Pilot report - Mooney 20J vs Piper Turbo Arrow

[Reprinted from Fliteguide / Imperial Aviation]


Mooney's M-20J 201 and Piper's Turbo Arrow are the last frontier for pilots not quite ready for Cessna's big-truck 210 or Beech's smooth riding Bonanza. Both the Mooney and Piper are the last line in light-light retractable singles.

The turbo Arrow is 'Mr Conservative'. The Mooney is for those who can set aside convention and plum for as much speed as possible. What may at first appear to be an uneven match is an exercise in the real world of what's available for the money. Some may protest that the hot rod Mooney 231 is a more direct match since it shares an identical engine and almost identical specification year for year with the Piper. However, the 231 costs considerably more than the turbo Arrow so the 201 is more of a price match.

Piper introduced its turbocharged version of the popular Arrow in 1977, the same year that Kerrville-based Mooney began shipping their then new 201, M-20J. Niether aircraft are still in production. Piper halted the turbo Arrow line in 1992 and the 201 was replaced by the MSE which itself was shelved during the mid nineties. Both aircraft have thus enjoyed reasonable production runs, are mature in that the basic airframes date back to the early sixties and before so almost all major deficiencies have been left far behind. Both aircraft have been designed to travel far and fast for the least, chasing the same buyers but using slightly different methods. Mooney achieve this using a legacy of aerodynamic efficiency and Piper by planting the biggest possible engine within its pretty Cleopatra nose.


Under the skin

Both aeroplanes are generic developments of earlier, tried and tested airframes. The Piper's heritage dates back to 1964 and is a younger, much improved relation to the original 'biscuit-tin' Cherokees. The first Turbo Arrow2 IIIs were delivered in 1977, all featuring the improved tapered wing. In 1979, Piper, in a move to what they considered something more stylish, switched the horizontal stabiliser to the top of the fin. It wasn't a particularly wise move as it arguably diminished the aeroplane's pleasant handling qualities and in 1989 backtracked by replacing the stabiliser to the empennage.

It may appear somewhat surprising that Piper chose to install the six cylinder Continental TSIO-360 having been faithful users of Lycoming's 200hp four-cylinder O-360 - the engine that powers the Mooney 201. There's no doubt the Continental is smoother. However, the turbo Conti' has been prone to what appears heat related problems. The 1,800 hour TBO TSIO-360 runs hot leading to instances of cylinder cracking, crankcase cracking and occasional valve problems if the engine is not cared for. Furthermore, high altitude 'popping' and 'missing' has been encountered, especially if the ignition system is not up to scratch. The solution was to pressurise the magnetos, a move Piper avoided, probably on cost grounds. There is no automatic wastegate on the turbo Arrow so the unit runs all the time, increasing thermal stress and raising inlet air temperatures. The little Rayjay turbo has been subject to one AD requiring 200-hour inspections of the housing assembly due to a history of cracking. Some later models are fitted with a different and beefier housing which does away with the regular inspections and is an item to look for when purchasing.

There are no cowl flaps on the Piper, so engine management is critical to longevity, patricularly in Africa where summer takeoff temperatures routinely sit in the thirties. However, maintenance companies see the engine as being relatively trouble-free. It's somewhat revealing to discover that few operators of turbocharged singles and light twins actually fly at the heights where supercritical care is needed and where these aircraft perform best.

What the Mooney 201 owner avoids in potential costly maintenance is lost a little with a marginally harsher powerplant. However, the IO-360 Lycoming is bullet proof. It's a derivative of one of aviation's hardiest and most enduring powerplants. TBO is a useful 2 000 hours. If there are to be problems, then odds on it'll be from stcking valves - perhaps the only weak point and the only potential maintenance glitch worth considering. Fit an Insight engine monitor!


In Africa, maintenance shops need to be clued up on a wide variety of types. The Arrow is better known than the Mooney, so it's a good idea to ensure your shop has Mooney knowledge. The Money distributor in Africa is Port Alfred-based SA Mooney, who has one of the best AMO reputations in Africa.

Mooney build quality is excellent and the aircraft is solidly built using a tubular steel front half and a semi-monocoque rear end. When appraising a 201 look for corroded fuselage tubes if the aircraft has been operated at the coast for any length of time - replacement is a costly exercise. Although the landing gear is strong, it is easy to exceed the nosewheel steering travel so check for damaged nose gear struts.

Performance


Turbo Arrow owners will not be disappointed and although not quite as quick as the Mooney 201 at normal operating altitudes, the aircraft will give a Cessna 210 a run for its money over longer distances. At below oxygen heights the Piper will cruise at over 160 knots at 75% power using 14 gallons per hour and a respectable 150 knots with 65% power and 11 gallons per hour. Higher, the operators manual claims a 172 knots at 19000 feet. Although the owners manual appears thick and comprehensive, the performance charts provided by Piper are not the most accurate.


The Mooney has achieved its cult status largely as a result of its unbeatable speed and economy mix. Mooney has always been conservative when talking pure speed and owners find their aircraft typically exceed published book figures. At below oxygen levels, the normally aspirated 201 still manages to pull away from the Arrow and at 75% power will reach 165 knots at levels up to 10000 feet using about 11 gallons an hour. The Mooney 231, which shares the same engine as the Turbo Arrow, will outpace it by a huge 20 knots.

