What’s wrong with Mooney pilots?

Not a lot…

I have found that the safety record of an airplane relates more to who flies it and what they try to do with it than anything else. Maybe the pilot is 90 percent of the equation and the airplane ten. Pick other numbers if you would like.

When thinking of it in this way, the Mooney 20 series is by far the most diverse airplane in the fleet. Spanning almost 60 years, the Mooney has been almost everything a retractable single can be to a wildly differing demographic.

Back in the late 50s and early 60s, when the Mooney was just getting going pretty well, the airplane appealed mostly to nerds though I don’t think that terminology had come to be at the time. Put another way, most Mooney pilots drove to the airport in VWs where most Bonanza pilots used Cadillacs  or Lincolns.

Why?

Mooney
The Mooney was a “treasured personal possession that just happened to be an airplane.”

The Mooney was small and compact like the VW and it appealed to people interested in efficiency, like the VW. The Mooney was also well-made like the VW and its owner/pilots were very much “into it.” Like the VW, it didn’t have an abundance of power, starting with 150 hp and graduating rather quickly to 180. The Mooney was simply a treasured personal possession that just happened to be an airplane. You kind of put it on and flew away. (Nerdy confession: I owned a Saab car in the 1950s, four VWs in the 60s and 70s and almost bought a Mooney twice.)

Mooney pilots were no too adventuresome or bold and  had a good safety record.

As time ran, the Mooney evolved. The fuselage got stretched and the horsepower was increased. Turbocharging  became an engine option. Then it got stretched some more and the horsepower got increased some more.

Along the way, the interiors went from cheap seats and Royalite side panels all the way to fine fabric and leather.

The landing gear went from manually to electrically operated as did the flaps.

Full and approved ice protection became an option and they even briefly offered a radar with an ineffective banana shaped antenna that would almost fit onto the leading edge.

Where the 20-series Moony started life as a bare-bones 150 horsepower airplane with few options and wooden wings (and tail) it became a much more conventional airplane, currently with a big Continental up front followed around by every imaginable option.

The airplane has done very well from a safety standpoint, too, and the pilots who now drive BMWs to the airport to fly their Mooneys seem to be doing almost as well as their VW-driving counterparts of past years. I say “almost as well” because the new breed does seem to push a little harder.

The last thorough statistical study I did of Mooney accidents was based on information that is now over fifteen years old. In it, I looked at the M-20J (201 and similar) and M20K (231 and 252). Then the airplane had a fatal and total accident rate that was better than like airplanes as well as better that the overall rates in all general aviation flying.

At that time there was an average of two M20J fatal accidents a year and one and a half M20K fatal accidents per year. You don’t hear about it now as much as you used to but a Lycoming v. Continental engine debate raged on for years. So did one about the relative reliability of engines with and without turbochargers.

Mooney engine
Mooney offered airplanes with Lycoming, Continental and even Porsche engines over the years. Was one better than the others?

The M20J has a four-cylinder Lycoming and the M20K has a turbocharged Continental six. No difference in reliability could be found in the accident reports though engine failures were a factor in more Mooney accidents than in similar airplanes. That appears to still be true, with poor maintenance the most frequent culprit.

In 2009-2011 there were nine fatal accidents in M20K and earlier models and four in later airplanes with larger engines. Over 9,000 airplanes were produced in the earlier group with about 1,100 in the newer. That means less than nothing because a great fleet of those older airplanes have been destroyed or retired or they no longer fly much. The newer airplanes have a much higher value and they are likely flown a lot more. The older (than M20J) airplanes are few and far between in Trade-A-Plane ads which could be a reflection of little flying activity.

Because of the suspect nature on all information about flying hours by type, I didn’t try to come up with relative accident rates but feel it would be slightly higher with the newer airplanes but with both groups better than average.

Mooneys are involved in accidents similar to those in other high-performance singles. These are usually cases of pilots pushing too hard to get more utility out of the airplane than is available at the pilot’s skill level. This is borne out in all airplanes by the fact that a lot of these accidents happen in the dark. Work or play all day and then try to wake up somewhere else the next morning. That’s a good deal when it works, not so good when it doesn’t.

The difference is that the Mooney appears to be involved in less of these accidents than other airplanes.

The Mooney airfoil does not work well in ice and in almost every sample of Mooney accidents there are a few where ice got the best of the airplane. Anyone who has collected ice in a Mooney can relate to this. The good news is that ice-protection equipment is available for the new airplanes.

