Mooney’s Last Act?

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If Mooney was struggling to sell airplanes before its abrupt shutdown last week, it may need more luck and faith than exists in the known universe to find any buyers going forward. It baffles me why companies that get into money trouble decide the smartest thing to do is turn out the lights and stop answering the phone. Ya think next time they try to sell a $750,000 airplane that a potential buyer won’t remember? I’ll mark it on my calendar to offer a reminder.

I’m told by a source familiar with the company that Mooney is looking for U.S. investors to funnel more capital into the business, but it’s difficult to imagine what the sales pitch would be. Mooney’s output has been dismal against its competitors—just 14 airplanes last year and seven in 2017. Four so far this year. Market leader Cirrus sold 380 piston aircraft in 2018.

Calls to Mooney have been unanswered and emails were referred to the factory manager, Albert Li. These were also unanswered, on the advice of counsel, I was told. I think the smart thing to do, and at the very least, would be a webpage explaining the difficulties with a promise of details soon. And answer the damn phone to reassure the last stalwart buyer who gave you most of a million dollars for a new airplane.

How did we get here? They don’t favor us with the P&L, but for Mooney, past has always been prologue. Over a 90-year history of frequently interrupted but always financially colorful ups and downs, Mooney has been variously owned by an electronics company, an FBO chain, a steel company, two financial holding groups, two aircraft companies, a private investor and, currently the China-based Meijing Group. The structural details of that deal are unknown.

Given its string of shutdowns, bankruptcies, fire sales and stutter starts, saying that Mooney defines hope springs eternal is to do unspeakable violence to the concept. Every new suitor seems to have approached the company thinking it could be sustainably righted and every one has failed. By sheer determination and occasional luck, the company has managed to design and produce some terrific airplanes in those fitful years and months when it was viable. The J and K models, for example, and the more recent Ovation are rightfully prized. The older C and E models are affordable on the used market.

But now, we’re in a whole new universe. New airplanes have vastly outstripped inflation and the people who can afford to buy them—they usually write checks—didn’t accumulate that wealth because they’re dumb. Before sinking a megabuck into an airplane, they’ll want to consider the company’s financial stability. And Mooney has never and still doesn’t compare favorably with a Cessna or a Cirrus. Mooney is patently asking buyers to take a chance and not enough appear willing to do that.

Unfortunately, despite a relatively strong economy, the demand never came. The last serious volume Mooney enjoyed was between 2005 and 2007, when it delivered 239 airplanes. If it got there again—a big if—I suspect the company could be profitable. I was told during one factory visit that 30-plus airplanes a year would be break even.

We don’t know the terms of the Meijing deal, but the company has admitted to at least a $150 million capital infusion. That’s not trivial. Some of it went into recertifying the M20 series with a second door and upgrading the factory to tease some build hours out of the complex metal airframe. (See the details in this AVweb video.) Those investments appeared appropriate to the volume Mooney could reasonably expect.

Like everyone else in the airplane biz, Mooney has had its dead ends, most recently the clean-sheet M10T composite training aircraft proposed in 2015. The design was appealing and innovative, but two years later, it was canceled, evidently because Mooney realized the sales volume juice couldn’t justify the developmental squeeze.

And that gets us to China which, increasingly, we’re hearing is just not happening. For both the legacy metal airplanes and the new age M10, China was seen as a bottomless pit of demand, fueled by rich Chinese in whose hearts there burned an unquenchable desire to fly. The reality has proven more sobering, with regulation still stifling GA growth and recently imposed counter tariffs denting even modest sales. When I was at Kerrville last year, two M20s shipped to China had been returned because of type certificate hang-ups. It’s awfully late to still be fooling with that. Chinese-owned Progressive Aerodyne had hoped for strong demand from China for its SeaRey, but it hasn’t materialized. It might eventually, but I think it will be years.

The CEO of another Chinese-owned company told me the flow of Chinese investment into the U.S. has been significantly slowed by anti-corruption efforts and a slowing industrial economy caused in part by U.S. tariffs. We’ve already reported that Icon had to retrench partially because of this. Evidently, the Chinese are no smarter about aviation investment than those folks Vern Raburn lined up to fund the Eclipse.

