Meeting my personal airliner

In mid-May, a friend and I bought a 1980 Mooney M20K 231.

IMG_0456.JPG

We spent a few months casually browsing Trade-a-Plane, Controller, and various other places for the right Mooney.

We made lists of all the contenders, with side-by-side comparisons. We narrowed them down to the best three. Then we would call and find out we had been too casual about it and the airplanes had already sold.

Trying not to feel too discouraged, I would tell myself it’s okay, take your time, find the right one. All the while fighting the fierce urge to own and fly one of these great machines.

Finally in late March, I proposed that we go see the guys at All American Aircraft in San Antonio, Texas.

Jimmy and Dave were clearly Mooney guys, with about a dozen examples on hand. I didn’t realize at the time they are among the most well known people in the Mooney circle, as well as the wider general aviation community.

I’m obsessed with Mooney aircraft, so being able to go and see hangars full of them was a near-religious experience. Each one evokes a feeling I just don’t get when I look at other airplanes–save for maybe King Airs and Aerostars–but certainly not other single engine planes.

IMG_0392.JPG

We weren’t looking for a K model. Our list consisted of about eight J models with one or two others (F, K). The airplane we eventually bought wasn’t on the list. We showed up at the tiny Kestrel Airpark (1T7) and were quickly immersed in the available Mooneys by Dave, an easy-going gentleman with a seemingly endless knowledge of Mooneys, and a very fine teacher to boot.

I’ll admit to loving about five different aircraft at first-sight. But when it came time to test fly one, we were drawn to a K model, N4006H. It hadn’t made it onto our list but I’m not sure why–great panel, low total time, relatively low price for a turbo model.

It spoke to us somehow, I’m not sure how to describe it, but we decided to fly it, and I would sit left seat first. I was as excited as I’ve been about almost anything else climbing into the left seat, with a distinct sense of awe of the machine around me–I wasn’t in a mindset to be a difficult sell.

Dave quickly walked me through the starting procedure, and on the first turn of the key the engine roared to life. The sensation was spine-tingling, lighting the fire of a six cylinder engine for the first time ever, getting lost in the sound of that throaty growl and the sense of raw power at my fingertips.

IMG_0624.JPG

 

Down the taxiway we went, all the while Dave walking through some of the intricacies of the plane, the avionics, and the engine. I could barely keep up as my heart pounded and my mind raced.

Departing from Kestrel is an interesting experience. It’s a 3000 foot runway but one end of it is sharply uphill. We were departing down that hill. I pushed the throttle forward to 30″ MP, then Dave coaxed me to nudge it up to 35″ MP. The airplane lept forward when I released the brakes and in no time we were airborne and the gear was coming up.

We were heading to Boerne Stage airfield (5C1) along with another Mooney from Jimmy and Dave’s collection. This was not only my first flight in a turbo Mooney, it was also the first time I’ve flown in formation with another aircraft.

We entered the pattern #2 behind the other Mooney, and on downwind Dave told me to land like I do in the J model, so I went through my typical pre-landing checklist, lowered the gear and slowed to 90 knots. I turned base, added flaps and reduced power, down to 80 knots. I was getting more and more nervous but I just stuck to the protocol, turned final, added the last bit of flaps, and tried to breathe and relax. Once over the threshold I pulled the power to idle and somehow coaxed the nose-heavy 231 to a very smooth landing with copious use of nose-up trim.

landing

In the end, we bought this airplane six weeks later, and flew it back to New Jersey where it currently lives. I will try to write a lot more about the purchase, the transition training, and the flying I’ve been doing–including getting my instrument rating. It has been such a joy, so challenging, and yet so rewarding, to have my own personal airliner.

 

Advertisements

A Trip to the South: Final Leg Home

The last in a series of posts describing my trip to bring a Mooney to South Carolina for a pre-buy inspection. See the previous installment here. Last time, my Dad completed the pre-buy inspection in South Carolina, and we made the decision to stay overnight in Raleigh, North Carolina. We landed that evening at KRDU.

The next morning I woke up before dawn, and instinctively checked the weather on my phone. A strong cold front was racing across western Pennsylvania, with a dramatic shift in wind direction and an increase in wind speed to 30+ knots. The terminal area forecasts for New Jersey put the frontal passage at around noon, and I knew we would be racing it on our way back. We needed to leave…now.

My Aunt and Uncle, who had graciously let me stay at their beautiful home on very short notice, dropped me off at the airport.