The Piper Turbo Arrow and Mooney 201 have good ranges. With a generous 72 gallon tank, the Arrow will cruise for up to five hours at 160 knots. The Mooney s even better, adding at least 100nm despite having a smaler 74 gallon tank capacity. The 201 will comfortable reach Cape Town from Johannesburg at 75% power leaving a useful rserve.

Handling

Neither aircraft pretend to provide flattering handling qualities. They are not aimed at the seat of the pants pilot. Mooney control yoke travel is short, lulling some to believe t has fighter-like response. Full aileron deflection is equal to a 135-degree throw. The 201, despite its control rods, has heavy ailerons and elevator. The controls are not particularly well harmonised, although the rudder is light. Pilot's will not be unduly concerned - the aircraft is supposed to fly fast in a straight line.

The Piper is the better handling of the two. Control feel is lighter with no unusual vices. Handling differences between the T-tail and low-tail versions are slightly different. The T-tail is less inclined to rotate early on takeoff as the horizontal surface is out of the propeller slipstream. Flat application induces a sharp nose-up movement in the low-tail version and a nose-down action in the T-tail.

The Piper wins again on the runway. Taxiing ride is well cushioned by the oleopneumatic gear legs in contrast to the stiff jerky motion of the Mooney and its solid rubber shock absorbers. However, it's largely moot, as no one buys an aeroplane on its ground ride qualities. Takeoff is straightforward with both aircraft accelerating briskly at lower all up weights and rotating without having to heave the column heartily into the chest.

Landing the Arrow requires a little less skill or practice than the 201. There seems to be a definite technique to mastering the Mooney and producing consistently smooth landings. Good speed control is important as the 201 will float a great distance with an excess of speed at the flare. Because of the short wheelbase it's easy to porpoise of wheelbarrow if the pilot isn't concentrating. The aircraft is however, not in any way demanding or difficult, it just requires good technique.



Layout and Accommodation

With aa gross weight of 2900lbs and a basic empty weight of around 1800lbs, the Arrow has a useful load, with full fuel, of 640lbs - that's three average sized people and baggage. The Mooney 201 boasts similar weight-lifting qualities and with three 170lb adults, the tanks can be filled and baggage thrown in too.

The Piper's cargo hold is knee-level high and it's easier to load than the Mooney, which requires baggage to be lifted to chest height before being placed on the floor. With a restriction of 120lbs in the main baggage compartment and 45lbs in the aft section, there's plenty of capacity and neither aircraft is easy to load out of C of G limits. The Piper scores again with access and overall space. It is somewhat easier to enter the rear seats.


The Mooney on the other hand requires mild contortions to climb into both the front and rear but once ensconced, both offer similar legroom. The Mooney's seats are mounted close to the floor and the instrument is nearer to the pilot making the interior snug. Although width is similar, the Arrow with its bigger windows and greater cabin height appears roomier and there's more space to unfold maps on the pilot's lap. Both aircraft have sufficient map stowage on each side of the forward cabin walls. In addition, the Mooney has a clever recess positioned above the pilot's head for stowing more charts and paperwork.

Pilot appeal


It's clear the Piper is beset by its Cherokee origins. However, in the air, the Arrow looks handsome. The instrument panel will be familiar to those brought up on Cherokees with only a few extra gauges, levers and switchgear matching the retrectable's greater complexity. The T-tail version may look a little prettier but offers no improvement in handling or efficiency and shouldn't command higher prices.


Most turbo'd models are fitted with a good avionics suite. An autopilot is desirable, especially as the aeroplane will fly happily for 4.5 hours with a good reserve - that's about as much as you'd want to fly in this type of aircraft. It's not easy to embarrass yourself with a wheels-up due to the Piper's automatic gear. Although some pilots disagree, the system is a definite safety feature and best left armed during all phases of flight other than perhaps training. Interior trim is what you'd expect from a mass-produced light aircraft built with cost in mind.

The Mooney oozes appeal. It shouts pace and efficiency that will have owners smiling all the way to the fuel pumps. Although appearing compact, the panel has plenty of room for a comprehensive avioncs fit. With space at a premium though, the engine gauges have been sited to the right hand side and canted towards the pilot. The gauges themselves are small. Build integrity is of a high standard and the interior finish is excellent with closely-fitting panels.

Conclusions

Both these lightweights are good honest aeroplanes. Each covers ground over a longish distance at a clip that won't pain the bladder too much. Both have respectable lineage although the Mooney has been consistently tweaked over the years to provide even more. The Piper may not be as well developed and in sheer performance and economy, the 201 scores. For those who can afford to pay more for the Mooney, values are certain to remain strong, even for high time aircraft. The various owners of the Mooney company have been able to keep to well defined objectives, a privilege Piper engineers have had to compromise in order not to compete with the company's other products. Installing retractable gear and enlarging power in an airframe never originally designed for heavy modification is compromise in the first place and Piper has succeeded skillfully, producing an aeroplane few will find lacking. The Arrow may not have the cult following of the Mooney, it isn't quite in the same league, but it nevertheless is no also-ran once price is taken into consideration. What the Mooney lacks in handling qualities and space, it more than makes up for in finish, structural integrity and that most powerful of aviation drugs - speed.


[END OF REPORT]

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