Going Direct: Why Did Mooney Fail? It’s Simple! (Not)

Mooney M20M
A Mooney M20M. Photo by Christoph Feldhaus/Flickr

When Mooney announced that it had shut down its factory in Kerrville, Texas, and furloughed more than 200 workers, that is, more than two-thirds of its workforce, it was both strange and unexpected. First, the news had actually come out the week before in the Kerrville Daily Times, the local Hill Country paper that has been covering all things Mooney for ages. Mooney moved to the town in 1953, the Kerrville Daily Times, in 1908. So the paper has seen Mooney come and go, and come back again, and then fold up, only to return a few years later, and so on. By our count, the company has changed hands 11 times in its 65 or so years in Texas, which is one change of ownership about every 6 years. This time around it’s been exactly six years since the oddly named Soaring America Corporation purchased Mooney’s assets. Someone else will buy the company before long. In the meantime, it’s bad for the employees who are out of a job. It’s too easy, as a pilot and aviation journalist writing about the flying side of GA, to forget that these businesses employ real people who are now out of a job, very likely for a while.

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I’ve had a number of people ask me why Mooney folded. The answer is at once simple and timeworn and altogether a product of today’s global economy.

There are reasons why Mooney’s sold slowly this time around, and it wasn’t the machines. The company greatly improved the product, adding space, a pilot-side door, making the windows bigger and the avionics sweeter, all by incorporating a composite forward fuselage shell. The transformation was impressive. Unfortunately, it failed to impress potential customers enough to more product. The new Ultras, the brand name for the new, improved M20s, sold slowly, which is sad, because they did everything aeronautical at a great rate of speed. The Acclaim Ultra is the fastest production piston single ever, and by a good margin, too. Why some people turn up their noses at Al Mooney’s old school design is a mystery to me. 240 knots is wicked fast, and even if corrected for actual flying conditions because, let’s face it, who flies a single at 25,000 feet, you’re still looking at a 220 knot airplane in the mid-teens at less than 20 gph.

But Mooney the company didn’t inspire confidence, and based on recent events, rightly so. The M20’s main competition, if you can even call the Mooney competition, is the Cirrus SR22, which is slower, more expensive and arguably less sexy than Mooney’s slick little retractable gear speedster. But the Cirrus SR22 outsold Mooneys by a factor of around 50:1.

Why? In part, it’s because Cirrus has a stable business profile, it’s marketing is super slick, it’s technology is top drawer, and it has the chute, which a lot of pilots, and not just their spouses, are asking for these days. Did the M20, which is time consuming (read: expensive) to build ever really have a chance against the SR22. Rhetorical question. Of course it didn’t.

But could it have created an attractive enough niche to let it survive long term? Hard to say. Would sales of 50 planes a year have been enough? Maybe not. It’s expensive to build airplanes, and much of that expense is beyond your control. All of the components the plane maker buys from vendors, and there are hundreds of items on every Mooney, everything from engines and props to nuts and bolts, is sold by those vendors so they can make a profit. They are not giving engines away. And the things the airframer needs to build take hundreds of employees and extremely expensive infrastructure and tooling. Building airplanes is not for the faint of heart, or checkbook. So could Mooney have succeeded? Maybe, but it would have had to have exceeded expectations, by a lot.

It’s the other part of this equation that’s not directly talked about much is that Mooney is owned (still is, even if they’re not making planes) by a Chinese concern, and the conventional wisdom that all Chinese investment companies are really a government investment company is not far from the truth. Some are literally that. Soaring American Company seems to have little presence in the investment marketplace beyond Mooney. Without Mooney being a going concern, what happens to Soaring? I have no idea, but the prospects are scary, especially for owners of existing Mooneys who need parts now or who will need parts later.

Part of the promise of Chinese ownership was that a burgeoning Chinese aviation sector would drive sales of hundreds upon hundreds of new Mooneys. The company even designed a cute little two-seater, the model M10, which kind of resembled the company’s old Mooney M10 Cadet, which was an outgrowth of the Ercoupe design. It never got built or flown, and the thousands of sales of that emerging model never materialized.

That is because the Chinese market for the planes never materialized because China doesn’t seem to have the national (read: governmental) will to make it happen. This has left bigger companies than Mooney holding the bag, Western-owned companies, that is, ones that invested heavily in the chance to make a killing in China only to realize that the future of aviation in the world’s second-largest economy is subject to total revision without warning.

So it’s farewell to Mooney this time. And with the ownership of the company being in Chinese hands and their intentions in terms of its sale or future production of spare parts unknown, it’s a scenario that is even less certain than Mooney’s future was before Soaring American Corporation Rode into Kerrville to save the day exactly six years ago.

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