My flight instructor, having stayed with his relative in the area, was dropped off about 10 minutes later. We took another look at the weather, that cold front was moving fast. “I think we can thread the needle,” he said. “It’s gonna be windy, but we can make it back.”
“Okay I’ll preflight, you file.” I replied, walking out the door to the ramp. I laughed when I saw what we were parked next to:
20140209-000008.jpg
The Cessna Citation X would have gotten us back a bit faster, but might have burned a bit more fuel.

I finished the preflight, my instructor climbed in, and I fired up the engine. A few minutes later he was calling Raleigh Clearance-Delivery and copying our IFR clearance back to Trenton-Robbinsville.

Three minutes later, after a run-up on the ramp area, we were cleared for takeoff. I poured on the coals and 20 seconds later we were in the air. We were cleared up to 7000 feet, and at altitude I could clearly make out the weather features we were racing home, with a sharp line of cirrus clouds curving to the north on our left. The flight really showed how great a Mooney can be. A very favorable tailwind gave us a max ground speed at 207 knots, while burning 10.9 gallons of fuel per hour. Under 90 minutes later I was going through the in-range descent checklist, and starting to bring back the power.

About 30 miles out we listened to Trenton ATIS, and inexplicably they were reporting “winds calm.” I knew this had to be false, all of the forecasts were calling for gusty NW winds. We checked another nearby airport: winds 260 at 18 gusting to 28–that’s a little more like it. They were also reporting wind shear. I knew it was going to be a challenging approach.

ATC cleared us to descend, and as soon as we were below 3000 feet we hit some continuous light chop. I kept pulling the power back, and at 2000 feet the turbulence increased to the moderate range. I entered the downwind leg of the pattern to Runway 29 at Robbinsville, and put the gear down. With all that extra drag the plane was really getting pushed around by the turbulence. I focused on correcting the large deviations, while relaxing on the stick enough to let the plane ride out most of the chop. I turned Base leg, did a GUMP check, took a breath and turned final. The turbulence increased as we got lower and slower. I elected to keep 10 kts extra speed on final, and didn’t extend the flaps all the way–typically a recipe to float a Mooney all the way down the runway, but not in this kind of wind. I wrestled the airplane down to ground effect, including through a moment of what I think was wind shear that made the plane feel like the bottom dropped out. A last gust pushed me off centerline but I kicked in right rudder and left aileron and eased the airplane on the ground. It really is true that you have to fly the airplane all the way to touchdown. With a big sigh of relief I pulled off the runway and taxied back to the parking spot, still covered with snow and ice. I realized I was sweating profusely, but it was a huge boost of confidence to land the airplane in those conditions, on the first try. It made me feel like I’ll be pretty good at this pilot thing.

Why a Mooney?

20140112-173749.jpg
“Prop full forward, mixture full rich, flaps set for takeoff,” I said out loud as I lined the Mooney M20J-201 on Runway 02 at Santee-Cooper Regional Airport, KMNI, on a calm cool morning just after Christmas. A low pressure system was scheduled to move in later in the afternoon, so the sky had those high stretched-out wisps of cirrus clouds. I advanced the throttle smoothly, let my eyes dance back and forth from the runway centerline to the oil pressure gauge to the RPM and manifold pressure gauges, all while keeping track of the quickly increasing airspeed. “60 knots, rotate.” It seemed like just saying the words made the plane fly. A few seconds later, “80 knots, positive rate, gear up,” I said as I lifted the gear handle and added some down trim at the same time to compensate for the striking pitch up from the airplane as it lost all the drag from the landing gear.

Maybe the Mooney isn’t the only airplane that makes me feel the way it does in those first few moments of flight. I’ve only been pilot in command of Cessna 172s and a Mooney M20J. Maybe a Bonanza would make me feel the same way; it’s undeniably a good-looking airplane, it’s fast, has a decent useful payload (though still not a 4-adult + full fuel airplane). But a good Bonanza would be a little expensive. To find one comfortably in my price range I need to exclude virtually all of those made in the last 30 years.20140112-164935.jpg

A Cirrus would be great, they’re fast and attractive airplanes with great avionics packages, and the whole-plane parachute is an amazing feature. But the airplane also smacks of a rich-man’s ride, even a first-gen with high time on the engine is out of reach. I’m not saying it’s bad, it seems like a great airplane, I just can’t afford one.
20140112-165101.jpg

“What about the Cessna line of airplanes?” you might ask. Well, the 172 just isn’t fast enough for me. The 177 Cardinal (assuming an RG) is faster, and the 210 Centurion (especially a turbo version) is more my kind of speed machine. But the Cardinal just isn’t sexy, and the 210 burns too much fuel and is too expensive. The 182 seems like a good blend, but again the speed/fuel burn/cost/sexiness equation just doesn’t add up. The Cessna 400 is sexy and extremely fast, but astonishingly expensive. So too, for that matter, with the fast Piper singles like the Saratoga, Matrix, etc.

