The Early Mooneys

Exploring the Type-M personality

BY MARC E. COOK (From AOPA Pilot, September 1992.)

Most pilots would say they like and enjoy their airplanes, while still others would profess to nothing less than a passionate love affair. Forget the cost of flying, the commitment to maintenance and pilot proficiency, or any individual shortcomings of the make and model. For these owners, the airplane experience is the ideal combination of a lust for flying and the stewardship of a finely honed machine, a relationship guaranteed to swell the heart at its mere mention.

And then there are the Mooney owners.

Few marques seem to call together such a diverse group of fanatics as Mooney. Arguments often fly between Mooney types and, well, everyone else: They are almost always spirited, occasionally caustic, and offer some interesting insight into the psyche of the Type-M personality. This psychological profile might read as follows: Wants to travel quickly, efficiently, no need to carry anvils. And while it's a bit far-fetched to say all Mooneys are fast and fuel-thrifty — and to say that none is a full-seats, full-fuel affair — the M20 line has distinguished itself as one that gets the most speed out of the least horsepower.

Philosophies aside, Mooney history is at once intriguing and frustrating. The company has been owned by several entities over the years, each one changing the model names and making changes both minor and major. A somewhat less tortured way to differentiate among the many models is to follow the numeric designations, like M20, M20A, and so on.

An outgrowth of the single-seat M18 Mite, the M20 series emerged in 1955 with a 150-horsepower Lycoming, constant-speed propeller, and an unusual combination of airframe materials. That first M20 model, like all those after, employs a steel-tube frame surrounding the cockpit, which is in turn sheathed by thin aluminum skins. In the early, straight-M20 model, the wing and tail both were wooden. These versions are becoming more and more rare because the wooden components require extensive inspections and often expensive maintenance. As such, keeping a wood Mooney alive could be cost-prohibitive, especially in light of the few mechanics who know how to or are willing to work on a "composite" Mooney; in fact, several prominent shops said they would not even touch a wood-wing, wood-tail model.

A metal tail came with the 1958 model, as did a 180-hp Lycoming, but the big change to the M20 came in 1961 with the B model, which sported a metal wing. It lasted one year and was followed in 1962 with the M20C, essentially the same airframe with a slightly different 180-hp Lycoming and its maximum gross weight boosted to 2,575 pounds from the B's 2,400-pound limit. This is the most common of the early Mooney models, largely because it remained in production through 1978, briefly sharing the showroom with a then-new and significantly improved M20J, the 201.

Looking for still more speed, Mooney bolted a fuel-injected 200-hp Lycoming onto the C model, and the M20E was born. Both the C- and E-model Mooneys are called the short bodies, to differentiate them from the M20F, brought out in 1967, which received a 10-inch cabin stretch. Where the F had the E's 200-hp Lycoming, Mooney also flirted with the smaller engine hung on the longer cabin and christened it the M20G when the model debuted in 1968. The G didn't last two seasons, though; the bulk of the pre-201 Mooneys are divided among the short-body, small-engine M20C (with 1,680 registered), the short-body big-engine M20E (1,121 on the books), and the stretched, 200-hp M20F (930 in the Federal Aviation Administration's logs). For comparison, the FAA had just more than 2,500 of the 201, 231, 252, PFM, and TLS models registered.

Not all Mooneys proved successful. Oddities of the line include the pressurized M22 Mustang (see "Mooney Mustang: Flight Level Pony," August 1991 Pilot), the re-tailed Ercoupe called the M10, and the fixed-gear M20D. The D never met with much success and could be easily and inexpensively converted to retractable gear. Many more Ds have been converted to de facto C models than survive unscathed.

Simplicity and ruggedness have been Mooney hallmarks since the beginning, and the M20C shows these qualities as true virtues. Take the systems, for example. Early Mooneys have the much-talked-about manual gear system, one highly prized by the airplanes' owners. A hefty shaft that runs between the seats provides enough leverage for the average pilot to snick the wheels up in the flash of a wrist. With the gear down, the handle resides against the nosewheel well, perpendicular to the floor. To raise the gear, you release a safety catch, glance down to make sure nobody's hand is in the way, and, with one swift movement, shove the bar backwards and parallel to the floor. It will find another catch, and the wheels will be up faster than it takes to describe the motion.

Another example of the M20's simplicity is the shock-absorbing medium of the gear: rubber biscuits. No need to worry about a flat strut or loss of hydraulic fluid because the rubber doughnuts do all the work. By all accounts, occasional replacement of the hockey-puck-sized pieces and annual lubrication is about all the maintenance the Mooney gear requires.

One more unusual feature of the early M20s is the hydraulic flap system. To drop the flaps, you position a small lever to the Down position and pump on a small chrome handle. As you pump, the flaps come down incrementally. Like the manual gear, this is a wonderful system to fly with because you can keep your eyes out of the cockpit and make precise flap changes simply by the number of times you pump the lever. In the mid-1960s, Mooney went about replacing the manual gear with electrics and, in the late 1960s, switching the hydraulic lever for a switch.

