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by: Al Mooney, as told to Gordon Baxter Review by Andy Czernek, aczernekATcomcast.net Al Mooney's biography, written in 1985, tells the story of a man coming of age in the years that the light aircraft business matured into what it is today. Al's professional career started in the mid1920s at Alexander Aircraft and took this self-taught aircraft designer into the early 1960s (at Lockheed) before he hung up his slide rule. In the process he worked with Alexander, Bellanca, Culver and Lockheed - and started Mooney Aircraft (twice). Al Mooney launched today's Mooney Aircraft with the single-place M18 Mite, but both Art and Al were gone from the company that carries his name when the M-20 design was certified in 1955. The Al Mooney Story was co-authored by Gordon Baxter, long-time Flying Magazine columnist, and Al Mooney. It retains the best traits of each author. In providing a draft manuscript for Baxter, Al's attention to detail in aircraft history is captured. With Baxter's additions through interviews and story-telling, the book picks up the narrative flavour for which Bax is known. As an example, Baxter relishes the story of Al Mooney winning back his ex-wife, Opie, by confronting her second husband on the road outside Tulsa, getting the car keys from him and chasing him away on foot. When Gordon Baxter started the book, he was surprised that Al Mooney owned none of the company that carries his name. He was further surprised that Al read Gordon's columns in the local newspaper and enjoyed their personal style. At his first meeting, Baxter succeeded in having Al Mooney climb into his 1968 Mooney Ranger, N6727, to autograph the instrument panel! The story of Al's successes and failures has distinct parallels to high-tech industries today, where companies emerge then fail in periods as short as five years. Like Al Mooney, many talented designers in today's firms are self-taught; like Al many never make a fortune - even if their designs or names live on with a company; as with Al, new untested technology often delays projects. And like Al, many neglect their families during years of intense commitment to a project. THE EARLY YEARS Art Mooney was born July 10, 1904 and Al on April 12, 1906 to a father who built railroad trestles for the Denver & Rio Grande in the west. Their father's engineering skills led him to teach the boys drafting and layout work. The background paid off later in life: talking about the heavy-duty Mooney wing spar: "Don't thank me, thank Art. He built that wing spar the same way Daddy taught us. Just like a railroad trestle." "During my freshman year in high school, I asked my math teacher what I should study so I could design a safe airplane. He laughed, said no airplanes were safe and advised me to wait until I was in college," Al writes. He planned to enter the Colorado School of Mines - and at the same time to build a single-place biplane that he'd already designed in 1924. But a chance encounter with a Swallow biplane flying over the retirement home he was helping his father build changed the plans. Al went to
the airfield to see the plane and noted that it was mis-rigged. After helping re-rig the plane, J. Don Alexander offered him a job as a draftsman and assistant to the chief engineer at Alexander Aircraft in Denver at the age of 19. After assisting with an unsuccessful design, Al got a chance to build his M-1, a long-wingspan plane that became known as the Eaglerock Long Wing. That was where the classic Curtiss OX-5 powered Eaglerock became a standard. It was successful as a training plane, but the success didn't keep Al at the company. With little engineering or research support at Alexander Aircraft, Al was lured away to Montague by the spring of 1926, where his M-2 design would be built.
Alexander Eaglerock Longwing
Spins and over-loads on structures often killed test pilots in those early years. Alexander lost an early Longren design; Al knew that in a dive a 9G force would be enough to break up an airplane designed for only 8Gs. "I decided then that limitations to the pilot, written and repeated, would be the only answer. In later years I crusaded for this approach in my meetings with government regulatory people. The idea took years to be accepted but finally was, and airplanes were placarded with maneuvering speed," says Mooney. Al also took his first flying lessons in 1926: "I don't remember the date; nobody kept logbooks then."
After Montague ran into financial troubles, it was back to Alexander Aircraft in Colorado Springs. As would be his habit through his life, Al bought the fanciest car he could find when his personal finances improved. It was at this time that the M-4 design -- the Alexander Eaglerock Bullet, a low-wing plane with retractable gear, would be designed. With Mooney's patented retractable landing gear, it was a mild sensation and ahead of its time.
