The magical Mooney

Richard Collins often told me that the Mooney was a cult airplane. And he was right.

While all pilots would brag about how fast their airplane was, and how much it could carry, and how fast it climbed, and how far it went on full tanks, Mooney owners focused on one thing. How fast they flew on so little fuel.

Fuel efficiency matters to every pilot. Even in the days when avgas sold for well under a buck a gallon. But pilots also balanced fuel efficiency against cabin room, payload, runway performance, and cruise speed.

Not Mooney owners. They traded all that stuff for fuel efficiency. Tiny cabin? Of course. Anemic runway performance and not much climb? Yes, kind of. Weird landing characteristics? Yes, unless you know how. Not really the fastest cruise speed? But look how little fuel it burns.

A cult? I think Richard had it right.

But that all changed with development of the Mooney 201. And also following two oil embargo shocks that left us wondering if there would be any avgas at any price. Suddenly the Mooney looked more like mainstream pilot religion than a cult.

Mooney M20C
Early Mooney models were very small inside.

The original M20 series Mooney is a truly tiny airplane. It has four seats, but anybody in the back two better be shorter than 5 ft. 3 in. And pilot and copilot need to be OK with sitting on the floor. Well, almost on the floor. There are a very few inches of seat bottom between your bottom and the cabin bottom.

The 180 hp Mooneys were fast for their limited horsepower. But still, realistic cruise is 130 to 135 knots. Maybe they can outrun a Cessna Skylane on a good day, but not by much. And the Skylane pilot and passengers will be able to stand up straight after a four hour flight.

When the Mooney Super 21 was introduced with a 200 hp injected Lycoming in 1964, cruise speed increased noticeably. Under perfect conditions the Super could threaten 150 knots true, and 145 knots was realistic.

Better yet was the “F” model Executive introduced in 1967. Mooney stretched the Exec cabin by about 10 inches, an enormous improvement in cabin comfort and usability. Maximum takeoff weight also went up by 165 pounds, so you could use the extra space.

Members of the Mooney cult were convinced that the short body 200 hp model—named Chaparral—was faster than the longer Executive. I don’t think so, if both airplanes were flown at the same weight. The cabin stretch simply didn’t add much in the way of drag.

As a company, Mooney was always interested in increasing cruise speed. After all, speed and fuel efficiency were its only claims to fame. Sometime in the early 1970s Mooney engineers took a hard look at how to get more speed out of the basic airframe without adding more power, which would erode the efficiency goal. Legend has it that early attention was on the short body model because maybe it could gain the most speed with a drag reduction program. Fortunately more logical thinking prevailed and the focus was placed on the long-body Executive.

The result was the Mooney 201, introduced late in 1976. The 201 stood for maximum speed in mph. At Flying magazine we got the very first one, N201M.

I never could get N201M to 170 knots true airspeed—which is the equivalent of 201 mph—but it came close when conditions were just right and everything was firewalled. The vibration with the prop up to its maximum 2,700 rpm and full throttle didn’t make for a comfortable ride.

But 160 knot cruise was dependable in the 201, and that was far faster than anything else with only 200 hp. And that speed was within 10 knots or so of the single engine speed leader, the Bonanza, which had 285 hp and cost about double the price of a 201.

Roy Lopresti
Roy Lopresti did as much as anyone to make the Mooney’s reputation.

The aeronautical achievements of the 201 would have made the airplane a success in their own right. But they were helped along enormously by Roy LoPresti, who joined Mooney late in the 201 development and became the airplane’s human face, and its greatest cheerleader.

Roy was undoubtedly an accomplished aerodynamicist, but he was an even better salesman. He didn’t talk about reducing form drag, or laminar flow, or propeller efficiency. He humanized the 201 design program. He once told a gathering of pilots that he would lay on a shop creeper and roll around under the Mooney “imagining I was an air molecule and how I would flow around the airplane.” That, he said, helped design the shape of the secondary gear door that helped seal the main gear in the wells.

At the time, Stancie Lane was a familiar figure in aviation. She ran the air show exhibits and show publications for Flying and Business and Commercial Aviation, so was at all the shows. I remember at one Mooney press conference, in 1978 as I recall, Roy was announcing the new upswept wingtips for the 201 that replaced the traditional Mooney “chopped off” straight edge tip.

Ever the showman, Roy told the gathering of aviation press types, “I patterned the new wingtip after Stancie Lane’s nose. I always thought she had a very pretty nose.” Even in today’s “me too” environment I guess it’s still alright to compliment a woman on the shape of her nose. But what the shape of Stancie’s nose (full disclosure: Stancie and I have been married since 1980) has to do with aerodynamics, is a mystery. The crowd loved it.

