Mooney Airplane Aims to 'Lead with Speed'

Mooney Airplane Co. hovers a distant fifth among U.S. manufacturers of single-engine aircraft, but in its push to expand sales, the Kerrville airplane maker aims to "Lead with Speed."

The speed with which it hopes to lead comes from its new Acclaim aircraft.

With a 280-horsepower turbocharged engine, the Acclaim is Mooney's answer to the Columbia 400, the single-engine aircraft that Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. in Oregon claims is the fastest in its class at 235 knots.

Last year, Mooney's then-CEO, Gretchen Jahn -- she has since been replaced by Dennis Ferguson -- flew an Acclaim to the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In, an aviation expo in Lakeland, Fla.

The company had released specifications for the aircraft that said it had a 230-knot maximum cruise speed. Jahn surprised the crowd by announcing the cruise speed during her Texas to Florida hop was 236 knots, or 272 miles per hour.

While Mooney awaited final approval on the Acclaim from the Federal Aviation Administration, the company formed a marketing strategy and launched the "Lead with Speed" tour last fall.

At about that time, NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth became so interested in Mooney's Acclaim that he signed a purchase agreement for his own.

"I'm really impressed with the Mooney Acclaim and the performance it offers," Kenseth was quoted in a Moody news release. "It's true that its speed caught my attention, but I am also impressed by its safety record, the attention to detail and workmanship that goes into each airplane."

When the FAA gave its approval this month, Mooney announced it would begin making deliveries on back orders for the fastest single-engine plane on the market. And it upped the official cruise speed to 237 knots.

At the time of the FAA approval, company spokesman Dave Franson noted a steady demand for faster airplanes.

But an impartial observer found the speed offered by Acclaim vs. the Columbia 400 too close to call.

Pilot and aviation journalist Robert Goyer, in a review for Flying Magazine, noted the best cruise speed he got was 235 knots.

"As fast as the Columbia 400's top advertised mark, but not faster," Goyer reported. "But still, 235 knots in a piston single? Well, that's pretty darned impressive."

Goyer noted that Mooney pilots have reported better speeds. He added, however, that both the Acclaim and Columbia 400 reach their top speeds at 25,000 feet, "an altitude that few pilots are likely to fly on a regular basis." He was more impressed with the Acclaim's ability to cruise at "a still-impressive 208 knots" at 10,000 feet.

Columbia still markets its Columbia 400 as "the world's fastest certified piston single aircraft," but its Web site comparison chart uses the Mooney Bravo GX, an aircraft that it has discontinued.

At 20 years in the business, Columbia is a relative upstart compared with Mooney, whose founder, Al Mooney began designing planes in 1929 and eventually formed a company in 1946.

Mooney's storied history includes title to 132 world speed records, but it is clearly chasing Columbia. But by replacing the Bravo with the Acclaim, Mooney will at least force Columbia to revisit its comparison chart.

Last year's national demonstration tour of the Acclaim coincided with the company's 60th anniversary and a number of other corporate changes.

After a 2004 bankruptcy restructure, sales of Mooney aircraft went from 37 planes and $16.5 million in revenue in 2004 to 85 planes and $36.5 million in 2005, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

Through the first three quarters of 2006, the company reported about $25 million in revenue, but noted that many potential buyers were opting to put in reservations for an Acclaim and wait for shipments this year.

In October, Mooney Aerospace Group Holding Corp. -- a Swiss-based investment group that bought Mooney during its Chapter 11 bankruptcy -- announced its intent to take the company private.

Mooney was traded over the counter, but MAG Holding, which held more than 90 percent of the stock, filed a certificate of ownership and merger with the Delaware secretary of state's office -- with all outstanding shares of common stock to be canceled and stockholders to be paid 35 cents per share.

With its house now in order, Mooney management is optimistic about the year ahead.

"Speed sells. We expect the Acclaim to generate a lot of interest," Franson said, adding, "2007 is going to be an exciting year for Mooney."

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