Mad About Mooneys
Mooney pilots are a special breed ó who else would fly an airplane with its tail on backward? To prove it, AVweb's Publisher Carl Marbach and News Writer Liz Swaine made the pilgrimage to Kerrville, Texas, for last year's Mooney Homecoming. In addition to hobnobbing with the Mooney faithful, they flew the factory's two newest offerings: the low-end Eagle and its top-of-the-line sibling, the Ovation. Carl also had the unique opportunity to fly a fully aerobatic, two-place, stick-controlled, 300-hp Mooney muscle machine prototype, aptly dubbed
Iím partial to Mooneys, I guess I need to admit that straight up. I own a 1966 Mooney M20E, one of the short-bodied speedster models. My little bird "Mike" cruises along at a calm-wind 140-plus knots and drinks a mere 10 gallons of avgas per hour. I like Mike.
I transitioned to my 200-hp, complex M20E "Super 21" from a Cessna 150. It took me about 40 hours to finally feel as if I was flying my slick little bird instead of the other way around. It took less time than that to master the Mooney "dip" which allows me, pretty as you please, to drop the nose Ďer so slightly and pop my manual gear Johnson Bar into the down and locked position.
My plane purchase was a Godsend from the Big Pilot in the sky. I, who had no idea what a good Mooney was worth, paid a wholly inadequate sum to a man who also had no idea what a good Mooney was worth. I wonít tell you what I paid because 1.) It's classified (I would have to kill you) and, 2.) One day Iím going to sell it for a wholly adequate sum. It was because I paid so little and got such a good plane in the bargain that I often scoffed at spending what seemed an astronomical amount for a NEW Mooney. But then, I got a chance to fly one.
Every year, Mooniacs return to the Mooney Homeland in Kerrville, Texas, much like the swallows to Capistrano, pigeons to statues, lemmings to the sea ... well, you get my drift. For the last several Homecomings, I have been among the faithful, learning about the history of the breed, swapping Mooney lore, debating whether the tail was made like it was because it looked better or flew faster. Get a bunch of Mooney owners together and be prepared to defend why YOUR tail is on backwards, not ours.
I also hung out with other owners of the older (classic, we call Ďem) A, B, C, D, E and F models who probably wonít be buying a new plane but that didnít stop us from getting smudgy fingerprints on the windows and dreaming what it must be like. It was with that as a backdrop that AVweb gave me an assignment I couldnít refuse. They told me to go fly a new Mooney and report back on what it was like. What a way to make a girlís day!
Youíve got to figure that on an assignment this good someone else is going to try to horn in on the action. The interloper in my particular case was AVweb Publisher Carl Marbach, a good and saintly man who also happens to be my boss. Did I mention how clever he is? Actually, Carl is a fine sort who is a former M20-E owner himself, and couldnít pass up the chance to see what flying a Mooney would be like 20 years later.
Carl and I were ushered around the factory by Tom Bowen, Mooney's Vice President of Engineering. Although Tom can relate to engineering cartoon hero Dilbert, you wonít catch this guy carrying a bunch of pens in his pocket protector. They might put his eye out as he flips inverted in his pride and joy, the Mooney "Predator." Mooney created the M20T to compete for the Air Force's Primary Trainer contract in 1989-1990, but the Predator lost to the T-3 Slingsby. Ultimately, the same fate befell both of them. The Slingsby was grounded by the Air Force because of safety issues, and the Predator, after failing to win the contract, was pushed to the back of a hangar and left for dead. From 1991 until 1996, the little plane sat, moldering away, stripped of its engine, its canopy, its cowling. Then came Tom.
Tom Bowen and the Mooney Predator take a break.
