The Falco from Snowy River

by Stephen Friend

This article appeared in the June 1995 Falco Builders Letter.

Annie and Stephen Friend with other friends, Solo, Brian, Jimmy and (Dirty) Harry.

My decision to build a wooden aircraft was probably made very early in my brief career in aviation, when I learned that a mixture of heat, altitude and freshly-made sausages produce an interesting corrosive mixture to aluminum aircraft. This invaluable bit of information was picked up when, after leaving school and learning to fly at the local aero club, I found myself working on a cattle station (ranch) in Australia's Northern Territory-imagine Arizona with stunted trees, only flatter and emptier. This occasionally involved using the station's C180 to fly the four-hour round trip to Mt. Isa for mail, groceries, spare parts and beer. It was much more fun than building fences or watering livestock.

After two years, I had earned enough to come home and get a commercial license, which I was able to use soon after on another Northern Territory cattle station, flying meat from the station's abattoir to local aboriginal communities and towns. My employers on both occasions were Americans, in fact, a lot of Northern Australia in the 70's was American-owned, one of the more spectacular being Nelson Bunker Hunt.

Using a C185 and a Cherokee 6-300, we could lift 1/2 ton of chilled or frozen beef, provided an early morning departure was made as all operations were from short rough strips. We needed 3 hours of fuel and even in winter 90 degrees is the norm-hence the need to insure that the sausages didn't thaw, allowing copious amounts of a smelly brine to penetrate the fuselage lap joints. After the loads were delivered, we could sometimes pick up a charter for the rest of the day.

This beef operation also used a Hughes 269A helicopter to muster (round-up) cattle for the abattoir. On my first flight in it, first flight in any helicopter for that matter, the Hughes suffered a nasty case of ground-resonance and rapidly chopped/shook itself to bits. Being a bit slow-witted, it took me a while to realize that this was anything but a normal landing. I was chucked out and received only Plexiglas cuts, but the pilot was less lucky and didn't fly again. Apart from the engine which was still running, there wasn't a piece of the wreckage that couldn't be lifted by one man. That saw the end to my commercial flying for a while with the loss of the Hughes, as I was the last hired and the first to go.

Neighbors perform the traditional Australian Garden Hose ceremony.

I elected to come back to the family mixed farm north of the country's capital, Canberra, which, because it happens to be on the mountain range running up the eastern seaboard, is also one of the colder places. We produce, with varied results, sheep for both meat and wool, beef cattle and a few cereal and oilseed crops.

Originally my Falco was going to be a Kitfox, which would have been a very practical and useful farm vehicle, but then I realized that I may only be allowed to build one aircraft so it had better be a real one. Six years later I have a machine which is of no earthly use for livestock or property inspections, has a cockpit like a terrarium and fits into our airstrip with difficulty. I wouldn't swap it for anything.

Six years is a long time to spend doing anything-it would seem a lifetime if you pondered on your labors having no value whatsoever until it flies, if illness or a change of job or something we won't even consider, Sequoia not selling aircraft, should intervene. I was priviledged in knowing that myself and the aircraft could stay put-having it so close took years off the building time; in fact, I rather miss sneaking out at 3 in the morning, in pajamas, to gusset a rib. I was intrigued to discover my own quality control. Many times I completed a part only to think about it for weeks before finally ripping it out and trying again. This aircraft was built with little local help. I had never seen a wooden aircraft built, however faxed assistance from Alfred is another matter-I'm sure eventually he will reveal the number of notes and over-night replies to have crossed the Pacific.

I chose to build all the timber parts which added a year and used/wasted 15 liters of resorcinol in the process-I could have used epoxy, but from the beginning I wanted it to have the finish of a plastic aeroplane but painted dark-it's deep burgundy (Mercedes Benz Desert Red) with a brass stripe. Not gold, that might look like a Chinese restaurant.

An oft-asked question is what was the hardest part to build. The invariable and not necessarily facetious answer is whatever I was doing at the time. Everyone who builds an aircraft must also at least consider painting it themselves. Unfortunately, I took the next step and actually did it. That took probably 1000 hours all of last year to prepare and complete. My timing couldn't have been worse, as the top coat went on in July/August, in the middle of winter-not easy waiting for the ice to melt from the hangar floor, then get the area up to the curing temperature for the Alumigrip that I used. Maybe I should have used a more forgiving and repairable product, but at least the local U.S. Paint people were always approachable for advice and have even called in for a look. As it was, I needed two compressors to drive the gun at 70 psi and a third to feed an air-wash helmet to keep the isocyanates at bay. By this time, I was running out of electrical capacity, what with 3000 watts of lighting and a 1.5 hp exhaust fan, so one of the compressors had to be petrol driven.

