Al Mooney and the Friendly Airplane
by Sidney Ross
This article first appeared in the June 1948 issue of AIR TRAILS PICTORIAL magazine.
HERE'S A SMALL SINGLE-SEATER WITH A 26 HP ENGINE AND A FRIENDLY DISPOSITION
|Crosley engine powers Mooney's airplane. Four Goodyear steel belts over pulleys form reduction drive, turn prop at 1950 rpm.|
AMERICA is your playground for a $20 bill!"
In these days of the soaring dollar this statement is certainly an eyebrow-lifter. Well, get ready to lift the eyebrows to maximum ceiling. The man who makes this statement is talking about covering the country, its length and breadth, by airplane. You could completely circle the U. S. A., he says, on twenty bucks worth of gas.
That is, if the airplane will be the trim little single-seater now taking final flight-tests on the flat Kansas terrain at Wichita. This unusual aircraft is the brain child of an unusual personality, veteran aeronautical engineer Al Mooney, who has been on the aviation scene for almost a generation.
The little 450-pound-airplane which may establish new patterns for private flying is possibly several years ahead of the times.
Al Mooney is used to that. The designer of more than a score of aircraft, he has seen his previous projects scorned - sometimes in not too polite language - as well as praised. The hot dust of controversy is still flying around Mooney's Culver V "Simpli-Fly" system.
Al Mooney takes it as it comes. Right now, as he puts it, "I have set myself to do a job. I want to turn out a plane that is both safe and economical and that has good performance. One without the other is no darned good. Just more horsepower and more speed won't make airplanes as common and practical as the family car." In his new one-place ship he thinks he has a good part of the answer.
Here is an airplane that will sell for half that of the cheapest lightplane on the market today. It is powered by only 26 horses, but cruises at 90 mph, has a top speed of better than 100, and a ceiling of 16,000 feet. It lands in the low 30's, and can take off and bounce down on any kind of terrain. It is safe and simple to fly, burns less than two gallons per hour at cruising speed and needs practically no maintenance in comparison with conventional craft. Its basic design is such that-any owner or mechanic can attend to necessary upkeep with ordinary tools available anywhere.
The Mooney single-seater well merits the accolade granted to it by an enthusiastic pilot who recently took it up for a spin. "Why," said the pilot, "it's a friendly airplane! It does just what you want it to do!"
Mooney himself is a little more reserved. "Some people see no future in it," he says. "Maybe they're right. If it folds up, why, I'll go out and get a job again and keep on trying." Other wing-wise experts feel that old-timer Mooney has really hit on something, however.
The Denver-born aircraft designer began his aeronautical career as a draftsman with the Alexander Aircraft Company when he was only 19 years old. Within a year Mooney had become chief engineer of the firm.
He got an unusual present on his 21st birthday in the form of two approved type certificates (Numbers 7 and 8 from the old Department of Commerce Aeronautics Branch) for a pair of Ships that he designed. Both of these jobs were three-place open cockpit biplanes and the Alexander Company built and sold about a thousand of them.
In 1926 Mooney got the itch to try working out for himself some ideas percolating inside his head. He left Alexander and, on his own, constructed a high-wing monoplane that did not set the market on fire.
"It was a good ship," he comments, "we just couldn't get anywhere with it, that's all."
Somewhat chastened, he went back to his first employer and designed, among other things, the first low-wing enclosed-cockpit light airplane to feature retractable landing gear. This was the famous Alexander "Bullet."
The "Bullet" was never a success even though its performance was comparable to that of present day aircraft. "It was just a bit ahead of its time," states Mooney. With its top speed of 165 mph, the "Bullet" used to win all of the air races around the country until they had to put it in a special racing category.
Again Mooney pulled up stakes to try his solo business wings - this time in Wichita, Kansas, where he formed the original Mooney Aircraft Company.
"To tell you the truth," he says, "I lost my shirt."
The ship he turned out in Wichita was again ahead of the times. A four-place low-wing cabin job, powered by 100 horses and capable of 110 mph cruising speed, did not sell like hot cakes. This was 1929-1930-depression time and nobody in any business doing much good. Mooney gave up after building three aircraft and went to work for the old Nicholas-Beazley outfit. After straightening out an airplane for this company he was bitten again by the itch to be his own boss.