The real “magic” of the 201 drag cleanup was primarily the cowling and the windshield. The windshield on earlier Mooneys is nearly upright. So upright, in fact, that there are access panels on the nose forward of the windshield so mechanics can reach the avionics and instruments. Sloping and reshaping the windshield on the 201 was worth several knots of drag reduction.

The other big gain was getting rid of the old Mooney cowling with its huge, gaping air inlet. The 201 cowling inlets are a fraction of the size, and designed to recover ram air pressure from the slip stream, instead of just holding out a bucket to catch the passing air.

Among the quirks of the Mooney is a ram air engine inlet. In clean air above the runway, you pull a knob that opens a hole in the cowling to ram air directly into the engine induction, bypassing the inlet filter. In earlier Mooneys, opening the ram air would increase manifold pressure a full inch. In the 201 the ram air raised manifold pressure fractions of an inch. You had to watch closely to see an increase at all. The reason is the original cowling and engine air inlet was so bad, the ram air really helped. The 201 was done so well the ram air didn’t matter much.

Mooney 201
From landing gear doors to gap seals, the modern 201 is a very clean airplane.

The secondary main landing gear doors recovered a couple knots of drag, and so did the improved gap seals for the control surfaces. Even the cabin step redesign helped a little. And it all added up to an airplane that seemed like a free lunch. The 201 was still the efficiency leader by a lot, but also came close to the fastest in cruise speed.

Jillions of words have been written about the efficiency of the Mooney laminar flow airfoil. And its smooth, thick wing skins, which were, of course, plywood in the original. But it’s been hard to measure how much the shape of the Mooney airfoil matters. Objective testing shows the more conventional airfoil of a Bonanza, or 210, have very similar degrees of laminar flow, and about the same drag.

But there is no question the Mooney, particularly the 201 and later models, has very low overall drag. Over the years Richard Collins and I proved that to ourselves over and over by flying air-to-air photo missions when the Mooney was the subject airplane.

We most often used an A36 Bonanza for the camera airplane because the rear doors come off easily to give the photographer an unobstructed shooting opening. We would take off in formation, if runway width allowed, or in close trail. The Bonanza would leave the Mooney in the dust in seconds. The only way the Mooney could catch up was to turn inside the Bonanza to cut the radius.

And when you were flying the Mooney in formation, the real problem—after catching up—was how not to overshoot. With the power at idle the Mooney would keep closing on the Bonanza. But you had to be quick to add power as soon as the gap opened because nothing much happened to the Mooney’s speed with more throttle. Slippery is the right word for the Mooney.

Mooney has gone on to put ever more powerful engines into the same basic airframe and can claim to be the speed king of singles. But that’s more about power. The magical Mooneys are the ones that go fast on little fuel, and the 201 was the champ of that game. It was the right airplane for its time. And perhaps even for today. Going faster and farther on less fuel is always a good thing.

28 Comments

  • You made some respectable points there. I appeared on the internet for the issue and found most people will associate with with your website.

  • Never owned a Mooney but have always been fascinated. Best description in fewest words, well done. Almost forgot, I did buy a 77 Mooney 201, but the owner(DEA agent) backed out of the deal. Never trusted a federal employee since.

  • Mac
    I confess to being a Mooniac.
    I’ve been flying Mooney’s for 33 years including 201s, 231s and Ovation2/3s.
    I owned a 1984 201 for 18 years, a 2006 Ovation2 for 10 and the last Ovation3 made (2016) for 4 years.
    Landings are easy once you understand 2 things – you better have your airspeed nailed coming over the fence and you have to hold the airplane off the runway until it wants to land. My only beef is that in a big crosswind you can run out of rudder in the sideslip so sometimes you have to land at an alternate.
    Yes the 201 was very fuel efficient, great range but payload was limited with fuel tanks and I agree 160kt is an honest cruise speed. Descent management often meant using the big round rubber speed brakes. The laminar flow wing does not tolerate ice well.
    The Ovations are faster even with TKS which I have because I live in Seattle. An honest cruise speed for good range is 175-178kt. Ovations are harder to land because the aircraft sits at 5 deg nose up on the ground (vs 1 deg for the 201) so you have to get used to the sight picture of very nose up on touchdown. Speed brakes are essential for descent management.
    Bob