Alexander Eaglerock Bullet
None of the 11 Bullets remain, but Mary Senft Hanson, of Jackson Hole, WY has been involved in a project to re-create one and got it flying in October, 2006. This tour of duty at Alexander would last three years, until Al won financial backing from Bridgeport Machine Co. to start the first Mooney Aircraft in 1929. Teaming with his brother Arthur, Al Mooney left Denver and Alexander to form the Mooney Aircraft Corporation in Wichita, Kansas, in early 1929. The Mooney brothers' first venture was an airplane similar to the Bullet, an efficient low-wing monoplane dubbed the Mooney A-1. Unfortunately for the brothers, the Great Depression arrived at about the same time as the Mooney A-1, and Mooney Aircraft Corporation was unable to survive, closing its doors in 1931.
Mooney M-5 / A-2
His M-5 design progressed from the drawing boards to first test flight in seven months - but also flew right into the start of the Great Depression. Though aircraft sales were already waning, Al Mooney decided to fly the M-5 from Glendale, CA to Long Island, NY non-stop in a promotional effort. The plane got as far as Ft. Wayne, IN with Al using a rolled up Rand-McNally road map. At that point the engine quit when a weld holding his fuel pump failed. Only one M-5 was sold. At the same time Bridgeport Machine's sales of drills in the oil fields were being undercut by Hughes Machine Tools and the invention of the rotary drill bit. So, the first Mooney Aircraft Co. ended up being liquidated. Out of a job in 1931, Al began drawings for a light, two-place low-wing design, the M-6. With no money for an engine, Art & Al found someone from Wyoming to lend them money to buy a
Continental A-36. When they were still short of cash a year later, "Ed Todd took the airplane back to Afton, WY. Whatever happened to the Mooney M-6, where it ended its days, none of us ever knew." THE BELLANCA YEARS Despite the Great Depression, Bellanca was doing well with a Navy contract and its planes were a favorite of Alaskan bush pilots. In 1934 Mooney was hired, where he spent a short time as chief engineer. Al Mooney worked closely with owner Giuseppe Bellanca, who did his first monoplane design in 1913. Mooney says that there are many good aeronautical engineers but only a few designers: "A designer has a vision of how the airplane will look in flight." Giuseppe Bellanca was one of those designer-engineers, according to Mooney. Al also describes Roy LoPresti as such a man. So too, is Al Mooney. Mooney progressed to build the Bellanca Airbus, a single-engine cargo plane called the Y1C-27 by the Army.
Bellanca 66-75 Aircruiser
After that came a racing plane, the Irish Swoop, built for the McRobertson Race from England to Australia.
Bellanca 28-70 ”Irish Swoop” 4
CULVER - AND PAPPY YANKEY In 1935 after leaving Bellanca, Al Mooney moved along to try his hand as a consulting engineer in Washington DC with a speculative start-up firm with the plans to build a twin-powered flying boat. He was soon enticed by a vice-presidency as chief engineer to Monocoupe Aircraft Corp. in St Louis. He designed a small two-seat monoplane, the Monosport G (Mooney M-10) and the twin-engine Monocoach.
In 1937 when the company ran into financial difficulties Mooney and a Monocoupe dealer Knight .K. Culver bought the rights to his design and formed the Dart Aircraft Company. Mooney joined the Dart Aircraft Company as chief engineer. The aircraft was renamed the Dart Model G. Further derivatives were the Dart GK and Dart GW.
Dart Model G 5
In 1939 the company was renamed the Culver Aircraft Company and the aircraft was renamed the Culver Dart. Mooney refined the Dart design from a steel tube and canvas frame to a plywood monocoque fuselage to become the popular M-12 Culver Cadet, a fully aerobatic, single-place lowwing plane. With its elliptical wing and retractable landing gear, the two-seat Culver Cadet was fast and efficient. Over 350 of these high-performance aircraft had been produced by the time W.W. II erupted. By this time some future features of the Mooney design were in place: the rubber shock biscuits used in modern Mooney’s were in those early Culver Cadets. So too, was the spring-assisted manual gear.
Culver LCA Cadet
Culver Q-8a Cadet. By late 1940, it was clear that Culver would be building drones for the military. By the war's end Culver had produced over 3000 of the PQ-8 (a drone version of the Cadet) and the PQ-14 (its successor) target drones. The tricycle geared, bright red PQ-14 was the direct ancestor of the Mite.
