The Al Mooney Legacy – A History

Al Mooney’s love affair with aviation began on December 3, 1939 when his first design, the Culver Cadet, flew for the first time. In the post-war years Mooney was moderately successful with his M-18 Mite aircraft, and, although under-powered, this design would form the basis for his most famous design, the Mooney M-20.
Mooney M-18 Mite N3199K suspended from the roof of the National Air and Space Museum, Udvar Hazy Center.
The M-20 was larger, faster and more powerful than it’s predecessor but it was just as simple to fly and own. The best ideas learned from the M-18 project trickled down into the M-20 and are still apparent on the latest M-20 aircraft available almost 70 years later such as:
  • The strong and simple rubber puck undercarriage.
  • The P-51 derived laminar-flow single piece wing.
  • The 4130 chromoly steel welded roll cage.
  • The unique Mooney all-trimming tail.
 ZS-NYU- A pristine example of a 1964 Mooney M-20C, Serial Number 2726, Photographed in December 2017 at SA Mooney Sales and Services, Port Alfred, South Africa, by Phil Venter
  Fast forward a few years to 1962 – the Baby-Boomers were growing up and looking for something special in the aircraft they flew. These weren’t your average Cessna and Piper guys; they were looking for speed, efficiency and style at an affordable price. Enter, the Mooneys M-20C (180HP Short Body), M-20D (180HP, Short Body, Fixed Gear), M-20E (200HP Short Body), M-20F (200HP Medium Body) and M-20G (180HP, Medium Body). The new range of M-20s became the quintessential businessman’s travel machine of choice throughout the ’60s and early ’70s. To supplement the M20 line, Mooney began development of a high-performance pressurised single, the M-22. Nicknamed “Mustang”, it first flew in September 1965 and was certified two years later. The project ultimately proved unsuccessful, but Mooney gained knowledge which would be used to great effect with their other pressurised aircraft endeavors.
A 1969 M-22 Mustang getting airborne. One of the last to be produced.

Butler Aviation (1970-1973)

Despite strong sales of the M20, Mooney was short of cash. The development of the M22 Mustang had cost more than expected, and was ultimately unsuccessful. Although a collaboration with Mitsubishi on their MU-2 project had come with substantial financial assistance, the burden proved too much for the company to handle. It went into chapter 7 bankruptcy in early 1969; American Electronics Laboratories quickly acquired Mooney in March of that year and, athough a new model, the M20E Chapparal, was released with electrically-operated flaps and landing gear, AEL was unable to turn the company around and sold Mooney to Butler Aviation International in December 1969. Butler Aviation also acquired the troubled Aerostar company and combined it with Mooney in an attempt to save both. The Mooney name was dropped in 1970, as was the M20 designation; the planes were called Aerostars. This did not fare well with loyal Mooney owners and by 1971, Butler Aviation was on the brink of closing the plants.

Republic Steel (1973-1984)

Republic Steel acquired Mooney in October 1973, nearly two years after Butler Aviation had closed the Kerrville plant. Production resumed in 1974 with the medium bodied M-20F. There was a need for fresh minds and clever engineering to update the now-aging M-20C and M-20F airframes. Within 90 days of Republic first signing the deal, Roy LoPresti was appointed and served as Mooney’s Vice President of Engineering from December 1973 through July 1984, after which he assumed the position of President of Mooney Aircraft Corporation from August 1984 through October 1985.
Mooney M-20F ZS-EUC and M-20C ZS-CBE flying in formation over the South African Eastern Cape coastline. Photo by John Miller

