Flying the 201
While I love the efficiency and performance of the 201, its flying qualities are somewhat unusual and not the best. The reason is the design of the control system itself.
All Mooneys use push-pull rods instead of cables to connect the flight control surfaces to the cockpit controls. Rods are sturdy and require very little rigging adjustment over time, but they tend to have more friction than a cable and pulley system. That control system friction, combined with short control-wheel throw in roll, makes the aileron feel quite heavy. The ailerons have a fairly short span and wide chord, which make them less effective than ailerons of long span and narrow chord, such as on the Bonanza. The result is heavy roll feel and a slower roll rate than many other piston singles have.
The pitch control system is a real oddity with stiff centering springs and a weird pitch trim system. Instead of having trim tabs on the elevator, as nearly all piston singles do, or instead of moving the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer up and down to change trim, as a few others do, the entire tail section on a Mooney moves to change trim. The vertical fin and rudder, the horizontal tail and elevators, and the tail fairing all rotate around a single pivot point to change the angle of incidence of the horizontal stabilizer and thus adjust trim.
I assume Al Mooney made this odd design choice because the original Mooney tail section, like the wing, was made from wood. This may have been the least complicated way to connect the wooden tail structure to the metal fuselage frame ahead of it. The only other airplane that has a similar trim arrangement is the Lockheed JetStar, and I can’t even guess why Kelly Johnson made that design choice.
The 201 elevator has very small deflection range because springs on the end of the control rods fight to keep the elevator in the center. When you push or pull on the control wheel, you are compressing springs to deflect the elevator, as well as to overcome air loads. The springs add stability to the airplane by keeping the elevator centered. The control feel in pitch is unusual, to say the least, and the small amount of elevator travel with lots of control friction has been a challenge for autopilot designers. If you want to find out if the autopilot in a 201 is tuned up in pitch, find some perfectly smooth air and give it a try. If it can maintain altitude or selected pitch attitude without twitching up and down, the autopilot is working perfectly. Even a little turbulence will mask poor autopilot performance because you can’t tell the autopilot jerking from the bumps.
As you can imagine, proper pitch trim is crucial for precise flying in a 201 because, just as in most jets, the moving stabilizer has much more authority than the elevator has. This is most noticeable on a balked landing because raising the flaps and adding go-around power pitches the nose up. You’ll be pushing for all you’re worth against those elevator springs until you can roll in nose-down trim.
Landing is another maneuver that is different in a 201 because the airplane loves to float in ground effect if you are even a few knots over target approach speeds. Many pilots believe the long float is due to the Mooney’s clean low-drag airframe, which is part of the reason, but I think the dominant cause of the float is the short landing gear. Ground effect is a slight compression of the air between the wing and the runway, and that increases lift greatly. The closer the lower wing surface is to the runway, the more pronounced the ground effect, and a 201 gets very close before settling on its wheels.
Mooney uses rubber pucks in compression to absorb the shock of landing and taxiing instead of air-oil struts or springs. The pucks are pretty stiff and don’t compress much, so a true greaser landing in a 201 is uncommon. There just isn’t much landing gear stroke on a 201. And once the wheels are on the pavement, you have to slow down more before the weight transfers from the wings to the wheels and braking becomes really effective. In strong winds, even at taxi speeds, I have crabbed along with the 201 doing its best to weathervane.
What to Look For
The 201 has been a durable airplane with lower-than-average maintenance requirements. The landing gear with its very basic construction requires virtually no adjustment. Same for control rigging. There are no hydraulics other than the toe brakes, and the electrical system is very simple, though a little on the short side of power when you have everything turned on at night.
So, the real issues when shopping for a used 201 are the engine condition, corrosion and fuel tank leaks.
There is nothing unique about the Lycoming 360 engine in the 201, and any competent shop can assess its condition. The single-drive dual magneto has been less reliable than have conventional mags, but the same system is used on the 360 in several other airplanes. The cowling is very efficient, so the engine in the 201 runs well within temperature limits, and there are big cowl flaps to handle any extraordinarily hot days. After takeoff, I usually would bump the cowl flap push-pull handle with my palm and knock the flaps out of the locked open position. This allows the cowl flaps to go to trail and respond naturally to changes in airspeed without the unnecessary drag of having them fully open.
Corrosion is a concern in any airplane 30 or more years old, and that is true with the 201, where the biggest concern is the fuselage with its steel frame. There has been some corrosion of the steel members in the lower fuselage in airplanes that were left outside and flown very infrequently to dry the fuselage out.
The 201 has a wet wing, meaning the normal ribs and skin have been sealed up to contain the fuel without using a separate fuel tank. Wet wings are common, but the sealant material used in many 201s at the factory did not hold up in every case. There have been some changes in the chemical makeup of avgas over the decades, and that may be partly the reason the sealant broke down and fuel started to seep out around rivets and skin laps. In any case, the only cure is for a mechanic to access the tank, scrape out the original sealant and apply new material. It is a slow, tedious and costly process, and the bad news is that it doesn’t always work the first time. However, certain shops became very good at it, and most of the airplanes that had leaky tanks have been fixed.
The 201 under its many monikers remained in production from 1977 to 1998, so you can expect to find airplanes on the market that range from essentially junk to pristine. 201 owners have historically been early adopters of new technology, so you can find many 201s for sale with very capable and up-to-date avionics. Book prices range from around $70,000 for the oldest 201 to around $170,000 for the newest. However, you should expect to pay more than $100,000 for a 201 of any age that has a solid engine and up-to-date avionics.
The only downside of shopping for a 201 is that there are not a lot on the market and they are selling more quickly than many other piston singles. And that should surprise nobody, because an airplane born in one fuel crisis is still an excellent way to travel at today’s avgas cost.