Flying the Mooney Mite and Other Single-Seat
By David W. Dodson, MCFI
The Mooney Mite is a production aircraft, built from 1949 to 1955, which has many of the characteristics of the upcoming light-sport aircraft in that its useful load exceeds 50% of its empty weight. For that reason, loading, even within the weight and balance envelope, can change the flight dynamics sufficiently to catch the unwary. I was asked to write this article by the webmaster of the Mooney Mite Site, after an unfortunate incident involving a new owner’s first flight in his newly acquired Mite. The question being answered is: “What would you do if you were checking someone out in a Mite for the first time?” Recalling my Mite checkout, over 30 years ago, I decided to respond. As a lawyer, I must state up front that neither I nor this publication can take any responsibility for your flying; in a single-seater, you really are on your own.
A standard piece of advice when checking out in an unfamiliar aircraft is to find an instructor familiar with that make and model. With new models coming along all the time, and after the purchase of a homebuilt or a Mite, that’s often harder done than said. But you should be able to find someone familiar with the aircraft who can talk with you about the flight characteristics and show you the preflight procedure. Even with this help, hire a CFI to perform the actual checkout. A professional flight instructor will look for things others might not, and you don’t want to wreck your new bird on your first attempt (a too-frequent scenario for homebuilts and ultralights). You might be really lucky and be buying the airplane from a CFI (no, mine’s not for sale!).
Next, know the numbers. For older production aircraft, there might not be an Owners Manual or Approved Flight Manual, or even a reliable checklist. But the FAA maintains Aircraft Specifications for all models. The current one for the Mooney Mite is A-803, Revision 19. It includes all models, L, LA, C and C-55 and provides weight and balance, V-speeds, control limits, required equipment lists and accessory equipment specifications. It's very useful, though not as complete as I would like. For homebuilts, get the specifications and designer's data sheet. But remember, whether you have an Owner's Manual, an FAA Aircraft Specification or the designer’s data sheet, the aircraft you are going to fly WILL BE DIFFERENT. It will have some flight trim differences, will be loaded specifically for your flight and will not have the new engine and airframe that all that test data was based on. Be prepared to feel the edges of the flight envelope sometime during your checkout flying.
Memorize the V-speeds. During your initial flight, especially during takeoff and landing, you are not going to have the time to look up Vy or Vso as you climb over the trees at the end of the grass strip where you bought the airplane. In a plane as light as the Mite, you don’t want to be looking up the gear operating or extending speed, Vgo/Vge, on downwind – and are they the same? They are for the Mite (Vg = 109 mph), but not for all others.
You also are not going to have the luxury of an instructor to point at things while you fly; we know you love this, especially pointing at the altimeter or airspeed. You also might have to flip a switch or two during flight. Where are they? You won’t have time to search or even think during some phases of flight. You have to be a familiar with the cockpit as the one in the plane you’ve been flying the past 20 years and can fly in your sleep. And you’re not going to have the advantage of a military transition simulator, where you can get hours of realistic practice at blowing off the speed brakes at Mach 1.2 or opening the canopy just after rotation. Your next best exercise is the blindfold test. A great idea is to get a picture of the instrument panel. Lacking that, sit in the aircraft for a LONG time and study where everything is. Touch everything, have a visual and a tactile sense of where every gauge, switch, button and lever is located relative to your right and left hands. Think through the flight and do the motions in real time without the distraction of engine noise and a 100 mph wind or power lines rushing up to meet you. When you think you’re ready, ask the instructor to give you the “final exam.” Using a little more stringent standard than an FAA knowledge test, 100% is passing; 99% is failure. Disabling the main power buss on short final could be so distracting that you blow the landing: you can’t take a change on doing anything wrong.