It's usually speed, not systems, Mooney lovers dwell upon. Owners of 180-hp, short-body airplanes say to count on a maximum cruise speed of 140 to 147 knots, with the company claiming 150 as the 75-percent-power cruise. With the smaller fuselage and the larger engine, the M20E is supposed to turn in nearly 160 knots at optimum altitude, although owners admit that 155 knots is about right for an unmodified airplane. Compare this to a 200-hp Piper Arrow with its 143-knot maximum cruise, and you see why the Mooney nuts like to talk about speed. The long-fuselage airplanes, by the way, are 4 to 6 knots slower.

Those Mooney owners also like to boast of range and endurance. In the early airplanes, fuel capacity is 48 gallons usable, which, at a typical fuel burn of 8.5 gallons per hour, provides 5.6 hours' endurance with no reserves. The last of the 200-hp airplanes had the larger 64-gallon tanks. Larger tanks can be fitted to either series.

Pilots tired of hearing Mooney owners crow about cruise speeds often point out that the M20 generally is not a great load-hauler. Part of the reason is that the robust structure is also heavy: Most M20Cs weigh between 1,600 and 1,650 pounds empty, which gives a useful load of about 925 pounds. Figure on full fuel and about 640 pounds of passengers and cargo, or three FAA-standard adults and their bags. For the 200-hp M20E and M20F, the useful load is marginally greater, with the increased maximum gross weight of 2,740 pounds partly taken up by higher empty weights. Comparably equipped Piper Arrows tend to be 100 to 200 pounds lighter than the Mooneys, with similar maximum-gross limits. At least the airplane is difficult to load out of CG.

Whatever the useful load, there are some practical limits as to what you can get into a Mooney. Despite plaintive cries of the faithful, one can hardly sit in an M20 and not think: "This is not the largest cabin I've seen." Although the measuring tape says the cabin is comparable to other four-place retractables, the perception is that the cockpit is not as large. You sit with your legs stretched deep into the footwells, with the panel close to your chest. In the short-body airplanes, especially, the rear seat cramps legs and feet, a major reason Mooney brought out the stretched models.

This smallish cockpit joins with arcane instrument panel configurations in the early airplanes to cause some head-scratching for pilots brought up with the Basic-T arrangement. Mooney really didn't get its panel act together until the latest M20F and M20C models, and so the elder airplanes prove ripe for a panel swap. Another ergonomic quirk — standard orientation of the engine controls in the C models was throttle, mixture, prop. One ought to look twice before pulling knobs.

Just as the Mooney's cabin proportions are different from the Cessnas and Pipers of the world, so are its handling characteristics. Many pilots moving into Mooneys — especially those coming from Bonanzas — tend to use adjectives like "truckish" and "ponderous" to describe the airplane's handling. While it's true that the M20's push-rod linkages limit aileron leverage and the artificial feel brought by the springs in the control system require some acclimatization, the result is more different than bad.

Among the high points of the Mooney's handling qualities is excellent longitudinal stability. Trim it for an airspeed, and it tends to hold it without much work on the pilot's part. Most models made in the 1960s used what Mooney called "PC," or positive control. It was a simple vacuum-based wing leveler that was always on; you had to press a button on the control wheel to interrupt it for maneuvering.

Pitch trim is accomplished by moving the entire empennage just aft of the horizontal stabilizer's leading edge, which is why the trim is often a bit stiff — you're moving more than just a little tab back there, after all — and the electric trim in later models can be painfully slow. You'll notice this especially during deployment of the last third of the flaps; there's a strong nose-down pitching moment that should be countered with trim. Watch the go- around, too because you'll need a hefty push on the yoke to counteract the trim change with flap retraction.

When moving into a Mooney, the first thing a pilot tends to hear of is the airplane's tough-to-land reputation. This is far more pilot-lounge talk than reality if you keep some things in mind. Even with the gear out, the M20's clean aerodynamics come into play, and getting one to decelerate and descend can call for a large power reduction — the gear has low extension speeds, too, like 108 knots in the C model. Pilots often find shedding speed and altitude challenging and tend to fly the airplane faster than necessary on approach. In addition, the airplane's slipperiness combined with short, stiff landing gear make it the quintessential floater.

So if you come over the numbers with a bit of excess airspeed, you can count on watching a healthy bit of runway slip past before the airplane even considers landing. Many Mooney accidents are the result of the pilot trying to force the airplane onto the runway, often nosewheel first, leading to a porpoise. The undamped gear only makes this situation worse. The trick, then, is to fly at the right speed (1.3 times VSO, corrected for weight, works just fine in a Mooney), and don't rush the sequence.

