Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, April, 1985

Three-D Commuter

Here I was at 2500 feet, cruising along with a 65 hp Continental perched over my feet and my elbows in my lap. My mind, rather than enjoying the three dimensional surroundings, was playing word games . . . "Mitey Nice," or "High and the Mitey," or "Mitey Cute."

As much a the word "cute" sticks in my throat, I have to admit that it truly fits the Mooney Mite. How else do you describe a little flying machine that sits on the ground like some sort of forlorn toy just asking you to whisk it up into the air where it can play. Where you both can play. Yep. "Cute" is the right word.

Time was when I was absolutely certain a Mite would be my commuter transportation to and from the office. See, I was going to be living in the foothills of some rocky-type mountains (where the density altitude never exceeded 2000 ft). It would be a ranch, a working horse ranch that looked suspiciously like the Ponderosa, except the runway was right behind the house/barn/hangar complex. Each morning I'd amble out to the hangar, push a button that opened the door, flip the Mite's prop and soon be droning my way to the office. My office would, coincidentally, be part of an office complex I owned, on an airport I developed, in a small suburban town I planned and built. Of course, I now live on a small mountainside and fight my way through traffic with the rest of the slobs and the only thing I own is my house and workshop. I don't need the Mitey little commuter. Not realistically anyway. That doesn't stop me from dreaming the long-time dream.

The Mite would make a hell of a commuter, which is one of the reasons it was designed in the first place. It was, and is one of the most personal feeling little airplanes available and would knock the socks off a VW for both economy and dodging traffic.

The Mite was the very first production airplane to actually bear Al Mooney's name . . . an amazing fact when you consider the dozens of airplanes he designed or helped design. In the period from 1928-1955, it's almost easier to name airplanes he didn't work on than those he did. Such magical names as Monocoupe, Dart, and Culver started out on Mooney's drawing board. Someday there's going to have to be a first class job done on biographing Mooney, since he is certainly one of the unsung cornerstones of our business.

By 1948, when the Mite was designed, it was obvious that the aviation bubble had burst. Thirty-five thousand airplanes were built in 1946 and only two years later the production was down to around 3000. To say the bubble had burst is hardly adequate. The marketplace envisioned never materialized and what little developed evaporated shortly after. So what possessed Al Mooney to set up shop in Wichita with the idea of building a little single-place airplane?

He was attempting the same impossible task we are trying today . . . he wanted to build a cheap, affordable airplane. Since engines were almost (almost but not quite) as ridiculously expensive in those days as they are now, he decided to forego the standard Lycoming/ Continental 65 hp engine. Instead, he designed his airplane around the little four cylinder water cooled engine that was pushing around the tiny Crosley station wagons.

As engines go, the Crosley was, and still is, a fairly sophisticated package . . . and not a very big one at that. In the first place, it was a high revving little sucker, capable of touching 8000 rpm without too much help. Also, it was probably the first high production American engine with an overhead cam. To make things even more interesting, it was made entirely out of sheet metal that was brazed together in an oven. Since you could tuck one of those things under your arm and walk off with it, Mooney was justified in thinking this could be his engine, even if it did mean fitting the unit with a 2:1 V-belt reduction unit.

And so the first ten Mooney M-18 Mites went out the factory doors with a 22 hp Crosley engine that sipped barely 11/2 gallons per hour.

Things always seem to go wrong once an engine is bolted to the front of an airplane. In the case of the Crosley the change to cast crankshafts in the auto engines made them prone to break cranks in the air. Mooney recalled all the production airplanes and refitted them with 65 hp Lycomings (M-18L), which remained the standard engine until it was no longer available and the Continental C-65 was used (M-18C).

Dave Blanton, then Mooney's test pilot, recalled flying the airplane, "When we put the Lycoming in we were so broke we had to borrow a propeller off a Porterfield. This prop was too big and was pitched for climb. We had eight inches of snow on the field and the Crosley airplanes required me to make runs up and down until I had made a path but the Lycoming exploded out of the snow in less than 100 feet. It could really go!"

