An Interview with the Mooneys
Much has been published about the accomplishments of Al Mooney - we see his influence in many aircraft flying today. Yet he has become an enigma to the public, little having been written about his personal life, about the Man himself.
WHO IS AL MOONEY? The following is an in-depth interview with Al Mooney and the impressions he left on the Executive Secretary of the IMS, Kathy Stahlberg.
At first glance Al Mooney is a man much like any other in retirement, husband, father, grandfather. And yet there radiates from him a gentle aura of hidden drive, a new source of energy not yet tapped. He moves with the languid grace of the very tall, his right leg, broken many years ago, impeding him only slightly. His smile is youthful, his blue eyes constantly inquiring, searching for things yet to be done. The creative designer still very much alive within.
He greeted photographer Rick and me almost shyly, perhaps a bit wary lest we be like so many others invading his privacy - curiosity seekers, crackpots, or people looking for free advice. Even so, his innate curiosity and generous nature took hold and we were made welcome in his small but comfortable home.
Since retirement Al Mooney has lived a short distance northwest of Austin on a channel leading to one of the many beautiful lakes in the Texas Hill Country. His house sits among tall elms on the same property as that of his brother Art, life-long companion/associate. These cottages were designed and built by the brothers with that Mooney touch of stability, economy and charm. Friends teasingly comment that if wings were attached, the houses would probably fly as well as any aircraft designed by Al Mooney.
The atmosphere is informal and one feels immediately at ease. From Al's clean but well-worn flight suit, to Amigo his 13 year old "pup", to the large livingroom decorated with pictures, books and mementos of the past, one senses the warmth in Al Mooney. "You get a big livingroom, why, that's all you need," Al explained. The bachelor flavor is prevalent since Al's wife, referred to with much affection as "Opie", passed away some time ago.
He started our 'tour' with a look around his yard, dock, his beautiful boat (one of his favorite past-times now that he's retired) and of course, our trip would have been incomplete without an introduction to Art Mooney and his lovely wife Bernadette, more fondly known as Dette (or as Art says "Debt'.)
We sat around the spacious livingroom chatting like old friends. After a while, I found I could not take notes. I had gone up there armed to the teeth with questions and a mental picture that was totally out of focus. I threw them all aside for the moment thoroughly engrossed, much as a child listens to fairy tales, as he regaled us with little anecdotes from the past. It was pure joy listening to Al and Art relive their past. They are both very modest with a natural flair for bringing out the humorous side of almost everything.
I did manage to pull myself loose in time to remember that I had made the trip to let our members know a little more about Al Mooney as a person.
"I hope you don't mind if I ask you some personal questions as well as the usual ones about your career, Mr. Mooney."
"Call me Al and ask all the questions you want. Until recently whenever anyone approached me about airplanes, I'd say 'Let's talk about boats'. Today I feel like talking about planes," he replied with a mischievous grin.
"O.K. Al, when did you first begin designing airplanes? Did you start as a small boy or did you begin later on?"
"I started playing around with it in grade school. Then in high school I discovered math was easy for me and I could do all kinds of things with it. But there wasn't much chance of learning what I wanted to know in school so I spent most of my time in the library. At that time Denver had a pretty good Aeronautical library - can't remember the name of the guy that started it - but I read all the handbooks for pilots and designers that they had."
Turning to Art I asked if he had also spent his early years in the library.
"Sure," he laughed, "but I was reading novels, didn't waste time on serious stuff then."
"When did you discover you were serious about an aviation career, Al?"
"I did my first serious designing back in '25. I was just a snot-nosed kid of 19 at the time and thought I knew one hell of a lot more than I did."
"Was that the start of your career?"
"Yes, I went to work as a draftsman for J. Don Alexander. He gave me my first break. But I did most of my designing on my own time in a small office at night; most of my good airplanes were designed that way."
"Did you work with him then, Art?" I asked.
"No, I started out on the railroad, worked just long enough to get an annual pass. I went to work for Al later on."