“Mooney three zero one kilo charlie contact Norfolk Approach on 125.2”
“Over to 125.2 for three zero one kilo charlie, have a good day,” I reply, reaching up to turn the knob on the Garmin 430.
20140112-174354.jpg
I wait a second and make the call, “Norfolk Approach Mooney three zero one kilo charlie, with you level at five point five.”
“Mooney three zero one kilo charlie, Norfolk Approach, Roger, Norfolk altimeter three zero two nine.”
“There zero one kilo charlie,” I quickly reply, adjusting the altimeter setting slightly. My girlfriend is taking some pictures. The air is perfectly smooth, just over halfway home to New Jersey as we pass over Norfolk, between three or four naval installations. I look down over one and convince myself the little grey jets lined up on the ramp are F22 Raptors. “Awesome,” I think to myself, glancing up at the engine gauges, checking that everything is as it should be. I’m sure the Navy wouldn’t mind that much if I had to land on one of their fields if I had an emergency, but I really don’t want to find out. Just over an hour and we’ll be back on the ground in New Jersey, covering about 500 nautical miles in about three hours, ground speeds between 160 and 175 knots, burning 11.7 gallons of fuel per hour.
20140112-175222.jpg
I’m choosing a Mooney because it is the best blend I can find of fuel burn, speed, stability, safety, and sheer attractiveness.
20140112-175700.jpg

Light Iron : Mooney

20140106-231230.jpg

Okay, so I’m obsessed with Mooneys. These posts used to be reserved for the heavy-iron, and there will definitely be more of those, but I hope you’ll bear with me as I’m consumed by thoughts of owning one of these great airplanes.

For me, honestly, I’d much prefer a small airplane over a heavy jet, for the simple fact that I get to be the one up front flying it. It seems very unlikely at this point that I’d start a new career as an airline pilot, so my chances of ever flying a 777 are basically zero. Instead, I’ll be perfectly happy cruising down lower and slower in my own personal airliner.

Owning an Airplane (Why I decided to Buy)

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.

The Mooney

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.

20140105-155018.jpg

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.

20140105-161715.jpg

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.

Return to the Blog and Update on Recent Events

I enjoy having a blog, I feel like I have a lot to say, but I don’t have a lot of time to say it.

At least, that’s what I tell myself, “I just don’t have time today,” I say. Meanwhile I find I waste countless hours every week doing not much of anything but staring at the computer or my iPhone or my iPad. I’ve decided that in 2014 I’m going to spend less time on mindless activity like laying on the couch and watching TV and inevitably falling asleep, and more time being creative, learning, writing, reading, and working out.

There, now that that’s out of the way, let me show you what I’ve been up to since August:

In September my girlfriend and I took a trip to London, Paris, and Normandy. Here is our view from our stop in Etretat, made famous in several Monet paintings. The next day we saw the D-Day beaches and the American Cemetary, some of the most moving and patriotic places I’ve ever seen.

20140103-133919.jpg

For six weeks in October and November I worked, studied, and practiced to get my endorsement to fly complex aircraft (those with retractable landing gear, constant speed propeller, etc). I was overjoyed to find out that another nearby airport, Trenton-Robbinsville (N87), had a Mooney M20J-201 for rent. It has always been one of my favorite aircraft, and the type I would buy for myself if I were to get an airplane. So I decided to get my complex rating in the Mooney, which is one of my best decisions of 2013.

20140103-134700.jpg

I’m sure I’ll write a lot more about the Mooney, as it is such a challenging yet rewarding airplane to fly, and an opportunity has come up to buy one with another pilot friend of mine! Stay tuned!

Happy New Year!

Heavy Iron: Airbus A340-600

jfk-a340

 

Just prior to boarding on my trip to Shanghai in Spring 2012. I would be on that airplane for nearly 17 hours direct JFK-PVG. What an amazing feat of engineering.

It’s actually a complicated trip to think about. Soon after I returned, a long-term relationship ended. Soon after that, I started flight training. Now a year later, there is still some sadness,  way deep down.

But life goes on.

A year later, I’m a licensed pilot, and it’s one of my happiest accomplishments.

And I just booked a trip to France with my new girlfriend. We’re flying on a 777.