When the Mooney first came out, everybody got the initial impression that it would be a tricky airplane to fly. Why? Because the demo pilot would always take the left seat which gave the impression that he didn’t trust a novice to fly the airplane.

The real reason for this didn’t have anything to do with handling qualities.

In the beginning and for a lot of years the Mooney landing gear was retracted and extended manually. It took more than muscle, too. If you didn’t know exactly how to do it, the chances of a swift and clean retraction were between nil and none. Because the gear needs to be up for the airplane to climb briskly away the demo pilots wanted to do it and I don’t think there are many cases on record of a pilot retracting an old Mooney gear from the right seat.

The gear handle is between the seats. There isn’t an abundance of room in a Mooney so they used to caution pilots to not try to retract the gear with an apple in your pocket.

Should you ever fly an old one, you have to put your hand on the lever thumb down (that seems backwards). Unlatch by pulling straight down, and the snappily pull the lever back until it is flat on the floor and then latch it in the up position.

All that sounds complicated but most Mooney pilots wondered why in the world the company complicated a good thing with an electrically operated landing gear.

Landing in Mooney
Landing a Mooney requires precise airspeed control on final.

If there is a unique Mooney handling characteristic that has led to accidents it is found on landing.

Because the Mooney sits low to the runway, ground effect is more pronounced than on an airplane that sits up higher or that has a high wing. The farther a wing is into ground effect, the lower the deceleration rate. Thus extra speed is more difficult to shed during a Mooney landing.

A key to acceptable landings in a Mooney is an approach at the proper speed. If turbulence or a crosswind necessitates a higher speed, it is best to leave the flaps up. This allows a tail-low touchdown at a higher speed with better control.

I got my Mooney ability put to an almost absolute test one day when returning from a trip in an M20M, a TLS powered by a turbocharged Lycoming 540 rated at 270 horsepower. This was Mooney’s first shot at a bigger engine and in flying the airplane cross-country I enjoyed watching that bigger engine slurp a lot of fuel to go a little faster. I was not one of Mooney’s best efforts.

The arrival was normal. There were a lot of dark-bottom clouds in the area but nothing was forecast to happen.

Everything remained normal until the moment of touchdown. Then, suddenly, the airplane started to be blown sideways on the runway. I was thinking fast enough to get rid of the flaps quickly and put full aileron into the wind but with full aileron, full rudder, and some braking, the airplane was truly at the limit of controllability. When I parked the airplane, the odor told me that the tires had taken a beating.

One of those black-bottom clouds had chosen that moment to exhale and after that, when reading of a Mooney in the ditch during a crosswind landing, I had a better understanding of how  the airplane might get the best of a timid pilot in a strong crosswind. By timid, I mean a pilot who isn’t cocked to put every control to the stops if necessary.

So, on safety, the Mooney does well and could probably do even better were more dollars spent on engine maintenance. The Mooney is so economical in other areas that pilots might hesitate to spend a lot of money on maintenance, but that is pure speculation.

The roots of the Mooney design can also prompt a little more pure speculation. A 200 hp M20J with all the speed mods can cruise at about 170 knots while burning 10 gallons an hour. Compare that to some other airplanes and the cost saving in fuel would be more than substantial. I can only wonder if Mooney wouldn’t find success in a super-efficient version as the company gets back into manufacturing new aircraft.

40 Comments

  • I flew an M20J for a years–it was an efficient, honest airplane. But you’re right about airspeed on landing. You had to be on speed or you can float for a mile.

  • Love my M20C, and unless you are a buddy builder, there is no way that anyone can get the gear up from the right seat!

    • Old trick: when the lever is about halfway down, bump the yoke forward. The inertia of the in-transit gear combined with the sudden downward (relative) motion of the vehicle will give you enough assistance to make the deed easy.

    • On the first flight when I moved from a Cherokee to a Mooney M20E, I flew right seat with my CFI. From the right seat I put the gear up for the two or three take offs we did that day. I also put it down for the landings. Believe me, I am not a body builder.

  • I owned a lovely MSE for a number of years and based at WN35 the pilots manual said it would not work but work it did! A one way field, turf and two thousand feet in length! Speed control was the answer! I really loved that aircraft!

  • A side note to my remarks on the Mooney is that I started reading AIR Facts in 1943 and looked forward to every issue. Yes I have been aviating for a number of years!