"I'm familiar with a few of the other aircraft you designed, Al, but I'd like to have the gaps filled in. If you wouldn't mind I'd like to see some pictures if you have them handy."
He took us into his small office and I had one fantastic time trying to decide what to look at first. Covering an entire wall were black and white glossies of every aircraft Al Mooney had designed, in numerical order. A life's work displayed simply yet with much pride.
"Which ones are your favorite?" I asked, my pencil busily jotting down the year, model, pilot, etc. which was neatly typed beneath each picture.
"Oh, I'm proud of all of them. They're all good airplanes. I guess one of the planes I'm most proud of was the high speed drone. If I had to pick a few favorites they'd be the M5 low-wing, the M20 of course, and the M18-C55. Like to have one of those (pointing to the M18-C55) right now. Damn good little plane."
Rick asked why he had changed the M18.
"Well, I had this crazy leg that gives me trouble, can't get in and out too easily and I was too tall to sit in one of those things comfortably in the first place. So I lowered the seat and raised the canopy so it would be more comfortable for me."
We rummaged around through old magazine clippings, looked at drawings and the numerous awards received by Al Mooney. I wondered how it felt to glance up at the sound of an engine humming overhead and thinking, "I designed that."
Returning to the livingroom we settled back, enjoying our coffee, the reminiscing continuing as first Al remembered some incident followed by Art with another. While Rick, an avid Mooney buff, cornered them with technical questions, Mrs. Mooney and I chatted about the continued closeness of the brothers and their personalities.
Dette, being originally from Massachusetts and having spent a number of years in Georgia and Texas, has taken the best of each locale bringing forth a rare combination of wry New England humor, graciousness, and warm Southern hospitality. She takes a lot of pride in being part of the Mooney family and gently lets it be known to all.
"Al is the optimist, the thinker, the planner. He plans away happily, never worrying over much; while Art says he's the do-er. They compliment each other by one supplying whatever the other lacks or needs. They're a good team. When they worked together, Al would never let anyone except Art supervise the production of his designs. He knew Art would follow his instructions to the letter and it would be done right. Of course that doesn't mean that they always agreed, you know how brothers are. But that never interfered with their work."
"What about since they've retired? Do they still get along well?"
"Oh my, yes," she laughed, "those two will always be a team. After 46 years in the aircraft business they slowed down a little but they'll never retire completely. Professional men seldom do."
Getting back to my questions I asked Al, "How long were you at Lockheed?"
"From November 1955 until I retired February 1, 1968. They gave me a farewell dinner and presented me with that portrait on the wall there behind you. Everyone signed it." (see cover)
"It's beautiful. I like the way the artist sketched in the aircraft around the edges. Are they all the planes you designed?"
"Yes, they're all there. I'm real proud of that picture."
"Don't you miss it just a little?"
"Oh, I guess I do sometimes. But I still do some project work from time to time, program consultant, things of that nature. Have to keep my hand in."
"Are you still designing?"
"I still get an idea or two," he chuckled. I could tell from the way his eyes sparkled that he meant to keep any further information in that area to himself so I changed subjects.
"How do you feel about what we call 'MOONEY MANIA'?"
"Mooney Mania? Well, I hadn't heard it I called that before but I guess that's a pretty good name for it. We were awfully tickled I when we heard Republic Steel had taken over. They're a fine outfit and their timing's about right."
"But this is their first experience in the field of general aviation, isn't it?"
"I don't know for sure, but it makes no difference. As long as you've got what , takes, it doesn't matter what you used to be or what kind of work you did. The important thing is to get in there and give it all you've got. They'll make a go of it."
"Since I've become the executive secretary for the IMS, I've become more and more aware of a special brand of loyalty in everyone who owns a Mooney. there any one particular thing that you can attribute to this?"
He thought for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and said off-handedly, "I'd say tremendous trifles."
Drawing Art back into the conversation, I asked him what he thought it was.
"That's a hard one, but I'd say they just appeal to a special type of pilot."
"If you could start your career over again, what changes would you make and why?"
