop, has the increased range and payload capacity to attract corporate customers that have mostly eluded Piper.
“We’re getting into a bigger market,” said David Athay, Piper’s technical sales manager. “Almost all our aircraft are owner-flown, but now (with the M600) we can sell to corporations.”
The M600 uses a reinforced version of the M500 fuselage, Piper’s other turboprop aircraft, but has a more powerful engine, a larger wing that was expressly designed for turboprops, 53 percent more fuel capacity and a more luxurious cabin interior.
“Comfort was paramount because they’re going to be in the airplane long,” said Jackie Carlon, Piper’s director of marketing and communications.
The M600 can carry a 660-pound payload, or about four people with luggage, almost 1,500 miles. Athay said that means there is room for a professional pilot.
After three years in development, the first M600s will be delivered in the fourth quarter of this year, said Vice President of Sales & Marketing Drew McEwen.
Carlon said the company’s new products are so cutting edge and competitively priced that demand will drive new hiring.
The 88-year-old company, which has been building aircraft since 1961 at its plant at the Vero Beach Municipal Airport, has already allocated the first 12 months’ production of the M600, 40 aircraft, to be sold through its worldwide dealer network, Carlon said.
Piper has sold an average of 40 of its M500 turboprops per year since 2001, data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association show.
Carlon said the company expects strong demand for the M600 because it has the increased payload and range that corporate customers desire — and with a $2.285 million price tag that is at least $1 million lower than competitors’ aircraft.
Meanwhile, Piper is already delivering updated versions of its M500 and M350 Mirage, a single-engine propeller plane, with significant modifications to its navigation and safety systems, mostly using Garmin avionics, the most modern in aviation.
“If you look back in history, these features would have prevented some accidents from happening,” Athay said.
“It’s critically important to us in selling new airplanes to keep up with the latest technological developments,” he said.
Carlon said she expects Piper to increase employment next year.
Helene Caseltine, economic development director for the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, said Piper is vital to the local economy and shares the rewards of successes at the aircraft maker.
“Anytime Piper has good news, it’s good news for the entire community,” Caseltine said. “Certainly we support them, and they’re great supporters of ours, too.”
Caseltine said a study the chamber commissioned in 2007, when Piper applied for a $4 million economic development incentives package from the county, showed that Piper contributed $518 million per year to the local economy.
With more than double the staff of any other private employer in the county, Piper has the equivalent of 1,058 full-time workers at an average annual wage of $53,000, county Budget Director Jason Brown said.
Piper must retain at least 650 employees at an average annual wage of $46,500 and report its employment statistics to the county annually.
The average wage countywide is $36,000 per year, Caseltine said.
“They’ve exceeded the requirements of the incentive package we have with them,” Brown said.
Vero Beach Mayor Dick Winger said Piper excels in both job quantity and quality.
“They’re our premier employer,” Winger said. “Quite frankly, anything that expands their success and them being able to employ people is a very, very good thing.”
Winger said Piper jobs require advanced skills and training and the ability to work with minimal supervision. Workers that meet the requirements are rewarded with wages that are well above average and a light, airy workplace.
“My observation is it’s a place that I would like to work,” Winger said.
Six-seat cabin-class aircraft
600-horsepower turboprop engine
299-mph maximum cruise speed, 1,495-mile range
Completely redesigned wing to handle higher torque engine
Garmin G3000 touch-screen computerized instrument panel
Price: $2.825 million
Six-seat business aircraft
500-horsepower turboprop engine
299-mph maximum cruise speed, 1,150-mile range
Garmin G1000 computerized, glass instrument panel
Price: $2.26 million
Cabin-class, six-seat aircraft
350-horsepower piston engine
245-mph maximum cruise speed, 1,544-mile range
Garmin G1000 computerized, glass instrument panel
Price: $1.15 million
All 3 aircraft feature:
Electronic Stability Protection “nudges” the controls back to a safe range if the pilot flies the aircraft outside safe flight parameters.
Under Speed Protection automatically lowers the nose if airspeed gets too low, threatening a stall.
Automatic Descent Mode flies the aircraft to a lower altitude if it detects that the pilot has become incapacitated by a lack of oxygen. If the pilot fails to interact with the controls for a certain time, the system will ask if the pilot is OK and descend automatically if it gets no response.
Automatic Level Mode allows a pilot suffering from vertigo to press a blue button in the cockpit to automatically return the airplane to straight and level flight. Passengers can also use the button if the pilot is incapacitated.