Two years ago I never would have dreamed that I’d be seriously considering buying an airplane of my own at the start of 2014. I hadn’t started flight training at that time; in fact, the thought didn’t even cross my mind for another six months.
Even just a year ago, 5 months before getting my private pilot’s license, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be on the cusp of buying an airplane, and especially not a Mooney, what I’ve long considered to be my “dream” plane. But here I am, lining up financing, insurance, tie-down space, and the terms of a partnership on a mid-80’s Mooney M20J-201. And if I’m perfectly honest, I’m absolutely terrified.
How it Happened
In August and September I was enjoying my private pilot privileges, renting a 172 for a few hours at a time and introducing friends and family to my passion for flying. But that was not the reason I got my license, I don’t want to just be a weekend pilot flying in circles or on quick hops to local airports for a hotdog or something. I want to travel, see new places, avoid commercial airlines and commercial airline passengers and lines at security.
So I investigated local flying clubs. For the price of the admission fee, in essence, buying a share of the club, and cheap monthly dues, I would have access to a few airplanes and be able to take them on trips without incurring the typical “daily minimum” requirements of renting from an FBO. It seemed to be the most logical thing to do; indeed a flying club is probably the best ratio of cost per hour flown when compared to renting from an FBO or owning your own airplane. I found a club at a nearby airport, went to a membership meeting, had conversations with the board of directors, was offered a place in the club, and sent in a deposit check to be held until I returned from a vacation to Europe (which I mentioned in my last post).
While on vacation I had a sort of epiphany: I don’t want to be in this flying club. Going from renting from an FBO among a pool of unknown pilots to scheduling one of three airplanes among a pool of 50 other club members just didn’t feel like that much of a change. I’m not exactly a people person, and while most of the members I had met were very welcoming and encouraging, there were more than a few that were clearly hostile to outsiders, set in their ways, and generally just people with whom I have no interest in interacting. So for me the decision ended up being less about the cost to fly, which was clearly advantageous in a flying club, and more about the social aspect. I don’t want to share an airplane with a bunch of people. I would pay more to have access at almost any time, and more importantly, I want almost all of the control in decisions regarding the maintenance and upkeep of an airplane. I don’t want just a 1 in 50 vote. This is of course a very personal decision, and for many people a flying club is an excellent option, and there are many fine clubs across the country. But I realized I wanted more than the club could offer. So when I returned from Europe I requested the flying club destroy my deposit check and apologized for wasting their time and efforts. The administrators were very helpful and understanding throughout this process.
Soon after, I decided to continue my flight training and get my complex aircraft endorsement. I went back to Princeton Airport and took some ground instruction to fly a Cessna 172RG “Cutlass.” The weather didn’t cooperate so I didn’t get to fly it, but to be honest, the airplane isn’t one I’m interested in flying. I want to go fast. I did some digging and was shocked to find a Mooney M20J-201 for rent at a nearby airport. I called immediately and the guy that answered the phone said, “Well you’re in luck, I usually never answer the phone here, but I’m the guy that teaches the Mooney.” We went on to have a long conversation, me explaining that I’ve loved Mooneys since I was a kid but how I’m a low time pilot and wonder if it’s a good idea to learn to fly one now. Him explaining why the Mooney is as close to the perfect aircraft as you can get, and how it’s fine if I’m a low time pilot, while the airplane has a steep learning curve it is very stable and predictable. We clearly had both “drank the Kool-Aid” about Mooneys.
Overjoyed, I scheduled a time to get introduced to my new teacher and to the airplane, and started reading as much as I could about learning to fly the airplane. That first up-close encounter with the airplane was thrilling. It was just a ground lesson, we didn’t even start the airplane. But touching it, sitting in the pilot’s seat, smelling the inside of the engine cowling, I was entranced, obsessed. It felt like a sleek, powerful, mean, mythical beast, daring me to turn the ignition. Taunting me to try and learn to tame it.
