Mooney Predator

If the Air Force swats the Firefly, Kerrville is ready with a firebreathing replacement.

The history of aircraft marketing is littered with the corroded carcasses of the has been, the never was and the shouldve been. One of the more intriguing examples of the latter is Mooneys entry into the Enhanced Flight Screener sweepstakes in 1991.

Mooneys plan was simple. Win the EFS contract, use the governments cash to develop and certify the thing, then spin off a civilian variant.

Now you can order a civilian EFS enthused Mooneys optimistic promo of 1991, which will be in production in early 1992. The brochure promised full aerobatic certification under FAR 23 and the best power-to-weight-ratio of any Mooney ever built, delivering a 180-knot cruise and 1500 FPM sea-level climbs. The pitch was good enough to attract deposits for delivery positions.

But it was not to be. In one of the odder twists of defense-contracting fate the Air Force may regret, the Slingsby T67M edged out the Mooney EFS. Yet the EFS still exists and surfaced this year at Oshkosh, all tarted out in tiger-strip paint for a debut as a marketing trial balloon.

Does this mean, we wondered, that Mooney is still interested in the military trainer market? Yup, says the company, under the right circumstances.

The EFS-rechristened the Predator-has languished in Mooneys skunkworks since the early 90s, almost as if waiting to pounce. On a moments notice, it could be tuned up for another fly-off, should the Air Force show the slightest interest. (If the T3A program crumps altogether, the service may have no choice but to fund a replacement.)

A Real Bruiser
With the controversy over the Firefly gaining momentum, we ventured to Kerrville to examine and fly the Predator, also known by its more sedate airframe style: M20T.

In a tasty turn of irony, Hondo, Texas-the home of many hapless grounded Fireflies-is only 37 miles away, as the Predator flies, so it seemed logical to hop over for lunch and a few touch and goes.

In fairness, our impressions of the Predator should be considered in context. Its an engineering prototype built to make the Air Force happy, and not necessarily a civil aircraft in its present form.

A civil version could be configured somewhat like the test article or entirely differently. It would certainly have another powerplant. Being a prototype, its constructed Frankenstein-style from off-the-shelf parts. The fuselage is purpose built but similar to a J-model Mooney; the wings are from a K-model, the rudder assembly similar to the old M22 Mustang.

From the firewall forward, the airplane has the TLSs engine mount, baffling and cowl. With the exception of some thicker tail and wing skins, the rest of the structure is stock.

Like all Mooneys, the fuselage core is a welded 4130 moly steel cage, modified somewhat along the top to accommodate a sliding canopy. Dimensionally, its 10-inches shorter than a K-model (231/252/Encore), with all of the length taken out of the baggage area behind the seats.

The baggage area is cavernous, leading us to wonder if it couldnt accommodate a modest bench seat. Not realistic, says Mooney engineer Tom Bowen; too tight and no head room because of the downsloping canopy and inertial reels for the seatbelts, not to mention crimping the loading range for the utility category. A one-person jumpseat might be plausible.

Controls are the usual push-pull tubes but with one critical difference: Instead of the wimpy yokes were used to, the cockpit has a pair of beefy curved sticks with grips festooned with buttons. (Guns, missiles, radar pipper…thats Lieutenant Mitty, if you dont mind.) The Predator has a dual throttle set-up, one on the center console and another on the left side, where the Air Force prefers its instructors to sit, at least in side-by-side trainers.

The M20T we flew was equipped with the same 300 HP Lycoming AEIO-540 angle-valve engine used in the Extra 300, driving a three-blade McCauley prop. For the Air Force trials, it had the 260 HP AEIO-540 parallel-valve Lyc.

Frankly, were the Predator cast as a civil sportster, the small engine would be more than enough power, in our view. It yields power loading of 11.2 pounds-per-horsepower, which, just as the brochure claims, is the best power-to-weight ratio of any Mooney. The cowling has a pair of sizable inlets which seem to pump plenty of air into the engine compartment, even without cowl flaps, which are bolted shut on the prototype. The fuel system is straight off the shelf , says Bowen. Its capable of supporting inverted flight for 15 seconds, without tank flop tubes. The airplane could have a header tank for longer inverted flight but 15 seconds upside down is sufficient for all but hardcore, competitive aerobatics, something the Predator wasnt designed to do.

If certified, it could be aerobatic or utility category, but likely the latter to avoid extensive spin testing required for the aerobatic category.

At 2900 pounds gross, the Predator is the same weight as the late J-model, or Allegro if you keep up with Mooneys ever changing naming schemes. Empty weight is 1916 pounds with the angle-valve engine but would be a bit lighter with the parallel valve. Payload with full fuel-75 gallons, all usable-is 534 pounds or a couple of 200 pounders and a lot of luggage. With the small engine, the still air range is 850 miles but the wing bays could be configured to carry 90 gallons, stretching the range to over 1000 miles.

Flight Impressions
Settling in and firing up for our strafing runs on Hondo, we found the cockpit to be most un-Mooney like. Without that low overhanging roof and, of course, no door, visibility in and outside the cockpit is superb, except forward over the cowl during taxi. The view ahead is obscured somewhat by the airplanes nose-high ground stance. Without yokes in the way, you can actually open and fold a chart and not have to play peek-a-boo with instruments and avionics. Very nice.

