Frati: Design for Speed

From 'The Great Planes" by James Gilbert, Grosset & Dunlap, Inc. and The Ridge Press, Inc. 1970.  In this book, James Gilbert lists his selection of the greatest planes ever built. His choices include the Wright Flyer, Blériot, Fokker, Sopwith, Spad, Jenny, Ryan, Lockheed's plywood bullets, Ford Tri-Motor, Piper Cub, Jungmeister, DC-3, Staggerwing Beech, Messerschmitt, Spitfire, P-51, and others. And the chapter is on Stelio Frati is included here.

The first reference I can find to Signor Stelio Frati is as the assistant designer of the Assalto Radioguidato flying bomb of World War II, which is a singularly appropriate beginning for a man who has been designing real go-like-abomb airplanes ever since. Frati is a freelance designer whose elegant designs are built-handbuilt-in tiny quantities by several Italian manufacturers.

All of Frati's designs are variations on a single theme; they all resemble each other, and each is instantly recognizable at a glance as "a Frati." They are finished as smoothly as mirrors, as though needless drag were more evil than the devil. They have the feel of tiny fighters, for you sit under a fighter pilot's sliding teardrop canopy, gripping a fighter pilot's stick, and the thing will be halfway round an aileron roll even before you've entirely made up your mind to do one. There is no superabundance of room in a Frati airplane, and they are all extremely noisy, but you will come down from your first flight in one with an unbelieving stare. It is much like the first time you ever drove a Ferrari; a damnation of all lesser vehicles for eternity. For the controls are so light, so delicate, the visibility so like falling free through space, and the airplane's stability even in turbulence so arrow-straight and intransmutable that you feel a fool for not knowing that light airplanes could be like this.

Frati's finest plane so far is the SF.260, an all-metal three-seater that was briefly merchandised in the United States as the "Waco Meteor." Out of a production run of one hundred, many have gone to the Belgian Air Force, Air France, and Sabena for use as trainers. With a 260-hp Lycoming, the SF.260 will hit 235 mph, all-out at sea level, and throttled back to cruise power at altitude it will still better 210 mph. (One holds an FAI class speed record gained in flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles at 214.08 mph.) Initial rate of climb approaches two thousand feet per minute. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the SF.260, considering its slipperiness at speed, is the airplane's gentleness and tractability at low speeds. The stalling speed is only 70 mph, and thanks to a strange stubby vane that projects from the inside of the tip tanks to correct the airflow at high angles of attack, you never run out of aileron control. And the SF.260 will get on or off inside a thousand feet of ground run. The handling qualities, at all speeds, are sublime.

Wooden airplanes, unjustly despised in the United States, are highly appreciated in Europe, and many of Frati's designs have used wood extensively in their structure. The 1955 two-seater Falco was all wood, as was its offspring, the Nibbio, while the 1959 Procaer Picchio employs a wooden structure covered with plywood panels and an outer skin of aluminum. Frati even designed an all-wood jet, a very ugly and forgettable 1952 two-seater named the Caproni Trento F. 5. Frati has had little luck with jets. His 1960 Cobra 400, also of mixed wood and metal construction, was never built in quantity, and even the prototype eventually crashed. Re-engineered in metal as the Cobra F.480, it is still making only slow progress.

The most beautiful of Frati's designs is perhaps the F.8.L Super Falco, a tiny machine whose span is only 26 feet, and which weighs empty a mere 1,212 Ibs. The little Super Falco is immensely strong, being designed, when in aerobatic trim, to an ultimate load of 9.4 Gs. It is so sleek that with only 160 hp it can still hit 200 mph. The entire airplane has a finish that shines like polished glass. It is certainly the masterwork among Frati designs.

Yet even when parked all Fratis look as though they are going two hundred miles an hour. For they are the most exquisitely streamlined, curved, and tapered machines you ever saw. They are the epitome of the Italian designer's style.