Mooney Makeover: Buying the Airplane

Phase One: Finding the right airplane is the most critical step. Did we get it right?

Mooney M20C Ranger Makeover Feature
When deciding on an airplane to buy, I settled on an older Mooney M20-series aircraft because of its low initial purchase price and cost of operation.Pia Bergqvist

I have dreamed of owning an airplane ever since I sold my Cessna 170 in 2008. While I loved my 1948 taildragger, I wanted something that had rolled out of the factory after I was born and could fly a lot faster than 100 knots. After a long, slow search, which involved help from the Internet and friends, I finally have my own wings again. I bought a 1974 Mooney M20C Ranger. Several limiting factors complicated my quest to buy an airplane. With a very tight budget (I wanted to stay below $35,000 for the purchase price) I had to find the most efficient airplane for the least amount of money — both up front and in terms of operating costs. I concluded that an older Mooney would get me a lot of bang for the buck. I really wanted an M20J, also known as a 201, or one with the longer fuselage, like an M20F. So I sporadically started searching for an affordable Mooney on the Controller, Trade-a-Plane and Barnstormers websites. Unfortunately I found that the Mooneys I really desired were out of my price range. But the shorter Mooney M20Cs and M20Es were a lot more reasonable. Not only did their purchase price fit my budget, but the operating costs are also very low. M20-series airplanes with 180-­horsepower engines burn less than 10 gph while seeing right around 145 knots in cruise. That kind of efficiency is tough to beat. Sure, the fuel burn is 2 to 3 gallons more per hour than my old Cessna's, but the result is a near 50 percent increase in cruise speed while maintaining about the same useful load — around 1,000 pounds. One of the biggest challenges was finding a low-cost Mooney with an electrically actuated retractable gear system. I had previously flown a Mooney M20F with a Johnson bar — a manual system for lowering and retracting the landing gear. Located between the front seats, the Johnson bar is a big metal bar that locks into a bracket near the throttle quadrant or on the floor depending on whether the gear is being placed up or down. Many Mooney pilots swear by the Johnson bar. Through my research I even read a discussion thread on which a few owners were looking into converting their electric-gear airplanes to the manually actuated system. Their argument for the Johnson bar was that it is less expensive to maintain and less prone to failure.

Despite the potential for lower maintenance costs and despite the fact that there were a lot more low-cost Mooneys available with the Johnson bar, I didn't want the inconvenience of having to wrestle a metal shaft on every takeoff and landing. Using two fingers to pinch a small round switch up or down was far more appealing.

The insistence on electric gear made the selection of available airplanes in my budget slim, and I didn't have a lot of spare time to search for possible candidates. But any time I met someone who owned a Mooney I would tell them what I was looking for. One of those people, John Baker, alerted me to a 1974 M20C that was for sale at Orange County Flight Center out of Santa Ana Airport — a 30- to 40-minute flight from my base in Camarillo, California (KCMA). Baker was so passionate about his beautiful Mooney M20K and so excited to share that passion that he offered to come and pick me up and fly me to John Wayne-Orange County Airport to meet Gary Sequeira, the president of Orange County Flight Center.

My affection for the airplane was far from love at first sight. My first impression was, to put it bluntly, repulsion. There was hardly any paint left on the wings; I found corrosion on hinges, handles and landing gear; and the interior had several panels with cracks and even holes. "There is no way I'm buying this airplane," I said to John. "I don't even want to fly it! Let's go back to Camarillo."

Mooney M20C makeover
Rick Egan of Unlimited Airworks in Ramona, California, did a thorough pre-buy inspection before completing a full annual, which included swinging the retractable landing gear. This model M20C has an electrically actuated landing gear system.Pia Bergqvist

But John and Gary encouraged me to give the airplane a chance and take a closer look. As I did, I noticed that the ugliness appeared to be only skin-deep, so to speak. And just like with people, the inside of airplanes matters more than the outside. The Lycoming O-360-A1D engine that is installed in this model M20C had fewer than 600 hours on it since the last major overhaul, which is recommended at 2,000-hour intervals. Behind the white and poop-brown fuselage panels, the airplane was perfectly protected by zinc chromate. The cables inside also appeared to be pristine.

Taking a closer look at the landing gear, I saw that the rust stains seemed to be only on the surface. The landing gear pucks (one of several things that make a Mooney a Mooney), which are expensive to replace, looked to be in very good shape. And the tires were brand-new.

Another bonus was that the airplane had a few speed mods. The original windshield had been replaced with an M20J-style windshield, and gap seals had been installed to reduce drag.

So after further inspection, I decided to take the airplane for a flight. The engine purred to life with no hesitation. The old Narco radios and navigation equipment worked and sounded surprisingly good. I taxied out to Runway 20R, pushed the throttle forward and, despite a fairly heavy load with three grown people and nearly full fuel, the airplane reached rotation speed quickly. A gentle pull on the control yoke lifted the wheels off the pavement and I raised the gear lever to the up position. I was in love.

