Copyright 2003, 2008
by Richard Harris
Originally published in InFlightUSA, 2003
Revised for WingsOverKansas.com, 2008
This is the second in our series "Wichita’s Wee Wooden Wonders", about the Wichita roots of Culver and Mooney Aircraft Companies, tracing the career of their creator, Al Mooney.
MOONEY’S DESIGN DEBUT: THE LONG-WING EAGLEROCK
Alexander turned to engineer Noonan, and directed him to create
a new plane design, from scratch, using some of the extra parts
acquired with the Longren fleet. It was a daunting task, made all the
more difficult by the fact that Noonan was only a “shirtsleeves”
engineer, lacking the formal training of a “real” engineer.
Further, Alexander was insisting that the new plane seat four people —
in a time when even the best biplanes (Swallows, Travel Airs, WACOs)
only seated three. Noonan crafted a plane resembling a mix of Swallow,
Longren and early Travel Air biplanes. But it was too heavy to get off
the ground in the thin air of the mountain country.
With backing from Noonan, 19-year-old Al Mooney persuaded Mr.
Alexander to let him design a better plane – the very effective,
stong-hauling Alexander Long-Wing Eaglerock
– starting one of the most successful biplane families of the 1920’s.
Mooney privately nicknamed the plane his “M-1” – first of many Mooney
The Long-Wing Eaglerock had a distinctive appearance that set it apart
from all other biplanes. The span of bottom wings was wider than the
span of the top wings. It was a bit of clever engineering on the part
of young Al — who wanted to gain efficiencies of mass production by
making the top and bottom wings the same. The bottom wing appeared to be different because the fuselage sat between the left and right lower wings, adding a few feet to their span, but not between the left and right upper wings.
Overall, though, the plane had LOTS of wing — its huge wingspan (40
feet), was easily five to ten feet more than any contemporary competing
design — crucial to its role as a plane to fly in the high country.
And that wing could lift three passengers and a full load of fuel. (J.
Don Alexander was grateful to finally have something that worked, and
let the fourth-seat issue fade away.) The A-1 Eaglerock was the first
biplane to really make flying almost as easy in the mountainous West as
it was in the lowlands of the Midwest and East.
A later “combo-wing” Eaglerock — essentially the same as
As a result, the plane was an instantly in demand with buyers
throughout the West. And its extra lifting capability (even more
impressive in the lowlands) made it a hit with commercial flying
operations across the country. Faced with a swarm of customers,
opportunistic J. Don Alexander got serious about mass-production.
Around 1926, Alexander Aircraft Co. briefly became the nation’s top
producer of “commercial” (civilian) airplanes, in sheer numbers. Even
Charles Lindbergh listed the Eaglerock among the planes he sought as
possible mounts for his later, famous, transatlantic solo. Ironically,
J. Don Alexander never did put his salesmen in the planes — he was too
busy selling them, more profitably, to others!
This was the first of the airplanes that Al Mooney would claim
as his designs. He privately referred to it as “M-1,” beginning a
numbering system that would eventually climax with a legendary public
airplane design name: Mooney M-20.
FIRST FORAY TO KANSAS: MARSHALL/MONTAGUE
Young Al teamed with his mechanic-brother Art and skilled metalworker
Bill “Mac” McMahon as a talented trio of airplane craftsmen — with Al
the visionary engineer leading the pack. They would remain lifetime
colleagues, roaming the country in search of Al’s dreams. Restless Al
took a shot at being “chief engineer” for a start-up company in the
Kansas City suburb of Marshall, Missouri.. There, the Montague monoplane
company faded before Al could get his parasol-winged “M-2” monoplane
into production. (Parasol-winged monoplanes have a single wing perched
on struts above the airplane’s fuselage).
BACK TO ALEXANDER — THE BULLET: FAST & DEADLY
Al rejoined Alexander Aircraft in Denver (soon moved to Colorado
Springs). While leading its design work, Al mastered new federal
“aircraft certification” regulations, ushering new designs through the
Washington bureaucracy. He helped Alexander put two more designs into
production. By age 21, he was on his fourth certified airplane design.
Al’s last Alexander plane, his “M-4,” was a radical advance: the Alexander Bullet
— a radial-engined, enclosed-cabin, 4-seater, with retractable landing
gear, and a clean “cantilever” (un-braced) low-wing – quite an
extraordinary leap forward for its time. With its clean lines, the
Bullet could squeeze 120 mph out of 165 horsepower, it won every race
it entered, until a new racing division was created exclusively for it.
But like its namesake, the Bullet was more than fast. It was
deadly. Al Mooney had warned J. Don Alexander that the Bullet was not
ready for production, and argued passionately that an extensive testing
program was needed before such an exotic and radical new airplane
should enter production, regardless of whether the government certified
the plane or not.
Alexander, though, facing a host of economic pressures and temptations, insisted on pushing the plane forward.
It was the final frustration for Al Mooney, and he left the company —
at the invitation of a couple of Wichita businessmen, who wanted him to
come to the “Air Capital City” and add his talents to the city’s famous
pool of aviation geniuses. Al accepted, and headed to Wichita.
Meanwhile, Mooney’s concerns about the Bullet’s hazards, due to inadequate research and development proved all too right.
Since the greatest killer of pilots, in those days, was an
uncontrolled spinning fall — usually resulting from uncoordinated
flight at dangerously low speeds — the government requrired all planes
to be “spin-tested” before they could be certified for manufacture. The
planes were required to be spun hard, by test pilots, 6 revolutions in
each direction during their fall, then recovered, under the watchful
eye of regulators — to demonstrate that spin-recovery was possible.
But the Bullet would not spin under any normal pilot-induced
flight conditions. Sticklers for the rules, however, the feds insisted
that the Bullet be spun the full dozen times, and recovery
demonstrated. Various ballast and other gimmicks had to be added to
prototypes to force them to spin. But when they did, they entered the
dreaded “flat” spin, from which recovery proved impossible.
Some say the weight-distribution (center-of-gravity) shifted too much
when the heavy landing gear retracted aft, changing the plane’s
inertial characteristics. Mooney’s hopes of changing to the more benign
flight characteristics of inward-retracting gear (as most planes are
today) were thwarted by Alexander’s impatience.
With only 11 Bullets manufactured, four wound up falling from
the sky in a deadly, unrecoverable test spin — two of them killing
test pilots who failed to parachute to safety (including one who died
as his children watched). Others Bullets had landing accidents from
pilot error — particularly due to pilots failing to remember to extend
the Bullet’s novel “retractable” landing gear.
The Bullet was abandoned by Alexander, but Mooney would revive the design in Wichita, as his next design.