Mooney's arrangement with Culver Aircraft included receiving a royalty on each aircraft built, but that interfered with Defense Department procurement rules, so Al Mooney had to accept a higher salary in lieu of royalties. The drones were used to develop gunnery capabilities for Navy and Army air defense teams. As the war progressed, even the drones needed to be faster to train for new generations of fighters and dive bombers. Knight Culver wasn't interested in the investing the capital or time to build the company. Eventually Culver Aircraft found that commercial sales dried up after the war. The all-metal Cessna 120 was too tough a competitor for Culver's wooden airframes. NINE YEARS AT MOONEY In July 1946, in partnership with Charles .G. “Pappy” Yankey and W.L. McMahon, as backer and legal advisers, the Mooney brothers resurrected the Mooney Aircraft Corp. Al was the general manager and chief engineer, while Art Mooney was the production manager. Bill Taylor was the sales manager and chief pilot, while Yankey financed the operation. The Mooney period was the longest time that Al Mooney stayed at one company. From founding in July, 1946 to certification of the M-20 in September, 1955 both Al & Art stayed with the company Their first offering was the Mooney Series18, an all-wood single-place plane with retractable tricycle gear and a cantilevered, laminar flow wing. Al's design was the only single-place plane to emerge on the market after World War II and "Mooney Mite" was the name that was hung on the aircraft sometime in 1946. Test flights continued through 1947 and certification was received in July, 1948. With its now-famous "backward" tail, the Mooney "Mite" hit the sport aviation world with a price tag of less than $2000, and represented the cheapest, smallest aircraft to be produced in quantity. It resembled a small ME-109 enough that pundits called it the "Texas Messerschmitt."
M-18 Mooney “Mite”
The design's primary problem was engine selection. Art & Al were attracted to an automotive engine to reduce costs and the aluminum-block Crosley was the eventual choice. The Crosley had been adapted to hydroplane racing and was attractive for its size and weight. The first Mites produced were certified to use the 25 h.p. liquid-cooled Crosley Cobra automobile engine. These engines were mounted back-to-front and drove the propeller through a belt-driven reduction gear. But development problems slowed engine approval, particularly because the supplier wasn't meticulous about quality control or about documenting design changes. Finally, with the delays, quality problems and the cost of the Crosley exceeding what a 65 h.p. Lycoming would cost, Mooney decided to switch powerplants - and to replace the engines in the 11 Mooney Mites already delivered. They were recalled and replaced, at no charge to the owners, with 65 h.p Lycomings. Crosley Engine conversion "All the M-18s in the field were ferried back on ferry permits, and we converted them to M-18Ls at no charge. This action alone convinced the aviation trade that we were here to stay," Mooney comments Al's reflection, "Had I been smart enough to avoid that engine conversion like the plague we would have had the little M-18L ready two years earlier."
The economy and efficiency of the Mite with the 65 h.p. engine was remarkable: Three-and-a-half to four gallons per hour at cruise between 120 and 130 m.p.h. This miniature "fighter plane" was cheap to buy and fun to fly. It had a lot of appeal to ex-military pilots recently returned from the War. To celebrate his 25th anniversary as an aircraft designer, Al Mooney set an unofficial distance record of 1312 miles in a Mite. One drawback of the Mite was its limited carrying capacity. The pilot could easily equal 25% of the gross weight of the airplane. In the model with the full electrical system, the baggage compartment was taken up by the battery, leaving a baggage capacity of only 40 lb. The Mite had a hand-operated, retractable gear system which was difficult for some to operate. Pilots who had trained on other small aircraft with fixed landing gear occasionally forgot to lower the gear for landing in the Mite. This is said to have happened to an embarrassed Al Mooney while he was giving a demo flight. This incident prompted him to invent the unique Wig-wag warning device which waves from the instrument panel when the pilot throttles-back with the gear up. Mooney had confidence in the rugged little Mite. Mooney advertisements claimed that belly-landings were a quicker, safer way to stop in difficult landing situations, and would cause little damage. There were many ingenious features in Mooney's airplane. A small Plexiglas window in the floor permitted the pilot to easily observe the nose wheel position. The Safe-Trim mechanism, operated by a small handle on the left side of the cockpit, integrated the flaps and stabilizer. Rubber disks used in the landing gear resulted in a virtually problem-free shock absorber system. Even as the engine tests were being performed for the Mite, Al Mooney started to conceive the M-20 as his next plane - a fourplace design that eventually could be converted to metal manufacture.
