It was a bright early spring day in the Hill Country of central Texas—well, it wasn’t really spring, but in Texas, a nice winter day feels decidedly spring-like. Which is nice when you’re exploring unheated hangars or wide-open expanses of tarmac. In addition to being pleasantly warm, it was bright on the Mooney ramp, too, as I rose up on my tippy toes and poked my head into the open rear baggage door of the new Mooney Acclaim Ultra, the latest airplane from a formerly beleaguered company back on its feet now and looking like it’s going places.
With a long history of producing popular four-seat single-engine planes, Mooney has also had a history of ups and downs. The latest down, which happened around the same time as the global economic downturn of 2007, was a body blow. The factory stayed open producing parts, but the airplanes that had been moving down the production line stopped in place. Many thought it might be the end of the line for a once-industry-leading plane and a great American aviation success story.
Happily, such was not the case. Today, as you likely know, Mooney has new life, as Mooney Aviation. The company was acquired in 2013 by Soaring America, a firm headed by Jerry Chen and backed by Chinese investors. With Mooney, Chen is looking to capitalize on the fast and popular planes (with a famously fanatical fan base) while improving them incrementally until they’re on par with the segment leaders (read: Cirrus and its SR22). The company is also developing a clean-sheet product, the M10, at its Chino, California, facility. The M10, no relation to the old Mooney M10 Cadet, is a two-seat design with a fixed-gear version for training and a retractable-gear version for personal transportation.
Perhaps one of the reasons why owners love their Mooneys so is that the planes are a bit eccentric in a few ways. The location of the baggage compartment access door, into which I was poking my head, is such a case. Unlike on Pipers or Cessnas, which situate the access doors down low for easy loading, the baggage door on the Mooney is located up high, just below chest height for me.
Using my phone as a flashlight (who doesn’t do that, these days?), I peered inside the underlying structure of the machine. Cool. It’s something that you seldom get a chance to do—see the bones of the beast from the inside—but this particular example hadn’t yet been made all pretty with interior panels and soundproofing and upholstery. The unobstructed view revealed the single secret of the new plane, the one great idea that allowed Mooney to create a new experience out of an existing product. That existing product, of course, is the M20, which in the Acclaim version is the fastest production piston single airplane on the planet, hitting 242 knots at 25,000 feet. In the new Ultra version, if it’s fair to even call it a “version,” the Acclaim will still do that, or at least that’s what Mooney is working hard to make happen; it’s trying to win back a few knots it expects to lose from the additional drag added by a second step and wingwalk covering. But the Ultra will also bring along an entirely new user experience as part of the bargain. A much improved user experience, I should add.
Mooney COO Tom Bowen has been in the light aircraft manufacturing world for 25 years in various leadership roles at Mooney in the 1990s, Columbia and briefly Cessna in the 2000s, and then again at Mooney in 2010. A tall native-born Texan with an easy laugh who looks like he’d prefer a good pickup truck to a sleek sedan (and, in fact, does), Bowen is a born production guy whose eyes light up when discussing the importance of tool dies in the metal-forming process.
Bowen has overseen the transformation of the Mooney factory in Kerrville, a small town an hour up a good road from San Antonio or two hours on winding two-lane roads from Austin. A time capsule with futuristic slices scattered throughout, the factory is a patchwork of design, the old, mostly still functional tools, a steampunk throwback to the middle of last century. Industrial-green behemoths dominate the floor space, their functions still a necessary part of creating the majority of the Mooney airframe, whether bending, stamping, shaping or forming metal. Most of the tools are still functional. In some cases, they’re irreplaceable cogs in a manufacturing process that Mooney has been conducting here in Kerrville for 60 years, with a few stops and starts along the way. The old tools—some of them, Bowen proudly points out—require long experience with making settings and feeding material to get the part to come out right. The current master of one cutting machine, he said, has been building Mooneys for more than 30 years.
Today, the busy antique machine tools exist alongside an increasing number of new efficient and environmentally friendly tools that are clear evidence of the company’s investment in the brand and in Mooney’s future. One, a long tank with a robotic apparatus that automatically feeds the metal parts into a fluid bath, does a great job, Bowen said, but it’s also clean. It is, in fact, so efficient at cleaning the fluid left over after the anodizing process that the fluid, instead of being dumped into toxic effluent ponds, can be returned to the city system as simple wastewater. It’s all a fascinating mix of old and new machinery in an airplane that’s based on a 55-year-old design, but that still has industry-leading performance.
