The Tortuous Path of Al Mooney’s Vision and Legacy
- May 1, 2019
- Aviation History, General Aviation Information
- Posted by Jeffrey Richmond
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“With more than 70 years of product enhancement and customer support, and a fleet that has accumulated more than 40 million flight hours, you might say we know a thing or two about industry leadership. From speed to range to safety to innovation, we’re constantly refining what it means to fly a Mooney. While staying true to the vision established by Al Mooney from the very beginning. A passion for speed, strength, and simplicity defines Mooney’s philosophy.” (https://www.mooney.com/about, 2018)
Let’s face it, being in the aircraft manufacturing business is not always smooth flying! It seems however, Mooney Aircraft has had more than it’s share of ownership changes, bankruptcies, and market downturns to drive away all but the most determined entrepreneurs. Its success is a testament to the aircraft—a design that has captured the imaginations—and pocketbooks—of a special class of aviators. Aviators seeking a fast, comfortable, and distinctive aircraft.
The Mooney Aircraft Companywas founded in 1929 when Albert Mooney was invited to meet with financial backers in Wichita, Kansas. That year the Mooney Aircraft Corporation was established, financially backed by the Bridgeport Machine Company.
Within five months Al designed and flew his M-5 aircraft. But, before it could go into production, in the shadow of the Great Depression, the company went bankrupt. Al worked for other aircraft companies throughout WWII, until June 18, 1948, when Albert, along with his brother Art, formed Mooney Aircraft Incorporated in Wichita.
The First Production Aircraft — The Mooney M-18C Mite
Mooney got off to a small start with the Mite M-18. The small, single-seat aircraft was a sport plane designed to appeal to WWII pilots who had flown the P-51 Mustang. The aircraft was dubbed the “Texas Messerschmitt.”
As the Mite neared the end of its production, Al Mooney accelerated the development of a four-place aircraft. In 1953, Mooney relocated to Kerrville, Texas, and completed and flew the first M20 (September 1953). Unfortunately, before he could begin production, his prime financial backer died, and Mooney was again on verge of bankruptcy.
Two investors, Hal Rachal and Norm Hoffman stepped in to save the company, and less than two years later the M20 was certified and ready for production. For reasons that are not clear, Al Mooney left the company to work for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Georgia until retirement—he apparently was never involved with Mooney Aircraft again. The Mooney name, however, has survived to this day. John W. Taylor, Mooney’s chief engineer assumed management of the company after Al left.
In 1955, Mooney delivered 10 aircraft, and sold an additional 150 by 1957. The M20 gained popularity because it could carry four people at a speed of 170 mph with a 150 hp engine. In 1958, Mooney introduced the equally successful M20A with 180 hp.
In 1960, the Mooney company recruited former Beechcraft and McDonnel Aircraft engineer Ralph Harmon to take over engineering management. He had led the development of the Beechcraft Model 36, an all metal aircraft. Until 1960, Mooney aircraft still used wood in the wings. By the end of 1960, all of the wood had been replaced by metal structures, becoming the M20B.
Under Harmon’s direction, additional improvements were made, resulting the M20C. Sales increased, and the company continued to grow, focusing on refinements of the M20 aircraft. In 1963, they offered less expensive fixed-gear and fixed-pitch propeller version, the M20D. (For production numbers, see Table 1.)
Mooney also introduced the pressurized M22 Mustang. The name caused conflict with Cavalier Aircraft that was converting P-51 Mustangs for private use. They petitioned Mooney to not use the name “Mustang.” The M22 program, however, was unsuccessful and after 36 aircraft were produced, the model was discontinued, and the dispute ended.
Always looking for ways to expand and increase revenues, Mooney agreed to assemble Mitsubishi MU-2 aircraft in the U.S. This required a significant investment and expansion into new facilities. There was also the challenge of selling a high-end business turboprop aircraft versus a general aviation aircraft to individual owners.
In the midst of the abortive M22 launch and added pressure of MU-2 assembly and sales challenges, Mooney also acquired the production rights to the Aircoupe from Alon Aircraft. In 1968 they produced 38 twin-tailed Aircoupes. In 1969 the original twin tail was changed to a more conventional single (classic Mooney-style) fin and rudder and introduced it as the M10 Cadet. A total of 59 Cadets were produced before the production line was closed in 1970.
Between the cost of developing the unsuccessful M22 Mustang and the cost of the MU-2 program, Mooney was strapped for cash. In spite of continued strong sales of the M20 line, the company was again facing bankruptcy in 1969.
1972 – The Ownership Musical Chairs Begins
In 1969, Mooney was acquired by American Electronics Laboratories(AEL). They invested $600,000 to keep the company operating. That same year Mooney released the M20E Chaparral with electrically-operated flaps and landing gear. Even with the new, improved M20E, Mooney was unable to turn a profit and AEL lost nearly a million dollars during that year.
AEL sold the company to Butler Aviation International in December 1969. Butler Aviation also acquired the troubled Aerostarcompany and combined it with Mooney in an attempt to save both. The Mooney name was dropped, briefly, in 1970, as was the M20 designation; the planes were briefly called Aerostars.
In 1971, Butler Aviation closed the Mooney plant. Late in 1973, Republic Steel Corporationacquired Mooney and resumed production, introducing the M20F Executive in 1974. The company continued aggressive product development. The result was the M20J 201, so named because it was capable of 201 mph using a 200-horsepower engine.