But if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that there’s an installed base of more than 10,000 Mooneys out there. Supporting those airframes represents a viable business and some of Meijing’s investment went into online inventory control and parts manufacturing. I wouldn’t expect a fleet that large to be orphaned because fleets smaller than that still soldier on. The factory still has the capacity for outside aerospace work, which it has done a lot of over the years.

And here, Mooney’s checkered history might provide comfort. For nearly a century, this company gives cats a bad name. It has simply refused to stay dead. As for new airplanes, well, knowing what you know, would you buy one? That’s the question people selling them will have to answer convincingly. Not a job I’d want, thanks very much.

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23 COMMENTS

    • They reopened… makes this damaging blog kinda pointless. Paul got it wrong. Kick em while their down. The Mooney is a racehorse, the fastest piston certified airplane in the world. It’s probably not for the simple flying cirrus crowd as you’ll actually need to fly the ship. Personally, I like to manage the real flying experience.

  1. To me, the real problem with Mooney is the interior cabin space. I’m not a large person, but I still feel cramped and uncomfortable in them. The steel cabin frame makes them quite strong, but it also limits space. What would really be needed is a whole new design, probably using composites, but that’s a huge undertaking.

    • In the maintenance office at a military aero club I worked at, we had a cartoon on the wall. Two mechanics were talking while — behind them — a third mechanic was pulling his hair out after he ran thru the wall of the hangar to get away. One mechanic tells the other, “…all I said was we’re getting another Mooney.” I always knew it was “Mooney time” when I showed up at the hangar and the head mechanic was standing there with a speed handle and a screwdriver tip … to deal with taking the panels off the Mooney’s we had. (battery powered screwdrivers didn’t exist then).

      To me … I think they build the instrument panel before they skin the airplane and then build an airplane around it. Same thing with the engine bay; they must put it together then bolt it to the airframe? There surely has to be a break room in Kerrville where the employees go to laugh about the poor mechanics who have to take care of those things.

      Selling them at those prices — new OR used — with that checkered history is bad enough. Paying to maintain them is another woe. Speed has a price … and it isn’t just money.

    • Gary, it’s probably a safe bet that the interior wasn’t attracting any buyers. I’m intrigued by your idea. Could you foresee a new type certificated Mooney offering something better than a Cirrus SR-22 though?

  2. At an average equipped sale price of $850,000 per aircraft, selling 30 airplanes per year to break even, would result in $25.5 million dollars in annual sales. An infusion of $150 million would take 6 years to pay back…and at zero investment profit for the sale of 180 Mooneys. Besides, six years of GA aircraft production producing a total 180 Mooney airplanes would require the next six years for the US and global economy at the very least remain the same. Any country, including the US can be one election away from economic disaster. The reality has proven the total customer demand for Mooney aircraft has been only 18 airplanes in the last two years bridging pre-tariff and post tariff US economies. How are these mathematics attractive to any investor Chinese or otherwise?

    To say a Mooney is hard to work on is an understatement. However, which high performance airplane from P, C, CI, or B are significantly easier? It’s an automatic that to fly high and go fast will equate to a real pain in the proverbial “keester” to maintain. Especially since we want all the latest gizmos and big inch engines to be installed on these 25-70 year old designs.

    There is a cottage industry supporting the continuing maintenance of Mooneys just like the Bonanza, 210, Saratoga, and Cirrus type airplanes. Those manufacturers who wake up and decide to support those type specific, cottage industries, who have demonstrated a desire and ability to provide solutions on these hard to work on airplanes, with quality attractively priced, readily available parts, can be profitable.

    The printer industry has proven that there is no to limited profit to be made in the sale of printers…but a lot of profit in providing print cartridges supporting them. Airplanes are no different. All of these airplanes are old enough, that type specific maintenance knowledge is very well known defining accurately what breaks most often and when.

    There are 10,000 reasons for a well run Mooney to remain in business, if they have clear objective willing to be more than simply an airplane manufacturer.