Bowen looked at the flight test data and saw the maneuverability, the ability to spin, the energy the plane carried, and decided to rebuild it. Mooneyís CEO at the time was Bing Lantis, who told Tom he could do what he wanted as long as the project didnít cost Mooney any money. That was all right by Tom, who assembled a small cadre of like-minded buddies and set about making the Predator fly. "To get it from the point of where it was, no engine, no cowl, no prop, cost the company exactly two thousand dollars. Eight hundred for the paint and twelve hundred for the decals. So what you see is two thousand dollars worth of airplane sitting there." Bowen wanted to rebuild the plane to fly it, but he also hoped to make it viable to the company.
The airplane isnít certified and to get it to that point would likely take three years and cost about $5 million. To make that worth Mooneyís while, they need a block order for 100 or more. Bowen realizes thatís a tall order to fill, and he continues to ponder the possibilities of kitting out the plane. You can hear the wheels turning as he considers itÖ "itís a comfortable two-place cross-country 175-knot airplane. You can load tons of baggage and full fuel, but you can also take it out on the weekend and turn it over, go get a $100 hamburgerÖ."
The Predator is a one-of-a-kind and very few people have ever been able to fly it. AVwebís Carl Marbach did and loved it.
AVweb's Liz Swaine and Mooney's Tom Bowen pause on the ramp at Kerrville before putting the Predator through its paces.
The Predator is a patchwork of Mooney models, some new design and a big Continental IO-550 craking out 300 hp mounted up front. Itís made up of a short body from the M20C and M20E, but shortened even more, a tail from the M22 (the pressurized Mooney Mustang from the 1960s) and ó believe it or not ó a standard 201 wing. The door has been replaced by a sliding canopy and the regular controls have been replaced by Ö what else? Sticks! All in all, itís still a Mooney but definitely in wolf's clothing!
The Predator is bare bones with a spartan interior and no insulation, so sheís loud, like a race car. Starting and getting the big bore Continental to run requires a deft ability with the mixture, but Tom Bowen has the perfect touch. When taxiing, itís evident that the short body makes the Predator nimble Ö but itís what happens in the air that counts!
Rotate at about 70 KIAS, then climb at 100 KIAS and youíll get good rate of climb and some over-the-nose visibility. With only a moderate amount of right rudder, I smoothly applied full power and in almost no time we were climbing at a steep angle, somewhere above 1,000 fpm at 100 KIAS. As tricky as the engine was on the ground, thatís how good it sounds and feels in the air; sometimes when an airplane has the "right" engine it just feels good. Couple the feel with the canopyís visibility and hold onto your hat!
Level off and the speed builds. Two things become immediately obvious: First, this is a fast Mooney. Considering that all Mooneys are fast to begin with, that says something. Second, the stick feels like itís stuck in cement. "We know the stick forces are too high," Tom told me, "and we know how to fix that." Even with stick forces like these, the Predator seems light and nimble while still maintaining the famous Mooney stability. But the design and the look say, "letís rock and roll" so we did.
While Carl and Tom were up in the air cavorting about, I was on the ground going over the instrumentation of a new Mooney Ovation. The M20R is Mooneyís equivalent of a BMW-Seven series ó itís got it all and it knows it. Rick Pitner, Mooney's Director of Sales and Marketing, was showing me the different bells and whistles and I was trying to quickly make the leap from the panel of my 20-year old plane to one that seemed to have every single pilot gadget currently on the market. The only thing I couldnít find was a cappuccino maker, but I probably just wasnít looking hard enough.
I sunk back into the fine Corinthian leather and taxied to the end of the runway as somewhere in the distance I heard Rick talking about "V" speeds and the like. Heck with that stuff. I knew this pretty baby would fly when she wanted to and look sleek doing it. And thatís exactly what happened. After the engine purred at run-up, we took off down the runway with power to spare. At about 70 KIAS, I pulled ever so slightly back on the yoke and the Ovation headed for the sky. Iím not going to tell you what she climbed at and what we cruised at because you can get all that in a sales brochure and besides, I wasnít paying any attention to it. What I WAS doing was having a blast in a plane that flew with a light touch, settled down as if it was on rails, and turned elegantly into each and every maneuver. I was in love.
