203 days ago I took my first flight, and today I took a first flight again. Today was the first time I flew a Mooney, it was also the first time I flew my Mooney, and it was awesome!!!
I was supposed to meet my CFI at 8am so I got there a little early to start looking over the plane. The feeling of driving to the airport to fly your own plane is really incredible, and at this point a little surreal. It was cold this morning, about 40° F when I got to the airport but with a south facing hangar and the sun shining in it warmed up. The guy three hangars down that I had met while waiting for the plane to be delivered stopped by to say hi and brought a welcome present of some cleaner/polisher and a soft rag to put it on with.
My CFI showed up right on time and we started going over the plane and talking about the differences between the Cherokees that I had been flying and the Mooney. I had already read through the POH (Pilot’s Handbook/Owner’s Manual) for the plane three or four times to familiarize myself with the operations of the plane. After about an hour or so he felt like we had covered what we needed to so we moved on to the pre-flight. It was at that point I had an “Oh, crud!” moment.
I spent a couple of hours last night taking a checklist for the plane that I had downloaded, the previous owner’s checklist, and the POH and making my own checklist from those. I had printed off two copies, one for myself and one for my CFI so that we could make notes on them as we went through things of changes that I wanted to make to them. I figured that once I had made a few flights I would have it finalized the way I want and then I would make a more permanent version. However, I left them at home and you don’t go fly without a checklist… All was not lost, I used my phone to download the checklist again that I had borrowed from and emailed it to my CFI so he could pull it up on his iPad. There are a few things that I wanted to change, but it would work for today.
With the checklist in hand I did the pre-flight on the plane. Everything looked great so we climbed in and started it up. Corona is an un-towered field so we listened to the AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System) for the weather and it reported “Weather is unavailable.” No problem, we would just make our own weather observation. It was clear skies, visibility was excellent as you could see the mountains over 50 miles away, and looking at the windsock there was very little movement.
We taxied down to the run-up area and went through an extended run-up of sorts, taking extra time for him to explain the extra steps and what to watch for. The Mooney has a constant speed prop where the Cherokee has a fixed prop which brings some extra steps into the run-up. During the run-up we were listening to the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) to get a feel for where everyone else was in the pattern and around the airport. With the run-up complete and the runway clear we made a final visual check for anyone on final and I announced we were taking the runway. I lined up on the centerline, held the brakes, pushed the throttle all the way in, released the brakes, and we were moving down the runway.
The Mooney has 180hp, twenty more hp than the Cherokees that I flew. That extra power, along with the more aerodynamic shape and the laminar flow wings helps it accelerate faster. This is also where I began to see the first of many differences in flight characteristics between the Cherokee and the Mooney. The rotation speed in the Mooney is 65-75 mph and as we passed 65 mph I started putting some back pressure on the yoke, but the nose wasn’t coming up. We passed through 70 mph and then got to 75 mph and still the plane wasn’t leaving the ground. With the Cherokee if you gave it a little back pressure as soon as you passed 65-70 mph it would just rise right up. It was just the two of us today with the fuel tanks half full (we were only going to fly about an hour) so we were way under gross weight, I wasn’t sure why we were still on the ground. When I got to 75 mph I decided to give it a good pull on the yoke and then the nose broke free from the ground and the plane started to climb. I had read in the POH that when it becomes airborne it likes to go nose high and to release some of the back pressure so I did that and we were on a nice climb out. I hadn’t read that it takes a little extra pressure to get the nose wheel off, but it was good to know now.
I would learn later that with a center to aft Center of Gravity she flies right off the runway. However, on this day we were toward the front of the CG limits. After computing the weight and balance in planning for the flight I determined we needed some ballast in the back so had added 100 lbs in the baggage area (two 50 lb bags of water softener salt) to keep us within the CG limits. Yet although it brought us within the envelope we were still toward the front limit which was the reason the plane took a little extra back pressure to break free.