    • “At an average equipped sale price of $850,000 per aircraft, selling 30 airplanes per year to break even, would result in $25.5 million dollars in annual sales. An infusion of $150 million would take 6 years to pay back…”

      Maybe this type of reasoning is how Mooney keeps attracting new owners every 5 years or so. I hate to break it to you, Jim, but if you sell the airplanes and break even on them, there is NO money available to repay your investment. In order to pay back an investment of $150 million over 6 years with $25 million in sales, your per-aircraft production cost would have to be ZERO.

  3. Make money with piston aircraft is not easy. My idea is make what is not on the market : Pressurized aircraft in 2 version : piston like Acclaim ultra with Continental TSIO-550 G and same aircraft but with Rolls Royce RR 300 engine turboprop converted. If Robinson do a turbine helicopter for less of one million dollars Mooney can do the aircraft at same price or little more
    Piper is making money with M series but now price is too high

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mooney_M22_Mustang

  4. At $850,000 for an old technology plane there are not a lot of buyers out there. Cirrus is selling about 350 a year, that is probably all the buyers there are. It is a shame but the GA manufacturers are pricing themselves out of business. Ridiculous avionics cost, engine cost and airframe costs.

    • Good point. No room for more suppliers at $850k as the demand curve is small. At $130k, demand curve is better. Target worldwide training market, one design, ifr/vfr, fill the need, 20,000 trainers, same avionics and power plant. Get buyers to commit. Flight schools of the world unite.

  5. It’s amazing that even making a Piper Cub in the USA these days costs over $100,000.
    So yea, flying in the 21st century is still a rich mans sport.
    Unless there are rich people, there will be no private flying and no demand for an $800K Mooney.
    Sad to see yet another manufacturer close up shop.

  6. Back in 1968, I was in a flying club that bought a new Mooney Executive 21 (M20F I believe), the first longer-cabin model, for $20K. At x10 for inflation, that’s $200K now. What happened with the price? Also, I remember the video of a test flight of a new Mooney Ovation Ultra by Paul where he said it was essentially a two-person plane with full fuel. Who would buy that for almost $1M?

  7. Mooney has built a total of 351 airplanes in 13 years…2005-2018. If you only produce on an average 27 airplanes a year over a 13 year period with a company break even at 30 airplanes per year…which time span covers a wide US economy range..what makes anyone think investing another 150 million is going to bring any return on investment?

    It appears the entire high performance piston single market is about 230-250 airplanes based on 2018 including the 180 SR-22T’s. Add the SR-20/22 into the mix 430-450. That is not a lot of airplanes to “divvie up”, especially if one manufacturer dominates with 380 of them. And Cirrus, with all of their production/sales success 2005-2018, had to be bailed out with Chinese investment. Don’t forget Icon, Diamond, and Continental needed Chinese help to stay in the game as well. All are owned by Chinese conglomerates, largely invested in real estate and part of the Chinese military. The Chinese even built a Mooney manufacturing plant in China.

    I would suggest that the Chinese have other motives for purchasing GA aviation companies and building aviation manufacturing facilities in China. It appears that land appropriation for manufacturing purposes are very tightly regulated/controlled. The vast majority of the population is centered near the major cities. This makes land, near any city, highly sought after. Airport construction, aviation related technology, aircraft manufacturing is one of those few gateways allowing land to be appropriated for other manufacturing endeavors when purchased for so-called aviation use. This is why there are many airports under construction, many aviation manufacturing facilities that are not being used for aviation transportation with plants building something other than airplanes. I believe this is why so much investment but very slow progress regarding aviation in China. Corruption is corruption, it has no nationality boundaries.

    The regulatory/control dynamics near these cities continually change depending on who is wielding the most power in China regionally and locally. Chinese aviation has gotten a lot of US press coverage. With all of the Chinese acquisitions of US aviation companies plus Diamond, it looks like aviation must be booming in China. It is not, certainly not in relationship to its purchases. Certainly, they will need and expand their aviation infrastructure. But that is moving very slowly.

    The Chinese are not stupid, and will use the US aviation technology, it’s availability, and innovation by continuing to invest in the US. But, it is a means to an end with a benefit to Chinese aviation only when they really want to use it for that purpose. So far, that is not their highest priority. With their acquisition of Mooney, along with Cirrus, Diamond, Icon, Continental, and Progressive Aerodyne, they have all the technology to know what not to build from 70 year designs and what to build with more modern aircraft.

