A Blast from the Past: 1961 Mooney M20B
by Brendan Boyd (Gold Seal CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, CSIP)
Antique. I couldn’t think of a better word to describe what I was staring at more aptly. A plane more than twice my age. Not surprisingly enough, it was probably a lot better-looking than me. For being so old, the plane was in fantastic condition. It is amazing what routine maintenance can do for the lifetime of an aircraft. I was standing in front of a 1961 Mooney M20B, and it was a beautiful sight.
I have had the pleasure of flying an aircraft that was old enough to be my father… you know, if planes had kids. You might think that someone used to flying in the newest, most technologically-advanced aircraft on the market wouldn’t even think twice about flying a plane that’s been around since before we landed on the moon. You’d be wrong. This 1961 Mooney is a blast (from the past)! It is every ounce a capable airplane. It has provided me the opportunity to refine my skills, study new systems, and hone my capabilities as a “real” pilot.
We remember the days of training for our private pilot certificate. We remember pilotage, dead reckoning, radio navigation, navigation logs, and sectional origami. We remember just enough about those to remember why we love GPS. Unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), the Mooney is all 1961. No GPS. No NEXRAD. No TIS, PFD, MFD, HSI, or any of the familiar TLA’s (three-letter acronyms) we know and love. However, this Mooney is equipped with VOR receivers, an ADF, and… an original, real-life, modern day fossil: the KNS 80 RNAV Unit. I’ve gone from the familiar, comfortable realm of navigating direct-to fixes in a GPS database back to the basics of stations, bearings, distances, headings, groundspeeds, and, lest we forget, looking outside! To be honest, I’ve never felt more like a competent pilot. After all, the minute you find yourself in an unfamiliar, challenging situation in which you are left to your own devices and cunning, you find out of what you are made.
Going back to the basics, the skill of pilotage is somewhat of a lost art. To recap, pilotage is the correlation of visual checkpoints on the ground to their depictions on a map. Much of my flying was done in the Pacific Northwest. Pilotage was easy. Keep the big mountains to the east, the little mountains to the west, and I couldn’t get lost. Texas has offered me a surprise in the pilotage department. No longer do I have the beautiful, pristine peaks of the Cascade Mountains to guide me. Instead, I find myself using railroad tracks, coastlines, uniquely-shaped bodies of water, oil fields, and the ever-expansive highway system (as we all know, IFR stands for “I Follow Roads”). Being thrust into a relatively unfamiliar environment with nothing more than a sectional and a pair of eyes is stressful and exhilarating. To be able to navigate a route successfully, West Houston to Corpus Christ for example, is rewarding. Still having my pilot certificate afterwards is icing on the cake. Looking at a sectional I would assume the entirety of Texas airspace belonged to the military!
As I previously mentioned, the plane has a KNS 80 RNAV unit. If you’re not familiar with true RNAV, don’t worry, you are not missing much. That being said, learning how to use a unit that is, by all means, outdated, and yet extremely functional, has been one of the most contradictorily enjoyable things I’ve done in aviation. The basic operating principle is as such: the unit is able to take your current DME and bearing from a station, locate you in space, and navigate to an imaginary point at another DME and bearing from that station. You no longer have to fly TO or FROM VOR’s, but can instead follow routes bypassing the VOR. This is the original, pre-GPS direct-to function!
Last, but certainly not least of the Mooney’s quirks: manual, retractable gear. Mooney Aircraft only used the manual gear system for a few models before switching. Most aircraft use a combination of electric power and hydraulic pumps to retract and extend the gear. In this bird, it’s all elbow grease. The handle locks into the panel, directly under the throttle, when the gear is down. To retract the gear, the handle is unlocked and rotated from the vertical position to the horizontal position in between the pilot and co-pilot seats. The real trick is getting the gear retracted and locked. You see, most complex-aircraft pilots are taught to keep the gear down on takeoff until completely out of usable runway. That was the theory I prescribed to when I started flying this plane. I will tell you this, it doesn’t work well. The Mooney gear is easiest to retract at low airspeeds. For this reason, Mooney pilots are taught to retract the gear as soon as safe after liftoff. Most pilots (formerly myself included), would consider this behavior unnecessarily risky, labeling the Mooney pilot as a showoff. Little do they know that early retraction of the gear is the safest, most efficient way to fly the airplane. As the airspeed builds, I can tell you from experience that the gear becomes extremely difficult to lock in the down position.
If you are ever looking for a fun, challenging, and yet conversely straight-forward aircraft to fly, the 1961 Mooney M20B offers all of the above. While not overly complex in its systems, the plane requires enough tasks to be a formidable beast while still providing the pilot with the sheer joy that is the unadulterated flight.
How it Started
One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.
It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.
The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.
First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).
At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.
Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.
Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.
In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.
More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/
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