The first thing to do once you are climbing is to retract the gear. (Ah, raising the gear, now you’re flying a real plane) My plane has the manual gear that they call the Johnson Bar. It is very simple, and has a steep learning curve. I knew this and had told my CFI that he needed to have his hands on the yoke because until I got the hang of the gear I needed the extra help keeping the plane going the direction it should be. The basic operation is to push in the safety button with your thumb, push the bar slightly forward while turning and pushing it down, then rotate the bar down to the floor where you slide it into the latch on the floor. If you want a better description you can read about that here. I heard a pilot new to flying Mooney’s with manual gear say it felt like wrestling a snake in the cockpit, which is fairly accurate.
I finally got the gear up and latched and we left the traffic pattern heading for the practice area. The next thing to notice about the Mooney is that it climbs, very well. I was lucky to get 500-600 feet per minute in the Cherokee. We were climbing at 1,250 feet per minute, and we were clipping along at 110 mph. That poor Cherokee could barely do 115 mph in straight and level flight. This was going to be fun.
The next difference I noticed between the Cherokee and the Mooney is that the controls for the Cherokee work with a system of cables and pulleys. In the Mooney it is push-rods and linkages which makes it a little stiffer to operate the yoke, but it is a much more responsive and crisp feeling.
The fourth difference is that the sight picture in straight and level flight is very different than what I was used to. I nosed over to where I thought I would be level but we were still climbing. Straight and level flight in the Mooney is a much more nose down attitude than the Cherokee, which is great for the visibility but is going to take some getting used to. We ended up leveling off at 5,000′ to do a few maneuvers. I don’t think I was ever at 5,000′ in the practice area in the Cherokee, it just took too long to get that high.
First up was some steep turns. Again, a very different sight picture and I struggled to hold my altitude, losing some in my left turns and gaining some in my right turns. After that we slowed down to put out the gear and flaps and do some power off stalls. The Mooney also stalls much differently than the Cherokee. In the Cherokee you get the buffeting and shaking and depending on the plane sometimes you can keep it in the stall with the nose up and your vertical speed dropping. In the Mooney the stall horn comes on about 5-10 mph before the stall occurs, and when it does stall the nose drops right away. The plane recovers quickly if you release pressure on the yoke and add power. The first stall was uneventful, but on the second stall I must have not stayed coordinated enough because the right wing dropped on me. I recovered it quickly, but it got my CFI’s attention…
Since we were already configured for landing I practiced a few more times raising and lowering the gear. It was getting a little better, but I still have a long way to go before you could say I had it down. Originally we were going to go over to Chino and its long wide runways to get some practice in, but with the extended time on the pre-flight going over things and the extra time during the run-up we were running out of time. My CFI had some family events to get to so instead we just headed back to Corona. Here’s where another difference popped up which I had read about and been told about, but until you actually experience it you just don’t appreciate it.
I brought the power back some and put us in a shallow descent. It wasn’t long before my CFI said “Watch your speed.” I looked over and we were at 160 mph. That is in the yellow arc and below the 189 mph ‘never exceed’ speed, but it was a little bumpy so pulled back a little on the yoke to slow us down. That plane just likes to fly fast. To slow us down more as we got closer to the airport I leveled us off until we dropped below 120 mph and I put the gear down. We were a little higher than traffic pattern altitude as we entered the downwind at mid-field. I added in half flaps and we were down to altitude as we turned onto the base leg. As we turned final I put in full flaps and kept running the trim up until it was at the stops.
As we got close to short final we were still higher than we wanted to be so my CFI told me to put it in a forward slip. This was the one point where it behaved very much like the Cherokee, except you just don’t have as much rudder to work with. We dropped right down without picking up any speed and I straightened it back out.
Here is the final difference that everyone who has flown a Mooney likes to talk about. The Mooney just doesn’t want to stop flying. The shape of the laminar wings and how low the plane sits to the ground combine to make the Mooney float extremely well once you get into ground effect. If I had been in a Cherokee today I would have planted it right on the numbers. However the Mooney floated along, finally touching down about 400′ or so down the runway. The great benefit of the plane not wanting to land which I love is that you can set it down very gently. I held it just off the runway as the speed bled off until it settled down on the mains and then the nose slowly came down. It may have been the softest landing I have ever done, and it felt great!