Now that you know the aircraft's numbers and switchology, you are ready for the real world. First, know how to start the aircraft. This is where the previous owner or, at least, someone familiar with the make and model really helps. With the Mite, which has no starter, I prefer to prop it myself. I have only allowed a few people to prop it for me when I know they are experienced with hand propping aircraft, and even then I give specific instructions. The Mite sits lower than other aircraft experienced hand proppers are likely to have encountered because it has tricycle gear and is small. The tendency is to shift your weight forward during propping because of the position, which is inherently unsafe. I prefer to prop from behind. And I ALWAYS chock the right main tire. Sportys has some nice, collapsible chocks which I attach with a string and fold up into the pocket when I’m ready to move the Mite. Get specific starting instructions for whatever you are checking out in.
Once started, do a thorough cockpit check and run-up. Remember, despite all the time put in so far, this is your first time to fly this airplane and it might not be right. When I bought my present Mite, it had a bad plug that I found just before flying it 900 miles home – my first flight in that plane.
The next part is easier at a little-used, non-towered field, but if you have a tower, explain to ATC what you are trying to do and they will work with you. You might call ahead and find a good time when the traffic is lower since you are going to want to use up a runway for a while. Do a taxi test. Accelerate to just under Vs and feel the dynamics. Pay close attention to the attitude of the aircraft on the ground. This is what you are going to want to see at the end of the flight as well. Next, pay attention to the attitude at speed (this applies more to a conventional gear aircraft). Feel the dynamics of slowing from high speed taxi to turning off the runway (this is REALLY important with conventional gear). Eventually, lift off a little and let the plane settle back onto the runway. When it settles, this is your landing attitude. Use this for your first landing. Do this more than once until it feels comfortable. Now you’re ready to fly.
First flight, do a normal takeoff and leave the pattern. In a retractable, leave the gear down. Do some normal maneuvers, including slow flight and feel the aircraft aerodynamics, the weight of the controls at various airspeeds and the rates of change in pitch, yaw and roll. Determine lead times for your reaction to correct attitude deviations; this will be really important on landing. Do a straight ahead stall to simulate that first landing using that settling attitude you experienced during your taxi test. Then come back and land just like you did from a couple of feet up earlier.
One important thing: the Mite, and lots of other aircraft, don’t land like the planes you might have trained in or be currently flying. Remember, this is a 780 or 830 lb. Max. G.W. aircraft, more similar to an ultralight than a Cessna. Even though the wing is laminar and the loading higher than most ultralights and the upcoming Light-Sport aircraft, there is very little inertia on approach and landing. This affects the dynamics in two major ways. First, when the aircraft is flared to land, it will slow down much quicker than an M20 Heavy Mooney but without the lift of a fat-winged Cessna 150 or 172. If it stalls near the ground, the nose will drop, it will land hard on the nose wheel and likely ding the prop. Not good. Second, while the wing is so low to the ground that surface friction should greatly reduce wind effect, it doesn’t take much to lift the wing of a 800 pound aircraft. You must be ready to correct in ALL THREE DIMENSIONS. Tail wheel pilots will come by this naturally, Cessna and Warrior drivers will probably not be ready to react as quickly as needed to correct an instantaneous attitude change just before touchdown.
Most important, just remember that attitude you practiced during your high-speed taxi and lift-off runs. Do WHATEVER it takes to maintain that attitude and you’ll make a perfect landing. Because of the light weight, little braking will be needed and you can easily make the first turnoff on most runways. So, that wasn’t so bad, was it? You’ve successfully completed your first flight.
Debrief. Relive the flight and implant your reactions, your feeling and your emotions. These will become your basics that you'll return to when difficulties arise or workload goes up. That’s why it’s so important to do it right. We always return to our basics at these times and basic flying skills and reactions often save a problem flight or break an aircraft. Now you can expand your experience closer into the corners of the flight envelope and experiment some. Talk with the experienced Mite fliers about their adventures and pay attention to operating limitations and you’ll have many long and rewarding hours boring holes in the sky with your Mite.
05 July, 2003