My instructor is a smart guy, a good pilot, and a little edgy, quickly apologizing mid-sentence for saying the F-word a lot. But he has a deep well of respect for Mooneys, and I think he can tell I’m completely enthralled and a little intimidated by the airplane. I just try to be a dry sponge, absorbing everything he says in his no-nonsense, rapid-fire style. “Keep it simple,” he says. “60 knots rotate, 70 kts liftoff, 80 kts gear up, 90 kts flaps up, 100 kts climb,” he explains the takeoff. I furiously write it down. He goes on, “100 kts on the downwind gear down and first notch of flaps, base leg 90 kts GUMP check and 2nd notch of flaps, turn final gear down check last notch of flaps stabilized approach 80 kts, 70 kts over the fence, 60 kts touchdown,” he describes the landing. Simple, I think, with a gulp.
If that first encounter with the Mooney was so exciting, the first flight was almost better than sex. He had me sit right-seat, and he did the first takeoff, then handed me the controls soon after and I flew the rest of the time. We turned East and headed out over the shoreline, then followed it south to Cape May, picking up flight following along the way. I marveled at the ground speed of 188 kts heading East, and more than 160 kts headed south. 20 miles from the airport, at 4500 feet, he started the in-range descent checklist, and began reducing the power an inch of MP at a time. I could already tell I was way behind the airplane. He walked me through the motions for the gear down checklist and final approach, and I landed the plane on runway 28, from the right seat. We were both a little impressed by my landing, and my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. My brain felt like jello, but we taxied back and I made a good takeoff and headed north back to Robbinsville. Again he helped me stay ahead of the airplane, and made sure I noticed how checklist-dependent I should be with it. I made another fine landing in the waning minutes of daylight, and we taxied back and shut down.
Needless to say, I was hooked. Although I had some bad luck with the weather for a few weeks, I spent the next 6 weeks learning and practicing how to fly the airplane. We made another trip to Cape May and I sat in the left seat, then we had a lesson on maneuvers, power on and off stalls, steep turns, etc. I was amazed at how well the airplane handles and behaves in every part of the flight envelope. Then we spent two lessons practicing landings, the hardest part about the process. Over nearly 20 landings, I finally acquired the skills to make good smooth touchdowns and slow the airplane down without inducing the oscillations the airplane is famous for. The landing gear, unlike other airplanes, is cushioned by rubber disks, and they will bounce strongly if the landing isn’t smooth. Even if the landing is fine you have to be cautious about adding too much braking too soon to avoid causing a nose wheel oscillation. My final exam was another trip to Cape May, and it was dependent on me completing the flight without help from my instructor. Thankfully, I did a lot of mental preparation and felt confident. I flew the airplane beautifully and made several excellent landings, and a few hours later I was a proud newly-endorsed pilot of complex aircraft. More importantly, I was signed off to rent and fly the Mooney.
There is a Mooney for Sale
Near the end of my training, my instructor had me take a walk with him. He showed me another Mooney and told me it was for sale and that another one of his students was interested in having a partner to buy it. I could hardly contain my excitement. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my decision to not join the flying club was made so that I would be able to take an opportunity like this if it ever presented itself. I never dreamed that it would come up less than two months later!
Since then I rented the FBO Mooney and flew VFR from New Jersey down to South Carolina, a distance of 500 miles. It took just over 3 hours each way, which is the longest flight I’ve taken so far, and further strengthened my belief that I got my pilot’s license in order to travel. The entire flight was thrilling, and the trip could not have been faster any other way, if you assume for a commercial flight that you leave the house 2 hours before, and that the distance to and from the airport adds another hour or two, a commercial flight would take about five hours door-to-door if there weren’t any delays. The Mooney was clearly faster, and waaaayyy more fun! However, the daily minimum to rent the Mooney is 3 hours, meaning that it costs $600 dollars per day to rent the Mooney to take on a trip–even if I don’t fly it for a day or two. This is impractical, and is the primary reason I’d like to buy a Mooney of my own. Of course, the argument can be made that the costs of ownership are even more prohibitive, despite the lack of a daily minimum. I will examine these costs in a future post.