From the April 1976 issue of Flying magazine:
“HOT DAMN! I done bought myself an airplane! A used Mooney. A hangar queen. It had 700 hours; it was seven years old. I bought all that trouble and glory. My own flying machine. After having the airplane crazies since I was a kid and renting airplanes for 20 years thinking I couldn’t own one, my Diane cut me loose for it.
“Go on, it’s only money. You’re 50 years old and you got about 20 good, juicy summers left. When they pat you in the face with that shovel, you can’t come back and wish you’d bought an airplane. Airplanes have always been so much of your life. Go on, enjoy, enjoy!”
And so, with help from the Internet, I retrieved this article from Flying magazine, and read again one of Gordon Baxter’s most inspiring articles: the purchase of his beloved Mooney Ranger. I first read this story in 1976 and the memory of it has been with me for many, many years. Even though I am the owner of a Piper Archer, I have always had a thing for Mooneys and the people who build them.
Life sometimes takes you to places you never expect to be, and I recently found myself in Bandera, riding a horse at the Mayan Dude Ranch as part of a family visit to San Antonio. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was only 25 miles from Kerrville, Texas, the home of Mooney, and so many stories.
I was given a hall pass the next day, drove to Kerrville, and turned on to Al Mooney Road. I parked myself in front of the guard shack with the intent of visiting the place. I was greeted warmly by Mike, the security guard, and told him that I wanted to learn more about the people of Mooney, and would attempt to write a story about the Mooney family. He appreciated my efforts, but told me that tours were not available during the time of my visit. He was gracious enough to provide the business card of their employee relations manager, Devan Burns, gave me a 70-year Mooney Anniversary Sticker, and encouraged me to visit next time I was in the area. Mike is a class act!
Anytime I see a quality product or company that has been around for a long time, I know there are quality people that make it happen. Usually these folks have persevered through tough times, supported each other, and dedicate themselves to producing the best quality product or service year after year. I was convinced the reason Mooney is still around would be the people, and I wanted to see this for myself. Yes, it’s a powerful airplane, but powerful people had to be the reason they’ve survived, I hoped.
I left Mooney that first day knowing that I had tried, but realistically knowing that last-minute requests have little chance of success. Before I left the parking lot, however, I wrote a note on my iPad to Devan, asking if I might be able to come back the next day and interview a few of the Mooney people who make it happen. I never expected a reply. After all, it was late Thursday afternoon and we were leaving Saturday morning. Quite frankly, I felt a bit foolish even asking.
So, I was very surprised to receive a response on Friday morning saying if I could be in Kerrville by 1:30 pm on Friday, Devan would arrange for a tour of the plant, followed by a visit with her before I left. I couldn’t believe it, and was granted another hall pass by “you know who” to make the trip.
So, please bear with me as I tell you about the fascinating people I met on a Friday afternoon in February at the Mooney plant.
Larry “The Rain Man” Jacoby was my host for the day. Larry was first employed by Mooney in 1978 at the height of the 201 production. He is known as “The Rain Man” because of his extraordinary recall of part numbers and their locations in the plant, where he now works in receiving. He has been employed four different times by Mooney, and continues to be a dedicated employee.
The first stop on my Mooney adventure was the completion center, where a beautiful Acclaim Ultra was receiving the finishing touches before delivery to a customer. New airplanes make for pretty pictures, but seeing a brand new one in person is a totally different experience. The beautiful color scheme, the smell of a fresh leather interior, plus the feeling of extreme speed, are unmistakable. I know that, as pilots, we look at performance specifications, mission profiles, etc. when we make airplane decisions, but I’m convinced that pure emotion has a great deal to do with it.
The next stop was the welding shop. Next time you look in the engine compartment of most Mooneys, think of Rick Heimann. Rick has worked for Mooney for 41 years, and welds the steel engine supports along with his partner, Earl Sevey, who has been with Mooney twice, the first time for four years, and the second time for seven. These folks just don’t give up. Rick has worked on the early C and E Model Mooneys, and was welding the engine support for a new Acclaim while I was there. It was the beginning of a fascinating day.
Mooney makes nearly everything on site. My next stop was the machine shop and hammer house, where metal is molded into airplane parts by huge hydraulic presses that tower above. I met Sonny Hutchinson, who took me through the formation of the wing primary skins. Think of Sonny and his crew next time you see the flush-riveted leading edge of a new Mooney Ovation. I saw complete wing spars, wing ribs, and bulkheads, all freshly manufactured.
The new Mooney management has invested heavily in modern equipment. In the lay-up room, I met Mike Feller, Debbie Weise, and Julie Meador. Although Mike has been with Mooney over 40 years, he and his team adapted to a new vacuum-assisted digital lay-up process for composite parts that eliminated hand shears that have been used for years for laying up fiberglass parts. Debbie’s daughter, Shana, works for Mooney as well. So many families had their start at Mooney: Husbands and wives first met and went on to have families who all have worked for Mooney. It is a family experience here.
In the shear room, I saw how dedicated Mooney is to continuing their commitment to strong airframes made of metal. Their new Flow ultra-high pressure cutting machine uses 53,000 lbs. of water pressure to cut digitally guided designs in thick metal parts, without burrs and additional finishing. Larry Jacoby started in this room in 1978, when the 201s were first being built.
The wing makes a Mooney special, and seeing the entire one-piece wing on a jig in the sub-assembly room was something to behold. I thought I was watching a fighter being built. Next time you see a photo of a new Mooney, think of Clifton Leda and his team, who sealed the fuel tanks and assembled the interior of the wing. The care being taken to make this airplane first class is extraordinary.
I had a special introduction to Lucy Hernandez and Nora Havran in the upholstery shop, who make the custom upholstery for the sturdy seats now found in the new Ovation and Acclaim. They are extraordinary people who take extraordinary care installing customer-chosen leather on sturdy seat frames made totally in-house at Mooney.
My final stop was seeing a new Continental engine being mounted on an Acclaim going to a lucky buyer.
One can’t help noticing the second door that is part of every Mooney now being manufactured. I wonder what Gordon Baxter would have thought of the second door on a new Mooney. Would he buy a new one? I’d expect he’d probably hang on to his old Ranger.
I remember the picture showing 30 workers standing on the wing of a Mooney. Will any of the readers remember their names?
Yes, the wing is strong, but the people who make them are extraordinary. I feel so fortunate that I had a chance to meet them.
Whatever airplane you choose to buy, I’d recommend that you meet the people who build them. It would be good to know that they have your back when flying at 20,000 ft.
Excuse me, I meant to say 25,000 feet, if you’re flying a Mooney Acclaim Ultra!