July 2010 — The Mooney 201 was a product of an earlier fuel crisis, the one that plagued the United States for most of the 1970s. When adjusted for inflation, avgas cost matched today’s $5 per gallon and up, and many pilots prized fuel efficiency matched with speed above all other airplane characteristics.
Mooneys had always been the fastest piston singles when measured in terms of speed versus horsepower. The early 20 series with 180 hp Lycomings could cruise at 140 knots or a little more, which is very good for a four-seat airplane. The later 200 hp versions could top 150 knots in cruise on a good day while burning around 10 gallons per hour.
There were a few singles faster than the Mooneys, such as the Bonanza, but it had more power with a 285 hp Continental and thus burned more fuel. A Cessna 210 could run down an older 200 hp Mooney but used 300hp to do it. A Piper Comanche was very close to the Mooney in performance, but only after horsepower was increased to 250. The original 180 hp Comanche couldn’t keep up.
For years the Mooney had a cult following with owners constantly yakking about how fast they cruised and how far on so little fuel. Owners of other piston singles didn’t pay much attention to the fuel bill, but did notice the small size of the Mooney cabin and happily filled the tanks on their more thirsty airplanes.
The 1970s fuel crisis that followed the Middle East oil embargoes, and then avgas shortages caused by a refinery disaster in Texas, changed everything. Suddenly fuel efficiency moved to the front burner, and most of us were calling ahead to FBOs to see if they even had avgas, at any price. The time was right for Mooney to up the ante.
To take full advantage of its lead in fuel efficiency, Mooney brought in the late Roy LoPresti in the mid-’70s from Grumman American to put the finishing touches on a new model to be called the 201. Roy was an excellent aerodynamic engineer and also a superb showman. He understood what pilots wanted and knew how to market an airplane as well as design it.
Mooney was building two basic airframes in 1975. The Executive cabin was about a foot longer than the Ranger and Chaparral’s. The Exec and Chaparral had 200 hp engines, while the Ranger was the economy champ with its 180 hp Lycoming. Most believed the smaller Chaparral was faster than the longer Executive, but in reality the Executive’s fuselage stretch didn’t make much difference in performance.
When Mooney engineers went to work on an aerodynamic cleanup to get an even bigger lead in speed versus efficiency, the Chaparral was the initial target of the work. It seemed that its smaller size would yield an even higher cruise speed than the same drag reduction would on the longer Exec. Legend has it that LoPresti recognized that the speed increase results would be virtually the same for either airframe, but the market would be much greater for the longer-cabin Exec, which could carry four adults in some comfort.
It’s impossible to know after all of these years exactly who at the company did what, but LoPresti gets credit for establishing the goal of flying at least 1 mph for every horsepower. It was an objective everybody could understand, and would give Mooney bragging rights in the fuel crisis. Of course, merely flying 200 mph on 200 horsepower would not be good enough for Roy, so he kept at it until a prototype clocked 201 mph true airspeed, and the model name was born.
The fundamental key to low drag and efficiency in all Mooneys is a well-designed wing with a laminar flow airfoil, and a small frontal area to reduce drag. The Mooney cabin offers reasonable headroom but achieves that by having very low seats. You sit nearly on the floor with your legs more or less straight out, much like the seating position in those old British sports cars. The compact cabin, a well-designed wing-to-fuselage intersection and smoothly faired landing gear in the retracted position all help minimize drag.
However, the cowling on the Mooneys before the 201 was a drag nightmare, and the windshield shape and rake were far from optimum. To get to 201 mph, LoPresti and the other Mooney engineers had to find at least 15 mph worth of drag reduction, and the cowling and windshield were the prime targets.
The original Mooney cowling was blunt, and there was a huge gaping hole across the top half of the cowling, including an area below the prop spinner, to scoop in cooling air. Maybe it was as good as materials and tooling would allow to be constructed when Al Mooney designed the airplane in the early 1950s, but it was far from optimum by 1975.
The 201 cowling Mooney created has carefully shaped cooling inlets on each side of the propeller with probably half the total inlet area of the old cowling. The 201 cowling is stretched forward and the lower half tapers smoothly. The cooling inlets are not as small as on some later designs, such as the Piper Saratoga series, but they were a huge step forward in drag reduction.