Mooney M20C
Built way back in 1974, this M20C ranger has the older Mooney logo displayed on the vertical stabilizer. One unusual feature is that the entire tail section of the Mooney pivots on the aft fuselage with pitch trim input.Pia Bergqvist

The first thing I noticed as I headed out for some maneuvers off the Orange County shoreline was that the airplane appeared to be perfectly stable. After leveling off, I crossed my arms, and even though the airplane has no autopilot, it stayed on altitude and heading without the need for any control inputs. I made some shallow and steep turns, and slowed the airplane down to experience the Ranger's docile slow flight and stall characteristics. The longer the engine kept purring, the larger the smile grew on my face. By the end of the flight, I had decided to put a deposit on the Mooney and go ahead with a pre-buy inspection.

My first airplane purchase, the ­Cessna 170, resulted in a botched ­pre-purchase inspection, which forced me to spend a lot of money on the first annual because the mechanic missed some critical issues beneath the cowl. That experience and the fact that this Mooney was far from perfect made me determined to find a good mechanic for this pre-buy. I found a Mooney-savvy mechanic, Rick Egan of Unlimited Airworks in Ramona, California, just east of San Diego, and commissioned him to make a thorough inspection that eventually concluded in an annual.

Mooney M20C
While IFR capable, the panel of the M20C is really outdated, with two Narco Nav/Comms, one of which has glideslope and DME capabilities, and Narco transponder, audio panel and ADF.Pia Bergqvist

The list of items that required repairs added up to around $4,000, which gave me some leverage to reduce the purchase price even further. But the key items were good. Despite the fact that the engine overhaul had been done 22 years ago, all four cylinders in the Lycoming engine showed compressions in the high 70s. The propeller was also in decent condition, so some of the most expensive items would last for a while. And on closer inspection, Rick found that the ugliness that I saw was all surface corrosion, just as I had hoped.

Another problem that can rear its ugly head with old Mooneys is fuel leaks in the wing tanks. Fortunately, this airplane had had its tanks resealed, so no leaks were found in the pre-buy inspection. The biggest cost was the replacement of bolts and bushings that attached the tail section, which Rick found was loose.

While fully functional and IFR capable, the airplane's panel is wildly outdated with a Narco CP 136 audio panel, AT150 transponder, 841 ADF and two MK12D navcoms. One nifty bonus, however, is that the number one CDI not only has a glideslope but also a built-in DME, providing distance data without any additional scanning. Unfortunately I found that the glideslope was inoperable after I took delivery of the airplane, but I have had it fixed.

Another piece of research that factored into my purchase decision was the cost of insurance. While I do have more than 3,000 total flight hours, several hundred of which are in retractable airplanes, I was expecting to pay a higher premium than I did for my Cessna 170, for which I paid around $900 per year. I was completely blown away when the quote from AOPA's insurance agency for the annual premium, with hull coverage of $35,000 ($5,000 more than my taildragger was insured for), came out to $590.

May 1, the day I picked up my airplane from Ramona, was a terrific day. The air was clear and smooth. Gary was kind enough to pick me up in Camarillo and fly me down to Ramona. After paying Rick, adding some fuel and completing a very thorough preflight inspection, Gary and I took a flight together around Ramona to make sure I felt completely comfortable flying the M20C and to verify that it was in good flying condition before I brought it back to its new home.

Mooney M20C
Mooney M20CFlying

So after more than six years without an airplane I now have wings again. It is such a feeling of freedom. No longer do I need to worry about scheduling or having to get back to the airport at a certain time. I can come and go as I wish.

Of course, like I did with my Cessna 170 — Peppermint Patty — I had to give the airplane a name. I felt that Manny was appropriate because this M20C seemed more manly than the 170. The fact that Manny is a little rough around the edges will allow me to make him my own. I plan to transform him from the ragged pigeon he is now to a majestic soaring eagle. Well … at least a seagull.

Manny is in serious need of a face-lift, so I plan to have him repainted soon. This will also allow me to get my own N-number. And perhaps I will replace some of the broken panels to make the airplane look nice on the inside as well.

Manny also needs some upgrades in the panel. With the ADS-B mandate coming up, I am going to focus on adding this capability first. I've found that the digits on one radio are occasionally blacked out. So sometime I'll have to count the numbers while twisting the knobs in hopes of reaching the correct digit. The standby nav frequency is always at 110.50 when I start up, so at least I have something to go by, but the numbers don't always move in the right direction when I twist the knobs. Oh, the joys of outdated avionics! Despite requiring a little ingenuity to operate, the Narcos have shown themselves to be reliable so far. But I do plan to update my navigation equipment soon.

Keep looking for updates on Manny's transformation in later issues of Flying.