The Mighty Mooney Mite
This article first appeared in FLIGHT magazine in June 1971. It originally included photos of N60BW, Serial No. 7, which was once owned by Ernie Buenting. Since those photos were of low quality, and we happen to have nice ones of Ernie's current airplane, we decided to use these instead.
THIS DYNAMITE LITTLE AIRPLANE fell flat on its face when it first came out, but if you're in the market for a penny-a-mile fighter plane, there are plenty of looney Mooney single-seaters left on the market.
By Bennett M. Rogers
ALONG ABOUT 1948, the Mooney Aircraft Corporation appeared on the general aviation scene with the introduction of a sporty-looking aerial surfboard known as the M-18 Mite. As an economic venture, the distinctive and diminutive single-seat craft was a success of underwhelming proportions, which other manufacturers in this country have been careful not to duplicate. Indeed, it is even conceivable that designer Al Mooney's littlest offspring may have killed the single-place personal-plane market once and for all - not because the Mooney Mite was a bad airplane (quite the contrary), but because its sales record leads to a not-unwarranted assumption that there is scant demand for a single-seater no matter how much it has to offer. And certainly the sprightly Mite offered plenty for the price (a fact repeatedly impressed on me during four years of ownership).
I mean, just think of it: a racily styled sky scooter, a viceless delight that can tuck up its wheels and move out at 125 mph on just 3.5 gallons of gas an hour - and that originally listed for little more than a couple of grand! Yet Mooney could sell but 284 of its elfin aircraft over a production span of six years.
The Mite is essentially a wood-and-fabric airplane (though there is a steel-tube framework surrounding the cabin area), but the design is relatively sophisticated for its day and dollar. The entire tail assembly moves in coordination with the wing flaps, changing the angle of the horizontal stabilizer so that the ship stays constantly in trim as the flaps are cranked up or down. The tricycle landing gear has a steerable nose wheel and retracts manually by yanking on a handle at the right side of the cockpit (something that requires a bit of a knack, particularly if one wants to avoid a mean scrape of the knuckles against the cabin wall). Some Mites even have controllable prop - a factory option. And with its perky, swept-forward tail, Mooney's econo-cutie bears a striking resemblance to its four-place big brothers of the more successful M-20 series, a likeness that some Mite owners emphasize by adopting M-20 paint schemes.
The prototype Mite started life with a Crosley automobile engine, but a 65-hp Lycoming was used initially in production to achieve additional power. Eighty-one of these M-18 L's were produced before the factory raised the gross weight from 780 pounds to 850, while at the same time giving prospective Mite purchasers a choice of engines: either the usual Lycoming four-cylinder unit (making the ship an M-18LA) or the similar 65 hp Continental (M-18C). The final model, the M-18 C-55, was only available with the Continental, and was chiefly distinguished by a larger canopy and cockpit. Eventually, 157 Mites were produced with Continentals, of which 39 were C-55's (the lie price of which had spiraled up to $3,695). At one point, Mooney began painting the tail plaid and calling the ship a Wee Scotsman; but when this bit of cunning failed to hypo sales, the name of Mite was restored.
Because the Mite checks in visually somewhere between a miniature fighter plane and a midget racer, the ego of the owner is constantly inflated by admiring spectators who assume he must be, if not an outright hot-rock pilot, at least a relatively warm one. Yet the ship is quite easy and safe to handle in the air or on the ground. It never does anything sudden or spooky; it favorably encourages the would-be hero-pilot's image of himself.
Nonetheless, the Mite is highly responsive to inputs from its tiny stick, and as a result, it is immense fun to fly - especially when you slide the canopy back to convert the cabin to an open cockpit. Despite the seductive feel of the controls, though, the M 1 8 is not built for aerobatics. Early in life, Mites had a worrisome reputation for occasionally losing their tails in flight (plaid ones, I hope), and the FAA issued an AD to correct the situation. But some Mooney fanciers feel that the trouble was mostly a matter of pilots insisting on doing things for which they should have known the bird wasn't stressed. (All Mites were designed for a maximum G loading of 3.8, except that the M18L can be flown in the utility category at up to 4.4 Gs as long as the gross weight is kept under 740 pounds).
The takeoff and climb performance is decidedly lively, mainly because there is so little to be lifted; the empty weight for a typical Mite is approximately 550 pounds, which is lighter than many a motorless sailplane. Old Mooney brochures claim that with full flaps, the Mite will break ground in 100 yards and climb out at 1,200 feet a minute. In addition, a handful of the little beasties have been souped up with more powerful rubber bands (supplemental type certificates having been issued for both 75- and 85-hp engines), and the performance of these models must indeed be energetic.
In the air (or on the ground, for that matter), the Mite is relatively noisy by today's standards - roughly equivalent to a J-3 Cub. But what's the point in loading up a small-engined airplane with a lot of sound-deadening material when there's never anyone to talk with but the radio? I used to wear a headset all the time with big chamois earcups that muted the engine and made my old Narco Superhomer comfortably audible.
|THE MIGHTY MITE
The Mite's all-trimming, all-dancing tail was years ahead of the time, though the little 65-hp Lycoming goes all the way back to the Cub and the Taylorcraft, the cockpit, however, must be the world's cheapest way to make a man think he's flying a P-51.