On takeoff, the Predator is predictable, requiring a healthy dose of right rudder during the roll and at rotation, which comes at about 60 knots, after which it accelerates smartly to 110 to 120 knots and an initial climb rate of 1500 FPM. Mooney exec Dirk Vander Zee demonstrated that at 80 knots, the airplane will easily climb at 2000 FPM, although the deck angle gets a tad high for our tastes.

In cruise, at 25 squared, we trimmed for level flight and allowed the aircraft to accelerate to about 158 IAS for a TAS just shy of 170 knots. These numbers are somewhat suspect, however, because the two airspeed indicators didnt agree and Vander Zee noted that some installation error was likely. Were comfortable in saying that the Predator cruises with an Ovation, perhaps a little faster.

The elevator-like climbs and sprightly cruise come at the price of prodigious fuel flow. In climb, the Lycoming gulps 30 GPH and in high cruise, we noted 15 GPH, without much attention to leaning. We suspect the fuel flow would be 13 to 14 GPH in mid-cruise, with careful leaning. Again, with the smaller engine, cruise economy would improve slightly. (If youre into that sort of thing.)

Grunt, Heave!
But cruising is only half the Predators calling; its really designed for yanking and banking. Being of tender sensibilities, we didnt give the Predator a World Cup aerobatic wring out, but we tried some mild maneuvering to get a sense of the thing.

Although most owners consider Mooneys to be good flying airplanes, they in fact have relatively high control forces compared to airplanes of comparable size and power. Roll is especially stiff but linear, due to Mooneys use of push-pull tubes rather than cables. This, of course, is ideal for flying on instruments, not objectionable when navigating the pattern but not optimum for aerobatics, which require lighter control forces.

True to form, the Predators control forces are quite high, especially in roll. For pattern work, slow flight, stalls and routine maneuvering, the stick makes these forces less noticeable than they are with a yoke.

However, in aerobatics, roll forces escalate, producing a certain stick-in-concrete sensation. In fact, the Predator wont do a conventional level slow roll, but needs to have its nose coaxed well above the horizon before initiating a roll, with both hands and a good grunt. We arent talking about a Pitts Special, here.

Then again, were also not talking about a polished airplane. In its many experimental iterations of the M20T, Bowen says Mooney has substantially reduced roll force by using different aileron hinge points and larger control surfaces. It could also use spades or anti-servo tabs on the trailing edges of the ailerons. In other words, if the airplane went to market in a civil version, its roll characteristics would be more pleasant.

In steep turns, slow flight, and normal and aggravated stalls, the Predator seems as docile and predictable as any Mooney weve flown, although developing the sight picture to hold altitude in steep turns took some practice. So did mastering the trim, which is a stick-mounted coolie hat wired to a very aggressive trim motor. Tickle the switch a little, get a lot of trim bite. On the ground, we noted that the motor is so quick that the tail section moves about as fast as the electric wing flaps do. Once accustomed to it, we liked the fast trim movement but initially, it caused some pitch bobbles.

Landings in the Predator are like landings in…a 201, an Ovation, a TLS or any other Mooney. Cross the fence at 85 knots and youll float past the first turnoff. Make it at 75 knots, haul the stick into your gut-something you cant do so easily with a yoke-and plop down in a two-point, full-stall landing. Understandably, in a 300 HP airplane with a canopy, sticks, five-point harnesses and speed brakes, flying a conventional pattern is for sissies, so we tried some low passes and overhead breaks. That we happened to do these over shade hangars housing 60 grounded Fireflies was mere coincidence.

Will It Fly?
We have to speculate at this juncture. The prototype we flew was strictly utilitarian; nothing fancy. We suspect a certified civil version would have leather seats with five-point harnesses, carpeting and the composite sidewall panels Mooney is installing in late-model aircraft, plus an improved canopy latch.

Panelwise, we found the layout acceptable, although we would prefer to have the circuit breakers mounted on the co-pilot side panel, as they are in other Mooneys, rather than on the pedestal, as in the Predator. Curiously, with the sticks, we have no preferences in flying left or right seat. We suspect the airplane could be configured either way.

The Predator would need a first-rate intercom and good headsets because the interior noise level is far too high to converse without shouting. This was due in part to wind leaks in the canopy and because of an open, unmuffled exhaust. Still, with all that glass, we doubt if the noise level can be reduced appreciably.

While were composing wish lists and since this is a new airplane anyway, we would like to see Mooney consider a variant of the Continental IO-550 used in the Ovation, assuming it could convince TCM to build an aerobatic version.

Although we have concerns about its cylinder durability, the TCM engine is smoother than the Lycoming. Ninety gallon tanks would be a nice option.

Will the Predator ever fly as a credible market entry and what would it cost? Mooney wont say what the price would be, but our guess is between $300,000 and $400,000. Even though it has only two seats, its not cheaper to build than an Ovation.

Although it has its plate full with current production and the companys new owners are getting their bearings, Vander Zee told us Mooney would certainly reconsider bidding the trainer, if the Air Force tanks the Firefly and starts anew.

Theres definitely commercial interest, based on the number of excited Oshkosh attendees who were ready to put down deposits. Enough, perhaps, to convince Mooney to certify the Predator on its own, without a military contract?

Doubtful, says Vander Zee.

He imagines that Mooney could sell 20 to 25 Predators a year, far too few to pay back the investment in a major certification project. As it did seven years ago, the Predators fate rests with the Air Force. It might yet come sniffing around Kerrville.

Given the bizarre history of this project, stranger things could happen.

-by Paul Bertorelli