I’ll tell you the secret behind the new Mooney M20: plastics. In this case, it’s fiberglass, e-glass, to be precise, that’s used to create a new external skin, or shell, for the M20 that takes the place of the sheet-metal covering of the original. Unlike on most other comparable aluminum planes, Mooneys make use of a steel-tubing-frame occupant enclosure. That steel cage is remarkably strong, for the protection of the pilot and passengers in case of an unplanned off-airport arrival. It’s a feature that Mooney owners point to with pride.
Mooney has focused very smartly not on performance, but on pilot and passenger comfort and experience.
The new skin, attached to the steel tube cage with bonded-on fasteners—the bonds for the attach points are stronger than the surrounding material—allowed Mooney to do something it had never done before: add a second door. You might be asking why Mooney couldn’t have added a second door into the existing sheet-metal fuselage skin, and you’re right in asking. It could have. But Bowen says that doing it with a composite skin made the process a lot easier and it saved a lot of weight, too. It did not, he makes sure I understand, make the airplane lighter. Its lighter weight made up for the additional beefing up that needs to be done to add that driver’s side door.
With the Acclaim Ultra and Ovation Ultra (the non-turbocharged higher-horsepower version, which will follow on shortly), Mooney has focused very smartly not on performance, but on pilot and passenger comfort and experience.
It felt a little odd that such an important part of my test “flight” was repeatedly getting into and back out of the airplane, on the ground, of course, into every seat and from both sides of the airplane. In the hangar, Bowen and Mooney marketing leader Jared Absher pointed out the techniques I should use to help my passengers get into the airplane, and then for me to get in, too. You do need a pilot to go flying, after all. The doors themselves feel completely different, very firm and positive. The latches and hinges are new. Gone are the piano hinges for the door and new is a jet-style positive locking mechanism. Pull the door firmly closed, engage the lock, and it’s done. I can’t imagine how one could get it wrong and partially close that door, something that happens with other door designs on light airplanes all too frequently.
For passengers, it’s an even bigger quality-of-life improvement. The backseat of the old M20, which many folks feel is too low and a little claustrophobic, is transformed. The seats, with all new padding and modern contrasting stitched leather, sit taller and seem more individual than before. Previously—and Bowen nimbly demonstrated this for me—backseat riders had to slide the front seat forward, step onto the narrow strip of backseat floor sideways and then pivot around down into the seat. Now they can simply slide the seat forward and step in normally.
What makes this possible is the new door design on both sides of the airplane. So, not only is there an additional door, but both doors are of a completely new design, substantially wider and with bigger windows and a skosh more elbow room along the sidewall. That means when you open the door and slide the seat forward, while there may not be any additional floor space—the fuselage dimensions are largely unchanged—there’s more room to get in because the door openings go back much farther. The result is that getting into and back out of the rear seats is much easier than ever. I know. I tested it.
I mentioned the windows, too, and they’re just as big a deal. The feeling of a Mooney, and I’m sure the new company did some good focus testing on this, can be a bit too sports car-like. That is, you sit low and it feels a little like you’re peering up at the world. In the new plane, the experience is completely transformed. The combination of lower, wider windows and a lower glareshield makes the experience feel more open, and it made me feel more on top of things, like I was more in command and less sunken into the environment. The view out the window is just great, too. Expect a lot of iPhone shots of the landscape below with that pretty Mooney wing a permanent backdrop.
Bowen tells me that for longtime Mooney fliers, it’s a strange feeling, setting your right foot on the step on the left side of the airplane, stepping up onto the wing, opening a door there and then climbing in—directly into the pilot’s seat. Conversely, for pilots of Cessna, Cirrus and select other models that have two doors, the idea that an airplane would only have a door on one side must seem a bit ludicrous. But it’s the way it was done back in the day, especially on low-wing airplanes. Here’s why. With a low-wing plane, the occupants need to climb up on the wing to get in, so the wing in the area where they walk (the aptly named wingwalk area) needs to be strongly reinforced, with additional structural members so no damage ensues when your big buddy Jake lumbers up to climb on in. So when you see a placard that says, NO STEP, that’s the reason. The wing isn’t additionally reinforced there, and you actually can do structural damage to the airplane if you’re not careful.
Even on the ground, the sense of being on top of the world is there.
