Mooney Aircraft Production Has Reached Its End
It has happened so often over the years, people have lost count. And this time, many have lost hope—or worse, interest.
The “it” in this case is the latest shutdown and mass employee furlough at Mooney International, maker of well-known, high-performance, single-engine, piston-powered light aircraft.
Word of the sudden closure broke in mid-November. Follow-up calls to the Kerrville, Texas, plant to confirm simply triggered recorded messages, the most telling being, “Please be advised that all Mooney employees have been furloughed at this time. Therefore, we are not able to respond to your query.”
While the action was abrupt, it was not totally unexpected and most certainly not without precedent. In 2018, the company delivered just 14 aircraft and through the third quarter of this year, only eight—the latter figure roughly equal to the number of times the company has halted production, gone bankrupt, or both, since the late Al Mooney’s first go at plane-making in 1929.
Aside from paltry sales, this latest shutdown can likely be attributed to several factors.
First, each M20V Acclaim Ultra or M20U Ovation Ultra is essentially hand-made, which for Mooney models has always been the case. There are no superefficient production robots, just people who, save for windshields, engines, tires and such, create everything in a 1950s-vintage facility. Careful, time-consuming craftsmanship comes at a cost.
Thus the M20U and M20V—both four-seat, unpressurized, retractable-gear and aluminum-clad over their steel-tube frames—are priced at $728,900 and $807,900, respectively. And as Chris Reynolds, an appraiser with AW&ST sister publication Aircraft Bluebook, notes, for that kind of money a buyer has his choice of good, used King Airs, the true all-weather aircraft featuring two turbine engines and commodious, pressurized cabins.
Second, the demographic targeted for high-performance, owner-flown piston singles is shrinking. The number of U.S. private pilots has dropped by 35% since 2000 and by nearly half since 1990. Accordingly, many of those competing for that business have exited—RIP: Commander, Columbia, Socata, Adam, Lake, Cessna TTx, Piper Saratoga, Extra 400, et al.
Then again, there’s the matter of the competition that does continue. Textron, Piper, Tecnam, Cirrus and Diamond—the last two Chinese-owned—are more than happy to accommodate. All offer newer designs, some with composite construction, most with more generous cabin dimensions, and those from category leader Cirrus, with an emergency aircraft parachute.
Moreover, the escalating costs for things like housing, automobiles and tuition, combined with scars and scares from the Great Recession and general economic concerns, can give pause for such an outlay. That’s especially so if the health of the plane-maker is in doubt. No one wants to own an expensive “orphan” bereft of factory support.
“Without parts availability,” says Mark Patiky, a longtime Mooney owner and booster, “it might as well be grounded. It’s useless.”
One other factor in the production halt is shrouded in a kind of fog. That concerns management’s role.
Beginning with the recession of 2008, the company shrank steadily until it was down to a handful of employees, who spent the ensuing years manufacturing some parts and maintaining the facility. Just three airplanes were delivered over a five-year period. But in 2013, an unknown group with funding from Chinese interests took control. Hiring and production began anew, models were updated, and even an R&D effort involving a composite two-seat model launched in California. The Mooney Miracle had been repeated! Or so it was hoped.
But the reinvigorated company delivered only 11 aircraft in 2015, seven each in the next two years, last year 14, and now the owners have closed the cash box. Mind you, Mooney delivered 231 aircraft in 1959, 336 in 1962 and eventually 439 in 1977. All totaled, the company operating under a parade of owners produced some 12,000 aircraft over the years, during which Mooneys claimed 130 world speed and altitude records. Mooney made the lightplane Ferraris or Ford Cobras of the day.
But that day may well be done. Brant Dahlfors is among the many who hold that view. Long before co-founding Jet Transactions, the Southern California business jet broker, and before becoming head of Bombardier business jet sales in North America, Dahlfors oversaw all Mooney sales. He was there to help launch the PFM, a Mooney powered with a Porsche 911 engine.
He recalls a healthy market when Mooney prices were roughly equivalent to those of a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, but now they are multiples higher. Moreover, he believes the marque needs a wholly new model, but that would be a prohibitively costly and risky venture. As a result of those and all the other factors, he says, “I don’t think that market’s coming back; I really don’t.”
Even though Mooney has ascended, Phoenix-like, a half-dozen times, Dahlfors opines, “Enough is enough.”