In total over 230 Mites were built in Wichita before the company's financial angel died. The local county government, showing the usual foresight such bodies seem embued with, foreclosed and took Mooney stock as payment for back taxes. Since the company was, for all purposes, bankrupt and since the local government wasn't all that helpful, Mooney and his crew packed up and moved to Kerrville, Texas, a relationship that appears to still be working. They cranked out another fifty Mites in Kerrville, which included several significant modifications.

Mumbling along at 2500 feet, history didn't really seem all that relevant. What really counted was how the airplane flew. And it flies great. Takeoff had been dead simple. Just a matter of point it, goose the Continental, and pick the nose up when it felt light. All of this happened with me cocooned in a tiny little capsule that felt like a glider on its tip toes.

Gear retraction is the only thing about takeoff that requires any training. The gear uses the Armstrong system . . . a lever and a strong arm. And you don't just grab it and yank, because the natural way to grab the lever locked to the floor in the "down" position is wrong. You have to turn your hand over, so that when you've unlocked and yanked up, your wrist has enough movement to lock the lever up. You can actually do it either way and I did, but one way is easier than the other.

Maybe it's the size of the airplane, or the lack of size, that makes the climb feel so spectacular. The airplane is super stable both in pitch and roll during climb, so you aren't conscious of the airplane's size and light ailerons. You can just sit there and watch the real estate fall out from under you at what seems to be an amazing rate. Actually, it's something like 800-900 fpm (those with the Beech-Roby props reportedly top 1100 fpm climb!), which is damned respectable and an example of what high aspect ratio, lightly loaded wings do for you.

At cruise I could easily see myself with a high-tech LORAN and a nav/comm unit stacked between my legs ahead of that tiny stick. I'd be trundling along talking to approach control while on my way to work. The comfort is just fine for somebody my size (5 ft 10 in, 165 pounds) although more height or width is going to translate into some crowded corners.

We (editorial "we") were seeing about 120 mph on the clock, somewhat short of the 130 mph advertised, but the airplane I was flying wasn't the cleanest in the world. With a little tweaking, 130 mph seems entirely possible and the fuel consumption would still hover in the 4 gph category.

One of the things I'd always heard about the Mite, was that it used a lot of new At Mooney ideas about preventing stall/spin accidents. Some of these ideas included the straight leading edge and swept forward trailing edge and a truly unusual combination of airfoils: The root is a laminar airfoil, a 64215, but the tip is a standard NACA 2412. This is supposed to give aileron control well into the stall . . . a fact that can be proven only one way.

Carb heat out, I brought the nose well up and waited. As the power came back, a bright light on the panel reminded me I didn't have the gear down (some have a little wand that wags back and forth as a gear warning). The needle fell off the bottom of the gauge when the stick pegged against my lap. The airplane buffeted and nodded up and down, I could feel air flow attaching and detaching from the root sections. The stall was straight ahead and needed no correction, but I poked the ailerons out in either direction and was rewarded with a fairly precise wag of the wings. Mooney's ideas work! At no time were the ailerons stalled, or even close to it. I was impressed.

I was doing my stalls up around 3000 feet, fairly close to the airport, so I brought the power back and headed back to land. Or at least try to. It became obvious very quickly that this thing wasn't going to come down fast enough to let me enter the pattern. At a normal glide speed, it didn't look like we were going to come down at all. Those super-long wings think they are attached to some sort of glider. Which they are.

Gliders have spoilers . . . and so do Mooney Mites, only Mooney called his spoilers "landing gear." I wrapped my hand around the handle and pulled out of the uplock detent, prepared to give a good chunk of shoulder to bang into position. I had forgotten about gravity. As soon as I unlocked the handle, it headed down like it knew where it was going. And it did, sort of. The handle knew where the floor was, but couldn't find the way into the downlock without some encouragement from me. I had to do a fair amount of fishing around the first time I lowered the gear to be sure it was actually in the detent.

Once the gear was down the airplane still didn't exactly fall out of the sky, but at least it showed a little more respect for Isaac Newton and his theories. Until the gear was out I wasn't at all sure this thing which had gone up really was going to come down. It did and I eventually found myself on downwind, wondering how far out I should place base leg so I wouldn't glide over the airport.

Backing out a little further than I thought necessary, I ran out the flaps, which incidentally, require no re-trimming of the airplane. The flaps are hooked to the fully-trimmable tail, so when you drop flaps, the tail automatically trims out any pitch change. Neat!

