Forty Years of Falcos
A birthday bash at Oshkosh celebrates the anniversary of a time-honored design.
by Stephan Wilkinson
It was a quiet Thursday morning, and the air traffic controller working my flight from upstate New York to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was in a chatty mood. "Experimental Seven Sierra Whiskey, what kind of airplane is that?" he asked.
"It's a Falco," I told him. "An Italian airplane. Real fast, aerobatic, two seats...built it in my barn. Design's been around awhile; they used to make 'em in Italy. In fact, this year is the 40th anniversary of the design."
"Forty years? Why do they still call it experimental?" he asked.
Good point, for I was on my way to the 1995 annual Experimental Aircraft Association Oshkosh fly-in to help celebrate the 40th birthday of one of the most proven yet rare homebuilt-aircraft designs in the sky. As a bonus, its legendary designer was en route from Italy to blow out the candles.
In June 1955, the first Falco, a small, classically proportioned wooden light plane that looks more like a shrunken fighter than a private pilot's puddle jumper, was dragged atop a wagon to the Linate Airport, outside Milan, by a team of horses. The airplane had been designed and built at a shop in the city by a little-known aeronautical engineer named Stelio Frati and his crew of craftsmen. Frati had designed the airplane, to be made of native poplar in simple Italian woodworking shops, to live on long after his more modern metal designs-military trainers, commuter liners, turboprops, jets-had had their day in the sun. When the test pilot for the Falco's first flight landed, he climbed out of the prototype and said, "Ingenere Frati, congratulations, but you will never do that again. The handling is perfect. If this is the only airplane you ever design, you will live a happy man." Today Frati, 76, a small, seemingly humorless man with a raspy voice, is known for much more; in fact, he is considered by many to be the world's finest designer of fast, elegant, and efficient light aircraft.
The Falco was Frati's eighth design. Five of them had progressed far enough to actually fly -- this in a country still stumbling through the rubble of World War II, a country where horses were easier to find than trucks. One of those airplanes was powered by a tiny 330-pound-thrust jet and first utilized what were eventually to become the Falco's wings and tail. Another was a very light four-passenger twin with 85-horsepower engines, and a third was the Rondone, an 85-hp hummingbird that presaged the Falco phenomenon by setting a number of speed records in the early 1950's.
Still, he must have been at least a bit nervous when the Falco first took off. "Nervous? You do not know Engineer Frati," said his business partner and interpreter, Carla Bielli, a forthright, reddish-blonde woman who came to Oshkosh with Frati to join in the birthday celebration. She invariably refers to her boss by his title -- Ingenere -- an honorable one in a country that created the Ferrari, the Stradivarius, and the daydreams of Leonardo da Vinci.
"When all of his aircraft first fly, Engineer Frati is very sure of them," Bielli said in a thick Milanese accent. "Only once was he nervous: flying in the Squalus, his new jet. He was worried that his ejection seat might go off."
Actually, there was one event during the Falco's development, decades before the Squalus' introduction, that indeed did scare Frati. During a load test in which strain was applied to the wing's main spar and slowly increased, a government aviation inspector with a warped sense of humor loudly snapped a stick of wood behind Frati's back. "Engineer Frati, he jumped like this," Bielli demonstrated. Frati did not smile.
Bielli translated while Frati -- who lives in the heart of northern Italy, where God goes to eat when he's sick of French food --suffered through a banquet at a Wisconsin restaurant know to a decade's worth of Falco enthusiasts as the Road-kill Inn. "What means rudkill?" Bielli asked, and someone explained that it is what a waitress answered at an earlier Falco dinner when asked the source of the mystery meat being served. On this night, however, dinner was slabs of prime rib the size of hubcaps. "Questo?" Frati asked, poking at his mat of bloody beef. Bielli said, in Italian, "It is a hideous, enormous piece of a cow. Be polite and eat it."
The room was a babble of builders comparing notes and gauging their progress against one another -- "Got the tail section done"..."Starting the ailerons"..."Been working for eight years now" -- while those of us lucky enough to be finished with construction were lying about the airspeeds we had achieved. One builder introduced himself: "Hi, I'm Dan and I'm a Falcoholic." He'll go far in this group of overachieving compulsives.
Yet at that huge convention of do-it-yourself airplanes our birthday party was a bit of a non-event, for the emphasis among the homebuilts at Oshkosh was on the newest, the most novel, the most shocking. There were airplanes on display made of fiberglass, of carbon fiber, of styrofoam. Airplanes with wings that folded, with wings where the tail should be, with no wings at all-lifting bodies, in effect. Even airplanes that were miniatures of airplanes: One builder had created a near-exact flying replica of the Lockheed T-33 T-Bird jet, except that it was only two-thirds the size of the classic Air Force trainer. We were parked among hundreds of wonderful, imaginative, plucky homemade airplanes, designs that ranged from arrogantly futuristic to projects that looked like leftover plumbing from the Waterworld set. Yet the Falcos, virtually the oldest design, were still among the sleekest.
We were 18 little Falcos among a total of 718 homebuilts, a grand total of 2,719 if you included restorations, warbirds, ultralights, replicas, and oddities. The fly-in acknowledged our presence by letting us park together, but few among the spectators and other builders knew the real purpose of our gathering. Except, of course, for those who asked the meaning of the T-shirts we were wearing, which said "I came to Oshkosh with the sexiest 40-year-old on the planet."
