Al Mooney
The Man behind the Mighty Mite

This article was fourth of a series, Giants of the Industry, over the name of Frank J. Clifford. It appeared in the FAA Aviation News in about 1967.

Today, the name of Albert W. Mooney evokes the image of a major aircraft manufacturer and a respected aeronautical engineer. But for a half-dozen years following World War II, Al Mooney had a different reputation -- patron saint of ex-military pilots and builder of the might Mite, the poor man's dream plane.

Low-winged, streamlined and incredibly small, (wingspan 27 feet, overall length 18 feet) the Mite looked like a runty offspring of an advanced fighter plane. The cockpit was so sparing of space that the pilot felt virtually welded to the aircraft. Indeed, probably no aircraft ever built gave the pilot such a complete sense of identification with his plane. And for a paltry $5 an hour rental he could chase imaginary Red Barons all over the countryside and re-live breathless thrills of the past. It was better than television.

The path of history that led to Mooney's wonderful Mite began some 20 years earlier, in his home town, Denver, Colo. In 1925 Albert W. Mooney was a lanky, red-haired, energy-charged 19-year-old who signed on as a draftsman in the newly formed Alexander Aircraft Co. of Denver. A serious student of aircraft from the age of 12, Mooney quickly established a reputation as an aeronautical "engineer."

Within a year he was named chief engineer and had already designed his first plane, the Alexander Eaglerock, a handsome three-place open cockpit biplane.

In 1928 his fertile brain and facile design pencil put Alexander into the monoplane business with the Bullet, a sleek, closed cabin, low-wing monoplane which came in two and four-place configurations. Among its innovations were retractable landing gear (Mooney holds one of the four basic patents on retractable gear) and shatterproof glass.

With the country riding the crest of an unprecedented economic boom, the redhead from Denver left Alexander in 1929 to form Mooney Aircraft Corp., in Wichita, now the Detroit of the aircraft industry. With him came his brother, Arthur B. Mooney, master mechanic and Al's indispensable right hand man from the earliest days at Alexander down to the present.

At Wichita they started production of the first plane to carry the Mooney name, the Mooney A-1, a four-place, low-wing monoplane of wood and fabric -- with a fully cantilevered wing, a rarity in light planes at the time. Only a few A-1s were built before the company was closed down by the Depression in 1931.

Bellanca Aircraft Corp., New Castle, Del., then hired Al Mooney as chief engineer in charge of all commercial aircraft production, notably several variations of the Skybus, including its military version, the C-27.

In 1935, Mooney tried his hand as a consulting engineer in Washington, D.C., but succumbed, after only five months, to the lure of a vice presidency as chief engineer with Monocoupe Aircraft Corp., St. Louis, Mo. There he developed the Dart and the twin-engine Monocoach.

In 1938 Culver Aircraft Co. of Columbus, O., bought the design of the Dart and Mooney joined Culver to design the very popular Cadet, a fully aerobatic, single-place low-wing plane. As World War II grew in scope and intensity, the Cadet was redesigned into one of the first radio controlled target drones and given the name PQ-8. A later version, the PQ-14 flew fast -- 180 mph. and high, 17,000 feet -- and made a perfect training device for fighter pilots and gunners.

When kamikaze pilots threatened the U.S. Pacific fleet, a quantity of PQ-14s were rushed to Okinawa, where naval gunners sharpened their skills shooting at the swift drones. In all, 3,000 units of the PQ-8 and its successor, the PQ-14, were built by Mooney and Culver.

In 1946, when A. Mooney was 40, he and Charles G. Yankey formed Mooney Aircraft, Inc., in Wichita, to get in on the expected post-war aviation boom. It was then that Mooney designed the M-18 Mite, introducing the now famous "on backward" Mooney tail. It was a single-place, low-wing craft with a retractable landing gear and priced at an attractive $1,995. The cheapest, smallest aircraft ever built in quantity. Operators could make money renting the plane for as little as $5 an hour.

The first production Mite was delivered to a Santa Monica, Calif., distributor, W.S. Grant, who estimated his operating cost for the 1,200-mile flight home from Wichita to be "between $6 and $7!" On eight gallons of usable fuel (its capacity) the Mite claimed a range of 400 miles, or better than 50 miles per gallon. Mooney Aircraft announced that it had achieved "the lowest cost transportation of all means now known," and predicted that the Mite offered the business world the first practical airplane.

The stout little 25-hp Crosley "Cobra" engine cruised the Mite at 85 mph. With a climb rate of 450 feet per minute, a flaps down stall speed of 40 mph, and a ceiling of 12,000 feet, Mooney's Mite was the "instant" pilot's dream. Mooney's patented "simpli-fly" control system, which automatically coordinated the tail-trim with the wing flap setting, was an added attraction.

Over the next six years Mooney Aircraft produced 200 Mites. But rising labor and production costs pushed the price up to $3,900, and the little Mite's major selling point was gone. Stepping up the horsepower (the M-18 C had a 65-hp Continental engine) did not help.

To prevent other Wichita aircraft builders from raiding his work force, Mooney moved the plant to Kerrville, Tex., in 1953, where it is located today. Fifty more Mites were built, but the firm began to lose money on them, and by this time they had been priced out of the market. The cramped, single-place cockpit, with its absence of dual training capacity, and the rising demand for a more comfortable airplane with greater utility capacity came to outweigh the advantages of economy and excitement which had made the Mite the darling of the ex-Service flyers.

Two years later Mooney bounded back into competition with the Mark-20, a four-place, 150-hp. 165-mph grown-up version of the Mite. Retaining some of the most advanced features of its little brother, the Mark-20 won Mooney a foremost place in the ranks of aircraft designers.

Soon afterwards, he disposed of his holdings in Mooney Aircraft, Inc. and accepted a top design post with Lockheed Aircraft Corp. at Marietta, Ga., where he is still hard at work today. His current interest is the Lockheed "Hummingbird," a development program for a high performance VTOL.

The aircraft company that bears his name has flourished. Mooney Aircraft, Inc. is the fourth largest light plane producer in the country. Annual gross sales are over $15 million. There are six models, including the new Japanese-designed MU-2 twin-engine turboprop executive plane.

But for sheer fun and excitement, no new model is ever likely to match Al Mooney's mighty Mite. Ask the man who flew one.

Frank J. Clifford, writer for the FAA Aviation News, was the 1969 recipient of the Flight Safety Foundation's Cecil A. Brownlow Publication Award.

August 3, 2001