Rise of the Speed Merchant

LeRoy Patrick “Roy” LoPresti (June 9, 1929 – August 7, 2002)
Roy LoPresti, formerly of Grumman Aerospace where he had worked on aircraft design and the Apollo Lunar Module convinced the marketing department that more power wasn’t necessary, but rather a redesign of the aerodynamics in order to squeeze more efficiency out of the M-20 airframe. LoPresti solved the remaining aerodynamic idiosyncrasies in the M-20F airframe by modifying the following items:
  • A new cowling design and air intake that was 70% smaller, but provided the same amount of cooling air to the engine, thereby reducing drag.
  • A single piece, raked back windshield.
  • The landing gear doors were re-engineered to partially cover the wheels and wheel-wells.
  • Flush rivets – The little bumps dotted around the airframe were faired-in, or, as with inspection and access panels, replaced with flat screws.
  • The engine exhaust stacks were raised to reduce drag.
  • The flap hinges were faired-in.
  • The addition of flap gap seals.
  • Aerodynamic seals on the tail feathers.
The Mooney M- 20J, otherwise known as the “201” first flew in 1976 and became the first all-metal monoplane to do one mile-per-hour per one horsepower. That’s a healthy 201mph with only 200 engine horsepower. The “201” was such a smash hit that design commenced on the first turbocharged Mooney, what was to become the M20K, almost immediately.
An all-original 1981 Mooney M20J 201, ZS-LDA, Photographed at Rand Airport, Germiston South Africa, 2014, by Jonathan Tager.

The Record Breakers

The Mooney M-20K first appeared in 1979. It incorporated all the aerodynamic improvements pioneered in the 201, but with a few further improvements added into the mix to create one seriously fast machine for the horsepower on tap. They were:
  • An increase in wingspan from 35ft to 36ft,1inch.
  • A NACA duct and scoop was designed into the dorsal fin to improve cabin ventilation and reduce cabin vent cooling drag, making for a quieter cabin overall.
  • New wing tips with enclosed navigation and strobe lights allowed better slow speed control.
  • Fuel capacity increased to 80 gallons.
  • A six-cylinder Continental engine with turbocharging by Rajay.
  • An elevator downspring with bobweight aided in meeting the FAA’s “hands-off trim” requirements.
The standard, out-of-the-box 1979-1980 version of the Mooney M-20K yielded an impressive 231mph at 16000ft altitude, forever known as the “231”. This was just the beginning.
1981 Mooney M-20K 231 ZS-LEZ, photographed at SA Mooney, July 2006, by John Miller
“7 January 1980: In response to a challenge, Alan W. Gerhartner, Chief Flight Instructor of Logan and Reavis Air, Inc., Medford, Oregon, flew a four-place, single-engine Mooney M20K, N231LR, serial number 25-0025, from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Washington National Airport (DCA) in 8 hours, 4 minutes, 25 seconds. This qualified as a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) and U.S. National Speed Record of 486.20 kilometers per hour (302.11 miles per hour). Gerhartner had beaten the previous record held by a Malvern Gross, Jr., flying a Cessna T210, N5119V, by 3 hours, 3 minutes, 23 seconds. Gerhartner had made temporary modifications to the Mooney for this flight. He had two 25 gallon (94.6 liter) fuel tanks mounted in place of the rear seats, bringing the airplane’s total fuel capacity to 122 gallons (462 liters). The right front seat was removed and two oxygen tanks installed. In an effort to reduce aerodynamic drag, he removed the boarding step at the trailing edge of the right wing.” – by Bryan R. Swopes  
The Mooney 301 on landing. Only the prototype aircraft ever flew as the 301 before the project was cancelled.

The Mooney 301

The Mooney 301 differed from the M-20 in details such as an aft-sloping vertical fin, as opposed to the vertical leading edge with forward-swept trailing edge M20 fin, a lower-set engine with small cooling-air inlets, and fixed horizontal stabilizers with trim tab-equipped elevators, as opposed to the pivoting-empennage M20 design. The wing was similar to the wing on the M20, slightly longer by just less than 1ft,  the airfoil was a low-drag design with double-slotted Fowler flaps covering 90% of the trailing-edge length. The 301 featured slotted ailerons on the remaining 10%, and spoilers mounted on the wing’s upper surfaces ahead of the flaps to assist the ailerons. The fuselage pressure vessel operated at 5.0 psig, which would provide an equivalent cabin pressure of slightly lower than 9000′ MSL when operated at 25,000 MSL. As with the 201, the 301’s designation came from its projected top speed, 262 knots, or 301 miles per hour.    

