Mooney Airplane Company

In a fine example of the adage “if at first you don't succeed, try, try again,” aircraft designer Albert W. “Al” Mooney founded the company that bears his name, not once but twice, with vastly different levels of success. His persistence and vision resulted in the production of the highest performance single engine aircraft ever manufactured while the trademark Mooney forward-swept tail remains instantly recognizable at airports the world over. 

Al Mooney was born in Denver in 1906. By the age of 19, he had established himself as a draftsman and assistant to the chief engineer of Denver's Alexander Aircraft Company, builders of the legendary Curtiss OX-5-powered Eaglerock. Soon promoted to Alexander's chief engineer, he developed the Bullet—a low-wing, high-speed monoplane that featured Mooney's revolutionary retractable landing gear. 

Teaming with his brother Arthur, Al Mooney left Denver and Alexander to form the Mooney Aircraft Corporation in Wichita, Kansas, in early 1929. The Mooney brothers' first venture was an airplane similar to the Bullet, an efficient low-wing monoplane dubbed the Mooney A-1. Unfortunately for the brothers, the Great Depression arrived at about the same time as the Mooney A-1, and Mooney Aircraft Corporation was unable to survive, closing its doors in 1931. 

The initial failure of Mooney Aircraft did not dissuade Al Mooney from pursuing his passion for designing quality aircraft. In 1934, he became the chief engineer for Bellanca Aircraft Corporation and contributed significantly to the design of Bellanca's successful line of low-wing wooden aircraft. Another small aircraft company, Monocoupe Aircraft, quickly recognized Mooney's genius for design and convinced him to join the company as vice-president and chief engineer, resulting in the development of its Model G “Dart” and the Monocoach. 

Culver Aircraft, another aircraft firm, purchased the design rights and tooling for the Dart in 1938, and Al Mooney accompanied his creation to the new firm. As he did with both Bellanca and Monocoupe, Mooney set out to design a classic aircraft, creating the aerobatic two-seat Culver Cadet featuring an elliptical-shaped wing and retractable landing gear. More than 350 Cadets were built in the months before World War II.  

After the War ended, the Mooney brothers partnered with C.G. Yankee and W.L. McMahon to resurrect Mooney Aircraft Corporation of Wichita in June 1946, with Al serving as the firm's general manager and his brother Art acting as production manager. Their first product, introduced in 1947, was an all-wood single-seat airplane with retractable landing gear and the trademark forward-swept “backwards” vertical tail (which actually helped the airplane recover from spins).  

Officially designated as the M-18, but known everywhere as the Mooney “Mite,” it became the smallest and most inexpensive airplane ever mass-produced, costing only $1,995. The Mooney Mite's size was matched only by its fuel efficiency and cargo capacity—the Mite burned only 3.5 to 4 gallons per hour (13 to 15 litres per hour) to cruise at about 125 miles per hour (201 kilometres per hour), but models equipped with a battery could carry only 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of baggage in addition to its single passenger. 

Everything about the Mooney Mite was austere but functional. Landing gear was retracted by a temperamental hand-crank system—a feature that occasionally resulted in a belly-landing by embarrassed pilots who forgot to crank-down the landing gear. A Plexiglas “porthole” in the aircraft floor allowed the pilot to observe the nose-wheel, and the shock absorbers were fitted with nearly indestructible rubber disks. Later models featured a plaid reflective paint scheme on the vertical fin and a larger fuel tank that allowed it to fly farther without refuelling. 

After building 290 Mites in Wichita, Al Mooney moved the company headquarters and manufacturing capability to Kerrville, Texas, in 1953 to be closer to the family's dairy farm (and to escape from the shadows of the rapidly expanding U.S. Air Force base). Tragically, his partner and financier Charles Yancey died of a stroke that same year—before funding had been arranged for the next generation of Mooney aircraft. 

By the mid-1950s, the price of the Mooney Mite had risen to about $4,000, and production of the still-popular aircraft ended in 1956. Al Mooney shifted his resources to designing the Mooney Mark 20, a four-seat low-wing plywood aircraft that could achieve 180 miles per hour (290 kilometres per hour). After Yancey's untimely death, Al and Art Mooney were forced to sell their Mooney Aircraft stock to finance the Mark 20's development. Shortly after the Mark 20's first test flight, Al and Art Mooney left the company they founded and that still bears their name to work as aircraft designers at the aviation giant Lockheed. 

The high performance of the Mark 20, which was priced at about $12,000, along with its modern features and distinctive forward-swept tail proved to be a popular addition to the four-seat aircraft market. The new management of Mooney Aircraft followed-up with the fixed-gear Master and briefly returned the popular Mite to production. The advanced Mark 22 Mustang, featuring a pressurized cabin and retractable landing gear, was a failure—only 30 were sold before production was halted. In 1961, Mooney introduced the low-cost, low-wing Mark 21 and again found a niche in the four-seat aircraft market. 

Ownership of Mooney has changed hands several times since the Mooney brothers' departure. In 1967, Mooney acquired Alon, Inc. (owner of the Ercoupe design) and Alon A-2A Aircoupe joined the Mooney line, along with the Ranger (renamed Mark 21), which numbered more than 2,000 planes by 1979, and an advanced single-tail M-10 Cadet. The Ranger was followed by the more-powerful Executive, which was succeeded by the Mooney 201 (M20J) in 1976. In 1969, Mooney was acquired by American Electronic Laboratories, which, in turn, sold it to Butler Aviation a few months later. In 1995, Mooney achieved a milestone—the production of its 10,000th aircraft. 

Al Mooney retired from the aircraft business in 1968 and died in 1986 at the age of 80, while his brother Art died in 1980. The Mooney aircraft line and name still endures–-a legacy to the Mooney brothers' talent, vision and determination to “try, try again.”