In May, 1951, during the Korean war, Mooney conceived a militarized Mite. At their own expense, they developed the M-19 "Cub-Killer", a "counter-liaison" aircraft, featuring a 90 h.p. engine with a Flottorp constant speed propeller and two .30 caliber machine guns in the wings. The gross weight was 1450 lbs. and it achieved a top speed of 150 m.p.h. Although successful strafing demonstrations were given for the US military, no purchase orders were received.
The physical move to Kerrville, Texas and the current plant began for economic reasons in 1953 when Wichita's new air force base overshadowed the factory at Wichita Municipal. Production of the M-18 continued. - even as the M-20 designs were being created. But Al's next challenge came in September, 1953 after the first flight of the M-20 prototype: financial backer Charles Yankey died of a stroke before funds could be put in place for production of the new design. "Pappy had eight heirs, and none of them wanted any part of an airplane company. In his will he left all his stock to me providing I could arrange financing," says Mooney. The search for funding brought in Hal Rachal and Norm Hoffman, who took over the company and put key personnel on contracts to stay until after the type certificate was granted.” The M-18C and M-18L, now named the Wee Scotsman, featured the 65 h.p. Continental A65-8 and the Lycoming O-145-B. However, the M-18L was soon to be discontinued because the Lycoming engines were no longer available. A plaid-coloured paint job on the vertical fin using Scotchlite reflective material made it the first plane to be reflectorized for safety. It also had a greater fuel capacity, 16 gallons instead of 12, extending the range from 290 to 420 miles for Continental model, and from 355 to 465 miles for the Lycoming model. With an optional 6 gallon fuel tank installed in the wing, the range extended to 610 miles. A Flottorp controllable-pitch propeller was now available for $189. The price of a new Mite was $2840, or you could buy one for $2400 without the engine. By 1955 the Mite had evolved into the model M-18C-55, which had a larger cockpit and canopy, but the price was approaching $4000. Mite production came to an end in 1956.
Mooney was then devoting his talent to the development of the Mark 20 family. The four-place Mark 20, with the hallmark forward-swept tail, was another solid airplane that achieved 180 m.p.h. on 180 h.p. The Mark 20 was certified in September, 1955 - two years after the prototype was flown. Shortly thereafter Al Mooney left and joined Lockheed-Georgia for the rest of his career, owning no part of the company that still carries his name. Though always a small-company person and apprehensive about working with a major defense contractor like Lockheed, Al Mooney found a home in his fifties working with aircraft people from his past. And he found work for brother Art - again. His three designs included a Lockheed business jet that would have competed with Cessna, Hawker and bigger Learjets. His proposal did become the Lockheed Jetstar, a business jet with four small jet engines paired up two per side on the aft fuselage. Afterwards came the LASA 60, short for Lockheed-Azcarate and the year of completion - a utility plane built for the Mexican market. Eventually Al was sent to Buenes Aires to set up a plant for the LASA 60. A third production facility was later added in Italy. In 1964, while working on his final design, Al's wife Opie was found to have a benign tumour. It was the beginning of a decline in her health, leading to her death in 1966. Though Al Mooney intended to lose himself in work, he realized by the time of Art's retirement in mid-1967 that work wasn't fun any more. He retired in 1968 Upon his retirement, Lockheed management gave him the oil portrait that graces the back of the Mooney - Baxter dust jacket: a picture of Al Mooney with sketches of all 23 of his airplanes above his head.
Al Mooney died May 7, 1986 in Dallas, Texas, at the age of 80, about a year after completing the book with Gordon Baxter. His brother Art had died in 1980.
This photo image of Mooney's "flying wing" logo is taken from the data plate on Dave Mazzola's 1949 M-18L, N380A.
Adapted from an article by M.B. Groves in American Aircraft Modeler magazine. Image of Al Mooney courtesy of International Mooney Society Log, Vol. 2 Issue 2, 1975. For a more comprehensive look at Al Mooney's life, see Andrew Czernek's review of They All Fly Through the Same Air, by Al Mooney, as told to.
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