The Two-Five-Two

Like it’s predecessors, the Mooney M-20K “252TSE” was named for it’s top speed. While it still bore the M-20K model designation, it would be fair to characterise the 252 as the beginning of the new generation of Mooneys.
Two Mooney 252s, ZS-SGR, a 1987 Model and ZS-OFA, a 1998 Encore standing nose-to-nose at SA Mooney Sales and Services. Note the rounded window corners which are a giveaway if you can’t decide whether the Mooney you are looking at is a 231 or a 252. Photographed May 2014 by Phil Venter
The levels of performance sophistication increased dramatically in the years between the launch of the 231 and the 252, more specifically, with the addition of the:
  • Garrett variable wastegate controller.
  • New Intercooled Continental TSIO-360-MB1 engine.
  • Single electrically operated cowl flap.
  • Tuned induction system.
  • NASA induction air inlet.
  • Inboard landing gear doors to completely close-out the landing gear and wheel wells, almost completely eliminating the associated drag.
The 252TSE was so dramatically improved that it’s cruise speed equaled the top speed of the 231. Power remained at 210HP, but the new MB1 engine came with a Garrett turbocharger and automatic wastegate, enabling a certification for FL280. The 252 was also the first Mooney launched with the new generation rounded window corners.

Ling-Temco-Vought (1984-1984)

Republic Steel was purchased by LTV Corporation in 1984. LTV had no interest in the legal liability surrounding small aircraft at the time and indicated that Mooney be sold. The keys to the company were briefly held with a 51% share belonging to the Mooney Holding Corporation (Texas) and a 49% share belonging Mooney Holding Corporation (Delaware). Delaware exercised their option to buy all shares. Mooney Aircraft Co. was transferred to the owners, Mr Armand Rivard and Mr. Alexandre Couvelaire with the financial backing of French investor Michael Seydoux.

Armand Rivard of Lake Aircraft and Alexandre Couvelaire of Uralaire (1984-1997)

The french owners embarked on a drive to produce an “accessible aircraft” and the M20J “Lean Machine”was born, coming in at under $100,000 for a full IFR aircraft but with no other bells and whistles. This was the best value-for-money aircraft on the market. In June 1985 a few Mooneys took part in different categories in the CAFE 400 race (Competition in Aircraft Fuel Efficiency). A stock M20J 201 won the “Production Showroom Stock” category. Another won third place. In the “Modified Production Airplane” category, Mooneys won first, second and third place. Out of the six prizes available, Mooney walked away with five.

The 205 and the Porsche Experiment

ZS-MWO, a 1990 Mooney M20J MSE in the flair during the 2016 South African Presidents Trophy Air Race. She posted a respectable 6th place overall. Photo by Stephan Rossouw
Following the success of the Mooney 252, it was an inevitability to take the M20J airframe, make it look more modern by rounding the window corners and add to it all the aerodynamic lessons learned while developing the 252TSE. The result was the Mooney M20J “205”. Slightly faster and more efficient than the 201 with the instrument panel design and interior comfort from the 252. This is the pinnacle of efficiency for the medium body Mooneys. While the smaller, naturally aspirated engine provided enough grunt for most situations, Mooney’s new owners decided to improve on the concept and entered into a deal with renowned carmaker Porsche to develop an aero version of their auto engine. Porsche came to the party with the PFM3200 engine, a 217HP, air (by way of ducted fan) cooled, horizontally opposed 6-Cylinder engine with two alternators, two high tension distributors and provision for dual vacuum pumps. The design was ahead of its time in terms of operation: Gone were the typical throttle, mixture and pitch knobs, to be replaced by only one power lever. Fuel mixture and propeller RPM were automatically adjusted to suit the required power level selected within the parameters dictated by the outside conditions. A prototype of this engine flew around the world in a Mooney 231 airframe, clocking in over 45,000 miles over 200 flying hours.

Development of the Long Body Mooney

A very neat looking Porsche PFM powered Mooney M-20L – Source:
In order to accommodate the forward C.G. limitations imposed on what was originally the M-20K airframe by the extra length of the Porsche engine, Mooney decided to shift the nosewheel eight inches forward for better prop-to-ground clearance, fitted a twelve-inch plug between the windows and the baggage door and finally, the avionics black-boxes and two 28V batteries were relocated aft of the baggage bin. This served to shift more weight aft. The long body Mooney was born. This weight shift and up-sizing would have the benefit of improving pitch stability while airborne and affording the rear seat passengers with plenty of legroom compared to the medium body Mooneys.