As I turned final, it looked as if I had been lucky and was going to be more or less on profile. The little airplane really didn't require all that much coaching from me since it was dead stable in pitch and the speed hung on 65 mph as if painted there. All I had to do was watch the end of the runway and wait until I was practically on the deck to break the glide.

On takeoff it felt as if I was sitting on the runway in my skivvies, so on landing I was careful not to flare too high. I did anyway. Having several feet to go, I flattened out just a little and settled through ground effect, which the Mite was very reluctant to do. There was about 10 mph of wind on the nose, so everything was happening in slow motion and I had absolutely no trouble, not a bit, in planting the machine on the main gear. I'd like to say I held the nose off until ready to lower, but I can't. It came down shortly after the mains, not an abrupt three-point arrival.

Roll out, like takeoff, was extremely anticlimactic. The airplane stuck to the centerline and slowed to a near walk in several hundred feet. Once, years ago, I had seen a Mooney Mite landed on my local field in Oklahoma when the wind was blowing like the hammers of hell about 30 degrees to the runway and the pilot had not the slightest problem. He was a good stick, but I could now see that the airplane helped him out.

As I slid the tiny canopy back, I wished I was at my back door, with my wife and kids waving from the porch and the horses watching from the corral. But I wasn't. I was still in New Jersey still scrambling for a buck, and landed only to return the airplane to its rightful owner. I was a long, long way from my day-dream foothills.

There are bound to be some folks out there looking for a commuter-plane and the M-18 Mooney Mite is it. There are lots of them around but you have to look closely before you start plunking down the long green. The Mite is of 100 percent wood construction and was originally designed to be as light as possible. Remember the original engine was only 22 hp. Also remember all of that wood is over thirty years old. So is the glue. And the airplanes have been around for a long time. Maybe in the rain, or snow, or the green stuff Los Angeles and New Jersey call air. So the Mite's basic structure has to be inspected with a fine-toothed A & P before you buy.

Most of the problems with the structure are typical wooden airplane problems. Find a pampered airplane that's always been indoors and chances are the wood will be fine. The Mite still has a couple of problem areas that are peculiar to the breed and most of them center around the tail. The tail on all Mooneys really isn't part of the airframe. The entire unit is perched out on a steel tube structure so the whole tail can pivot for trim. On the Mite, this steel tube is bolted to the rear bulkhead and this bulkhead wasn't originally secured to the stringers in the rear fuselage. There was an AD that called for bolting an aluminum plate to the bulkhead and, I believe, transferring the loads to the stringers via clips. Dave Blanton stated that none of the Mites with the AD should be considered safe because moisture can be trapped between the aluminum and the wood. He advises pulling the plate and buttering it up with epoxy and reinstalling it wet, which would seal the area against moisture.

Blanton also says the tubing on the tail truss is thin and any corrosion would be critical. Same goes for tail spars: They are extremely light and any damage or deterioration should mean a complete rebuild of the surfaces.

As long as you are shopping for a Mite, you should know that the fifty airplanes built in Kerrville had a different cockpit set-up. They lengthened, widened and deepened the cockpit, becoming much more comfortable for bigger pilots. Actually a big pilot probably couldn't get into the usual Mite cockpit without coating himself with two layers of peanut oil.

There is also one other version of the airplane that really tickles the imagination. A single M-19 was built, which was the Mite with a C-90 engine, bigger cockpit and (get this) a .30 caliber machine gun under each wing. No, it wasn't for Texas ranchers to go chasing coyotes or rustlers . . . this was yet another of the COIN fighter concepts that never caught on.

The M-19 was severely damaged in a bizarre accident when a pilot reportedly attempted to takeoff with a concrete block still tied to the tail. He didn't make it. At least he didn't make it into the air very far or for very long. There are stories that the M-19 is under restoration somewhere, but we were unable to locate the plane. Wouldn't it be a gas to taxi into the Warbird area at Oshkosh in the M-19, then taxi under a T-28C and attach your airplane to its bomb shackles?

It's obvious I'm never going to be a high roller in the real estate community. That part of my dream is stone dead. But there are still plenty of Mites out there. Who knows? Part of a dream is better than none at all.