After just a few minutes at typical Mooney speed, we had managed to fly near a top-secret military restricted area and when Rick started looking nervous, I turned the bird and headed for home. But oh, the best was yet to come. If youíve ever flown a Mooney you know they hate to go down and slow down. Mooneys think "hot" is their middle name, but if you try to land one that way, youíll discover what "float" means, too. As long as you come in over the numbers at about 70 mph, youíre OK. Thatís why I was sweating when we flew into the pattern and were smoking right along at 150 KIAS on downwind. When Rick popped the speed brakes, though, I learned a new lesson in Speed Management 101. Throwing those little pieces of metal out allowed me to keep my manifold pressure and RPM up, yet tidy up the Ovation for landing. She settled onto the runway just like a typical Mooney ó so low as to make you feel like your fanny is going to come into contact with the pavement and make you check the gear lights several times. She was a sweet ride and a fine bird, and I will continue to get smudgy fingerprints on one whenever I see it.
While Liz was smudging up the Ovation, I asked to fly Mooney's newest airplane: the M20S Eagle. The Eagle is meant to be the more affordable of the two non-turbocharged airplanes. The Eagle will have a de-rated Continental IO-550 producing about 240 hp (down from the Ovationís 270), use a new two-bladed prop, carry about 20 fewer gallons of 100LL in the wings, use fabric instead of leather inside and lack a few other options, including the speedbrakes Liz loves so much. All of these features should allow Mooney to create a sizeable gap in pricing between the popular Ovation and the new lower-cost Eagle.
The Eagle has new-style power and engine gauges. Each is about 1.5 inches square and displays both analog dials and digital numbers. Leaning the Eagle in cruise means screwing out the vernier mixture control until the analog gauge peaks, then using the digital numbers you increase by 50 degrees. Easy. Exact.
At 7,500 ft/msl, setting up 2370 RPM and 24.1 inches of manifold pressure tell you that the Eagle is no slouch in the speed category. While it will be a bit slower than the Ovation, it will also burn less fuel. My first airplane was a Mooney and they have a feel that was like putting an old glove on again ó it fit just right. Stalls, steep turns and a stable cruise make for a great flying experience.
Back in the pattern, the Eagle reminded me that in a Mooney, speed control is very important. I came over the numbers about 10 knots too fast and floated a long way down the runway (OK, Liz, OK) before the Eagle decided to land once, twice, well, alright, three times. At least my Mooney time prevented me from releasing any back pressure and risking the wheelbarrow effect that has been known to ruin props, nosegear and egos. Here it was just the ego that was bruised a bit.
The Eagle has a new two-bladed prop that seemed normal in climb, but extraordinarily smooth in cruise. McCauley and Mooney have been working on improving prop efficiency and they seem to have a winner here. More blades are not necessarily better ó they just have more blades. I recently saw a Malibu with four blades and someone is offering them for Aerostars as well.
Maybe it is because the Mooney was my first airplane, but I still love them. They fly with a grace and style that is hard to beat. The push/pull tubes that connect the controls give the plane a solid feel that canít be duplicated by other designs' cables that have to have some slop. The control harmony is perfect and honed to a fine edge since the Mooney brothers did their thing here in Kerrville almost 50 years ago.
Coming to Kerrville is more than a homecoming, itís a pilgrimage a pay tribute to a design that has survived the ages and still flies the modern skies. When all was quiet between flights and I looked around at the old hangars and buildings, I was back in the 1950s, when the Mooneyís wood wing and clean lines were showing what you could do with 150 hp. Then the Ovation came rumbling in, longer and all metal now with a big engine up front and cool electronics inside and it makes you wish those who came before could see where we have gone.
Of course, Iím going to get the last word on this. I told you Carl was a good guy, didnít I? Anyone who had so much fun flying Mooneys canít be all bad. Whenever you happen to see one of the birds with its distinctive tail (itís on right, you know), walk up, put a nose print on it and say itís from me.