In a 35-mm transparency I only recently discovered in my library, there’s an image of a red-and-white Mooney M20C in front of a hangar with an older couple standing in front of it. The best guess I’ve got is that it’s the couple who sold N5746Q to my late friend and mentor, Chris Smisson, a year before I was born.
In the web of folklore told to me in the years I’ve been flying, the stories are snipped, short and incomplete, but the basic gist is this: Chris put much of himself into this plane over the years, spending many late nights at the Navy Flying Club’s hangar, wires spread everywhere and interior stripped, making 46Q into a great little traveling machine. Over time, he changed the windshield and wingtips to those more like a Mooney 201, installed fairings and gap seals, and modified the cowling from the “Big Gulp” intake, which was horribly inefficient, to a smaller inlet that properly directs the airflow. He had a local guy make an interior out of surplus carpet from Delta Airlines, bought for pennies on the dollar at their scrap sales.
And then there’s the panel. Folks would have a hard time not describing my friend Chris without some mention of hyperactivity. “Like someone teed up a ping-pong ball in a porcelain-tiled bathroom,” was my very favorite descriptor. The panel matched its owner well. Retaining Mooney’s approach to instrument layout one might liken to a dartboard after the players had one too many, he filled the spaces with the very best the early 1990s had to offer. A II Morrow LORAN unit gave him “Direct-To” abilities. A BF Goodrich WX-900 Stormscope pointed out where the bad stuff was before we had datalink weather readily available. A pair of King KX-155 radios could guide him down through the soup. It was the perfect machine for a man who couldn’t stay in one place very long.
And then there was the paint scheme. A two-tone gray stripe followed the familiar pattern born on many Mooneys, but a few thin lines of gray on the tail and wingtip gave hint that something was different. A Mooney sits only slightly higher than a kid’s go-kart, so the surprise is as rare as it’s fleeting: Its belly is patterned with a design evocative of a bird in flight, not all that much unlike the USAF Thunderbirds’ design. The story goes that our friend John David Mullins, the flight surgeon for the Georgia Air Guard and a close friend to all in this story, drew it up on a cocktail napkin.
When Chris met Heidi, he took her on a date that only he could have managed. Heidi, a flight attendant, finished a trip, and he had arranged (pre-2001, obviously) to taxi up to the same gate where she sat, and tucked under the wing of the Boeing sat the Mooney they used for a rustic getaway to visit a few friends while camping. There are few people who could pull off a Sun ’n Fun camping trip just that way, but he did, and it worked. Their marriage lasted until his last heartbeat.
The Mooney served as the machine that enabled many getaways, and when Skylar made his arrival, the backseat got more and more use. Kelly Leggette, a friend who owned a share of his Zlin-526, bought a sliver of ownership after his use of the Mooney exceeded what the insurance company reasonably considered “borrowing.”
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When we lost Chris, Kelly bought the remaining share of the Mooney, keeping it in our flying family. He checked me out in the plane, made sure I was insured, and then cut me loose to build all the complex time I needed.
I was helping him work on it one night when I mentioned meeting an airline recruiter who threatened me bodily harm if I didn’t go fly for them. I was wedged under that panel as Kelly dropped two sheets of paper on me, a blank check and an IOU, that opened the gateway for a fantastic career and a life I couldn’t have imagined.
As a regional first officer, I still borrowed the keys to the Mooney from time to time. I ran my buddy Tim on a few excursions to visit his 172 while it was in the paint shop, and I took it to Sun ’n Fun one year with my friend Candice, who was trying to build time.
The registration number is very much in line with the airline flight numbers I operated for a decade, a fact that was lost neither on me nor on the controllers around Atlanta as I often blurred work and pleasure on radio calls. When I would call tower as “Acey 5746Q,” they’d often as not chuckle and make some remark about how it must be my day off.
A Mooney is a hard airplane to love if you don’t own it. They’re cramped, both in the cabin and in any space you might be trying to inspect or repair. And since I was paying my dues as a mechanic, I spent a lot of time with my arms wedged into tight spaces. Sharp-tipped screws abound on a Mooney, constantly looking for flesh to puncture, and the maze of vacuum lines throughout the bird offer a billion places to go looking for a leak. Not content with simply running gyros with vacuum, Al Mooney incorporated a vacuum-retractable step and a vacuum-driven Brittain wing leveler, as well. Those hoses don’t last forever.
And then there’s the engine. Once you pull the cowling, there’s a second cowling, “the doghouse,” which is a plenum over the engine to direct the cooling air. Again, it’s a smart design for owners and pilots, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mooney engineer responsible for it had lost a wife to his mechanic. The doghouse exacted his revenge on all mechanics that followed.
Then came the day when Kelly decided it was time to shuffle his toybox, and he called me with an offer almost too good to be true. This is nothing new with him; he had been trying to sell me his airplanes for a decade. This time the tone was a little different, and my situation was vastly different.
For years, I’ve helped people find airplanes. We’ve scoured online ads, FBO bulletin boards and Trade-A-Plane issues and randomly asked airport geezers what might be gathering dust in a hangar nearby. I’ve done pre-purchase inspections where I told the owners to send a check right then if they wanted it, and I’ve had to tell others to run, not walk, in the other direction.
Each time I made sure to pass along one gem of wisdom: “Never let emotion drive your decision to buy an airplane.”
Someone should shackle me to a chalkboard and make me write that 50 times before I can go outside for recess. I bought a J-3 Cub project that has proven to require replacing almost more of the airframe than we’re keeping because I had the emotional tie to an afternoon spent shredding toilet paper into confetti on the day of my first flying lesson. The progress is slow, but as long as it flies before I retire, I can live with that.
And now, the Mooney found me. I tried to get out of having to buy it by taking Amy for a quick hop. I figured she’d find it cramped and uncomfortable. Instead, she said, “You know, if it only had a headrest, I’d be asleep in no time.”