The TBM-700 Partnership and the Mooney M-20M TLS

At the Paris Airshow in 1989, Pierre Gautier (Socata) and Alex Couvelaire (Mooney) announced the formal go-ahead for production of a turbine powered, pressurised, high performance single. The design borrowed heavily from Mooney’s ill-fated M301 program of the early ’80s but was an altogether new aircraft. By the summer of 1991 and with difficulties in the partnership starting to appear, Mooney and Socata publicly parted ways. The total dissolution of the partnership wouldn’t be complete until mid-1995. Not many people know that the “M” in “TBM” stands for Mooney.
ZS-TLS, June 2018 at SA Mooney, an all original 1996 M-20M with under 600 hours total time since new. Photo by Phil Venter
It was by pure accident that the Mooney M-20L PFM was to be a Limited Edition, with the last eight aircraft delivered in 1990. Porsche had just undergone a management change and the new president decided to invest more time and money into making the auto side of the business more profitable, ceasing all development of the PFM motor. This posed a problem for Mooney in that their flagship aircraft no longer had an engine. Mooney decided to field a turbocharged Lycoming TIO-540-AF1A engine, de-rated to 270HP at 2575RPM in the same airframe as the M-20L. The lower continuous RPM provided a quieter ride and allowed a TBO of 2000 hours. This was topped off by a three-bladed propeller providing more ground clearance and quieter operation.
The M-20M was the first of the “Big Engine” Mooneys to appear directly from the factory. There were a few outside contractors such as Rocket Engineering who built the Mooney 305 “Rocket” using the Continental TIO-520 engine, but the M-20M was technically the first factory production Mooney with a large engine. These aircraft were capable of cruise speeds in excess of 200 Knots at 25000ft and were the true mini-airliners of the day, able to carry their occupants from A to B at high speed, out of or above most of the bad weather and in perfect comfort.

Musical Overtones

ZS-ZAR, a 2006 G1000 spec. M-20M “Bravo” was one of the last M-20Ms built. In fact, she is 3 serial numbers shy of the last one ever built. Photographed at SA Mooney by Phil Venter.
In 1992, there was a realisation that there was a large gap between the 200HP M20J and the 270HP M-20M. Mooney sought to fill it with something special. They decided to fly an engine that had been overlooked for quite some time, but had gained popularity with Beechcraft and Cessna in recent years, the Continental IO-550. The engine selected for the Mooney was the 550-G version with top-down, cross-flow ports and a very well tuned induction system, the combination of which enabled lean-of-peak running, achieving unheard of range and economy at the expense of a slight drop in power and speed.
The Continental IO-550-G engine from a 2007 Ovation2. Note the equal length induction runners and forward facing throttle valve. Photo by Phil Venter
The Continental IO-550-G featured tuned induction whereby the intake runners are geometrically the same length, allowing each cylinder the same amount of available charge air volume. Provided the injector nozzles are clean and functioning correctly, this configuration will serve to stabilise and minimise any large differences in exhaust gas temperature. This, coupled with an efficient exhaust system and the individual cylinder temperature monitoring courtesy of the G1000 is the key to safe lean of peak operation.
Mooney knew they were onto something when their new project, the Mooney M-20R, known as the “Ovation” won Flying Magazine’s Single Engine Plane of the Year award in 1994. These days, the aircraft has a following worthy of cult status. It is by far one of the finest naturally aspirated single engine aircraft on offer today. The Ovation was so good, in fact, that Mooney ceased production of both the M-20J and M-20K models after 1998 because the newly rebranded M-20M Bravo and the M-20R Ovation could do it all.
This 1994 Mooney M-20R Ovation, ZS-AJL, is quite possibly the lowest time first generation Ovation in service today with a little over 400 total hours since new. Photographed November 2016, By Phil Venter

AVAC Incorporated (1997-2002)

Advanced Aerodynamics and Structures (2002-2008)

