The Al Mooney Story (Excerpt)

From The Al Mooney Story


The M-18 Mooney Mite

Al calls this next period, "the Mooney Nine Years" for it was his longest yet of remaining with one job in his star-crossed career. It was a time of building his own planes bearing his own name. Pappy Yankey [Charles G. Yankey] continued to be his friend, his mentor, and financial supporter. A partnership agreement was signed on July 5, 1946, and the Mooney Aircraft Company of Wichita opened its doors on Lulu Street, with a quarter section of land towards the municipal airport for a factory location. Art and Mac were by Al's side. 

Al had begun the first early sketches of his M-18 while the Culver business was winding down. His distant dream was still a four-place airplane, since the two-seater field was dominated by Cessna and Piper. Al chose a single-seater, a sort of poor man's fighter plane. Gone were the chunky lines and elliptical wings of all previous Mooney designs. This all-wood, retractable tricycle would have the lean and hungry lines of a baby Me-109. It would be constructed of wood at first, and if sales justified it, the plane could easily be metallized. 

In his practical engineer's mind, Al thought of no reason to confine his choice of engines to either Continental or Lycoming. He visualized bringing an industrial engine into aviation for far less money. Or perhaps an automotive engine. This idea still tempts today's airplane builders.

Waukesha and Hercules nibbled but did not bite. Al went to Powell Crosley of Crosley Motors in Cincinnati. The little Crosley fours possibilities were to attract more men than Al. An in-line, water-cooled four of forty-five cubic inches, the Crosley block was a light-weight welded assembly. It had a five main bearing crankshaft and a tower drive to an overhead camshaft. Much of the Crosley was aluminum. An advanced design, it just begged for someone to do something with it. Down in Port Arthur, Texas, John Peek invented the new forty-five-cubic-inch hydroplane class with the Crosley. When he encountered crankshaft breaking at critical harmonics, he carved his own out of a billet of solid steel on his lathe. Designers were always having to do something to the Crosley to get what they wanted out of it, as Al was soon to learn. The hydroplanes became a nationally recognized class and proliferated on Florida and Texas coasts. They were tiny and did close to 90 mph. They were a thrill to watch. 

Powell Crosley welcomed Al and Pappy Yankey and offered them two engines for testing. Mac would braze in a second spark plug hole on the other side of each cylinder. The engines sat hind end forward, and Mac would swing the M-18 prop through a belt-driven reduction gear. Al was enthused.

Al's children were growing up. Bobbie had become a beautiful young woman and moved to Southern California, much to Al's concern. But she stayed with her Grandma Knight, Opie's mother, and eventually married Charles R. Sanders. Sanders had lost his wife and was raising his two children. Young Bobbie entered this situation with her eyes open. Granny Knight wrote back, reassuring Al that she couldn't have made a better choice.

Al describes his son John as an intense young man, an intellectual obsessed with all things electrical at the dawn of the age of electronics. Al provided John with his own shop at home for experiments he was conducting. "He worked hard at them, like I did with airplanes when I was a youth." 

On one occasion Al and Opie were able to invite both their "pappys," Culver and Yankey, to dinner. "Those two great old men had much in common," says Al, describing a touching and mellow evening.

Forest Womack, a new addition to Al's team, was actually a cousin of Opies. "Art and I raised him from a pup in the airplane business. He had remarkable skill as a buyer and served as purchaser for Culver." In Al's characteristic way of reaching his arms out to and around all who were "family," Forest Womack was to remain with Al and become part of the regular crew, into Al's Kerrville days, and staying at Mooney as a purchaser up through the early 1980s. 

Any good man who worked with Al, Art, and Mac for a while became "crew." Any loving person who ever grows close to Al becomes part of the "family." Any student of Al needs to know that few more great-hearted men ever spread their wings and lifted from this earth. For example, when Al sent me sections of this manuscript, he always addressed the envelopes to me, my wife Diane, and our daughter Jenny as "my little family." We wrote back and sent snapshots. It's easy to respond to the love of such a man.

By the summer of 1946, the design of the M-18 was complete, and the team turned their attention to getting at least fifty hours running time out of a test block engine, drive, and propeller. During this time, someone dubbed the M-18 the "Mooney Mite." The name stuck and became official. 

Al completed the engineering drawings for the plane at home on his dining room table. Neighbors on Lulu Street complained about the twenty-four-hour-a-day running of the test engine and prop, so the operation moved out to the field and into a 40-by-80-foot Butler building.

The prototype did not take long to build, but flying was delayed until the engine had run fifty hours on the test stand. They took turns on the night shifts, the little Crosley blatting away.

"When application was made to certify the auto engine, an FAA inspector was assigned to perform tear-down inspections of the test engine to compare conformity with the drawings Crosley had supplied. Our first indication of trouble was when the parts and prints did not match up. In hindsight, what we should have done right there was forget the Crosley and install a 65 hp Lycoming or Continental. I also wish I had gone further with Hercules who said they would have obtained the ATC for a conversion of their engine." 

Mr. Frank Bonder, Kansas City FAA power plant specialist, supervised later tests, tear-downs and reports during the official hundred-and-fifty-hour test stand run. Guy Faulkner, a Wichita FAA inspector, supervised the conformity of drawings to parts. "Both men were very conscientious. We cleared the nonconformity by either changing the drawings or the parts. This took enough time for us to build a small hangar and assemble the M-18."

First the Crosley drop in power was traced to burned exhaust valves. They gave up hope of using automobile gas, switched to aviation gas, and changed valves. "I had worried most about the Goodyear propeller drive wedge belts with internal steel cables much like modern steel-belted radial tires. We had trouble with everything else. It's ironic that in all the testing to get that damned engine approved the V belts worked great. 

