Buying A Used Aircraft: Mooney M20J

This four-place, low-wing, retractable-gear piston single is known for its respectable cruise speeds and superior fuel economy. But don’t shortchange the training, or underestimate the need for solid maintenance. The wreck reports reinforce that pilots new to the Mooney mystique need to mind the airspeed on final, while owners advise to expect maintenance surprises between annual inspections.

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Pilots who have trained in fixed landing-gear airplanes like the Piper Warrior, or the Cessna 172, have long considered a Mooney M20J the logical step-up, as experience begins to gel and additional ratings appear in the logbook. Mooney M20Js typically achieve airspeeds north of 150 knots, and the 201 is known for its low fuel consumption rate of around 11 GPH. This combination of speed and economy is what makes the Mooney M20J attractive, and “Mooniacs,” as they like to call themselves, are legion. Still, several ownership and management changes (and some shutdowns) over the past several years at the company’s Kerrville, Texas, plant may be cause for concern when considering the long-term supportability of the sizable fleet, although there’s currently an acceptable parts supply and decent tech support, we’re told. There are lots of airplanes to support.

More than 11,000 Mooneys have been built, beginning with the Mooney Mite in 1947. This single-engine, single-seat, low-powered aircraft had obvious limitations. But it was the progenitor of Mooney’s distinctive design—with an upright vertical stabilizer, slender wings, retractable landing gear and relatively high cruise speeds—establishing Mooney as a player in the growing post-World War II aviation industry. Several unique attributes contributed to Mooney performance: Its low-drag frontal area gave it an aerodynamically refined shape; its push-rod control actuators, not cables and bell cranks, contributed to the airplane’s tight, positive responsiveness; and the Mooney M20J’s elevator pitch was accomplished by moving the entire tail assembly, a low-drag solution that added to the Mooney’s speed advantage over other four-seat single-engine airplanes.

Mooney M20J Review: Solid Roots Make It Special

These design features can be found in the Mooney M20J’s immediate predecessor, and all succeeding modifications and variants thereafter. The Mooney M20J’s offspring include the Mooney PFM, a short-lived project with automaker Porsche, and the turbocharged, oxygen-equipped Mooney M20K. More recent versions include the M20R Ovation, and the Mooney M20L or “long-body,” which led to the Mooney M20M Bravo and the last M20J to roll off the line—the Allegro. The theme along this path has always been bigger, faster, more efficient.

Mooney M20J Interior

While Cessna and Piper airplanes have more upright, lounge-chair type seating, all the Mooneys can be characterized by a kind of sports-car feel, with legs stretched out in front like you’re driving an old MG. There is plenty of elbow room, but this sports-car feel is a consequence of the airplane’s small frontal area, which contributes to the M20J’s speed. There is a downside to the airplane’s sleek aerodynamic design. Some shops call it the “Mooney factor,” which means more time on the shop floor for upgrades and upkeep because of limited access to systems without sizable teardown—including the single-piece riveted avionics radio stacks in early-gen models, as one example.

Also, the airplane’s slick aerodynamic profile means it can be a handful in the landing pattern, as all that speed needs to be scrubbed off for landing. Landing gear extension speeds need to be met, flaps need to be introduced carefully, and positive speed management must be maintained to avoid hard, prop-strike bounces and even overshoots.

A glance at the most recent NTSB accident stats confirms landing-related mishaps (runway loss of control, or RLOC) outnumber engine-mechanical, fuel related, or inflight loss of control. The key? Solid transition training, and always nailing the airspeed early in the landing descent and through the landing flare. From our experience, Precise Flight speedbrakes—a common aftermarket mod—can help.

Mooney Aircraft’s Loyal Followers

Like most complex piston singles, the current market for good M20J models is strong. The latest Aircraft Bluebook suggests a 1980 M20J retails for around $82,000, but well-maintained ones with new avionics, paint and other upgrades sell for a lot more. Mooneys boast a loyal following, and a strong owners group called The Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association (mooneypilots.org) is worth the membership even when shopping for a Mooney. Members have access to operating tips, technical resources, training and camaraderie.

For a deeper dive on the Mooney M20J, head to Aviation Consumer and the Used Aircraft Guide, where you’ll get a detailed model history, historical resale values, recent FAA AD’s, competing model speed/payload/price comparisons and a detailed current NTSB accident scan summary.

Timothy Cole has served more than 30 years as chief content officer of Belvoir Media Group, publisher of AVweb.com, Aviation Consumer, Aviation Safety, and IFR. He is an instrument-rated private pilot and has approximately 1,300 hours in a succession of Mooney M20Js.  In previous reporting assignments, Tim wrote about climate change research at The South Pole, the Russian space program, America's nuclear Navy and first-person accounts of flying aboard a variety of American military aircraft, from the B1-B Lancer to the F-18 Hornet, to the B-52 Stratofortress, and the Hercules LC-130 used for Antarctic transport. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with his wife, Sarah Smedley.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Flying the M20 & M21 on charter flights in the early 60s was NOT pleasurable!
    Meaning, because of the mechanical disadvantage of the aileron control was tiring.
    It was an effort keeping the wings level, definitely NOT the slight pressure we need
    in a C182 for instance.
    Mooney incorporated a feature called PC – (Positive Control) a system to keep the wings level as owners were bitching about the aileron control pressure.

