Mooney Steps Out With New Airplanes


Almost exactly a year ago, when I fishing around for something provocative to say about Chinese interests buying Mooney, I came up with this nugget: “So personally, I’m okay with the sale of Mooney to a China-based company, but only if it pulls in some investment to get the company to the next stage. Let’s see if that happens.”

I feel like my bluff has been called. This week, Mooney announced two models pitched at the training market, the M10T and M10J. They’re both composite and both powered by Continental diesels. I had opined that Mooney needed Jet A options and now that’s what they’ve proposed. I have to admit, I’m a little stunned at how fast they’ve moved. But that’s what having a lot of capital and the willingness to invest can do. It’s obvious that these airframes were in the works by Mooney-or somebody-before the purchase was announced last year. Mooney now becomes the certification channel.

At first glance, does launching two models now make sense? It depends on where Mooney thinks the sweet spot of the market will be. The fact that these were announced in China suggests they’re betting mostly on China, where training aircraft market growth should be steady, but not explosive. But no one really knows. The Chinese have aviation in their current five-year plan and if they want to train the pilots domestically, they’ll want basic trainers and probably a step-up retract. The M10T does the former, the M10J the latter. I have no clue of the potential volume, but I’m going to guess in the many dozens, not hundreds.

The diesels make perfect sense. In China, you can find fuel for them anywhere, they’re economical and operators are telling me the engines have reached a level of robustness that suggests they’re beyond the passing fad stage. The more the engine volume increases, the better the production and service economics look. And not to obsess too much on China, but every airplane these days is a global airplane and these will be, too, I’m sure.

The choice of composite was a bit of a curve ball, but a year ago, I thought riveted metal-at least the way Mooney does it-is difficult to make profitable because of the high parts count and high build hours. Composite reduces the parts, but may or may not reduce build hours, depending on how it’s done. Mooney is all about efficient metal airframes; that’s their core expertise. How they incorporate composite production will be interesting to see. Both Cirrus and Diamond have been at this for years and discovered that composite structures aren’t necessarily lighter than metal and it’s challenging to ramp up the throughput for high production. Will they go vertical and learn it themselves or traverse horizontally and farm the work out to companies who already have this expertise? (That’s what I’d do.)

Mooney isn’t saying yet what they’ll do, nor are they ready to make an announcement on where the airplanes will be built, a Mooney spokesman told me on Tuesday. Building them in China would meet the goal of broadening the aerospace skill base, but possibly at the expense of a longer certification program. The CAAC, I’m told, is not quite up to speed to the point that a manufacturer could anticipate using the CS23 revision standards to squeeze some cost out the cert program, as Flight Design is doing in Europe with its C4, for instance. That argues for an FAA certification effort in the U.S., perhaps in California where the company has an office, and production in the U.S. But we can only wait to hear what Mooney says.

No price figures were announced by Mooney, other than to say the new airplanes will be competitively priced. But what does that mean? If the Cessna Skyhawk is $400,000 or $430,000 with a diesel, then about $395,000 is competitive and similar to where Piper has placed the new diesel-powered Archer DX. But my guess is they’ll be less than that– perhaps significantly less.

One reason for believing this is that Mooney says the trainer version (M10T) will be a three-seat airplane, while the retractable M10J will have a third seat as an option. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see how a two-seat airplane will be priced the same as a four seater like the Skyhawk. But then new aircraft prices came adrift from sanity five years ago, so any rational notion of what airplanes should cost is about as useful as a losing lottery ticket. As Cessna discovered with the Skycatcher, building an airplane in China is not necessarily cheaper than doing it elsewhere. I suppose it could be if profit isn’t a top priority and that could very well be the case. China is, after all, still a centrally planned economy. Their business decisions span decades, not just the next quarter.

The M10J revives the idea of the Mooney 201, a popular airframe that was more economical than fast. But it’s fast enough. Just pushing some numbers around, if the M10J meets Mooney’s anticipated cruise speed of 170 knots, it will be the airplane version of a Prius. Okay, maybe a Jetta TDI. The Continental CD-155 sips fuel at 5.5 GPH so this new airplane would steam along at nearly 200 MPH at 36 MPG. If it makes those numbers and Mooney can resist larding it up with a ridiculously overblown avionics suite, could there be a U.S. market for a moderately fast two-place airplane that’s super economical? You know what? I hope so.

While I don’t sense a crackling light aircraft rebound in the works, the market is clearly showing signs of life. Mooney may be getting the timing just right. And in a market starved for new products, it’s nice to see it.

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