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The Al Mooney Story: They All Fly Through the Same Air
by Al Mooney, as told to Gordon Baxter
Review by Andrew Czernek, aczernekATcomcast.net
Al Mooney's biography, written in 1985, tells the story of a man coming of age in the years that the light aircraft business matured into what it is today. Al's professional career started in the mid-1920s at Alexander Aircraft and took this self-taught aircraft designer into the early 1960s (at Lockheed) before he hung up his slide rule. In the process he worked with Alexander, Bellanca, Culver and Lockheed - and started Mooney Aircraft (twice). Al Mooney launched today's Mooney Aircraft with the single-place M-18 Mite, but both Art and Al were gone from the company that carries his name when the M-20 design was certified in 1955.
The Al Mooney Story was co-authored by Gordon Baxter, long-time Flying Magazine columnist, and Al Mooney. It retains the best traits of each author. In providing a draft manuscript for Baxter, Al's attention to detail in aircraft history is captured. With Baxter's additions through interviews and story-telling, the book picks up the narrative flavor for which Bax is known. As an example, Baxter relishes the story of Al Mooney winning back his ex-wife, Opie, by confronting her second husband on the road outside Tulsa, getting the car keys from him and chasing him away on foot.
When Gordon Baxter started the book, he was surprised that Al Mooney owned none of the company that carries his name. He was further surprised that Al read Gordon's columns in the local newspaper and enjoyed their personal style. At his first meeting, Baxter succeeded in having Al Mooney climb into his 1968 Mooney Ranger, N6727, to autograph the instrument panel!
The story of Al's successes and failures has distinct parallels to high-tech industries today, where companies emerge then fail in periods as short as five years. Like Al Mooney, many talented designers in today's firms are self-taught; like Al many never make a fortune - even if their designs or names live on with a company; as with Al, new untested technology often delays projects. And like Al, many neglect their families during years of intense commitment to a project.
THE EARLY YEARSArt Mooney was born July 10, 1904 and Al on April 12, 1906 to a father who built railroad trestles for the Denver & Rio Grande in the west. Their father's engineering skills led him to teach the boys drafting and layout work. The background paid off later in life: talking about the heavy-duty Mooney wing spar: "Don't thank me, thank Art. He built that wing spar the same way Daddy taught us. Just like a railroad trestle."
"During my freshman year in high school, I asked my math teacher what I should study so I could design a safe airplane. He laughed, said no airplanes were safe and advised me to wait until I was in college," Al writes. He planned to enter the Colorado School of Mines - and at the same time to build a single-place biplane that he'd already designed in 1924. But a chance encounter with a Swallow biplane flying over the retirement home he was helping his father build changed the plans. Al went to the airfield to see the plane and noted that it was mis-rigged. After helping rerig the plane, J. Don Alexander offered him a job with the new Alexander Aircraft.
After assisting with an unsuccessful design, Al got a chance to build his M-1, a long-wingspan plane that became known as the Long Wing Eaglerock. It was successful as a training plane, but the success didn't keep Al at the company. With little engineering or research support at Alexander Aircraft, Al was lured away to Montague by the spring of 1926, where his M-2 design would be built.
Spins and over-loads on structures often killed test pilots in those early years. Alexander lost an early Longren design; Al knew that in a dive a 9G force would be enough to break up an airplane designed for only 8Gs. "I decided then that limitations to the pilot, written and repeated, would be the only answer. In later years I crusaded for this approach in my meetings with government regulatory people. The idea took years to be accepted but finally was, and airplanes were placarded with maneuvering speed," says Mooney.
Al also took his first flying lessons in 1926: "I don't remember the date; nobody kept logbooks then."
After Montague ran into financial troubles, it was back to Alexander Aircraft in Colorado Springs. As would be his habit through his life, Al bought the fanciest car he could find when his personal finances improved. It was at this time that the M-4 design -- the Alexander Eaglerock Bullet, a low-wing plane with retractable gear, would be designed.
This tour of duty at Alexander would last three years, until Al won financial backing from Bridgeport Machine Co. to start the first Mooney Aircraft in 1929. His M-5 design progressed from the drawing boards to first test flight in seven months - but also flew right into the start of the Great Depression. Though aircraft sales were already waning, Al Mooney decided to fly the M-5 from Glendale, CA to Long Island, NY non-stop in a promotional effort. The plane got as far as Ft. Wayne, IN with Al using a rolled up Rand-McNally road map. At that point the engine quit when a weld holding his fuel pump failed. Only one M-5 was sold. At the same time Bridgeport Machine's sales of drills in the oil fields were being undercut by Hughes Machine Tools and the invention of the rotary drill bit. So, the first Mooney Aircraft Co. ended up being liquidated.
Out of a job in 1931, Al began drawings for a light, two-place low-wing design, the M-6. With no money for an engine, Art & Al found someone from Wyoming to lend them money to buy a Continental A-36. When they were still short of cash a year later, "Ed Todd took the airplane back to Afton, WY. Whatever happened to the Mooney M-6, where it ended its days, none of us ever knew."
THE BELLANCA YEARSDespite the Great Depression, Bellanca was doing well with a Navy contract and its planes were a favorite of Alaskan bush pilots.
Al Mooney worked closely with owner Giuseppe Bellanca, who did his first monoplane design in 1913. Mooney says that there are many good aeronautical engineers but only a few designers: "A designer has a vision of how the airplane will look in flight." Giuseppe Bellanca was one of those designer-engineers, according to Mooney. Al also describes Roy LoPresti as such a man. So too, is Al Mooney. Mooney progressed to build the Bellanca Airbus, a single-engine cargo plane called the Y1C-27 by the Army. After that came a racing plane, the Irish Swoop, built for the McRobertson Race from England to Australia.