    • You’re right, Bob, about ice and the 201.
      It was in the early 80s. Richard Collins famous P210 was down for an engine change so he leased a Mooney 201 to get around. One day he called me, clearly alarmed, and said we needed to alert people about the 201 and ice.
      Turns out Richard found some icing in the Mooney and couldn’t believe how quickly the speed went away. And forget about climb. It was so different from his P210, that was boot equipped, but a pretty good ice airplane in an case. I reminded him that I owned a 201 at the time and really worried about ice, as he now did.
      As I recall he wrote about the ice scare in the Mooney in his “On Top” column. Meanwhile, we Mooney owners spent the cold months changing altitude, course, or anything we could think of to escape even a trace of ice.
      Mac Mc

  • Mac
    I read everything I could find that Richard wrote. It really was helpful when I had limited experience with weather. He is sorely missed.
    I had 3 significant encounters with ice in my 201. The first was not a big issue – cruising in the clouds at 7000′ in central CA, with the autopilot on, eating my lunch and wondering why I was 15kt slow, a winter instrument approach into Redding, CA where I was picking up rime at 3000′ and still had some on the wings when I landed (fast) with a surface temp of 1C. The most frightening was flying into some freezing rain near SBA. It was shocking how fast the ice built up in that case. Both my Ovations had TKS (& in cockpit WX), it’s good for buying time in light and light-moderate ice, but if it gets heavy it can get overwhelmed. Here in the Pacific NW the freezing level can be at of below the MEAs 6 months per year, so I use it a lot climbing and descending thorough icing conditions. One of the added benefits with the Ovations is the extra power is the ability to quickly climb into the clear out of icing conditions.
    Bob

  • Mac,
    Great article and as Bill Wright notes, in an article highlighting efficiency, your efficiency with words is to be admired!

    As a kid, I grew up in my dad’s Executive 21 and loved it! Much of that love was because it gave me some dad time….but it also grew into PIC time in his airplane (from 1969 through 1993)

    Then in the late 80’s I was in the Avionics business. As one of the Stormscope reps back in the day, I loved my bonanza but eventually transitioned to a 201 (J)….both company owned).

    Now I own my own C model Mooney; and am moving about the country nearly as much as I did way back when. I’m seeing TAS of 145+ and 10.2 gph and can easily get to 9gph or below while maintaining 160mph. Dang this thing is efficient!!

  • Mac,
    Great article and as Bill Wright notes, in an article highlighting efficiency, your efficiency with words is to be admired!

    As a kid, I grew up in my dad’s Executive 21 and loved it! Much of that love was because it gave me some dad time….but it also grew into PIC time in his airplane (from 1969 through 1993)

    Then in the late 80’s I was in the Avionics business. As one of the Stormscope reps back in the day, I loved my bonanza but eventually transitioned to a 201 (J)….both company owned).

    Now I own my own C model Mooney; and am moving about the country nearly as much as I did way back when. I’m seeing TAS of 145+ and 10.2 gph and can easily get to 9gph or below while maintaining 160mph. Dang this thing is efficient!!

    I’ve flown all over this country in Mooney’s (literally) and have appreciated their efficiency, speed and yes, even their landing characteristics!

    Let’s hope Mooney comes out of this period with substantial backing!

  • There is a lot of misinformation here… Mooney or Bonanza? You can feel the bias with every written word! There is a lot of talk about the Mooney being cramped but no mention that the Mooney’s cabin is 2 inches wider than the bonanza. Also, the 201 is not the efficiency king! That’s the Mooney 252. Take the 252 and the bonanza is a dog in comparison. I don’t own a mooney, I can’t afford one. I own a tiger because its the next efficiency airplane (not just fuel but ownership costs) behind the Mooney due to the fixed gear and prop. But the 252 if you fly enough hours will almost pay for itself, that’s what efficiency does but maybe only an engineer can understand that.

    • Hi Gareth,
      Non-stop New York to Paris in an Mustang could have been possible, but I find it to be an amazing undertaking.
      It’s about 3,200 nm JFK to LeBourget. That’s the perfect great circle route with no routing or deviations. To make that trip in 13 hours and 10 minutes the M22 would have needed to average 243 knots ground speed.
      Brochure cruise speed is 200 knots so the average tailwind would have to have been 43 knots. Possible.
      I don’t have fuel flow data for the Mustang, but based on the pressurize twin Cessnas that use similar engines, the fuel flow in cruise would need to be at least 20 gph. And that’s optimistic.
      That means the M22 would have needed 260 gallons of cruise fuel, plus climb fuel and reserve. Let’s say 280 would have been landing on fumes.
      The tanks held 92 gallons, so that means 188 gallons would need to ride in ferry tanks in the cabin. That’s 1,128 pounds of avgas, plus some weight for tanks and plumbing. Let’s round it off to 1,250 pounds for ferry fuel and system.
      The brochure empty weight of the M22 was 2,380 pounds. Add 200 pounds for pilot and gear, and 1,680 pounds for fuel, and takeoff weight would have been 4,260 pounds. Max certified takeoff was 3,680. But ferry permits routinely approve much over weight takeoffs.
      So, could the Mustang have cruised 200 at that weight? Would it have found a minimum tailwind of nearly 45 knots the entire trip? Would it have received the perfect direct routing, or flown extra miles.
      Like I say, possible, but doesn’t sound probable to me. But then Max Conrad flew more than twice as far non-stop in a Piper Comanche, so anything is possible.
      I never got to fly the M22. Richard Collins did, and wasn’t all that impressed, but then the airplane never had a chance to mature. But it was the first.
      Mac Mc

