On the face of it, retractable gear seems almost an ideal solution to the problem of making an airplane fly faster. The whole idea is to reduce drag and increase cruise; cleaning up the underwing accomplishes that mission, though with varying levels of success.
Some models realize as much as a 10% speed improvement, others a little less. The Cessna Skylane RG enjoys a 14-knot advantage over the stiff-legged model, as does the Cardinal RG over the stock Cardinal. Piper’s Lance outruns the down-and-welded Cherokee Six 300 by 12 knots, and the original 180 hp Arrow typically enjoys a 15-knot advantage over the Archer.
Retractable gear doesn’t hold all the aces, however. There are some
trade-offs necessary to realize the benefits of putting the wheels to bed. In contrast to well-faired, fixed-gear airplanes, retractable gear can introduce a variety of compromises; for example, there may be reduced ground stability, greater complexity, additional empty weight, higher maintenance costs, increased pilot workload, reduced structural integrity and less wing space for fuel.
In the normally aspirated class, manufacturers such as Diamond, Columbia and Cirrus have proven that by doing their aerodynamic homework, they can field quick, fixed-gear singles, sometimes capable of matching the best efforts of the retractable competition.
Of course, none of this has escaped Mooney Airplane Company, builder of perhaps the most iconic retractables in the industry. Mooney’s two tentative ventures into fixed-gear models, the Aircoupe/Cadet and the Master, were dismal failures. The Kerrville, Texas, company correctly concluded that it should concentrate on doing what it does best—building the world’s fastest, most efficient, single-engine, piston airplanes.
That title has been in question for the last two years. Columbia Aircraft offered the turbocharged Columbia 400 and claimed that it was the new speed champ. Arguably, Mooney reassumed the title late last year with the new Acclaim, a 280 hp version of the Bravo with a new Continental TSIO-550G engine out front, small winglets on the tips and a number of other less significant changes.
This left the normally aspirated Ovation2 to deal with the Cirrus SR22-G3 and the Columbia 350. Certainly, one of the quickest and easiest methods of increasing the knot count was simply more horsepower.
By itself, horsepower is probably the least efficient method for improving cruise speed, but it can offer some peripheral benefits, such as better climb, shorter runway requirements and, in some cases, improved high-altitude performance. Although horsepower alone does generate more speed, the relationship is far from proportionate.
In this case, Mooney borrowed a page from Cirrus by adopting an STC’d mod rather than expending the huge amounts of money normally required to recertify an airplane. Working with Midwest Mooney of Flora, Ill., holder of the power upgrade STC, Mooney bumped power on the Ovation from 280 to 310 hp. That’s, perhaps, only fair since it’s the rating of the same Continental IO-550G engine used in both the Cirrus and Columbia applications. Mooney has effectively streamlined production by adopting the Continental 550 for all three models.
In fact, the IO-550 engine, in both normally aspirated and turbocharged trim, is rapidly finding favor with more and more aircraft manufacturers. Columbia, Cirrus, Beech and now Mooney have embraced the 550 as their standard piston powerplant.
I flew a ferry-time-only Ovation3 with Lee Uecker, Mooney’s new regional sales representative for California. His company, curiously named California Mooney, is based in Santa Maria, halfway up the West Coast, and Uecker agreed to bring the airplane down to Long Beach for a few hours of fun and editorial investigation.
Though I’m far from an expert on the Ovation, I have more than a passing acquaintance with the type. Back in the ’90s, I delivered about a dozen M20Rs overseas, logging about 600 hours in the process. One went to Durban, South Africa, one to Athens, Greece, and I delivered the other 10 (along with two Bravos and a pair of MSEs) to Graham Lowry-Jones, then Mooney distributor for Australia. Most deliveries Down Under went to Bankstown in Sydney, though a few were scattered around to Melbourne, Dubbo and Adelaide.
Fortunately, my flight with Uecker didn’t involve a 110-gallon tank in the rear seat or a 2,200 nm ferry flight. Instead, we spent a pleasant afternoon driving the plane down the California coast to San Diego for Mexican food and we took a circuitous course back to Long Beach in time for dinner.
The standard Ovation was an excellent climber, but with 30 additional horsepower under the bonnet, the new Ovation3 offers even better ascent. As you might expect, climb performance is nearly always the first beneficiary of more power. With two folks aboard and three-quarters fuel in the tanks, a typical load, Uecker and I leaped out of Long Beach at an initial 1,200 fpm, all the more impressive considering that density altitude at sea level was 2,300 feet. Service ceiling is a tall 20,000 feet, so you should see good climb even at density altitudes above 10,000 feet.
It’s unlikely I’ll ever need to fly an Ovation across an ocean at 900 pounds over gross again, but I’ll bet the new airplane would climb away with even greater ease than the Ovation2s I delivered in the ’90s.