  • I also flew an M20J for many years. Yes, you would float, and yes the sight picture sure was scary the first time as you sure were close to the runway, or so it seemed. And…Gee Paul, your a better man than I taking off from a turf field with the prop so close to the ground. One little hole and Whoops! With that said I would fly another M20J today if I had the chance.

  • My dad was the longest Mooney owner in South Africa. Having had 3 Mooneys from 1972 to 2003. I learnt from left seat at the age of 9 and I learnt the technic to manually operate the retractable, don’t slow the flow’ all in one movement. Fact is that a Mooney can handle almost everything just stick to the numbers! just don’t try spin her, she goes flat and virtually impossible to recover from. 9 gal/ hr @ 165 knots. Great at steep sideslips into short runways.
    By the way turf no problem if you keep stick in stomach and all weight off nose wheel.
    Go Mooney!

  • The Mooney is not a plane for just anyone. Once you fly one, you are either for or against. Against in the sense that you just don’t like it, for in the sense that you no longer wish to fly anything else. This is why we are called Mooniacs. It’s like a cult…

    All this nonsense about hard to fly, hard to land, hard to climb into is just that, nonsense. Well, maybe not that last one 😉

  • Sitting in my M20J is like sitting in a British sports car – think MGB – with wings. You are sitting on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Once you know how to get into and out of the cockpit, it is a snap. I can bounce in or out of mine in about 5 seconds. Not bad for 6’5″ and 220 lbs.

  • Ah man. I want a Mooney and I’m just a student pilot. Don’t even know if I’ll get the chance to ride in one. Def going to try. Just need that ppl first. Lol.

    • Never thought I have one,,,thin the m20j appeared ,I had a piper 140′. Once I flew the mooney the piper was never the same have 70 hours in the bird now,it is very sweet.ever in southern Indiana tex me …you will love the mooney…if you want one bad enough you will have one

    • Do it man! Do it because you can! I’ve just bought my second plane, which also happened to be my first Mooney, and I’m not quite ppl yet. She’s a M20C mk 21 and she’ll be the last plane I buy I think.

  • I flew a Mooney with the Johnson bar to operate the landing gear for several years back and forth across the Smoky Mountains from East Tennessee to several locations in Carolinas and North Geargia. I learned the trick to gear operation was to raise the gear before passing 85 mph – slick as a whistle. Also used several turf “runways” and agree to comment “hold the stick (wheel) full back” keeping nose gear light. Great airplane – wish I had same model now.

  • …and now we are starting to see the testimonials attesting to the magic of the Mooney. The young, yet to be pilot wanting it bad and the seasoned, once owned a Mooney, pilot wishing to again have one.

  • It’s true that some pilots love the Mooney at first flight. I was a relatively new and inexperienced VFR pilot when I flew my first Mooney. At the time, I had several hundred hours and owned a nice little fixed gear airplane. I knew I wanted more speed, so when a local dealer had a C model for sale, I took a demo ride. I was given the left seat, and I still remember that flight. I felt like I was wearing the airplane, and I felt like it could read my mind, easily doing whatever I wanted to do. I bought that airplane, and as a low time VFR pilot, took my first long distance flight. I had read an article in a flying magazine about flying in Alaska, so I flew my Mooney from Linden airport in New Jersey to Alaska. That started a love affair with Mooneys that lasted more than 40 years. I’ve owned 6 airplanes, three of which were Mooneys. I flew a J model (Mooney 201) over 5000 hours, and I flew that faithful airplane to Paris, South America, Siberia and the North Pole. I agree that the Mooney wing, and particularly the Mooney tail, didn’t do well with ice, so when the TKS deicing system became available, I had one of the early installations. It worked well. The 201 is a wonderful airplane, relatively fast, doesn’t burn much fuel, strong ( when the “wild blue yonder” got wild, I was always glad that I was in a Mooney), it’s a stable instrument platform, and like I said earlier, it can read your mind and easily does your bidding. My love affair the Mooney lasted a lifetime.

    Just an aside, I too have been an Air Facts reader for a long time. I remember receiving my early copies that were small in size, and I seem to remember going to a small office in what I knew as the Pan Am building in NYC, and renewing my subscription with a very nice lady. Can anyone confirm that Air Facts had an office there? Thanks for keeping Air Facts going.