  • This article brought back great memories. Like Daniel, my dad had a Mooney M20E Executive. Fresh off getting my Private certificate, he checked me out in it. He was not a CFI and as a former CFI myself, it was the least thorough checkout ever! He didn’t even tell me the difference between an alternator (a la the C-150 I learned in) and the generator!

    My brothers also flew it. We liked to say it was built to fly fast first and carry people and stuff last. It was pretty tough to get it out of W&B. I have a few stories of my exploits in 98M that I plan to submit here!

  • Another good article. With modern CFD (computer aerodynamics), we can make the airplane interior bigger and lose very little speed … if any.

    Very nice, truthful article. Thanks for a good read.

  • I have a fair bit of experience with Mooneys, having flown them now for almost 50 years and currently owning an M20K “231” with a lot of mods. I am also a CFI who specializes in Mooney transition and recurring training. I even have primary students who are training in Mooneys.

    Efficiency is the key to the Mooney. It is all about miles-per-gallon and places the Mooney above and beyond other single-engine GA aircraft for long-distance flying. This was brought home to me in 1985 when my father and I decided to fly our Piper Comanche 250 (also a Mooney design) from Washington, DC, to Paris, France, for the Paris Airshow. We landed in Gander, Newfoundland, for the non-stop crossing to Shannon, Ireland, the next morning. Next to us was a Mooney M20K “231” who was also making the crossing in the morning. I was struck by the difference in our fuel loads. I had 110 gallons of ferry fuel to his 30 gallons of ferry fuel in his back seat. My time was going to be 11 hours. His was going to be 9. It was at that moment that I realized that the Mooney had a significant advantage.

    Fast forward to 2012. I had decided that I was going to fly around the world following Amelia Earhart’s route. (Political realities and the inability to actually land on Howland Island necessitated deviations from her route.) I chose the M20K “231” to make the trip. I made that flight in June and July of 2017, exactly 80 years after she did. I had several legs in excess of 13 hours with one leg, from Pago Pago in American Samoa to Honolulu, of 17.5 hours. I know of no other production piston aircraft that could make that trip while operating only 10% over max gross weight. The cabin was comfortable even for my 6’2″ frame for all those hours.

    So, in my book, the Mooney is the efficiency king of single-engine, production GA aircraft. It is difficult to beat the Mooney for comfortable, efficient, long-distance travel for one or two people, and I have the hours in the seat to back up that claim.

    If anyone is interested in my trip, the web site is http://ProjectAmeliaEarhart.org.

  • You should have mentioned Rocket Engineering. They made the Mooney an even better airplane with their STC’s.

  • Hi Jack,
    Rocket made some amazing conversions, for sure. They begged me to write about their STCs, but I couldn’t see how they were getting approval to put the turbocharged engine out of a Cessna 340 in a Mooney without changes to enhance stability. That much extra power does bad things to pitch stability, and when the factory finally got around to larger engines they stretched the fuselage to make a longer moment arm for the tail to meet stability requirements.
    Finally I agreed to take a look. A Rocket sales type came by and, as always, I worked weight and balance for our flight. We couldn’t get the CG aft of the forward limit. With two onboard it was way out the front. Several inches, as I recall.
    The Rocket guy mumbled something about the shop leaving “boggy” weights–whatever those are–out of the tail. I made him a deal. I won’t write about your airplane in Flying Magazine if you stop calling me. They did.
    Mac Mc

  • Great article Mac. The unfortunate thing is that the older models were so efficient in the world of fuel consumption. This was lost when Mooney decided to stretch the plane and use big engines to achieve speed. Disappointing in my view as more horsepower will add more speed to just about any airplane design. I’ll take a 210 any day as I consider it the best compromise. My only disappointment in the entire Mooney line is that I am short in stature (5’3″) and as a result cannot reach the rudder pedals in any of the models. No existing seat adjustment in the Mooneys meets my needs. I have flown just about all the single engine makes, and none of them have posed this problem for me as standard seat adjustment works for me in all of them. That being said, I hope Mooney will come back as it is a great airplane. I’ll just have to be happy being a passenger in Mooneys or fly my Bonanza which works well for me.

