The years 1960-1975 were a vintage period for Mooney, if you like functional and fast machinery with plenty of character
By Nick Bloom (Pictures: Keith Wilson)Tall Texan Don Peterson thinks the Mooneys made between 1960 and 1975 are, “The best value for money tourers, period,” and he’s a man whose opinion is worthy of respect (company CEO, USA Advanced aerobatics team member, aviation writer). He certainly gets a lot of use out his, even now, 30 years since he bought it, flying all over the USA on business and pleasure.
Mooneys are the sports cars of the aviation world: fast, beautiful, but a little cramped. They have always been the fastest aircraft in their horsepower and price category. In 1960, Mooney switched from wood to all-metal aircraft and sales boomed. They weren’t luxurious, or especially easy to fly; however for a pilot capable of handling them nothing went faster for the price. And then, as now, Mooneys looked like thoroughbreds.WHAT’S IT LIKE TO FLY?
You climb up to the right wing via the retractable footstep (mostly there to stop you damaging the flaps, because the wing isn’t that high off the ground) and with the help of a handhold on the fuselage. The single door has a simple bent-rod handle and swings back on a retaining strap. Getting in is easy despite the rather tight cockpit space, assuming the last pilot remembered to leave the seats slid back. The pilot gets in first, reaches under the seat for the car-style lever and up to the single tube strut in front of the windscreen and pulls his seat forwards. This allows the rear seat passengers to get in. This early Mooney isn’t really up to carrying four adults, certainly not if you’re going to fill it with fuel, and the rear two seats are a little cramped, just as they would be in any self-respecting sports car. To close the cabin door you pull it shut with one hand and turn a handle with the other – a more positive and safer system than slamming. This model has a fuel-injected 200hp Lycoming. They all have constant speed props. The engine is fitted with cowl flaps and an auxiliary fuel pump, both of which have to be used. The engine drums and thrums and exudes a slight, not unpleasant, cooking smell. Pushing in the brake plunger and dabbing on the toe brakes (fitted only on the pilot’s side) gets the Mooney on the move.I find I’m sitting a little low, so we park for a moment while Don shows me how to tip forwards my seat back with an adjustment lever – a nice touch. After also moving the seat an inch further to the front, I’m right where I want to be. The view out for taxiing is good; I can see over the nose and right down those long, graceful tapering wings to their tips. The Mooney has short legs and sits low, but from the cockpit it doesn’t feel as though it’s squatting as much as I expected. As I steer the aircraft around with rudder, I notice the yoke moving of its own accord. This is a side effect of the ‘Positive Control’ (PC) system virtually unique to Mooney, an early model autopilot. As one of its side effects, rudder and aileron are linked, but you can disconnect the Positive Control and separate them by holding down a button on the yoke. Later in the flight, Don removes the button altogether, leaving the controls un-linked for good, which is probably how most people would prefer them for circuit work.Don says the rubber biscuit suspension has stiffened with age, but the ride feels just right to me, soft, but not swaying or nodding. Pre-flight checks include cycling the prop and setting elevator trim via a remarkably low-geared wheel between the seats. This tilts a rear section in the fuselage, altering the angle of the entire tailplane, elevator, fin and rudder assembly. I lower first stage flap by moving a small lever down then pumping a longer lever below the instrument panel through two strokes. Six strokes gives full flap, and to raise flap you just lift the flap control lever, allowing the hydraulic pressure to drain away. After lining up, I push the throttle plunger home and the aircraft moves forwards at something between a surge and an amble; acceleration isn’t particularly fast. It would be rather faster if we weren’t flying from Don’s base in Carson City, at an altitude of 4,500ft. However, the acceleration keeps on coming and we reach the rotate speed of 60mph within about 200metres. Elevator is a little on the firm side as I lift the nosewheel off the tarmac. A couple of seconds later I can feel the Mooney’s ready to lift off and a slightly firmer pull gets her flying. Don cautions me to let the speed build before climbing away, but the controls are telling me that anyway; the Mooney doesn’t feel overpowered, nor do its wings feel like they’re generating much excess lift. After allowing the aircraft to accelerate to around 80mph, we’ve used altogether around 400 metres and we can now climb at around 500fpm. At sea level the takeoff run would be 300 metres, initial climb 600fpm. The flap limiting speed is only 100mph, so I raise the lever. Don reminds me to switch off the auxiliary fuel pump. We opened the cowl flaps shortly before takeoff.There’s no time to relax, because it’s time to raise the undercarriage. The technical term for the Mooney’s system is the Johnson Bar, and it’s quite well known in aviator circles. You begin by thumbing a catch near the top of a long handle that starts on the floor and extends all the way up to the instrument panel. While thumbing the catch you lower a sleeve on the handle, which allows you to pull the