Previous Mooneys had a ram-air feature that opened a port on the front of the cowling to ram air directly into the engine induction system. The ram air bypassed the air filter, and the port was intended to be open only when up in clean air. In the models before the 201, the induction system was so bad that opening the ram air increased manifold pressure by a solid inch, or maybe more. The 201 cowling induction was so much better that the ram air made less of a change. Mooney said it still increased manifold pressure by an inch, but that was really stretching the point. That was actually good news because the new cowling design was working.
The Mooney has a welded steel-tube-frame fuselage that is covered with a nonstructural aluminum skin. A structural tube rises from the instrument panel to join others that carry loads over the cabin top. That tube sweeps back only slightly, and the older Mooneys used that tube to separate the windshield into two halves, so the windshield was also close to vertical.
On the 201, the windshield base is moved several inches forward so there is much more sweepback. The windshield is also larger and curved to increase visibility as well as reduce drag. The new windshield added several miles per hour toward the goal and made the airplane look much more attractive. The combination of the new shapes for the windshield and cowling transformed the Mooney from a flying oddity to an airplane that, well, looked just right — still small, but now attractive.
Other drag-reduction changes on the 201 included a two-piece main gear door that more tightly enclosed the wheel and brake disk when retracted; improved gap seals around the flaps and flight controls; and some other improvements to fairings around the wings and tail. The cabin step was redesigned to cut drag, but rumor had it that the step was not installed on the prototype that recorded the magic 201 mph in level cruise.
There was more excitement around introduction of the 201 than anybody could remember for another piston single, except for in the early days of the Beech Bonanza, which remains the all-time piston single sensation. Many pilots just flat-out didn’t believe the 201 was as fast as Mooney claimed. After all, the industry was just beginning to standardize its pilot’s operating handbooks and to actually tell the truth about performance. Every veteran pilot had knocked at least 10 or 20 mph off a manufacturer’s cruise speed claim, including the advertised speed of earlier Mooney models.
Here at Flying we got the very first Mooney 201, N201M, in late 1976. The model year is listed as 1977 but a few were built in 1976. I had just joined the magazine and was low man on the totem pole, so I didn’t get my hands on the prized 201 often, but when I did, I had the same experience the rest of the staff did, which was rock-star status on any ramp. Wherever we went pilots gathered around, always with the same question: Does it really go that fast?
The honest answer was yes. By that time we were making the transition from miles per hour to knots, and at maximum cruise power the 201 was averaging 165 knots. That is 10 knots short of 201 mph, but that was at around 75 percent power, not the maximum 200 hp Mooney used to clock the magic number.
Unfortunately Mooney had not lavished the same attention on the interior of that original 201 that it had on the aerodynamics. The cabin was still covered with that cheesy plastic, the seats were second-grade leather that split and cracked, the cabin leaked in the rain, everything rattled, and there was a big, clumsy throttle quadrant taking up precious cabin space. But we were cruising at 165 knots while burning 10 gph, and life was good.
Mooney built more than 370 201s in that first model year, a huge number for a small company. After three years of production, about 900 201s had flown away from the Kerrville, Texas, factory. The average equipped price for the first 201s was just under $60,000, but by 1985 inflation and a lot of optional equipment carried that price to more than $140,000.
Today the early 201s’ book values range from around $70,000 to perhaps $90,000 or more for one with a low-time engine and in excellent condition. Originally the Lycoming IO-360 engine carried a TBO of 1,800 hours, but that has been extended to 2,000 hours. Versions built in the 1990s all have book value well above $100,000.
Mooney made substantial interior improvements in the 201 pretty quickly. A big change was exchanging the throttle quadrant for push-pull controls. The move saved lots of space in the panel, and also made it easier to get in and out of the pilot’s seat and to move around once you were there.
The instrument panel itself also evolved with improved location of engine gauges and more room for avionics. In the original 201, there are structural tubes behind the panel that prevent installing avionics in a logical way. The tubes in later versions were relocated without giving up structural strength so dual stacks of radios could be installed.
The interior was covered in plastic for most of the 201 production run, but the quality of the plastic improved after the first couple of years of production. So did the seat materials and carpet. The 201 was a mainstream airplane, and Mooney found that it had to match what the other manufacturers were doing in terms of interior furnishings.
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.