by Alfred Scott
Stelio Frati and Napo
In Spain on any Saturday afternoon, a bull runs into a ring. There, he circles the arena, charging men with capes, who taunt and excite him. Following a brief testing period, the pageant of death begins. First comes the picador, atop an enormous horse, and as the bull charges the horse, the picador drives a lance into the bull's shoulders, to weaken him and make him lower his head. Next are the banderilleroes, fleet-footed men who race at the bull, and leap into the air over the horns and drive spikes into the bull's shoulders. Finally the torero takes the bull through an elegant series of passes with a cape and then finally kills the bull with a single thrust of his sword.
The fighting bulls of Spain, when viewed from the safe vantage of the arena seats, are impressive and powerful, but until you have been in a ring with one, without benefit of fences and distance, you cannot imagine the power of the animals.
I ran with the bulls once. In the early morning hours, I raced through the cobbled streets of Pomplona from the mouth of the holding pen to the bullfighting ring, a distance of perhaps half a mile. At the entrance to the arena, I saw a man gored into the fence only feet from me. Then inside the ring, I watched a bull charge at full speed through a crowd of men, flicking one into the air like a paper doll snapped by an enormous finger.
Until you run beside a bull in the street, or stand with one in a ring, only then will you come to know the terror they strike in your heart, a fear of imminent death, and a feeling you'll long remember as a moment in your life when you walked to the edge of danger. It's a feeling I've not had since, that is, until I rode through the streets of Milan with Stelio Frati at the wheel.
Like the bulls of Spain, I too was softened up and prepared for the finish by lesser talents. Andrea Tremolada was my picador, charging with me through the suburbs of Milan in his Porsche Turbo, dashing around trucks on back streets with abandon and racing along the bypasses north of the city. Then Ernesto Valtorta was my banderillero, taking me through the madness of downtown Milan. Italian men have discovered cell phones, thus allowing them to pace, posture and talk at the same time. And also while driving. I feel my anxiety rise as we maneuver through the traffic, and then the telephone rings, Valtorta grubs into this coat pocket, unfolds his cell phone and continues his hair-raising maneuvers through the street while I do my manly best to hide my fears.
But the ultimate irony is that Stelio Frati -- the designer of the SF.260 and the Falco, the man who has defined control harmony for a generation of light aircraft, the Mozart of the control stick -- is easily the worst driver I've ever encountered.
Behind the wheel of his Audi, he charges forward, changes gears with abandon and always too early, then jambs on the brakes, then lurches forward again. With only one good eye, he lacks depth perception and lunges toward a car ahead, brakes suddenly, stabs his finger at a button on the dash, impatiently tries to pass and then settles down at an even cruising speed on the highway. The eye of the hurricane.
On our way back from his shop, we follow the most bizarre path, often turning down a tiny side street, reversing direction, and sometimes, it seems, that we've just gone around a block. Valtorta is in the back seat, sometimes on his cell phone and sometimes discussing the way through Milan with Mr. Frati. We stop, double-parked, and Mr. Frati gets out of the car and walks off. It is raining and after some time, Valtorta explains that Mr. Frati has gone to his office to do some work.
Meredith and I were in Milan, after a week's vacation in Paris, to see Mr. Frati and Andrea Tremolada. Andrea is the marketing manager of Gianni Versace, the preeminent Milan fashion house, and he manages a huge advertising and promotion campaign for Versace. Driven, intense and always on the go, Andrea has been mad about Frati airplanes from his boyhood years, when he helped his father build a model of the Falco. He owns an SF.260, is restoring a Stampe, and he took me to a hangar to see his old production Falco.
Andrea Tremolada and an F.15E Picchio
In a dimly lit hangar, the Italian planes slept. A muscular aerobatic plane with a 400 hp engine raised its arrogant nose above a LongEZ and a Lancair. Behind Andrea's old Falco was the sole remaining F.15E Picchio, a 300 hp Frati design that Andrea says is faster than an SF.260. An occasional Piper was sprinkled among the eclectic assortment of Piaggio trainers and odd one-off designs that never got beyond the prototype stage.
Giovanni, Andrea, Epifanio and Mino
Andrea took me to the furniture factory where they are building his Falco. Epifanio and Giovanni are doing the work and before working on the Falco, they had only experience as woodworkers in the factory. For the first couple of months of the project, both men had difficulty sleeping because of worries about doing something wrong on the Falco.
But they are doing a beautiful job, and as I look over the plane, I notice a box of wood screws that they use for making jigs. They have an unusual bright yellow appearance, and I find that they are, in fact, gold-plated 'ornate' screws. And later, on the floor above, I watched as workers applied gold leaf to strips of molding. All this to decorate the habitats of arab shieks and movie stars, who also get a tour of the Falco project when visiting the factory.
Andrea then took me to see the shop where they are restoring his Stampe, in which he hopes to fly to Australia and retrace the flight of Francis Chichester in his Tiger Moth -- but without the ditching in the Tasman Sea. There we were joined by Ernesto Valtorta, an old friend and pupil of Mr. Frati, who took me to see Frati at his office.