handle back towards you. It has to go all the way down to the floor, and moving it continuously and without pausing or changing your handhold through the full ninety degrees from upright to down is quite a trick. In fact, I can’t do it without looking and without pausing half way down to change my handhold.Once it’s down, you have to raise the sleeve to clip the handle in place. The first time I raise the undercarriage I can’t get the sleeve to lock the handle down and Don has to help (though I do manage it on subsequent attempts). Don’t expect to be able to operate the Johnson Bar while maintaining a steady heading and climb speed for your first few circuits. However, once you get the hang of it, you will feel a small glow of satisfaction every time you raise or lower thereafter.Clean, the climb rate improves considerably. At 95mph we are ascending at 600fpm (which would be 900fpm at sea level). Banking, I forget about the linked rudder, so the slip ball goes off centre when I put in rudder myself. The ailerons are firm, but not heavy, and positive compared to aircraft that have cable rather than the Mooney’s pushrod controls. The controls are firm in all three axes, but this is still quite a manoeuvrable little aircraft. We won’t be sampling the stall behaviour today, but Don tells me the Mooney will drop a wing in a full power clean stall but not otherwise and with undercarriage and flap down is reluctant to stall. However, he warns that fully loaded, you can get into a high rate of descent if you don’t keep on some power and you then allow the speed to drop. Control harmonisation seems about right in that the ailerons are a touch lighter thanelevator, which is a touch lighter than the rudder, but in truth all three are pretty similar. The view, once we have settled into the circuit speed of 120mph, is excellent for navigation purposes. The ride is also remarkably smooth on a gusty day over a hilly landscape. I have to throttle back quite a long way to maintain level flight at this speed, and there is clearly a lot of power in reserve. Don cruises at between 160mph and 180mph, consuming 36- 38lph.The fuel is in two wing tanks, delivered via a tap in the floor that gives left or right tank or cut-off options only (no both tank option). This gives the aircraft five hours endurance with full tanks. Don has found it possible to carry four average adults with full fuel, but that puts the aircraft at its maximum weight. Were any of the adults overweight, the Mooney would be unable to cope.The PC mechanism keeps the wings level indefinitely if the aircraft is left unattended.Don says that with it disabled, the Mooney is stable in pitch, but will roll one way or the other eventually. After the downwind checks, Don advises reducing throttle to twelve inches manifold pressure. Steadily raising the nose gets the speed back to 100mph eventually, but it takes at least 20 seconds before it drops into the white arc and I am finally able to pump full flap down. Flap and undercarriage both create quite marked trim changes, so I do find that I’m using the trim wheel. Having to make several turns before the trim takes effect is something you quickly get used to; in fact, it’s less troublesome than trim wheels that are geared too high, so that you have to keep coming back to re-trim.Lowering the undercarriage by raising the Johnson Bar is rather easier than folding the wheels away after takeoff, but I still make the aeroplane wobble about. By the time I’ve got them down and the Johnson Bar locked in its upright position, I’m far enough downwind to turn base. Don says I’m too high, and I should fully close the throttle (this happened on all three of my approaches). We have a 10kt headwind, so the runway, which is almost under the nose at first, gradually settles into the right position. Sideslip in addition to flap is perfectly permissible and when I try it the effect is very nearly as good as a modern Mooney’s airbrakes.Maintaining 80mph is critical, says Don, since below that there’s a danger of sinking and a heavy landing, but if you come in faster, the float takes up an embarrassing amount of runway. However, the Mooney seems quite stable, once it’s trimmed out, and it isn’t difficult to hold a steady speed. The round out is easy to judge, the elevator at this point being just a touch on the right side of firm so that I’m not tempted into any pilot-induced oscillation. You can feel the ground effect and this helps to keep the Mooney floating just above the runway. Don is emphatic about not touching down too early. When we do finally run out of lift, the landing is only just mainwheels-first because our pitch angle is shallow even in the final stage of the flare. This helps in that you can easily see over the nose. The elevator remains firm, so I unload the noseleg rather than keep it raised as you would on some aircraft. The overall impression is of an aircraft that you land like an airliner, flying it smoothly onto the runway with no risk of grounding the tail. We’re landing on a hard runway, so how would the Mooney behave on grass? Don says the short noseleg and limited prop clearance can give difficulty on muddy grass runways, but smooth, dry grass runways aren’t a problem. The elevator isn’t always powerful enough to lift the nosewheel if it gets bogged down in soft ground.After the usual shutdown checks there’s one more I’ve not encountered before – you make a few turns on a prominent handle on the left side of the fuselage. This lowers the step.