Problems stemming from rough landings are one of the few maintenance concerns with early Mooneys. Nosewheel steering has limited travel, and ramp personnel sometimes exceed the towing limits, which does a fair bit of harm to the stops — it's good form to caution them before you leave the ramp. Otherwise, the gear and basic airframe are solid and relatively low- maintenance.

Corrosion of the steel frame has been a problem for some airplanes left outside, and a service bulletin addresses methods of inspection and repair. Make sure any M20 considered for purchase has this SB (Mooney number M20-208A) complied with. Another item to look for is the condition of the fuel tanks. They are simply bays in the wing sealed to hold fuel, and the sealant begins to deteriorate over time. Resealing a tank is a big chore and difficult to accomplish.

Purchasing an early Mooney should not be so hard on the bank account, though. According to the Aircraft Bluebook-Price Digest, the average retail price of a 1961 M20B is $19,500, ranging upward to $23,500 for a 1964 M20C, $24,500 for a 200-hp M20E, $29,500 for a 1967 M20F, and finally to $39,500 for a last-year (1978) M20C and $41,500 for a 1977 M20F. A first-year (1977) 201 will set you back $49,000, according to the Bluebook, reflecting its extra speed and arguably better looks. In the early M20C, especially, you get a lot of performance for the money.

If you decide to join the Mooney fraternity, two peripheral items should be considered. First, find a reputable Mooney shop; the airplanes are different in construction and maintenance than most makes, and you'll be financing some A&P's education if yours is the first Mooney he's seen in awhile. Second, get in touch with the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association (512/525-8008). This is a group that can provide tremendous advice to the Mooney owner, gives flight training clinics, can help with difficult-to-find parts, and maintains an insurance program to boot.

Okay, and maybe there's a third item for the new Mooney owner. Get catalogs from the two major Mooney modification shops — Coy Jacob's Mod Works (800/252-0231) and Paul Loewen's Lake Aero Styling (707/263-0412). Similarities in airframe and powerplant have made the M20 series a modifier's dream come true. Among the most popular mods are late-model windows, refined cowlings (the standard cowls used dozens of machine screws and were difficult to remove for maintenance), a one-piece belly pan (popular for the same reasons as the cowling update), and various speed mods. You can, with the right infusion of cash and effort, turn an M20C into a spitting image of a 201, right down to the wing tips and instrument panel. Of course, you might end up spending a sum equal to the value of the basic airframe to do it — and it's highly unlikely you'll get much of that investment back when it's time to sell — but you wouldn't be alone. There are a number of owners who have doubled their investments in early Mooneys through modification — which is probably the ultimate expression of the Type-M personality.

Mooney M20C
Average used retail price: $21,500-$39,500
PowerplantLycoming O-360-A1D, 180 hp at 2,700 rpm
Length23 ft 2 in
Height8 ft 4 in
Wingspan35 ft
Wing area172 sq ft
Wing loading15 lb/sq ft
Power loading14.3 lb/hp
Empty weight, typical1,650 lb
Max takeoff weight2,575 lb
Fuel capacity, std52 gal (48 gal usable)
Takeoff distance, ground roll815 ft
Takeoff distance over 50-ft obstacle1,250 ft
Rate of climb, sea level800 fpm
Max level speed, sea level165 kt
Cruise speed (fuel consumption)
@ 75 percent power, 7,500 feet158 kt (9.5 gph/57 pph)
Landing distance over 50-ft obstacle1,550 ft
Landing distance, ground roll595 ft
Limiting and Recommended Airspeeds
VA (design maneuvering)115 KIAS
VNO (max structural cruising)130 KIAS
VS1 (stall, clean)58 KIAS
VSO (stall, flaps)50 KIAS
All specifications are based on manufacturer's calculations. All performance figures are based on standard day, standard atmosphere, sea level, gross weight conditions unless otherwise noted.

Safety Record

Most common accidents: There were 303 total accidents listed for the M20 series (which includes all airplanes from the M20A to the M20M TLS) in the AOPA Air Safety Foundation General Aviation Accident Analysis Book for the years 1982-1988. By far, the worst accident category for the M20 series is continued or initiated VFR into instrument conditions: 26 accidents resulted in 49 fatalities. Accidents related to the landing gear, including failure to extend it, involved 21 airplanes with two fatalities. There were 59 landing accidents, the vast majority of them overshoots, followed by a good number of loss-of-control in gusty/crosswind conditions. Of the 22 accidents precipitated by engine failures, the single largest subset was three connecting rod bolt failures. Nine accidents following power loss during takeoff, cruise, or approach were for undetermined reasons.

Pros and Cons



How It Compares

ModelMax Cruise/KTASUseful LoadAvg. Retail $
1970 Mooney M20C150975$29,000
1970 Piper Arrow 1801411,080$28,000
1972 Commander 1121301,020$27,900
1971 Cessna Cardinal RG1401,170$28,500
1970 Beech A24R Sierra1311,140$20,500