On the sprawling grass parking grounds, my airplane and its 17 siblings sat in a back-to-back double row. They ran the gamut from utilitarian and well used (a category that included my own) to one so compulsively finished that its propeller was pinstriped and decorated to repeat the airframe's swoopy paint job. Even its engine compartment was aglitter with chrome and marshmallow-white polyurethane paint, and the little Lycoming was painted a sparkling metallic powder blue. Its builder, California roofing contractor Dave McMurray, was miffed when he saw that my otherwise ordinary engine had a special gold-anodized oil filter, but before the day was out, he had bought one. And before the week was out, he and co-builder and wife Barbara had won the Reserve Grand Champion award -- second place, essentially -- among all the custom-built kitplanes on display.
Frati roamed the sweating, T-shirted, silly-capped, boxer-shorted crowd unrecognized. He is a thin, fragile-looking man with an equine face behind heavily tinted glasses, and he looked like an elderly capo who had taken a wrong turn somewhere in downtown Chicago. He was the only man at Oshkosh in severe business clothes, incongruous under a floppy EAA sun had that someone had insisted he wear. Yet he is the creator of not only the Falco but the much-sought ex-military aerobat called the SIAI-Marchetti SF.260, and his two newest projects, the General Avia F.22 Pinguino and the Sprint trainer and sportplane, were being exhibited in the United States for the first time.
Frati is a gracious man. At one point he was guided to a homely and inept pusher-propeller machine, one of the few products of a failed attempt to market a four-place kitplane with the engine in back and the passengers in front in a great Plexiglas egg. "Good visibility," he said.
To this day Frati remains baffled by the ability of ordinary do-it-yourselfers to craft an airplane that he had intended solely for factory manufacture. It was the dream of a persuasive, well-off Richmond, Virginia pilot, Alfred Scott, that a roll-your-own version of the Falco should come to pass. Scott, fortunately, was too naive to know better.
"When Mr. Scott first proposed to Engineer Frati that he should sell copies of the plans, Frati said no no no," Carla Bielli recalled. "I told Frati 'You don't know the Americans. They can do anything.'" Beilli, fortunately, is an Americophile. "You see in small towns when you come to America millions of people living far from cities, taking care of themselves. Nothing is impossible in the United States. People in the United States, if they have to do something, they do it. When they decided they wanted to go to the moon, they went six times. It is so simple."
"I work with Engineer Frati for 25 years, and in this time we build 10 different prototypes," Bielli continues. "But I never saw that somebody could build this beautiful Falco alone. We are 20 persons in the shop. Somebody ordered materials, some other did drawings, Engineer Frati did design... but now I see how to build aircraft."
Not all Falco builders are Americans. Marcelo Bellodi was one of the 18 who had brought their airplanes to Oshkosh for the birthday party. It was a 33-hour trip from Jaboticabal, Brazil, to Oshkosh behind a lone 180-horsepower Lycoming engine -- a trip across 450 unbroken miles of Amazon forest, through an intertropical convergence zone that is usually wall-to-wall thunderstorms, with landings to refuel at Guyana airports amid suspicious policemen and soldiers, then island-hopping the Caribbean to Florida.
Bellodi, young and charming, was a former flight-test engineer for the Brazilian commuterliner manufacturer Embraer, though today he works on his family's ethanol-producing sugar plantations. The farthest he had flown his airplane before coming to Oshkosh was 400 miles, to one of those farms. "A lot of people ask me about the trip from Brazil," he said, "and I answer by telling them how beautiful it was. But more beautiful than that is to be here with all the other Falco builders, who are now part of my family."
Cecil Rives, a Houston petroleum geologist left with plenty of time on his hands after the collapse of the Texas oil boom, finished his Falco in October 1993 and admitted, "I'm a low-time pilot -- 300 hours --so I was apprehensive about flying a Falco. But my fears were unfounded. Building it, I learned an awful lot about airplanes. But more important, I learned a lot about myself." For others, the building process takes a distant back seat to the flying. "After I finished my Falco and started flying it, I began to resent the time that I'd spent building it," photographer Jonas Dovydenas griped.
When the Falco first went on the market in Italy, it inevitably gained a reputation as "a hot ship"-so fast and delicate in its handling that it would be too much of a handful for mere mortals. Frati, until then a non-pilot, decided to take flight instruction and get his pilot's license in a Falco, thereby proving that if he could fly it, so could anybody. He succeeded, though on one of his very first solo landings, he misjudged his height above the runway and hit the ground with an 8-G impact. The airplane had to be completely inspected before it could fly again. (Of course, the only person in all Italy competent to perform such an inspection was the very student pilot who had mistreated the airplane in the first place.) If nothing else, Frati proved that the Falco was a sturdy bird.
For many airplane homebuilders-and certainly not just those who build Falcos-the experience of creating a machine that actually flies, of crafting from wood or aluminum or plastic composites a device that invisibly, magically casts off earthly constraints, is a powerful, almost mystic passage. "I've built my Falco, and I'm flying it, yet I'm still involved in the experience. And it's not going to end," mused Jerry Walker, who started construction nearly 15 years ago. "I have a difficult time explaining it to myself. I'm in the air, I'm flying, and I'm in this thing that I built with my own hands," he marveled. "I never built anything before."