July 2015 Issue
Mooney Reinvented: A New World Trainer
Mooney is betting that the world market wants a stylish, comfortable diesel-powered trainer. A step-up retrac will follow.
Frustrated buyers who complain about the stratospheric prices of new airplanes sometimes argue—rightly or wrongly—that manufacturers could offer cheaper products if they would just build simpler airplanes using more automation in construction. With its surprise announcement of two new aircraft at last fall’s Zhuhai Airshow in China, Mooney may be about to test the theory. At the least, Mooney is poised to muscle into a market it heretofore barely dabbled in: trainers.
Newly acquired by Chinese interests with capital to spend, Mooney has embarked upon an aggressive plan to develop a basic trainer and a step-up personal airplane, both diesel powered and both sharing the same basic airframe. It’s also investing heavily in the Kerrville, Texas, plant where it has made the venerable M20 series for years; the line recently restarted and began deliveries.
While Mooney says it sees potential in China and Asia for trainers, expect to see the company pitch these new products to the North American market, too, where CEO Jerry Chen thinks there’s demand, despite dismal sales numbers recently announced by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Although it has demurred on announcing prices for the new airplanes, with new Skyhawks and Diamond DA40s topping $400,000, Mooney may have some competitive headroom if its new design and construction can find the sweet spot between volume and manufacturing cost.
But first, the company has to complete the design and certify it. When we visited Mooney’s new Chino, California, facility in April, the company was well along with this process. Although no flyable airplane exists yet, the first test article was planned for late summer 2015. We were shown developmental drawings and modeling that has been extensively exposed to computer fluid dynamics trials with wind tunnel tests planned.
Among contemporary aircraft manufacturers, Mooney holds a record of sorts for having been in and out of bankruptcy so many times even stalwart owners lose count. In the company’s nearly 90 years of building airplanes, it has been owned by an electronics company, an FBO chain, a steel company and was briefly public. In October 2013, it was bought by a U.S.-based company called Soaring America, whose principal investors are of China’s Zhengzhou-based Meijing Group, a real estate and import/export company.
At Sun ‘n Fun 2014, the company announced a $50 million recapitalization of Mooney, to include modernization at Kerrville and, although it wasn’t announced at the time, at least two new aircraft were envisioned. And Mooney wasted no time in unveiling a mock-up at China’s Zhuhai general aviation show in November 2014. The mock-up was the M10T, the base model trainer Mooney intends to use as the platform for a follow-on product, the M10J, a retractable step-up that’s a clear bow to the M20J 201, one of the company’s most well-regarded designs that remains popular on the used market.
What used to pass for conventional wisdom had it that any manufacturer needed a range of products, from trainers to step-ups, to cruisers to twins. As a niche manufacturer, Mooney never gave more than lip service to the idea, specializing as it did in four-place, high-performance aircraft. It feinted briefly toward two-place trainers when it bought the Alon Ercoupe, revised the airplane with the company’s signature reversed vertical fin and sold about 116 before selling the design to Univair in 1973. Ironically, that airplane was the first M10 and was called the Cadet. Before that, Mooney went downmarket with the M20D Master, by fitting fixed gear in place of the folding wheels on an M20C. It wasn’t really a trainer, but was meant to be an economy model. Mooney sold under 100 before killing it.
The new M10T revisits this territory, but unlike the Cadet, it’s an original design with a specific world market in mind and Mooney intends it to become a primary product.
Driven by style
The M10T/J are distinct departures from Mooney’s previous offerings, but perhaps not entirely unexpected, given where the market opportunities may lie. Cirrus has the high-performance personal airplane market locked down with the SR22, but while the SR20 finds spots on the training flight line, few consider it a trainer in the way the Cessna Skyhawk is. But the Skyhawk has become so expensive—$400,000-plus—that it may have priced itself out of anything resembling a broad market. Thus, Mooney finds an opening for a trainer-cum-cruiser based on the same airframe. Rather than metal, the M10s are primarily composite combined with some carbon fiber for weight control. Despite being smaller overall than the Ovation/Acclaim series and only slightly smaller than the M20J, the basic M10 cabin is considerably more commodious, by design. It’s about four inches wider than the widest M20 cabin, with more headroom, making it closer to a Cirrus in overall feel.
And that feel is intended to be—and is—automotive. CEO Jerry Chen and Mooney’s VP for development, Tony Parker, told us the company believes the next generation of aircraft will have to appeal to potential buyers whose frame of reference is cars, not aircraft. Cirrus has already pioneered this, but not to the degree that Mooney is attempting, in our view.
“If we talk about a mature western market in the states, pilots already know what an aircraft interior looks like. But in a new market, China, it’s brand new. They don’t have the background to understand what airplane operation is or the way it looks,” says Chen. So the frame of reference needs to be automotive. Moreover, Chen thinks even the North American market is ready for fresh cosmetics. “People have been waiting long enough to see something change. I think we may have a chance if we go in this direction,” he adds. But the change we see is strongly stylistic and modestly technical. We would call it modern but modest. Mooney hired a design house with experience in automotive, Dzyne Technologies, to work up the basic concepts around three briefs: safety, speed and style. Dzyne’s Brenden Kennelly showed us iterations of drawings that yielded the M10’s final shape.
“Performance was the main driver and everything kind of feeds that,” Kennelly says. “Initially, our windshield was even more raked, which was great for aero and when we did CFD [computational fluid dynamics], we had laminar flow past the rear seat. But that didn’t serve visibility or headroom for the occupants,” he explains. The cabin was pulled and stretched to yield an interior that’s spacious—surprisingly so—in both front and rear. Mooney isn’t talking about a four-place airplane, so the initial M10Ts will have a single seat in the back, which is what flight schools said they wanted for an observer. In flight training, four-place airplanes are seldom flown with full seats. Three seats helps minimize weight and gives the rear passenger room—a lot of room.
The step-up M10J will offer the third seat as an option, meaning that the boldest part of Mooney’s new airplane may be the fact that it’s venturing into the iffy territory of high-performance, two-place airplanes where history offers few market success stories.