Turning the Page at Mooney


What to make of Mooney’s new M20V Acclaim Ultra? It’s at once more than I ever expected and less than I might have wished. Then again, in this business, the survivors learn that the orbits of expectation rarely intersect with those of reality and we all know about wishes, horses and beggars. But give the company and the airplane its due: In the Acclaim Ultra, the original M20 DNA–which dates to light aircraft design more than a half century old–isn’t just vaguely visible, it’s at the head of the parade. It’s a pretty solid birthright.

In my view, that says less about the original Mooney idea than it does about modern aircraft design progress, or lack of it. A state-of-the-art Cirrus SR22T is 20-plus knots slower than the Acclaim Ultra and aesthetically, the two are co-equals. That ancient backwards tail plays as well as it ever did and, anyway, these days, all the magic flows from the panel real estate that, whether intended or not, anesthetizes the front seaters to how fast the terrain is actually whizzing by outside the windows.

In 2014, Cirrus sold 277 SR22s; Mooney sold one Acclaim, by dint of having been in the midst of shaking off a multi-year hibernation. Yet even before that, Cirrus outsold Mooney by six or eight to one. Why is that? People who say the answer to this is obvious know a lot more or a lot less about why people buy airplanes than I do. Cabin size is often cited as the deal killer and it may very well be. There’s not much Mooney can do about this, but in adding a second door to the Acclaim on the pilot’s side, Mooney has at least addressed the ingress/egress issue. For me, this is the exceeding expectations part because I wouldn’t have thought it technically practical to do this in an economical way that would prove certifiable. But then I’ll concede to being mired in a universe of half empty glasses when, indeed, there are any glasses at all.

What about the parachute? The Mooney doesn’t have one, the Cirrus does. That this is a factor in Cirrus’ success is inarguable, although how much of a factor isn’t. This is the less-than-I would-have-wished part, for it would be nice to see the Acclaim equipped with the BRS for no other reason than to see what would happen if it were on more equal footing with the Cirrus. It would lose some payload, of course, but most four-place airplanes these days are flown with one or two people aboard, not three or four. Unfortunately, the certification costs involved in a BRS system for a legacy model would make a return on the investment untenable in the current market environment.

Other wishes? Not many, actually. Not wanting to ignite more panty twisting about the cost of new airplanes, I no longer wail about sticker price. Prices are what they are and they aren’t going to retreat sans a great gust of volume and maybe not even then. The Acclaim’s $700,000-plus price tag confirms the general direction of what GA airplanes of this class cost. Are we due for electronic controls on gasoline engines by now? The new Mooney doesn’t have that and neither does Cirrus. This is a perennial cudgel with which to bash the supposedly hopelessly outdated GA industry and although I’ve pointed out that the industry did develop such controls two decades ago to a chilly market reception, the complaints persist.

For me personally, if I could afford to own an airplane like the M20V, I don’t care if it has electronic controls and single-lever power or clanging magnetos; spark is spark. I can handle a blue knob, and a red one. I have a suspicion buyers share this view, suggesting that many of us are digitally enhanced dinosaurs, but dinosaurs nonetheless. Oh, one thing: I wish it had sticks, but then I wish that about everything I fly, even airplanes with sidestick controllers. (Ever wonder how or why controller got appended to that? I can’t answer it but I wouldn’t be surprised if Airbus had something to do with it.)

Now, let me momentarily mount a favorite hobbyhorse and talk about marketing and communications, or marcomm as we say in the journalism biz. Not quite as a rule, but frequently, aircraft manufacturers roll out a new model at a show like AirVenture or Sun ‘n Fun and just as frequently I point out that this approach isn’t five minutes ago, it’s genuine cutting-edge last-century marketing. The better way is to follow the lead of motorcycle manufacturers who regularly have press launches at some exotic locale to which they fly all the journalists, throw a big party and everyone geeks and gawks at the new hardware. Social media goes nuts and the new bike is the second coming. Mooney did a version of that here, a first for them, I’m pretty sure, and a first for me too on a new airplane intro. Rotax has done this with engine intros, no doubt because their bread is buttered by the motorcycle and recreational markets.

The companies can say what they want about the tilt toward intros at shows, but the off-site rollout produces more and more accurate press that gets better play because the news isn’t buried in the flood of stuff coming out of a typical AirVenture. It gives the company the advantage of a big slug of coverage and a secondary wave when they subsequently show the new model at the first show and it guarantees that no news organization will short-shrift the story because they’re too busy at the show. Moreover, if the company does it at its home base, they get to strut their stuff and show what the factory and the support system is all about. Mooney’s Tom Bowen had told me they’d made major investments in the factory and boy, he wasn’t kidding. It was worth the trip to see it and it informs the story of Mooney’s resurgence.

Now we get to sit back and watch if the investment in Mooney by Chinese interests will breathe life into the company in the same way engineers and designers have improved the M20. I almost typed “revived” there, but that wouldn’t be right, much less fair. The M20TN Acclaim has the same basic performance as the new Acclaim Ultra and is by no means entirely outclassed by the Ultra. What tanked sales was the broader economic downturn. In every review I’ve done on Mooneys for at least the past decade and a half, I’ve argued that despite the complex metal build, the snug cabin and the sometimes troublesome wet wings, the modern long-body Mooneys are functionally as good as anything flying to get from A to B. If you think the design is dated, well maybe so, but that old bucket of rivets just passed you going 25 knots faster.

More Grim News on Sales

From the other folder in the expectations drawer comes this week’s announcement from GAMA that GA sales were down in 2015 over the previous year. This is of no surprise at all to anyone following GAMA’s quarterly reports and since there wasn’t a spike in sales during the last quarter, it was merely a question of waiting for the hammer to drop. It did, with piston sales down 6.5 percent against an overall drop of 4.5 for the GA segment.

I’ve given up speculating on why this so, since the most recent unemployment numbers are below 5 percent and overall economic growth is tagged at about 2.5 percent. True, the stock market is volatile, but airplane sales sagged before that trend developed. On the plus side, Cirrus had a strong year, but was still down to 301 SR airplanes over 2014’s 308. That’s close enough to call flat.

Is this depressing market ever going to turn upward? Hell if I know. Maybe the world already has enough or even too many airplanes for the dwindling number of people who wish to commit aviation. I actually think that’s true, at least for the short term, even as we desperately try to interest younger people in flying airplanes with marketing and outreach schemes that fail to move the needle much.

Where that leaves a company like Mooney is in a tight niche market where survival will be dictated by a combination of the major gains they’re making in manufacturing technology and a steady diet of outside aerospace work to keep the shops busy. There’s nothing new about this; Mooney has done it for years and so have other companies. However, the company now has some tools it didn’t have even a decade ago and I see this everywhere I go in manufacturing. Flexible machining, new processes and materials and cross-trained labor make factory floors, on a square footage basis, more efficient and versatile than they have ever been. The relentless mantras of lean manufacturing and just-in-time inventorying aren’t just MBA buzzwords, but rules to live or die by.