CULVER - AND PAPPY YANKEYAfter leaving Bellanca, Al Mooney went to a speculative start-up firm with the plans to build a twin-powered flying boat; then on to Monocoupe. His M-10 design went nowhere, again due to precarious funding for the company. But a Monocoupe dealer eventually bought the rights to the M-10 and Culver Aircraft was born. By this time some future features of the Mooney design were in place: the rubber shock biscuits used in modern Mooneys were in those early Culver Cadets. So too, was the spring-assisted manual gear.
Al Mooney joined Culver as chief engineer in 1937. By late 1940, it was clear that Culver would be building drones for the military. Knight Culver wasn't interested in the investing the capital or time to build the company, so Charles Yankey came in as backer and legal adviser. It began a relationship with "Pappy Yankey" that led to the founding of the second Mooney Aircraft, the one that we know based in Kerrville, TX.
Mooney's arrangement with Culver Aircraft included receiving a royalty on each aircraft built, but that interfered with Defense Department procurement rules, so Al Mooney had to accept a higher salary in lieu of royalties. The drones were used to develop gunnery capabilities for Navy and Army air defense teams. As the war progressed, even the drones needed to be faster to train for new generations of fighters and dive bombers.
Culver Aircraft found that commercial sales dried up after the war. The all-metal Cessna 120 was too tough a competitor for Culver's wooden airframes.
NINE YEARS AT MOONEYThe Mooney period was the longest time that Al Mooney stayed at one company. From founding in July, 1946 to certification of the M-20 in September, 1955 both Al & Art stayed with the company. The first design was the M-18, a single-place plane with retractable gear. It resembled a small ME-109 enough that pundits called it the "Texas Messerschmitt." Al's design was the only single-place plane to emerge on the market after World War II and "Mooney Mite" was the name that was hung on the aircraft sometime in 1946.
The design's primary problem was engine selection. Art & Al were attracted to an automotive engine to reduce costs and the aluminum-block Crosley was the eventual choice. The Crosley had been adapted to hydroplane racing and was attractive for its size and weight.
But development problems slowed engine approval, particularly because the supplier wasn't meticulous about quality control or about documenting design changes. Finally, with the delays, quality problems and the cost of the Crosley exceeding what a 65 hsp Lycoming would cost, Mooney decided to switch powerplants - and to replace the engines in the 11 Mooney Mites already delivered. Al's reflection, "Had I been smart enough to avoid that engine conversion like the plague we would have had the little M-18L ready two years earlier."
"All the M-18s in the field were ferried back on ferry permits, and we converted them to M-18Ls at no charge. This action alone convinced the aviation trade that we were here to stay," Mooney comments. Even as the engine tests were being performed for the Mite, Al Mooney started to conceive the M-20 as his next plane - a four-place design that eventually could be converted to metal manufacture.
The move to Kerrville and the current plant began when Wichita's new air force base overshadowed the factory at Wichita Municipal. The physical move began in January, 1953 - even as the M-20 designs were being created. But Al's next challenge came in September, 1953 after the first flight of the M-20 prototype: financial backer Charles Yankey died of a stroke before funds could be put in place for production of the new design.
"Pappy had eight heirs, and none of them wanted any part of an airplane company. In his will he left all his stock to me providing I could arrange financing," says Mooney. The search for funding brought in Hal Rachal and Norm Hoffman, who took over the company and put key personnel on contracts to stay until after the type certificate was granted. That happened in September, 1955 - two years after the prototype was flown. Shortly thereafter Al Mooney left and joined Lockheed for the rest of his career, owning no part of the company that still carries his name.
Though always a small-company person and apprehensive about working with a major defense contractor like Lockheed, Al Mooney found a home in his fifties working with aircraft people from his past. And he found work for brother Art - again. His three designs included a Lockheed business jet that would have competed with Cessna, Hawker and bigger Learjets. His proposal did become the Lockheed Jetstar, a business jet with four small jet engines paired up two per side on the aft fuselage.
Afterwards came the LASA 60, short for Lockheed-Azcarate and the year of completion - a utility plane built for the Mexican market. Eventually Al was sent to Buenes Aires to set up a plant for the LASA 60. A third production facility was later added in Italy.
In 1964, while working on his final design, Al's wife Opie was found to have a benign tumor. It was the beginning of a decline in her health, leading to her death in 1966. Though Al Mooney intended to lose himself in work, he realized by the time of Art's retirement in mid-1967 that work wasn't fun any more. Upon his retirement, Lockheed management gave him the oil portrait that graces the back of the Mooney - Baxter dust jacket: a picture of Al Mooney with sketches of all 23 of his airplanes above his head.
Al Mooney died May 7, 1986 in Dallas, TX, about a year after completing the book with Bax. His brother Art had died in 1980.
Though this book was long out-of-print and available through inter-library loan and the rare e-Bay auction. An original copy of The Al Mooney Story was sold in early 2000 for $150 on E-bay.
Every year or so I'd call Lela Hughes at the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association (MAPA) because a number of knowledgeable people would quote Gordon Baxter as saying "I donated the final page proofs to MAPA." Lela Hughes would acknowledge the story, then say that she'd never been able to find the original.
Then, one day in 2003 the people at Shearer Publishing were clearing out old records and called Lela: 'We've got the original proofs of "The Al Mooney Story,' do you want them?" Which is how MAPA came to put the book back into reprint. You can find a copy for $19.95 on their Mooney Apparel page.
The Al Mooney Story: They All Fly Through the Same Air
* Note that Mooney Aircraft Corp. also had M-21 and M-22 model designations -- but this chart refers to designs for which Al Mooney takes credit.
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