by Stephan Wilkinson
There aren't many Stelio Fratis left, in this day of anonymous airplane designers. Geoffrey de Havilland, Ed Heinemann, Willy Messerschmitt, Tony Fokker, Artem Mikoyan, Ted Smith, Ed Swearingen... all put a personal stamp of line and form on their designs, but few others themselves designed and built as many or as varied a line of airplanes as the quiet, shy Italian genius Stelio Frati, the master of classic light-aircraft design.
Frati, a 60ish bachelor who hasn't taken a vacation in 20 years because he'd far rather work than travel, nevertheless came to the annual EAA Oshkosh fly-in this year. Not because he likes to look at airplanes but -- I suspect -- because he couldn't quite believe the fuss being made over an ancient design of his of which he thought he'd long ago seen the last: the small, splendidly conventional F.8L Falco, which is on the verge of the kind of popularity that few homebuilt designs ever achieve and that has never before come to an airplane a third of a century after it was designed. Last year, there were two homebuilt Falcos at Oshkosh, this year three, next year probably at least a dozen and then increasing numbers of the 150 currently under construction. (Over 400 complete sets of Falco plans have been sold by Sequoia Aircraft, the admirable and efficient Virginia firm that reincarnated the design.)
Fernando Almeida and Stelio Frati at Oshkosh '85
The tiny, birdlike Frati, a stooped figure with a thin neck, thick medicine-bottle glasses and frame so slight his pants bunch under his belt as though he's wearing somebody else's clothes, took his first ride in a homebuilt Falco at Oshkosh, during a fly-by of various commercially available kit-built airplanes. It was an occasion that inspired a bit of apprehension, for the man looks too frail to take much pleasure from a series of low passes, but Falco builder Jim DeAngelo landed to report that Frati, who speaks no English, spent most of the demo flight making unmistakable balls-to-the-wall, pedal-to-the-metal, firewall-this-sucker motions. (At a dinner in his honor that evening, Frati was toasted by another Falco builder who commended his courage "for riding in a home-made airplane built by an Italian baker who can't even speak Italian.")
I'd dined with Frati the night before, thanks to Sequoia President and Frati host Alfred Scott, the "crazy person" -- Frati's words -- responsible for the Falco renaissance. Though it's difficult to interview through an interpreter an elderly, jet-lagged Italian who has just been attacked by a Wisconsin restaurant's version of veal Parmigiana, Frati did admit that he was pleased to see his first homebuilt Falco because he'd been a bit worried how it would turn out. (So pleased, in fact, that on first meeting he'd grabbed the wingtip of DeAngelo's plane and racked it up and down vigorously to assess its stiffness, cracking the nav/strobe-light Lucite fairing in the process. The otherwise compulsive DeAngelo plans to leave the crack where it is as a mark of the master's touch.)
Frati also revealed that perhaps he'd been too hasty in agreeing, in 1977, to allow Scott the plans-reproduction privileges. For nine months after the contract was signed, Scott had received nothing but a few general, tattered sheets of the hundreds of pages of plans. Scott got on the telephone to Milan, and Frati admitted that in truth, his small freelance design firm, General Avia, simply didn't have the time to do all the necessary redrawing and consolidating of the old Falco plans. "Why don't I do it?" Scott asked and submitted to Frati for his approval a single redrawn plan sheet that looked perfectly professional. On the basis of that sheet, Frati agreed, never knowing that it was the very first engineering drawing that Alfred Scott had ever done.
Renato Cairo and Stelio Frati
I asked Frati about his most recent production design, the twin-engine SIAI-Marchetti Canguro utility turboprop, and his interpreter/associate/shop director Renato Cairo erupted that the Canguro was an airplane they simply did not want to talk about. He and Frati then spent the next 15 minutes not talking about the Canguro, explaining that it could have taken over the market since handily filled by the Cessna Caravan if SIAI-Marchetti had ever stopped "playing with" the design, which stretches back to 1975, which once was on the verge of copping the huge Federal Express order that has since gone to Cessna for Caravans, and which is only now going into the inimitably Italian version of serious marketing and production.
Bob Bready watches as Stelio Frati straps in for his first ride in a homebuilt Falco.
To my surprise, neither Frati nor Cairo seemed familiar with the name of Luigi Colani, the industrial designer responsible for the configuration of the RFM Fanliner/Fantrainer as well as the delta-winged, twin-Wankel "Mach .9" propfan intended to take the world propeller-driven speed record, which was introduced at the Aero 85 show in Friedrichshaven earlier this year. It was either an intentional Italian put-down of a flashy rival or the sign of insularity.
Frati's favorite of all his designs? "It is hard for a designer not to be proudest of the airplane that has sold in the largest numbers," he growled at Cairo in his gravelly Godfather voice, "so the SF.260. But then there is the Falco...."
For me, too, there is the Falco. S/N 878 slowly takes shape in my barn, and for a first-time homebuilder, it gives me great confidence that I am assembling a totally proven design that is the product of neither a dentist nor a self-taught experimenter but one of the world's great aeronautical engineers. Equally important, as I trudge the flightline at Oshkosh and view the variety of ways in which homebuilt designers have made gross and ugly the lines that lead to flight, I can take pride in Frati's work as not only engineer but sculptor.
Stelio Frati congratulates Jim DeAngelo after his flight.