    They may be smarter than we think.

  8. Mooney went out of business because it was run as an airplane manufacturer first, a profitable company second. To say Cirrus put Mooney’s back against the wall gives Cirrus too much credit. Cirrus sold no-fault safety with a parachute, backed up by robust marketing of a 21st century airplane. Mooney relied on “proven” airplane technology. The Chinese owners could turn Mooney around by selling to today’s pilots, not yesterday’s Mooney owners. They aren’t going to push Cirrus out of the market; Cessna couldn’t do that either. But if they sell flying instead of airplanes, they’ll be on the right track.

      • All I’m saying is that today’s aircraft buyer is not shopping a parts list or aerodynamics or comparing Lycoming vs Continental or Garmin vs Avidyne. He or she wants ease of use, safety, style, and above all consumer confidence; knowing he is in the right place to fly. Mooney was one of aviation’s best kept engineering secrets that all Mooney owners knew and were proud to reveal. Cirrus customers don’t care about retractable gear or aerodynamics. They’re happy with FADEC, a ballistic chute and synthetic vision. It is perception of flying something more than an airframe that brings pilots to Cirrus, the same way the Bonanza was presented to middle class professionals. The product is the perception.

  9. “To say Cirrus put Mooney’s back against the wall gives Cirrus too much credit.”

    Really? Cirrus indeed put Piper, Cessna, Mooney, and Beechcraft’s collective proverbial back against the wall. They sell what the aviation consumer who has a check ready for $750,000 to 1 million dollars wants. They sell aerodynamics, all the tech, speed, comfort, safety, Continental vs Lycoming, and Garmin vs Avidyne…plus the now proven safety net they have branded CAPS. It is called the Cirrus lifestyle.

    In the same 2005-2018 stats Cirrus sold 5,500+ airplanes with Mooney selling 351, Beech selling 524, Piper 376, and Cessna good for 324 TTx’s. I would say dominating the market by 5 to one against all comers combined for 13+ years is putting the competitions back against the wall. And they have kept up this performance to a very knowledgeable customer base demonstrated by a very high percentage of repeat sales sending both Mooney and Cessna’s TTx ( whose airplanes represent both vintage and modern design taken to their respective maximums) into airplane orphan status.

    I am not a fan of Cirrus. However, to even suggest the Cirrus owner is less demanding, ignorant of what is available, only concerned with fluff vs substance is not accurate. The high performance piston single market is a very aviation savvy market with Cirrus delivering more what that market wants than all of the others manufacturers with their collective marketing genius or lack thereof combined.

    Arguing regarding who is the marketing genius in this sophisticated market does not diminish the fact that the Chinese own Cirrus, own Mooney, own Continental, own Diamond, own Progressive Aerodyne, own Superior, and a host of other aviation related companies because with out the Chinese investment, all would have come to a halt long ago. And even with Cirrus domination, do we really know if they are profitable? Only the Chinese really know. So far, if you are an aircraft manufacturer with only one type of airplane to sell, in only one market segment, the failures far outnumber the successes. The LSA and the high performance single market have demonstrated that very well.

    For those of us who own/fly old, used airplanes, who remember the production highs of the late 40’s and the last resurgence of the late 70’s, we lament the loss of another legacy manufacturer. To the newer generation of owner/pilots, the nostalgic manufacturer is Cirrus. And they seem to be alive and well ( as well as you can be with Chinese life support). Until a high performance airplane can be manufactured and sold for a lot less than $750,000 to 1 million dollars, or have an airplane so superior to the competition old or new, the folks having an ability to write the check seems to be a total of 450 people per year. And of those 450 or so people, 380 of them think they get the most bang for their buck from Chinese backed Cirrus.

    I am curious what was Mooney’s best kept engineering secrets were/are that only a Mooney owner knows? I just completed a flight in a friends M20E. He did not seem proud nor motivated to share any “secret sauce” about his airplane and it’s performance.

