(March 2012) When Matt Norklun decided to go surfing in the Bahamas, the airlines were not an option. The 6-foot-6-inch Norklun loaded up his airplane with his two brothers and three surfboards. Considering the size of the occupants and their cargo, you might assume Norklun owns a Beechcraft Baron or a Cessna Caravan. He doesn’t. For the past six-plus years, Norklun’s mode of transportation has been a Mooney 201.
Like its M20-family predecessors, the Mooney 201 is a four-seat, low-wing, single-engine piston airplane with retractable landing gear. Produced between 1977 and 1998, the airplane’s official name is M20J, but it was marketed as the 201 to highlight its top speed of 201 mph. It was the first airplane to exceed 200 mph with an engine producing 200 hp.
In 1955, only a couple of years after brothers Al and Art Mooney had relocated the company from Wichita, Kansas, to Kerrville, Texas, the Mooney M20 was certified and hit the market with a price tag of $9,600. The Mooney brothers were no doubt confident in their product, but I wonder if they would have believed their eyes if they could peer into a crystal ball and see that the airplane would lead to a product line with more than 11,000 units produced in the next half-century.
The original M20 was equipped with a 150 hp Lycoming O-320 engine and a metal fuselage, but the wings and tail section were constructed of wood and fabric.
The tail section, which has become Mooney’s trademark with its forward canted rudder, rotates around its attachment point to provide for pitch trim in lieu of an elevator trim tab.
In 1958, with the introduction of the M20A, the engine was upgraded to a 180 hp O-360 — the first model in a series of engines that, with about 35,000 produced, has become Lycoming’s greatest success to date. The next significant model change happened with the M20B in 1961, when the wooden wings and tail were replaced with metal. This was the beginning of a number of modifications that would eventually transform the M20 into the 201.
The 200 hp IO-360 — the engine that powers the 201 — was introduced in 1964 in the M20E model. These early Mooney M20 models had an awkward, manual gear-retraction system with a clunky Johnson bar. The system was not failure-prone, but it required some muscle and a quick hand to get the gear up before the increasing speed made it nearly impossible to retract. The electrical retraction system first appeared in 1969 with the M20C and E and was added to the F model the following year. All subsequent models had electrically actuated landing gear, a system that also has a unique rubber disc shock-absorption system.
Another significant change in the M20’s development occurred with the extension of the fuselage, which was stretched by 10 inches when the M20F Executive was introduced in 1966, providing more legroom for the passengers and a larger cargo space. The same fuselage was used for the 201, with the exception of the nose section.
Comfort, Configuration and Speed
The smaller fuselage may have made the older M20s fast, but it gave Mooneys a reputation for being cramped. With the nosewheel console taking up space between the rudder pedals and the low seating arrangement, some people find even the stretched models tight and awkward to enter.
Norklun finds the 201 gives him plenty of space.
“Being as tall as I am, this is the draw: I can fit in it,” said Norklun, who likes how far aft he can move his seat. His rear seats fold down for extra space, and he can tuck long items, such as his 7-foot surfboard, under the front seat. Norklun also claimed the 201 has a “genius baggage door” — a large hatch that also functions as an emergency exit.
A big benefit of the M20J over its predecessors is the panel configuration. The 201 panel accommodates the now-standard six-pack configuration, which is a huge safety improvement over earlier models for IFR pilots. Just imagine flying hard IFR with the primary flight instruments scattered randomly in a nonrectangular pattern.
The mid-’80s brought a one-piece composite belly fairing to the 201. The fairing eliminated the need to remove multiple access panels during inspections, and it also doubles as a robust skid plate in case of a gear-up landing.
But the 201’s top feature is undoubtedly its ability to achieve good speed with a few gallons of fuel. A published flight test evaluation made by the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association (MAPA) produced 162 knots true airspeed at level flight at 7,000 feet with full throttle and 2,500 rpm, burning about 11.5 gph. With a 64-gallon fuel capacity, you can fly at those speeds for four hours and 30 minutes, covering well over 700 nm. We hailed the performance and efficiency of the 201 in a March 1977 review of the airplane. “The Mooney 201’s speed and efficiency,” we said, “are easily among the most significant developments in piston-powered general aviation airplane performance” in many years.
Earning One Mile per Hour per Horsepower
So how did the 201 exceed the coveted 200 mph mark with the same power plant and fuselage as the much slower M20F? It all comes down to drag reduction. Mooney engineers had seen the potential for aerodynamic improvements of the M20F, but it wasn’t until Roy LoPresti joined the company in 1973 that the ball got rolling.
“It was the first thing Roy did when he got there,” said Bill Wheat, who has thousands of hours in Mooneys and worked as a test pilot and engineer for Mooney for 53 years. (He was recently laid off at the age of 84, and he was disappointed since he wanted to work there until he turned 90.)