"Eagle Bill Taylor made the first test flights on May 17, 1947, a considerable time after the airframe was completed. In spite of low power, that airplane had a very acceptable performance. The only problem that showed up was buffeting at high angles of attack, caused by premature stalling near the wing root. This was quickly cured by a short extended leading edge, which added some local camber." 

That same feature can be seen on today's M-20. A small fillet was also needed at the trailing edge, fuselage junction due to the oval cross section of the fuselage. This junction was changed in future designs, with no need for the fillet.

The plane flew well, but "that engine approval period turned out to be a nightmare." Al writes that the hull was tested to higher speeds and higher weights, "just in case." He was already looking askance at the Crosley.

A second power loss was due to exhaust valves again. Then the sealed bearings on the prop shaft failed for lack of grease. New, better sealed bearings were installed. Next the front main bearings of the crankshaft showed excessive wear, "probably from the overhang pull of the wedge belts." Back to zero on the hundred-and-fifty-hour test. A new outboard sealed ball bearing was fitted to relieve the end-bending load on the crankshaft. After each modification, the tests were started from scratch. 

"Crosley was having service problems of their own. Their cooperation diminished as Powell became less enchanted with aviation. Finally they made a change in their crankshaft, which put us back on page one again. 

"Tempers were short. Pappy's relatives were urging him to quit fooling with that crazy airplane. Art, Mac, and I were running out of dough. I asked Opie if she thought we ought to say 'the hell with it' and go to work for Beech or Cessna. Opie said, 'Don't be a quitter.' 

"We sold the big house and bought a smaller one about a mile and a half from the plant. We finally got that Crosley to run a hundred and fifty hours and got it approved about a year later than anticipated on May 19, 1948." The Mooney Mite M-18 was certified July 30, 1948. Its certification had taken longer than any plane the Mooney brothers built.

Yankey had been getting offers from dealers. There was considerable interest in the plane. Names were taken, but not money: "We didn't want to be like those other fly-by-nighters. The plant was set up for production, and Pappy was generous in the distribution of founders' stock." 

As the first Mooney Mites were sold and flew away, enthusiastic pilots would call back, bragging about the speed they were attaining on such low fuel consumption. The pilots who flew west had no trouble with the high altitude. The only problem was in keeping the engine tuned. The factory felt the pilots might not be understanding the battery ignition system, but the factory was listening to see if the problem was more serious. It would be soon.

"On the delivery of the seventh airplane to Florida distributor Pat Johnson, the crankshaft failed. A safe landing was made, and the airplane was returned to the factory on a flatbed trailer. The failed crankshaft was carefully analyzed by us and the FAA, both in its physical dimensions and the makeup of its metal. The material varied from the approved factory drawings and specifications. Eleven airplanes were affected."

"While Pappy Yankey was absorbing this shock and realizing that the auto engine conversion was exceeding the cost of a 65 hp aircraft engine, I quickly grabbed up a used Lycoming engine for sale to install in the prototype. The weights were nearly the same, so no balance problem existed. Mac and Art very quickly prepared the mount and related items, and we went to watch Eagle Bill test it. Pappy was facing a very tough decision. We had him there to see the first flight. 

"With that power increase the airplane not only looked like a baby fighter plane, it flew like one. Bill felt it out, then put on quite a show for us. 

"In the meeting after that first flight with the Lycoming engine, Pappy wanted all the facts from us-the time and cost of replacing the engines of all the airplanes in the field. He told me to get it certified with the Lycoming. We had it ready March 15, 1949. 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. 

"Bill found a Piper dealer oversupplied with 65 hp Lycomings, and Pappy bought a hundred of them. I think they cost far less than the Crosley conversions. All the M-18s in the field were ferried back on ferry permits, and we converted them to M-l8Ls at no charge. This action alone convinced the aviation trade that we were here to stay." 

Al delivered seventy-three M-18L Mites in 1949 and, despite the cost of absorbing the engine changes, neared the break-even point with hopes of a profit in 1950. He says enthusiasm was high around the plant, and strategy meetings with Pappy were fun again. 

Al writes that he dreamed up the M-20 during those long nights sitting up alone during the racketing roar of the engine tests. "I stayed awake by thinking of what my next design would be. The very low drag of the Mite wing configuration convinced me that it was every bit as efficient as the elliptical wing of the Culver drones, was easier to build, and would be easier to convert to metal when we could. A four-place design kept persisting in my musings. That really was where the concept of the M-20 originated."

I digress here to agree with Al. Of three outstanding World War II fighters, only the British Spitfire flaunted beautiful elliptical wings. The German Me-109 and American P-51 both had a tapered wing planform much like Al's M-l8 and M-20. When I could still get the kits, I built plastic scale models of both the M-l8 and M-20. They were painted flat black to eliminate distractions and were built on the same scale. It was amazing to see how much the famed M-20, all of it from any angle of view, is a classical scaled-up version of the M-18. I mounted the two in a clear case and gave them to Al. He kept turning them. and looking at them from different angles. His only comment was to thank me. One can learn much about why the M-20 taxies as it does, handles in the air as it does, glides, and performs at high altitudes by building the still-available plastic scale model and studying it.

The above was taken from The Al Mooney Story : They All Fly Through the Same Air [pp. 117 - 124] by Gordon Baxter, published by Shearer Publishing, Fredericksburg, Texas.

We understand that this book is now available from the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association (MAPA):

May 9, 2000