Mr. Frati now works out of his office below his apartment in Milan. When we join him, he is waiting for us, alone and in suit and tie. Mr. Frati adores cats, and he rushed off down the stairs to retrieve a cat he is thinking of adopting (one does not purchase a cat in Milan; they are everywhere). After a few minutes, he reappears with 'Napo' (short for Napoleon), an enormous, yellow, schizophrenic street-cat with a terminal underbite and protruding lower fang. Napo glares at me suspiciously while Frati cooes.
Ernesto Valtorta and Stelio Frati
Mr. Frati has been reading the Falco Builders Letter and noticed in the CAFE Foundation report on Larry Black's Falco, that they always give the landing gear an extra turn of the crank to make sure on gear extension. This, he has concluded, is because we are using the wrong thread for the screwjack, a standard Acme thread instead of the metric square thread he has always used. His voice thunders as he lectures Valtorta on what we are doing wrong, and as I hear the room filled with Italian words, it begins to dawn on me that Mr. Frati is very, very angry, and what we have done is wrong, wrong, wrong. I dare not argue. Indeed, when precisely would I get an opportunity to say anything? I smile weakly and listen. Mr. Frati gives me some drawings, and then suddenly is smiling again. I relax. So I am not to be thrown from the fifth floor window, after all.
Mr. Frati gives us a tour of his office. In all there are three rooms, his office with a desk and bookshelves, a central office with a computer (which he refuses to use) and a drafting room with two large drawing boards and ancient drafting machines.
Mr. Frati took Valtorta and me to his old shop in Pioltello. It's closed now, and Mr. Frati's General Avia company, now under new ownership, is selling the real estate. The electricity is turned off and the old office cats keep vigil over what might have been. We wandered among the machinery, testing equipment, heat-treating oven, drafting rooms, offices, and the shop filled with old aircraft parts and prototypes. It seemed more a morgue than a factory floor, with a stripped-out Airone prototype, an aluminum skeleton of a Squalus and Pegaso in a corner, and the still-born embryo of the commuter jet fuselage in a jig. As I step over a huge engine hoist, I marvel at how essential such machinery is when needed, and how worthless when not.
As we waited in the car after Mr. Frati disappeared, Valtorta explained that he thought Mr. Frati was going to get a present for Meredith. The garage attendent got in the car, started to move it, then Frati was back outside the car, they seemed to argue, the rain had turned into a downpour, the attendent's dog circled our car and then a watersoaked Stelio Frati was back in the car and off we went again into the streets of Milan. We waited for an opportunity to pull out into the traffic. As cars flicked by on my right, I was visited once again by the terror of the streets of Pamplona, shielded my vision with my hand and said a brief prayer.
At dinner, we were joined by Andrea Tremolada once more, and we began to talk about the practicality of wooden aircraft, and how long it should take to build the Falco main wing spar in production. Mr. Frati had one figure (quite high), Valtorta another very close to our actual time, and I told them how long it actually took us, using our Gonzales machine. Mr. Frati was very surprised. "Would you like to know how we do it?" I asked. They would. I took out a piece of paper to draw on.
Mr. Frati took out a piece of paper.
I took a pencil from my pocket. Mr. Frati got out his pencil.
First, I explained, we scarf the boards.
Boom! Suddenly Mr. Frati was off, out of the gates and running! He was drawing the next step of the process, talking furiously and with fingers stabbing the air. How It Should Be Done.
I waited until I had a chance to continue and once I began a few words, Mr. Frati was off again, madly drawing, gesturing, stabbing the air, head rocking.
"Does Mr. Frati know what listen means?" I asked Andrea. Everyone just smiled as our seated dervish continued in motion, stabbing, drawing, talking.
It finally became a contest of wills with Mr. Frati to get him quiet, and I only succeeded by pulling on my ears and saying "Mr. Frati! Mr. Frati!" with my ears stretched out like a frightened tree-monkey. At long last, Mr. Frati stopped, folded his hands and smiled as if he was rather amused by himself.
Later the conversation turned to the state of the aircraft industry, and Mr. Frati smiled and offered "Building airplanes is the best way I know to lose money." Now he tells us!
Stelio Frati is 80 and in excellent health. I asked him if he would come to the 45th and 50th birthday of the Falco at Oshkosh. Yes, he would come to the 45th birthday at Oshkosh 2000, but he didn't want to commit on the 50th just yet. He comes from a family of long-livers, and he will just have to see how his health holds up.
With his old shop closed, is this the end of Frati aircraft? Hardly, it is simply the beginning of the final movement, the finale as it's called in music.
There can be no doubt that we've had the pleasure of watching a great mind at work. Falco builders are at work all over the world on his classic design. The SF.260 assembly lines are due to restart shortly. Somewhere in Russia, there're a dozen Picchios someone just built. The Pinguino continues and the Squalus design is now in Canada, awaiting a resurgance. Who knows what other Frati designs are being proposed in the low-cost labor market of eastern Europe?
Stelio Frati is thinking of returning to wood again and has a 260 hp four-place on the drawing board. The commuterliner is on his other drawing board. He has done some initial work on a 'Falco Jet', a four-seat Squalus-like design with a single Williams engine and is waiting on data from Williams International. If you would like an airplane designed for you, write: Dr. Ing. Stelio Frati, Via Noe 1, 20100 Milan, Italy.
And if you'd like to send Mr. Frati some photographs of your Falco project, I'm sure he'd love to hear from you.
Stelio Frati and the 260 hp four-seat design.