Luckily I raised the Nustrini canopy 38mm but still had to cut the seat cushions in half. I use a pair of Pilot Avionics headsets with the pressure band at the back and a Velcro strap at the top where my head would normally hit the canopy. Rather than raise the dorsal, I lengthened the canopy's rear roller support.

Every Easter our Sport Aircraft Association holds its convention (a tiny Oshkosh) at Mangalore in Victoria. Last year I decided my Falco would fly to the next, ignoring the fact that I had been flying only ultralights for the last 8 years. In February, it progressed the 37km to Goulburn Airport on one of our ground-loading trailers with Police Permit and two escort vehicles. Suddenly it was 8 weeks to Easter and no inspection done. I decided to complete everything, including the interior before it flew because I knew it may be difficult to be motivated afterwards.

Stephen's brother, David, did the first flight of the Falco.

After building and flying something as minimal as an ultralight, early in the construction I was a little concerned how I might feel about this creation actually flying. As it became more complete this feeling disappeared-something to do with the reduncancy of thousands of glue joints and knowing that forty-odd essentially identical other Falcos housed no real surprises. It behaved so normally on the ground that seeing it taxi out for its first flight, I don't remember being more than just a little apprehensive. My brother flew it for 40 minutes on April Fools Day with nothing more to report than a heavy right rudder and an artificial horizon which had never worked.

Actually, I'm not sure that he totally shared my confidence-as pilot-in-command, he was supposed to sign the aircraft's Maintenance Release before it flew but didn't as he said he couldn't be sure it was airworthy. I had never flown in a Falco (or a homebuilt) until mine, and on its third outing I was in the left seat. A few years of flying in hot places taught me the value of a high wing to escape the sun, but it didn't prepare me for the spectacle of the sun reflected off the disarmingly small wings. I expected to feel vulnerable with so much glass but not a bit of it-just a magnificent view all round. I think the more moving moment occurred some weeks before when the engine started for the first time-this pile of kindling had life!

Less than two weeks later I had done my BFR in it. With 7 hours on the tach, I took the Falco on its first 1-1/2 hour cross-country to Mangalore where the judges liked it enough to give it the Concours d'Elegance award. Guido Zuccoli and Wayne Milburn flew down in the Falco and Sea Fury. Guido liked the idea of a fly-past with the Sea Fury pouring out smoke with Australia's two Falcos tucked in behind each wing and, of course, it had to be caught on film. Since I had done very little formation flying, a friend came along to do the hard work, and I still remember the tiny doubt when we lined up for a formation takeoff behind a T-28 camera aircraft, and the two others; a quick magneto check revealed a greater rpm drop than I am comfortable with but with the 2000 hp in front easily convinced us it was oiled plugs. Wind and low cloud made it a quite unnerving mission especially when being squeezed and buffeted by two large machines. By comparison, later flying with just the other Falco was almost relaxing.

Two weeks after the first flight, Stephen Friend's Falco won the Concours
d'Elegance at Mangalore and strutted his stuff with Guido Zuccoli in the
Sea Fury, Wayne Milburn in Guido's Falco. 

To come back to earth, this Falco is fitted with an IO-360-B1E, King com and transponder, ELT and Shadin fuel totaliser and at 597kg (CG at 1706mm) must be one of the heaviest. Contributing to this last point could be the interior of natural materials; carpeted of gray wool, seats of gray distressed sheep hides and side walls hand-spun and hand-woven gray wool-perhaps I got a bit carried away with my occupation! With only the gear-leg doors fitted, at 5000 ft., 25/25 seems to give about 165kts IAS.

There have been surprisingly few things to tweak-unscrewing the trim tab clevis about six turns cured the lack of aft trim in cruise. On one of the early flights, the lack of a gear-down light certainly encouraged a gentle landing. I had moved the gear-down microswitch to the new "screwjack" position but excessive play in the threads allowed the striker to miss the switch.

I wanted a machine of my own that I could become so comfortable with that I felt I was wearing it. After 20 hours, I can see that this will happen. The Falco is the most beautifully precise handling aircraft I have flown, and eventually I will learn to slow it down to gear extension speed with style, however once the wheels are down it becomes as docile as you could wish-even landings on our 750 meters of grass are a delight, although it would much rather fly than trundle on the ground. To build a Falco is a most unreasonable thing to do, but if someone had said that to me six years ago, I wouldn't have listened either!