    The reason for this design was because the max control wheel deflection was about 45 deg as compared to 90 in other planes. (Because your knees were in the way). Tight fit

    • Mr. Bart: If you find yourself having to hold uncomfortable control pressures on the aileron during cruise, the airplane is most likely out of rig or the aileron control system has not been properly lubricated. I have certainly experienced what you are talking about but find that proper care and maintenance goes a long way toward ameliorating that problem.

      That having been said, I do like having an autopilot in the Mooney for long cross country flights. My longest cross-country leg in a Mooney to date is 17.5 hours. I was glad to have an autopilot. Even so, had the autopilot failed I would have had no problem hand-flying the aircraft. I would just have spent more time balancing the airplane in roll by switching tanks.

      • Brian, you had misunderstood my meaning of control pressure.
        I had NOT implied that a CONSTANT pressure had to be applied – just keeping the wings level when needed.
        I have hundreds of hours in them.

        BTW, I am also an A&P (maintenance was part of my job).

        • No worries. Yes, required control force is higher with the Mooney than with some other aircraft due to the reduced mechanical advantage as you state. On the other hand, in my opinion, it is not excessive for hand-flying the airplane … if the aileron control system is properly maintained. I have seen and flown some neglected Mooneys in my day and they definitely had unreasonably high control forces.

          So, I am not disputing what you are saying, and agree with your later comments. Good flying to you and Merry Christmas.

  2. As a CFI who specializes in Mooney training, an owner of several Mooneys over the years, and a solo circumnavigator in an M20K “231” I feel I must suggest several small additionas to Tim Cole’s article.

    Mr. Cole stated that the Mooney “201” will achieve airspeeds “north of 150kts” on 11gph. For the M20J both of these numbers are pessimistic. When I fly a 201 I expect to see a 75% power speed and fuel burn of 165 KTAS and 10gph. If I fly at my preferred speed (Carson’s speed of 125KIAS) and power setting (65% power) I expect to find myself just shy of 160 KTAS and 8-8.5gph. That’s right, I expect to see something close to 20nm/gallon. This is why I chose the Mooney for my circumnavigation. Yes, I also teach lean-of-peak operation.

    As for the landing characteristics, being “on speed” on final is critical to avoid the “Mooney Bounce”. One of the biggest problems I have as a CFI helping pilots to transition to the Mooney is getting them to slow down. After 1979 Mooney published approach speeds by gross weight in the landing performance chart and point out that they are there for a reason. (The published speeds are 1.3Vs0 for the current aircraft gross weight.) Pilots transitioning to older Mooneys without the speed chart are taught how to quickly calculate 1.3Vs0. I explain that this is a UPPER bound to approach speed, not lower bound. If they exceed this speed on final they have to accept and allow for a LOT of float before touching down. If they try to force the aircraft onto the ground early, they WILL experience the Mooney Bounce. The only acceptable fix for that is to go around.

    With regard to speed brakes, the only time I have really found them useful is in a high-speed descent in the newer long-body Mooneys. Even then, and without speed brakes, getting the aircraft to gear speed and putting down the gear to slow down is easy. During transition training I will not allow the transitioning pilot to use speed brakes. They really aren’t necessary and as you get down below 100KIAS they have little effect anyway, making them less-than-useful to slow the airplane down to proper approach speed. Of far greater usefulness is descending to pattern altitude before reaching 5nm from the airport. When not descending the Mooney slows right down at reduced power. Descend to TPA, reduce power, and all Mooneys will quickly slow down to pattern and approach speeds.

    The Mooney is a very straight-forward airplane to fly and excels at fast, comfortable, and economic cross-country flight. Its handling characteristics are crisp yet docile. The hangar talk of Mooneys being dangerous to stall is complete hogwash. Yes it is true that if you manage to get the Mooney into a fully-developed spin (difficult but not impossible to do) it may be difficult to get out again. On the other hand, if you get that far you have failed in basic stall/spin awareness.

    Thanks for mentioning this delightful cross-country traveler. For those of us who tend to travel in pairs (I really think of the Mooney as a 2-place aircraft) and want to travel on a budget using GA, the Mooney, any Mooney, is hard to beat.

  3. I don’t agree, I am an A&P, IA and have flown and maintained everything from the Mite, M18 to the Acclaim M20TN. There are other models than the J. People complain about the Mooney being too small it is 1.25 wider than the Bonanza. Another plus is that it has a full roll bar and is safe.
    Yes speed on landing must be kept, if too fast pull the nose up a bit and bleed off a bit of speed. Every model has its landing & take off speed, KNOW WHAT IT IS. This is one of the best short field aircraft out there. I also like the M20A, Wood Wing as it will keep up with a M20J.
    Yes they are tight to work on but if you know the Mooney they are easy. I prefer the older models with the Johnson Bar & manual Flaps.
    Boyd