Of course, the overriding question remains—how fast is it? Turbocharged airplanes punched through the 200-knot barrier long ago, but normally aspirated models have been challenged to fly much quicker than 185 knots. The original 1994 Ovation boosted cruise to the neighborhood of 190 knots, and the later Cirrus SR22 and Columbia 350 scored close to those numbers six years later.
Without benefit of thin air in the flight levels, however, the 200-knot ideal remains a major aerodynamic challenge. (Even the Comanche 400 with, you guessed it, 400 hp on the nose, could manage only about 185 knots.) Now, Mooney has upped the ante a step closer to that ideal.
We had a hot day with a typical Los Angeles inversion on the day of the test flight, so temperatures were well above standard for the bottom two vertical miles. I high-jumped to 9,500 feet over the Catalina Channel and let the airplane accelerate for several minutes. After speed had stabilized, TAS worked out to 188 knots at a density altitude of 12,300 feet. That was obviously far above optimum height, equal to about 55% power, so we began reducing the cruise altitude 1,000 feet at a time in search of the magic max cruise height.
Seventy-five percent altitude worked out to an unusually low 5,500 feet where the temperature was still a surprising 30 degrees C. That generated a density altitude of 8,400 feet and a max true airspeed of 194 knots. Mooney’s spec is 197 knots under ideal conditions, which we most definitely didn’t have on the day of my flight.
In other words, at this writing, the Ovation3 would appear to be the world’s fastest, normally aspirated, piston, production single. Period. Now, if Mooney can come up with a few aerodynamic tweaks, it just may have the first normally aspirated, piston single to break 200 knots at cruise.
The race isn’t always to the fastest, however. My transpacific experience suggests the basic Ovation is capable of remarkable efficiency up high at 55%, about 165 knots on 12.5 gph, and with slightly more horsepower and a little more altitude, the Ovation3 will probably do even better. On those 7,000 nm Santa Barbara-to-Sydney ferry trips in the Ovations, I carried the standard 89 gallons in the wings, 110 gallons in the aft ferry tank and 30 gallons in the copilot tank. At 15 gph, I had just over 15 hours’ endurance at an average 180 knots cruise.
Pulled back to 55%, I could run an easy 165 to 170 knots for 17 hours’ endurance. (Thank you, God, for never requiring me to fly that long.) That made the Ovation the second most efficient airplane I’d ever ferried. (First was the Mooney MSE.) In light wind conditions, I typically arrived in Honolulu with a solid 3.5 hours’ reserve, again second best only to the MSE.
The new Ovation3 boosts standard fuel from 89 to 102 gallons and offers an option that pushes total capacity to a staggering 130 gallons. In theory, this extends the Ovation3’s range to more than 1,500 nm. That’s New Orleans to Los Angeles or Miami to Minneapolis. Talk about seven-league boots.
Of course, as you may have already guessed, you can carry a string quartet of people or copious fuel, but not both. The upgrade from 280 to 310 hp doesn’t cost you any extra empty weight, because the engine is essentially the same, only less derated. Useful load on the demonstrator was 1,002 pounds, so payload with a full 102-gallon service amounts to 390 pounds, two pilots plus baggage. Increase fuel to the optional 130 gallons, and you’d have to settle for about 220 paying pounds.
Okay, that isn’t necessarily such a bad thing when you consider that many pilots fly Mooneys alone or with only one other person aboard. Still, if you must aviate with the standard 680 pounds of people in the buckets, you’ll need to limit fuel to about 50 gallons, two hours plus reserve, as long as most groups of four can stand each other, anyway.
That’s not because there’s anything claustrophobic about the Ovation3’s cabin. The size of the Mooney cockpit has been unfairly criticized for years. It measures 43.5 inches wide at the elbows by 44.5 inches tall, and that’s better than the old F33A Bonanza’s enclosure, often held up as a paragon of aeronautical virtue. (The straight-tailed Bonanzas were fast, wonderful-handling airplanes, but their cabins were more than a little horizontally challenged.) Conversely, both the Columbia and Cirrus models are at least 48 inches wide, and a comparable measure tall.
Mooney has embraced the Garmin G1000 as standard equipment on the Ovation3, and the bottom line is $469,000. Actually, that’s more accurately the top line. You can still add such options as Stormscope, SkyWatch, TKS ice protection, air-conditioning, the Monroy long-range tanks, oxygen and a chandelier. Load the airplane with all those options and you’ll be pushing $600,000. You’ll also wind up with a payload of less than 200 pounds.
And who cares. You’ll be able to blaze by everything else in the sky fitted with only one piston engine and no turbo. That alone ought to be worth something.
SPECS: 2007 Mooney Ovation3