"I think I had a lot of damn good breaks, I'm happy with the way it went. Of course I have to give credit to people like J. Don Alexander, Pappy Culver, and Pappy Yankey. You have to work with someone who has vision and believes in what you're trying to do. Those fellas saw the potential and were willing to give me a chance. We had a few bad breaks, naturally, but I can't kick."
"Do you still receive a lot of mail?"
"Not so much any more. I just couldn't handle all of it. Most of the letters really should have been sent to the factory. Besides, I never was much on correspondence. Seems to me that ought to be a job for someone like you."
"Well, that's the general idea behind having an executive secretary. Members can write to me with their problems and suggestions. I sift through them and if it's a problem for the factory, we take it directly to Mooney Aircraft; if not, we find someone else who can handle it."
"I think that's a great idea. About time, too. Could've used you a few years back myself, got so darn many letters on the same thing. Do you answer all the letters personally?"
"Most of them, but if we have enough letters about one certain problem, we have someone at the factory write an article to print in the LOG. If it's something I think will interest other members, I answer the letter in the LOG."
"Good idea. What else do you do?"
"That's not fair, Al. I'm supposed to ask you the questions."
"Well," he chuckled, "I'd just like to know a little more about this society and what you do."
"O.K., I guess that's fair enough. I keep all the membership records up to date, work with the factory on different problems the members bring to me, I'm working on the plans for our first convention. By the way, will you come?"
"I don't know, when is it?"
"We hope to have it the end of September in Kerrville. We'd like to have you as guest of honor at the banquet."
'I guess I can probably make it."
"Good, then it's a date?"
"Well, if you put it that way, it's been a long time since a pretty girl asked me for a date," he said with a wink at Art.
"Great! I'd be delighted to be your escort. I won't let you back out either."
After much teasing from everyone, I asked, "Do you still hear from any of the old crew?"
"Oh yes. In fact I got that box of cigars from ole "Eagle Bill" (Bill Taylor, test pilot) just the other day. He's always flying all over the place and usually sends me a box every so often, never know where the next box will come from."
Though I was far from finished with what I wanted to know, time was running out and as we prepared to leave, Al suggested taking us for a drive around the area first. We consented gladly, Rick and I both being reluctant to leave these wonderful people.
Dette drove while Al acted as guide pointing out the landmarks such as Saddle Back Mountain resting peacefully in the distance, the famous granite quarries decorating the landscape with varigated slabs of pink, gray, black and white glistening in the sun, a group of playful squirrels scampering up a huge oak tree.
"We'll take you to one of our favorite spots. We call it Granite Rock. You can see almost the entire lake from there," he said.
My respect and understanding grew when we reached Granite Rock. We walked around observing the beautiful lake below us, marveling at the cactus growing out of the solid rock, speculating as to how the various cracks and markings had been formed on the surface of it. It was a gloriously clear day and very windy.
He stood in the middle of this tremendous hunk of granite, a tall, almost majestic figure of a man, yet somehow seeming humble to the forces of nature, certainly respectful of her. We talked a little about the creations of God and man and something was said about him doing the impossible and how did he feel about that. Didn't people think his first low-wing plane would tip over if it ever got off the ground?
He smiled shyly and said, head bent slightly, "You know, I never really stopped to think whether what I was doing was possible or not. I saw what I wanted to do and I found a way to do it."
WHO IS AL MOONEY?
A simple man who took the gift that God gave him and earnestly put it to use; a self- made man who has taken life's ups and downs philosophically; a man who smiles easily and lives fully; a man who finds time to watch squirrels play; a man who has loved deeply and been loved in return; a man who has earned the respect of many, yet has remained modest; a man who still has a few surprises in store for us.
We'd like to express our thanks to the Mooneys for consenting to the interview and for extending such kindness to us while we were there.
This article is taken from the March-April 1975 edition of the IMS (International Mooney Society) LOG, San Antonio, TX. It was contributed to the Mite Site by Dick Rank, N125C.
November 22, 2000