Mooneys have always had a charismatic appeal that seems to transcend their talents. Though the basic design is over half a century old, it has somehow managed to maintain its grip on the title of fastest single-engine, production, piston airplane.
Occasionally, someone comes along and tries to knock Mooney off its pedestal, but no one has even come close so far. I'm fortunate to have been allowed to fly every contender in the last 40 years, and while that doesn't make me an expert, at least I have a rough idea what the various types can do.
That's not to suggest that speed is the only meaningful parameter in aviation, but it's certainly one of the most critical. Cabin comfort has become progressively more important over the years, and the Corvalis TTx and Cirrus SR22 are the big winners in that category with cabins that are wider and taller than the Mooney's.
All that became moot in 2009 when Mooney went into suspended animation, waiting for the market to turn around. The company didn't shut its doors, but they did stop building airplanes and became primarily a parts house. Chief financial officer Barry Hodkin oversaw operations at the Kerrville plant, and everyone waited for the aircraft sales business to come back.
All of us who love Mooneys have been hoping for someone to come along on a white horse and return the airplane to production. Dr. Jerry Chen is that man. The new CEO of Mooney International comes to the job with impressive educational credentials. He holds two masters and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from USC (2009) with emphasis on Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical/Space Engineering, and he's a serious student of anything that flies.
I spent an hour with Dr. Chen at the Chino Air Show in early May, and we discussed pretty much every aspect of his private acquisition of Mooney. That's an important distinction. Most foreign investment in the American aircraft industry has been by the Chinese government.
In this case, the money has been advanced by the Meijing Group, a private real estate developer based in Zheng-zhou, Henan Province. This brings to eight the number of Chinese-American aerospace firms totally or partially owned by Chinese interests, everything from Cirrus, Continental Engines, Enstrom Helicopters and Glasair to Superior Air Parts and Mooney.
Understandably, Chen's major interest is how to reincorporate the Mooney models into the marketplace. The CEO has a 10-year master plan for Mooney, whose parent company is Soaring America, based in Chino.
When I asked about the first new airplane to come off the line, Chen advised it would be a turbocharged Acclaim S with revised paint, interior and some new avionics options—all features that won't require recertification. That airplane is at the head of the line and expected to be complete by July. Chen hopes to have it on display at this year's Oshkosh AirVenture. (Mooney has that first airplane up for an Internet auction on its Web site. It will be available for bid until July 11 when the winner will be announced. The airplane will be awarded at the end of the Oshkosh air show.)
If everything goes to plan, Mooney International will complete an additional five airplanes by the end of 2014 and is planning to produce two airplanes a month the following year. Everything depends upon market acceptance, but the current plan calls for production to ramp up to four units a month in 2016.
While the greatest demand is for the Acclaim S, Chen suggested the company will produce a number of Ovation 3s, flying behind the normally aspirated 310 hp Continental IO-550. The model mix will be approximately 80% Acclaim S and 20% Ovation 3s. Though there has been considerable interest in reviving the MSE/201, Mooney has no plans to produce that model.
Initial base prices for the two Mooney models will be $699,000 for the Acclaim S and $649,000 for the Ovation 3. "That will buy a fully equipped airplane with the latest Garmin G1000, complete with synthetic vision, weather and the Garmin G700 autopilot," said Chen. "Every airplane will feature AmSafe shoulder harnesses in front and a pair of Bose A20 headsets. The only options will be air conditioning and TKS, and the airplane will be IFR ready as is."
When I asked Chen about the global market for Mooneys, he mentioned that the type has great brand loyalty overseas, and there should be good acceptance of the line in China. Presently, there are less than 200 airports in all of China, but the Chinese government is rapidly expanding the infrastructure to allow greater mobility in the country. (Twenty years ago, I bid on delivering a Lake Renegade amphibian from Florida to China, flying it around the country for a month on a demo tour and finally leaving the airplane in Beijing. China is the fourth largest country in the world by area, and the only form of reliable transportation throughout was railway or ferryboat-based. There were very few airports, but there was plenty of water. An amphibian seemed an obvious choice for government transport around the 10 million square kilometers. Unfortunately, the deal fell through at the last minute.)
Chen seems to have a keen sense of business and the realities of aircraft sales, but he has wisely chosen to bring aboard an expert on all things Mooney and the manufacturing business in general, Tom Bowen. I met Bowen when he was VP of Engineering at Mooney in the early 1990s, and he manifested about as much enthusiasm for Mooney as was possible.
When Mooney went bankrupt several years later, Bowen moved to Columbia Aircraft in Bend, Ore., working on the normally aspirated Columbia 300/350 and the turbocharged 400. After a devastating hailstorm damaged 50 production airplanes, Columbia had its own financial problems, and Cessna subsequently bought the company out of bankruptcy. Bowen stayed aboard with Cessna for a year or two, but elected to move across town to Lancair in Redmond, Ore., when Cessna decided to reposition Columbia production to Wichita.
Chen said current employment at Mooney is up to 70, and that will increase as sales begin and both production line and administrative personnel increase to handle the load.
Now, Tom Bowen is back home with one of his first loves, and he and the rest of us can look forward to new Mooneys in the skies within a few months.