In Denver, Mooney and Art MacMahon (who is still with him today) came up with a light, clean little ship that was the grand-daddy of the old "Dart." It was economical and fast, but met with the same lack of enthusiasm as the others.
"I'd been at bat three times and struck out," says Mooney. "I decided that the thing to do in aviation was to go to work for somebody and get wages."
Mooney spent three good years with Bellanca and then shifted to the Monocoupe outfit in St. Louis, where he developed what was quite an airplane - the trim Monocoach. In aviation circles there is some talk of reviving this plane today - it's that good. Next, Mooney fashioned an improved version of his Denver-built low-wing, and sold it to the Culver interests at that time going under the name of Dart Aircraft Co.
Mooney joined Dart in 1938 and designed several more versions of the same ship, and in the following year he brought forth the Culver "Cadet." This was the first ship of its kind to really crack the market. Prior to this most pilots weren't interested in low-wing aircraft. Remarkable for that period, about 400 "Cadets" were sold.
The "Cadet" was the foundation for the first series of radio-controlled aircraft built by Culver during the war. The prolific Mooney came up with an entirely new design to fit exacting military requirements and some 2,400 of this model were manufactured.
Right after the war Mooney hit the horizon with the famous Culver "V," a controversial craft from its very inception. Mooney does not turn purple over some of the cracks that have been made about the "V." He maintains that the Simpli-Fly control is one of the best things ever developed in aviation.
"Some day you'll find that all planes will be made so that all you have to do is turn a few simple knobs for a cross-country flight."
With a shift in Culver's controlling set-up, Mooney exercised once more the old American privilege of packing up and starting his own company. For some time he had been nursing the idea of a. light, single-place, high-performance, safe aircraft suitable for the small pocketbook of Joe Average Airman.
During the war he had been amazed at the remarkable performance of the tough and rugged little generator engines used by the military. Observing that they were light as well as hardy, and cost very little, Mooney asked himself why could not an airplane be built around such an engine?
Mooney joined hands with his brother Arthur B., and W. L. MacMahon. A Wichita attorney, Charles G. Yankey, long identified with aeronautical development in that area also got interested. This time Mooney made up his mind that time was not of the essence. The really important thing was to develop as near perfect a product as possible, no matter how long it took.
It wasn't simple to pick an engine and then build, an airplane to fit. After surveying all the engines on the market, Mooney cast his lot with the Crosley. Many months of experimentation and modification were necessary. Dual ignition was added and the engine went into endurance tests for an approved type certificate. The result .is a 26 hp engine weighing 59 pounds bare (103 pounds with all accessories), and turning at 3900 rpm.
Most unusual feature of this engine is the manner in which it is geared down in a two-to-one ratio to turn the propeller at 1950 rpm. This is done by use of four Goodyear steel safety wedge belts in the propeller reduction drive. Incidentally, this reduction makes the plane very quiet.
Working slowly and patiently, the rest of the ship was built in the little aluminum factory outside Wichita. The little single-place plane has .been flown and rigorously tested, not just once but hundreds of times. It has excited the admiration of every pilot who has taken it aloft
Al Mooney is not in a hurry to put his plane on the market. He wants the "friendly" airplane to really make friends, especially with those who up to now have passed by flying for two big reasons - expense and safety.
He is making the plane a safe ship in every way possible, and is employing an improved version of the Simpli-Fly control. Mooney is also very insistent upon extremely low upkeep cost. The basic design of his low-wing monoplane insures this. For example, he has worked out a landing system that needs neither oil or air for shock absorption.
The 450-pound (empty weight) craft is not a "midget plane." It has a 27-foot wing span and measures 18 feet from prop to tail. Although as rugged in construction and as able to take a beating as a Model T flivver, it has sleek, clean lines. People will want to fly it because it looks like a real airplane, not an airport-bound trainer.
In the potential buyer category, Mooney thinks, are flying school operators who would find such a plane valuable as a time-building craft for solo students. Oil and farm areas can find excellent every-day utility in a small, economical ship with plenty of performance.
Others who may be attracted to the Mooney single-seater are the younger generation who play around with motor-cycles and jalopies, whose economic status is not in the higher brackets, and who might welcome a low-cost, high-utility airplane easy and safe to handle.
23 July 2001