So, when Mooney decided to add that extra door, it was also deciding to add the extra wing structure (weight), another doorframe (more weight) and another step (again, a few more pounds). The lighter composite skin allowed the company to do all of that and still come in at around the same weight. It also eliminated a lot of complicated and time-consuming manufacturing processes in creating the doorframe, as Bowen points out. The frame is a one-piece composite affair that has all the curves and grooves designed into the single composite part and not built up from dozens of individual pieces of metal.
Not all of my testing could be done on the ramp in Kerrville, so Tom and I hopped onboard an Ultra (they’re currently rolling down the assembly line) and took to the blue, and surprisingly tranquil, skies above the live oaks and rolling scrub brush hills of Kerr County, Texas.
I have a good bit of time in Mooneys, including the Acclaim, Acclaim S and Ovation, and some of that time was built on long trips with family and friends, so I had a baseline for comparing the new and slightly less new models. From climbing in and first taxi, it was clear the experience in the Ultra would be, well, ultra-nice. Even on the ground, the sense of being on top of the world is there. You have better visibility thanks to the wider and lower windows, and even though the glareshield is only an inch lower, Bowen tells me, it seems to give better visibility over the nose.
As I intimated, and as you can see in the accompanying photographs, the Acclaim Ultra has the best Mooney interior yet. It also has the best avionics package, with the Garmin G1000 integrated flat-panel system with redundant dual 10.4-inch diagonal displays with Mid-Continent Avionics standby gauges nestled snugly between them; the autopilot controls are oriented vertically along the left-hand side of each display. There’s WAAS as standard, RNAV approach capability, available ADS-B, which every buyer should get, standard synthetic vision and extensive vertical navigation features. Many of these capabilities weren’t available to previous Mooney buyers.
Other functions on the panel have been rearranged, too. There’s a new, higher-up gear lever with the same sight gauge on the floor between the seats to check gear status. The flap lever is new, with clearly marked settings. New-style toggle switches, which look like turtle shells, incorporate an on/off light, and the avionics keypad has been repositioned and its layout improved. Mooney designers put function controls into sub-group categories and grouped them together for a more intuitive layout; the switches for either TKS or air conditioning (it’s an either/or proposition) are all situated around a rotary dial on the left-hand-side subpanel. It’s an easy cockpit layout to get used to.
Flying The Acclaim Ultra
As you’ve doubtless figured out by now, the real changes to the Acclaim Ultra aren’t related to its flying qualities, which Bowen told me he expected to remain essentially unchanged. Whether any of the numbers on the spec sheet would change is an open question, but if they do, Bowen said, it won’t be by more than a couple of knots or feet per minute up or down. That’s an important detail, as the Acclaim Ultra isn’t a new type certificate. Its upgrades, even the all-new composite shell, are being addressed by the FAA as “minor changes,” an official term the FAA uses to assess the potential effect on the aircraft’s airworthiness. In this case, it means the FAA expects there to be little or no effect on the M20’s handling and performance due to the new shell, doors and a few other added features. There were, in fact, just a handful of parameters the FAA required Mooney to look at in flight test, Bowen told me. They included a dive test, presumably to see if the shell holds tight under increased air loads. It’s a sure bet that it will, which the FAA knows, but no one would blame the agency for covering its bases.
Takeoff, as I expected, was completely Mooney-like; you need to apply a good bit of back pressure to rotate, and once you do, you can commence the trimming. The airplane is a strong climber. We were light, with just Tom and myself and half tanks, and it was right around a standard day, temperature-wise. We headed up at better than 1500 fpm at best rate, an airspeed I seldom use in real life, as it robs you of a lot of the view out the front, where the airplanes coming right at you will be as they’re descending into the airport you’re currently departing.
Once we got up to 8,500 feet, I had to pull back on the power to avoid going too far into the yellow—oops, this is a fast airplane. We did a series of maneuvers that all resulted in me becoming absolutely convinced that if there are any differences in handling from previous Mooneys, I’m not good enough to be able to make out the distinctions, if they did exist at all. It made me feel better that Bowen isn’t either, though. One thing I was easily able to perceive was the difference in the view from the front seats. I assume it’s a big upgrade from in back, too. The larger and wider windows make spotting traffic easier, though we were apparently all alone up there on a fine spring-ish afternoon.
The new windows also make it easier to appreciate the view and the overall experience of flying, and flying a Mooney. That upgrade alone—and it’s just one of many—makes the change from one door to two a big deal, even if the FAA says it’s just a minor one.