With a maximum of 11.4 gallons of usable fuel in the standard tank, located directly behind the pilot's head (along with a long glass tube gauge), the range of the Mooney Mite is something less than transcontinental. The longest flight I ever logged was three hours and 15 minutes, which required 10.3 gallons of gas to top off the tank - a figure of some interest to me, because my M-l 8C was placarded for 9.6 usable. However, in actual practice, the average cross-country leg tends to be about two hours and rarely exceeds 250 miles. Which is just fine, because after that length of time in a pre-1955 model, the pilot usually needs to get out of the somewhat cramped cockpit and stretch his muscles a bit. Besides, landings and takeoffs are so darn much fun.
A number of Mites are equipped with factory auxiliary tanks that hold an extra six gallons, and some surprisingly long trips have been carried out successfully. One intrepid Mite from (California operated north of the Arctic Circle for a summer; another from the same state pulled off a 27,000-mile jaunt down through Central and South America all the way to the tip of Cape Horn and back; and in 1952, an M-18L awash with 45 gallons of fuel on board established a world distance record of 1,364.4 miles, more than doubling the previous mark for aircraft weighing up to 1,102 pounds. (An earlier shakedown flight in this same craft, with Al Mooney himself at the controls celebrating his twenty fifth anniversary as an airplane designer, also exceeded 1.300 mites - with a total fuel bill of $10.80, which represented considerably less than a penny a mile while averaging 35 miles per gallon at an overall ground speed of 122 mph.) Finally, it might also be worthy of note that stilt another Mite was flown from Travis AFB. near San Francisco, all the way to Hawaii, nonstop. The magnitude of the feat, however, was perhaps diminished by the fact that the little Mooney happened at the time to be inside an Air Force C-l 24. When they rolled the Mite out of the C-l 24 at its destination, it must have appeared that the big plane was giving birth.
The Mite's cross-country attributes are considerably enhanced by a remarkably sizable baggage compartment that hides behind the seat back. I often used it to carry a collapsible motor scooter and a large suitcase, plus assorted odds and ends. Loading up well in excess of the compartment's weight limitations seemed to have no adverse effect on performance. Quite possibly, however, I would have regretted this practice had I ever spun or stalled the ship with all that aft weight. (Incidentally, the Mite's normal stalling speed is down around 45 mph).
Owning and flying a Mooney Mite today is still a fairly practical proposition, thanks in large measure to the Mooney Mite Owners Association (Box 3999, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903), a nonprofit organization formed six years ago to help owners maintain and enjoy their aircraft by providing a clearinghouse for the exchange of experiences and information. The MMOA uses its $6 a year dues to publish a quarterly bulletin that discusses common problems, sources of parts, and the mystique of possessing what they refer to as "the most fun airplane ever built." The association has over 150 members who still have flyable Mites. As a result, parts and technical advice are readily available.
The biggest drawback to operating a Mite nowadays is the fact that the aircraft's basic structure is made of wood, raising the question of just how long a pilot can afford to trust a tree (not to mention 20-year-old glue). Many owners, however, look upon their ships as unique classics, and have put them in the category of pampered pets, protecting them from the ravages of sun and rain while lavishing upon them whatever maintenance and rehabilitation the passage of time requires. Consequently, there are a number of sound Mites left, and a prospective buyer would be well advised to have his intended carefully examined by someone who really knows Mooney Mites, to make sure he is getting one of the good ones. In fact, the MMOA - whose bulletin carries a listing of Mites for sale - can also put a prospective purchaser in touch with an M-18 expert in his area. Typical asking prices seem to range from $2,200 to $3,200. And remember that electric systems were optional extras, not standard equipment. In this day and age, most pilots need one to feed their little black boxes.
When checking out any Mite offered for sale, don't be overly worried if the wheel brakes aren't the greatest; they're all that way. You will, however, want to concern yourself with the possible effects of gear-up landings on the wing spar. When the Mite first came out, there weren't many retractables around for the average private pilot. The inexpensive, economical Mooney made it possible for all kinds of Cub-style fliers to buy or rent their first machine with wheels that couldn't be taken for granted. As a not-unexpected result, some Mites have covered enough ground on their bellies to shame a snake.
But any pilot who can't find a Mite whose condition satisfies his instinct for self-preservation can now build his own. A newly formed company called the Mooney Mite Aircraft Corporation (which can be contacted through the MMOA) recently purchased all rights for the M-18 from Aerostar, including the type certificate, and will make available copies of over 1,800 square feet of factory plans.
Whether the Mite's new future can rival its past remains to be seen, for its history abounds with amusing curiosities. Predictably, Mira Slovak used to have one. While - unfathomably, to say the least - American Airlines owned eight at one time. A Mite was once even used as a towplane for gliders. But the item that tickles me the most is that my old ship was subsequently purchased by a man named Looney, making it temporarily a "Looney" Mite - a word that pretty well describes how most owners feel about Mooney's marvelous midget.
Mooney M-18L Mite
Price Used ...............................$2,200 - $3,200
Takeoff distance over 50 ft........................ 525 ft
Handling qualities (cruise).......... Excellent
Entry exit ease................................ Fair
This article came from the WAMM archives of Tony Terrigno.
17 June, 2001