    • The New York office was at 30 Rockefeller Plaza,Suite 1416,overlooking the roof garden, from 1938 to 1959.

  • @ Marc Meyers. “just don’t try spin her, she goes flat and virtually impossible to recover from.” regarding spins in a Mooney, please view our new DVD project, “Boots on the Ground-The Men and Women Who Made Mooney” You will find some Mooney spin information to be very interesting! Happy Mooney flying 🙂

  • I first saw a Mooney in 1964, and it was brand new being delivered from the factory to my Dads banker, an ex B-25 pilot ! At the time I was 16yrs. Old and relatively new to my local country airport and the only gas jockey. The banker was in the only building at the airport when I arrived at 8 on a Saturday morning, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his new plane, when he ran out of the building I followed and we watched the Mooney fly the pattern, then on short final I said where’s the gear? Seconds later there was an awful scraping sound as the prop dug into concrete followed by the aluminum leaving its paint on the runway! To my surprise the damage was minimal ! First exposure to Mooney Strength ! We then gathered a few more muscles and since I was the lightest, put me in the pilots seat, while everyone gave a mighty lift I was told how to put the gear down via Johnson Bar , and then rolled to the ramp! Later that day a new prop arrived and that pilot installed it and flew back to Kerrville ! The next Sat. Morning a new Mooney with a New Pilot arrived safely and the banker flew it for 23 years! Legendary Strength, You Bet !!!

  • That is why, when financially able I would only look at C models built after 1964, wonder who got that airplane???

  • I forgot where but I met a man who took a real interest in my Cherokee. He told me he owned a Mooney and loved it, but his first plane was just like mine and he owned for 10 years. He told me the two are similar in handling and when I was ready I could step up to a Mooney easily. I didn’t fully understand then but I do now. Perhaps there is a Mooney in my future.

    • Pete, I learned to fly in a C172, my first airplane to own was an Archer II…and I’ve been flying my Mooneys for more than a couple of decades. The transition from Piper low wing to Mooney was easy & natural. Airspeed bleeds off slower & the gear has to be minded. My Archer topped out at 125kt burning 12.5 gph & my 20J flys 155kt at 8.5-10gph (depending on altitude). I used to do a lot of local flying in my Archer, but the Mooney changed that kind of flying into mostly cross country. They’ve taken me/my wife to Seattle, Key West, Bar Harbor, (among many far flung destinations) and regularly from Louisville to SanAntonio. The Archer was a sweet little plane, but not up to that kind of mission. The Mooney’s glide slope & better performance at 8K+ altitudes makes for safer options in the event of mechanical problems on long trips. By the way, I drive my smart car to the airport and park it in a corner of the T-hangar when I fly…my first car was a VW…I still have my MGB-GT. I thought I was unique…go figure!

  • Growing up like many young boys who dreamed of flying I would periodically read aviation magazines cover to cover. The airplane I remember drooling over the most was the Mooney. It just looked fast even in the photos. I eventually got my PPL learning with the incomparable 172. Fast forward a few years and I joined Namao Flying Club which just happened to have a M20C in its fleet. I checked out on it as soon as I could and flew it regularly. That is until last Spring when I bought a M20K Turbo 231. It doesn’t matter where I am flying to, I get stoked every time I head to the airport. Yes there are lots of things that are more challenging when flying a Mooney but they are a lot of fun. It never gets old.

  • I bought my 201 two years ago. It was the fulfillment of a 35 year ambition. I first read of the M20J in my dad’s flying magazines while in high school.
    It has been a great joy to fly. I have traveled with my family to Santa Fe, Austin, Destin and many other long cross country destinations.
    There is nothing “hot” or unwieldy about the J. I fly at 100 knots in the pattern, 80 knots on final and 70 knots over the numbers. With a stabilized approach, no problems. Land too fast, though, and she will float forever.

  • I have had a M20C, two 252s, and many hours in a 231. Never had a problem landing. Dont understand why the complaint. Take some lessons if you need. Its not the plane. Herb.

  • Back in New Zealand in 1965 the local Aero Club put a Mooney on the line and virtually all of the members checked out on it – the youngest being me just turned 17 and the oldest prob into their ’60s…no particular big deal about it and it was very popular. The only disappointment was that one of the lady members didn’t have the strength for the Johnson bar.