Sales of the “201” were successful and in 1977 Mooney was offering three models: the M20C Ranger, the M20F Executive, and the M20J 201 MSE (Mooney Special Edition). Mooney dropped the M20C and, in 1979, introduced their first turbocharged M20, the M20K 231. Sales were strong, and from this point through 1986, the M20J and the turbocharged M20K were the only two models offered.
Mooney was caught in the same general aviation manufacturing downturn that affected all general aviation in 1982. Mooney downsized through temporary layoffs. In spite of sluggish aircraft sales, Mooney initiated development of a six-place 301, but it never entered production. The design would be developed as the TBM700 produced by Socata Aircraft.
In 1984, Republic Steel was acquired by the Ling-Temco-Voughtcorporation, and the new owner dropped the Mooney line. Mooney was quickly purchased by the Morrison Group and two months later sold to a team led by Armand Rivard, owner of Lake (Amphibian) Aircraft. Still, sales continued to decline.
Mooney moved its operation to larger facilities in San Antonio, Texas, in 1989, introducing the M20M TLS (Turbocharged Lycoming Sabre). In two years more than 200 of the new aircraft were sold. At the same time, Mooney launched the 201AT trainer, hoping to capture the trainer market. Only 20 trainer aircraft were sold through 1992 and that line was dropped.
The 1990s saw a return to what had worked best for Mooney—the evolutionary development of the M20 series, beginning with the M20J 201, also designated an MSE. This was a 200-horsepower non-turbocharged model that incorporated many features from the TLS. Mooney was offering two models: one with high speed (the TLS) and the other with high efficiency.
In 1992, sales slumped badly, and the San Antonio location was sold, and all operations were returned to Kerrville. Development continued, and the M20R Ovation was added in 1994. Powered by a 280hp engine, it was designed to fill a gap between the normally-aspirated MSE and the turbocharged TLS. In 1997 the M20K Encore was introduced. The TLS continued production through 1995, and the MSE was phased out in 1996.
In spite of continued development of more powerful models, Mooney was again facing bankruptcy in July 2001. Mooney 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, and filed for bankruptcy on June 10. In December, MASG restructured and reacquired Mooney Aircraft Company from Allen Holding Finance. (Grady, Mary (December 2004). “Mooney Aerospace Group Reorganizes,”AvWeb).
In 2004, Mooney emerged from bankruptcy as a publicly traded company [symbol MNYG (OTC BB)] with Gretchen L. Jahn, the first female CEO of a U.S. aircraft manufacturer. During this period the M20TN Acclaim, Ovation2 GX, and Bravo GX were introduced. By 2005, Mooney had added 50 workers and a second shift to meet demand. In 2006, Mooney arranged financing to buy all privately held shares of MNYG stock and return the company to “private” status.
But the cycle of ups-and-downs was not over. On 16 June 2008, Mooney announced it would lay off 60 employees and cut production from eight aircraft per month to five. The reasons for the cutbacks and layoffs cited by the company included the weak US economy and the high price of fuel inhibiting sales.
2008 Production Halt
In November 2008, the company stopped all production and laid off 229 of its 320 employees, citing unsold inventory of aircraft as a result of the early 2000s recession. Mooney continued to fill all outstanding orders from the current inventory and continued all customer support.
A third round of layoffs occurred in December 2008, reducing the total number of employees to just 50. The company still had 25 unsold aircraft at the factory.
Eighteen months later the backlog was cleared, and the company announced it intended to resume production, provided the market gained “a little more momentum.”
The market remained stagnant and late in 2010, Mooney laid off most of the remaining staff, retaining only 10 employees, while continuing negotiations with potential investors.
Through the first nine months of 2013 nothing had changed, but the search for investors continued. Then in October, Mooney announced that the company had been purchased by Soaring America Corporation (SAC), a California-based company with reported links to the Meijing Group, a Chinese real-estate developer. SAC president, Jerry Chen, indicated that Mooney would resume production of aircraft for the Chinese market.
Production resumed in February 2014 with production projections of 6 aircraft in 2014 and 30 aircraft in 2015. The Mooney M10T fixed-gear trainer was to be resurrected, with the idea of using a diesel engine that would make it more attractive to the Chinese market. The proposed trainer program was scraped in 2017.
Today, the Mooney International Corporation, is described as a “general aviation business” headquartered in Kerrville, Texas, owned by the Soaring America Corporation. According to their website, they also offer “aerospace part fabrication and assembly as a service to others.”
Current aircraft include the M20V Acclaim Ultra and M20U Ovation Ultra. According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Mooney delivered 7 aircraft in 2017.
If nothing else, the story of Mooney aircraft is a story of survival, which, in turn is a testament to Al Mooney’s original concept and design. The combination of good initial performance, continuous improvement, while maintaining Mooney’s iconic lines, has been the formula for survival.
Interested in a Mooney Aircraft?
A quick scan of the Internet indicates hundreds of Mooney aircraft available for sale, from 1960s M20C Rangers to newer M20R Ovations. Early models can be found at prices starting at less than $60,000. New M20 Acclaims are priced in the $800,000 range. Keep in mind that, except for the very rare trainers, all Mooney aircraft have retractable landing gear and constant-speed propellers. Cruise speeds range from 170 mph to well over 200 mph for later models.
About The Author
Jeffrey Lawrence Richmond
Jeff has been flying and writing for more than thirty-five years. He flew in the Air Force and later taught college-level aeronautics. He has worked as a flight instructor, commuter airline pilot, a professional photographer, and was a business and technical writer for both Pratt and Whitney and Lockheed Martin. Now retired, Jeff, in addition to continuing his writing activities, is on a mission to visit, photograph and write about aerospace museums—especially the smaller, lesser-known museums.