    • You’re right, Nate, about the seat adjustment issue. A Mooney seat is just inches off the cabin floor. Your legs stretch out in a tunnel between the nose gear wheel well and the outside wall of the fuselage. You can only pull the seat so far forward before you don’t have room to move the yoke aft. So shorter pilots are stuck.
      I used to fly in cruise with my right leg stuck over in the right footwell tunnel just to stretch out.
      A friend who also owned a Mooney would climb into the back seat in cruise and reach forward to adjust power or the autopilot. But that’s another story. And he’s still with us, so go figure.
      Another friend would entertain girlfriends in the Mooney backseat and adjust the pitch trim wheel that’s between the front seat with his toes to hold altitude. And he went on to a hugely successful career selling large cabin business jets.
      Mooneys can take care of all pilots. And also proof that the cabin is so small you can reach everything but the rudder pedals from any seat. 🙂
      Mac Mc

  • This article is not well researched. My stock 180 HP short body C cruises at 145 knots below 7000 feet. It’s not special. They all do. Up high it’s about 140. The 201 only gives 5 additional inches for rear seat passengers. I’m 6 feet tall, and I can fit comfortably behind my pilot seat in the position I fly the plane. That’s in a short body C model. And by the way, the cabin is one inch narrower than a twin Baron.

  • My dad bought a ‘64 M20C when it was 2 or 3 years old.

    He flew it, from our 1800’ farm strip in Iowa, on several long distance trips to the Caribbean, South America, 3 trips to Costa Rica, and numerous trips to Canada, as well as trips all around the USA including some pretty serious mountain flying.

    He bought the Mooney because of it’s fuel efficiency (long legs), the steel tube crash structure, and that the stall speed was 10 mph lower than the other airplanes he considered, which made crash survival more likely. It could also handle extreme crosswinds.

    It was the ideal airplane for that mission, as he could not afford a twin.

    He had a charter certificate for awhile, though, and I have to think it was far from ideal for that mission as it was cramped and terribly hot in the summer. Kick but heater though.

    Me, I have a Skywagon, and no desire to own a Mooney, but it would be fun to fly one again.

  • I didn’t see any mention of the Mooney Mustang. I was have flown in them in the late 60’s early 70’s. It was Mooney’s attempt at single engine pressurized.

    • Hi Gary,
      The best data I have is that 29 Mustangs were built between 1967 and 1970. A pretty rare bird.
      A neglected Mustang sat in the weeds at Mooney’s factory in Kerrville for many years in the 1980s, and maybe even into the 90s. I wonder what happened to it?
      The Lycoming TIO-541 engine that powered the Mustang earned a reputation for high maintenance costs, and rather short life between overhauls in the Beech Duke, one of the few other airplanes that used that version of the Lycoming turbo six cylinder. That probably didn’t help Mustang sales much.
      Mac Mc

  • Mac, my Ovation 2 will easily cruise at 175 knots 15gph ROP or 165 kts 12gph LOP. The thing about Mooney’s is they are a wonderful airframe to fly. The best word I can use is “tight”. It’s the difference between an Acura and a BMW M3. Both are nice and fast, but handle very differently. For those who love to fly and want to become an aviator, not just a pilot, a Mooney is the plane for you.

  • Cult plane? Maybe. Singular focus on speed and economy? I think that’s more reputation than reality. I own a 67 F model and think it’s an excellent compromise of desirable attributes. With 1060lbs of useful load, it’s a 150kt airplane that can take 800lbs of payload 500nm (with reserves). It climbs as close to book numbers as makes no difference, 1000-1300fpm depending on weight and DA. Will easily handle sub 2000 foot strips with the correct approach speed/technique and also does fine on grass. I do not understand why so many folks talk about it like a “one trick pony” when it does so many things so well on so little gas.

  • In the early 1970’s, nearly every aviation magazine had at least one article each month about the Impossible Dream of general aviation: attaining 200 mph with 200 hp. Pilots were excited about engineering drag reduction for existing aircraft, as well as possible new aircraft on the horizon. Two events ended the quest. Mooney’s sleek 201 claimed first prize (and no other manufacturer seemed to want the silver medal). And secondly, general aviation reluctantly accepted the mandated use of knots instead of mph on airspeed indicators. 174 knots with 200 hp just isn’t as catchy as 200 mph with 200 hp.

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