    Other Clubs operated them too without any drama with many different people flying them. Maybe there was a different sort of ‘skills set’ for ‘weekend pilots’ then.

  • With 2,200-plus hours in my 1963 Mooney C (Last fall she had a Silver Anniversary birthday party at her hanger with champagne for the more than a dozen pilots exactly 50 years to the day she attained her airworthiness certificate), my question in recent years has been: Why does Mooney continue to add bigger, thirstier, costlier to maintain engines with all the expensive bells and whistles? Isn’t there still a need for a 180 HP Mooney that can carry three adults plus some baggage with five-plus hours of fuel in the tanks? I’ve flown my Mooney on business into 16 states utilizing cropduster strips to international airports. I’d assume Mooeny still has everything needed still in storage to construct such an aircraft. And, wouldn’t the price be a heckuva lot less than for what’s been rolled out lately that’s not all that much faster point to point? Rather than selling one high-priced plane, perhaps instead two that have the practicality to appeal to more pilots.

    • Sort of the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” saw. One has to imagine that Mooney felt that to be competitive they had to continue to produce faster and fancier. One has to wonder why, as you have. Maybe the new ownership has a new plan.

    • I agree completely. Just got my PPL in January 2014 and fly a tail dragger C-150 every weekend. I would love to have a Mooney M20E Pre ’68.

    • New airplane buyers are much differant then used airplane buyers, they want what they want and it’s not a stripped down version.

  • I owned and flew a 1966 Mk 21(180 H.P.) for 12 years and have a few observations. 1. It could use a little more power. 2. It fell short of the advertised performance( As all the aircraft in that period) 3. It was the only four place made that could deliver 140 knots on 8 gal. Pet hour. 4. It was comfortable for the average length trip( as long as the pilot was not too tall or overweight) 5. It was an all around economical efficient airplane. Mooney should reintroduce a modern version of the Mk 21. I would buy one in a minute.

  • I still own my first aircraft (1965 M20C)and have for 32 years now and still enjoy flying it. I like it because its simple to maintain and feed. I keep upgrading with mods and do all the work myself. I also have an early Beech 36 that carries 1400 lbs useful load for more comfortable trips (my trash haller). Yes, I use to own a VW too and when its just me I take the C model. Restarting a new line of these aircraft again would not sell because you would have to charge over $400K each and you can still buy one like mine for $40K. It would be like starting an underpowered 217 HP Porsche line again. The last couple years I have averaged 65 hours total in both planes. Not enough required to even own 2 planes but I still enjoy all facets of aviation and will continue as long as I can. The latest Mooneys don’t appeal to me. They along with other similar new aircraft can’t carry enough weight for my mission. Love my Mooney.

  • I owned a M20A for more than 12 years. It was fast and stable. The manual gear was great and it can be operated from the right seat. I now have another plane but it has just a little less personality than the mooney.

  • Bought a 1964 Mooney M20C two years ago and really have enjoyed it. I fly it approximately 65 hours a year and it fits my mission perfectly. Compared to the same year high wing trainer I had for ten years, it has better range, speed and is much more fun to fly. Landings and decents require planning and precise speed control but once learned, the benefits are clear. The best preformance aircraft of any 180hp on the market.

  • I had a m20J for over 25 years put over 3,000 hrs on it. It was my first airplane and loved it. With only 60 hours total time when I purchased it I was a bit apprehensive. It is a plane that will completely addict you to flying. Fast efficient safe and yes affordable in maintenance and fuel. Sold it last year it was like watching an old friend fly away. I now have replaced it with a Mooney Ovation and all I can say is WOW,,Fast very comfortable burns a bit more fuel but not much on a 1,000 mile mission,,,what you burn in fuel certainly is made up in time…..Great airplane…

  • I landed a 201 many times on grass, wheel back, nose high, taxi same way , almost the same on hard surface. No problems , 65 70 over the fence , again, nose high , 2000 ft hard surface or grass no problem. Just a wonderful airplane. Sort of a Porsche with wings!

  • I have flown my Mooney M20M Bravo GX close to 1000 hours and I found to very comfortable to fly and land. I have had one no go in 10 years and it wouldn’t start because of a bad magneto at 495 hours, almost made the 500 hour limit. I just replaced them the second time around. 195 knots at 12k feet burning 18 gph. I wouldn’t have the new acclaim, everyone built has had top end issues. The ovation is a great plane but I fly to mountains quite a bit.

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