In July 2001, Mooney entered yet another bankruptcy. The company was acquired by Advanced Aerodynamics and Structures Inc. (AASI) in 2002. AASI resurrected Mooney under the name Mooney Aircraft Company, Inc., a division of Mooney Aerospace Group, Ltd. Two years later in 2004, MASG (AASI) sold off the Mooney assets to Allen Holding Finance in May, and filed for bankruptcy on June 10. In December, MASG restructured and reacquired Mooney Aircraft Company from Allen Holding Finance. Gretchen L. Jahn joined Mooney in November 2004, becoming the first female CEO of a U.S. aircraft manufacturer. She oversaw the development and introduction of the M20TN Acclaim and the Garmin G1000-equipped Ovation2 GX and Bravo GX. In June 2005, Mooney added a second shift and 50 new workers to boost production.
Mooney M20R Ovation2 GX Instrument Panel – Photographed at SA Mooney by Phil Venter
When buying a new Ovation2, one had the option of selecting a Garmin G1000 glass instrument panel as opposed to the original steam gauges. The engine horsepower remained at 280HP for the Ovation2, although there is a STC available to increase maximum RPM to 2700RPM for take-off, making 310HP, this STC is available for all Ovations provided the aircraft has the newer Hartzell “Scimitar” style propeller. The progression in development culminated with the Ovation3.
Mooney switched from McCauley to Hartzell propellers for the Ovation 2. This propeller is compatible with the 310HP upgrade. Photo by Phil Venter
Now only available in the GX version with the Garmin 1000, the Ovation3 also sported an upgraded propeller governor and the Hartzell Scimitar 3-blade propeller. This enabled a continuous 310HP at a higher than standard 2700 RPM. The extra continuous power made for a slightly higher cruise speed at altitude. The engine TBO is not affected by the higher RPM and remains at 2000 hours. The newer Continental engines are now delivering 2200 hours between overhauls.

Common Ground

Mooney could change the aircraft in production from a M-20M to a M-20R quite far into the build process due to the parts commonality between the two. This workflow would prove to be even more apparent with the introduction of the twin turbo Mooney M-20TN in 2006. Where the M-20M was slightly narrower at the firewall than the M-20R, the M-20TN was identical, making the process of adapting aircraft to orders even easier.  
ZS-SVU, a 2007 Mooney M-20TN Acclaim, Photographed at SA Mooney in May 2014 by Phil Venter

Critical Acclaim: The M-20TN

The Mooney M-20TN Acclaim, the replacement for the Bravo, was powered by a turbo-normalized Continental TSI0-550-G powerplant with twin turbochargers and dual intercoolers making 280HP. This configuration allowed the aircraft to make much higher horsepower at it’s cruise altitude of 25000ft. The additional power combined with some minor aerodynamic tweaks to the already fast Ovation airframe yielded a top speed of 235 knots at 25000ft. Further improvements such as a smaller but still very effective air inlet, flap gap seals, and cleaned-up gear doors and flap hinges would eventually increase the top speed to 242 knots at the same altitude with the 310HP M-20TN Acclaim Type S in 2008.  

Hiatus: 2008-2014

On 16 June 2008, due to the weak US economy and the high price of fuel inhibiting sales, Mooney announced it would lay off 60 employees and cut production from eight aircraft per month to five. On 5 November 2008, the company announced it was halting all production and had laid off 229 of its 320 employees. Virtually all employees laid off were on the production line. At the time there were 25 unsold aircraft at the factory. Sadly, Mooney had become a casualty of the economic downturn but, although production was officially halted, Mooney did not cease its support of parts and spares for the existing fleet.
ZS-SVU – In flight over the Indian Ocean – May 2015, Photo by Glenn McCreath
On 8 October 2013, it was announced that the company had been purchased by Soaring America Corporation, a group of Chinese investors headed up by Taiwanese businessman Jerry Chen. This investment group would soon come to be called the Meijing Group. With international investment secured, production resumed on 26 February 2014, beginning with the completion of five previously incomplete airframes already on the assembly line. At this time, Mooney began the development of a new two-seat, all-composite airframe aimed at the emerging Chinese general aviation industry.
The proof of concept all-carbon, fixed gear M10T first flew on December 23, 2015.
Two new Mooney models were announced on 11 November 2014. The Mooney M20T was to be a fixed gear composite aircraft powered by Continental’s 133-horsepower (99 kW) CD-135 diesel engine. The M10J was to have retractable gear and the 153-horsepower (114 kW) CD-155 diesel. In April 2017 the company announced that the project had been cancelled, stating that the knowledge gained from this project would be applied to a future project. This project, it appears was the development of the composite two-door cabin structure belonging to the new “Ultra” series of the Acclaim and Ovation.