    If we believe that Mooney failed because of a resounding marketing failure, any one of us can buy it from the Chinese probably at a bargain basement price. Meyers is for sale too. And both companies respective airplanes have the performance specs to challenge any existing manufactured high performance singles. Today is a great day to become the owner of the two highest performing piston single type certificates. Any takers?

  10. If the laws of physics have changed, I missed it.
    Wanna go fast? Minimize the equivalent flat-plate-area; use slick (read: “temperamental”) wing.
    What do you get? Snug airplanes. Mooney, Cirrus, Bonanza – all snug. Americans (especially older more-well-to-do Americans)? Portly.
    I’ve been told that in Japanese, the same word is used for both “problem” and “opportunity.” Something about the mother of invention…..

    If you haven’t yet boarded and sat in the cabin of Cirrus’ baby jet, do yourself a favor – those Deluthians aren’t as dumb as some people seem to think they are.

  11. The Mooney is a great design. My 40 year old K model does 155 knots on 11 GPH. I’m able to manage the weight to CG to length of mission algorithm so it’t works for me. But I have $110K invested in it. If I had $850,000 to spend on an airplane it would not be any 4 place single piston engine airplane: not Cirrus, not Piper, not Cessna, not Beech. But that’s just from a guy with 7,000 hours who has been around a while.

  12. Yes, the Mooney is a great design. So is the Meyers/Aero Commander 200 series. Both have laid claim to being the fastest high performance piston single available. Both are stout, well developed, and a joy to fly. However, as great as they are…can they be manufactured profitably?…and are there enough buyers available no matter how good these airplanes are, interested in purchasing a new version of an old airplane?

    A few car companies have cashed in on nostalgia. Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler manufacture Mustangs, Camaros, and Challengers. However, they do not manufacture “new” 70 Mustangs, 70 Camaros, and 70 Challengers. They manufacture highly developed, comfortable, modern muscle cars, that meet all emission requirements, remarkably fuel efficient, are super comfortable with all the latest amenities, and have performance beyond the wildest dreams of any muscle-car buyer and professional competition drivers had available from the factory in race trim back then. Visually, they are vaguely similar to the originals.

    High performance piston single airplane manufactures are stuck with either doing a clean sheet design, using modern manufacturing methods for repeatable quality ( with all the associated costs to get certified), or resurrecting an old design necessitating it be largely hand built, in old tooling, with updated engines and avionics. No matter how good, lean, and promising either endeavor may be, the question remains…how many buyers are really out there that can write the check for $750,000 to 1 million dollars for either old school or new school airplanes in this class?

    Good ol’ capitalism, with its free market ability to separate the dreamers from reality has continually said that is about 450 globally. And that market has said it prefers new school airplanes vs old school by about 380 to 70. So now, all that has to be determined of those 70 old school buyers is, how many of those 70 want what each old school manufacturer is making? The market is saying there are less than 100 buyers a year wanting to pony up $750,000 to 1 million dollars for a great performing newly manufactured old airplane.

    These demographics have been consistent for a long time. In a market created, dominated and owned solely by Beechcraft in 1953…they manufactured 295 D-35 Bonanzas. Those numbers remained consistent even after the arrival of Mooney, Cessna, Piper, and Meyers in the late 50’s-thru the 60’s. But all of Beech’s competitors brought out airplanes to meet an expanding business market demand set forth by the benchmark Beech Model 35 design. GA high performance piston singles were needed by business back then with demonstrative positive cost vs benefit numbers. Beech competitors brought them to market while Beech still maintained a consistent market share.

    We all know modern communications has made doing business profitably quite a bit different than the “good ol’ days”. High performance piston singles sales have contracted reflecting a diminishing business demand. Of what’s left of the high performance piston single market, most want something new, rather than a new, old airplane no matter what the performance is. Of those who are happy with a new old airplane, it appears very few of those few want the legendary Mooney compared to equally legendary, yet similarly long in tooth Beech and Piper products.

    Today, who wants to step into the high performance, avgas 100 octane low lead burning, 550 cubic inch, magneto fired, mechanical fuel injected, hard to hot start, modern dual everything avionics, stuffed into a small cabin small panel, slick, hard to maintain, newly manufactured old airplane whose global market consists of approximately 70-100 buyers…if the US economy stays at current levels?