Several key modifications contributed to the increase in speed. Wheat said the engine cowl redesign added about 8 mph, the sloped windshield also added about 8 mph, the inboard gear doors added about 5 mph, and the gap seals, flap hinge and empennage fairings added another 1 mph compared with the M20F.
LoPresti also fitted the M20J with new sculpted wingtips in 1981, although no speed improvement was seen with this modification. However, Wheat said the square wingtip design of prior M20 models produced turbulence at the outboard 10 to 12 inches of the ailerons. LoPresti’s wingtip design made a “noticeable improvement in the handling” by making the airflow over the ailerons smoother, which reduced the control wheel loads and created a faster roll rate, Wheat said.
So is the M20J the perfect design, or are there any drawbacks to owning the iconic airplane? Norklun’s main complaint is parts availability. He said it took 21 weeks and $700 to get an oil pressure transducer and that lead times on several parts on his airplane are excessive. But Jack Napoli, vice president and instructor at MAPA, who has owned his 231 for more than 20 years, claimed he has never had any problems obtaining parts for his Mooney.
Napoli, who has extensive experience as a Mooney instructor, said one problem pilots have with the 201 is speed control during landing.
“There is a tendency to be afraid to slow them down,” he said. “Seventy knots over the fence for a normal landing is perfect; otherwise the airplane will float, float, float.”
The lack of brakes on the copilot’s side can also present a problem to Mooney instructors. While available as a retrofit, copilot brakes are generally found only in the advanced trainer edition of the 201 (the model Norklun has). But for the owner pilot who always flies the airplane from the left seat, the lack of redundant brakes is certainly not a concern.
In such a simple airplane with a bulletproof engine, maintenance is straightforward. The only truly unique system, said Mooney maintenance specialist Bill Turner from Aircraft Depot in Punta Gorda, Florida, is the shock disc landing gear, which requires special tooling and experience. Napoli claimed a regular annual inspection costs approximately $2,000. But if you keep up with the maintenance, you can expect your 201 to last for a long time. Norklun’s 201 has almost 10,000 hours and is still going strong.
Insurance is reasonable too. Expect to pay about $1,400 per year for an average 201, provided you have an instrument rating and a few hundred hours of flight time.
You can expect to pay about $70,000 for a decent early-model M20J and as much as $190,000 for a late-’90s model with a low-time engine and updated avionics. A modern panel can be hard to find since the newest 201s are now more than 20 years old. However, don’t let older avionics scare you off from purchasing a well-maintained 201. You can install an Aspen Evolution flight display, a Garmin G500 or another glass panel retrofit and instantly take the panel to the 21st century at a very reasonable cost.
Mooney produced 1,650 M20Js during its 21-year production run, and there is a decent inventory of used airplanes available. But they don’t stay on the market for long.
“We’ve sold five 201s in the last six to seven weeks,” said Jimmy Garrison, owner of All American Aircraft in Boerne, Texas, a company that specializes in used Mooneys.
From Success to Stress
When the M20J first hit the market, aggressive marketing of the airplane’s ability to break the 200 mph mark with a 200 hp engine helped increase sales by nearly 200 percent from 127 M20Fs in 1976 to 377 M20Js in 1977, even though the price tag had surged to around $45,000 with all available options. Mooney’s executives seem to have interpreted the explosion in sales to be a direct result of the increase in speed, and if they did they were probably right. Only two years after the J model emerged, the 210 hp Continental TSIO-360-equipped M20K was introduced — an airplane nicknamed the 231 for its top mile-per-hour speed. Apparently the marketing department had learned a lesson from the 201.
But the focus on speed may have been excessive.
“Faster, faster, faster. That’s all they cared about,” said Wheat, referring to the Mooney management at the time, and new, faster M20 designs continued to emerge from Kerrville.
The 231 did extremely well for the first couple of years, but the price for the additional speed was significant with the higher fuel burn and increased purchase and maintenance costs of the six-cylinder, turbocharged engine. These, combined with product liability issues (which made aircraft ownership prohibitively expensive and eventually led to the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994), had such an effect that Mooney has yet to sell more than 100 of any of its models since the early 1980s.
Regardless of the increased cost, Mooney decided to focus on the faster models and rolled out the last M20J in 1998. Since then, sales have continued to decrease, and after the recent economic downturn, the Mooney factory in Kerrville was forced into a virtual standstill. The last of the M20-series airplanes came off the aged factory floors in 2010. That final airplane was an Acclaim — the fastest single-engine airplane produced to date, with a top speed of 242 knots and a price tag well north of $600,000.
The owners who are fortunate enough to own a 201 seem to be very happy. With his ownership experience with several types of airplanes, including the G35 Bonanza, the Cessna 182 and the RV4, Norklun claims his Mooney 201 has exceeded his expectations in every way. The 201 is one airplane that seems to have hit the sweet spot of speed and economy right on the money — and yes, that’s with one “o,” not two.