Oshkosh '85


by Alfred Scott

This article appeared in the September 1985 Falco Builders Letter.

Every year the EAA announces during the show that Oshkosh has set a new record for attendance, leading cynics to conclude that the press releases are written in advance and released whether they were true or not. Last year saw a drop in attendance, and the usual press announcements were met with cries of derision from a disbelieving press. This year was one of those years when the prepared press releases would have been right on the money. Whether it was the good weather or the Concorde, there is little doubt that the show drew record -- nay smothering -- crowds. It would appear that the only thing that would draw bigger crowds would be the SR-71 Blackbird, something the EAA is reported to be working on. I would endure any crowd to see that thing fly, but there are real technical problems in the way. For example, the SR-71 takes off with very little fuel and must be refueled by an airborne tanker within ten minutes.

But for the Falco builders there, Oshkosh '85 will always be remembered as the year that Mr. Frati first came to Oshkosh. Mr. Frati and Renato Cairo arrived in Chicago on Friday afternoon, having flown nonstop from Frankfurt, Germany. The plan was to meet them with an SF.260 and a Falco and fly them to Oshkosh. Jim DeAngelo and Homer Woodard were the chosen pilots, but weather prevented Jim from arriving in time, so Homer picked them up in an unmentionable spam can!

It took Mr. Frati a few days to recover from jet-lag, but as the week went by, he became more comfortable as he got to know more people. For those of you who did not come, you missed something rather special, and I'll try to relate some of my impressions. (English builders can watch the pages of Pilot for a far more entertaining account from Steve Wilkinson, whose writing style is an elegant verbal waltz that I can't approach -- but we will reprint his piece on Mr. Frati in the next builder letter.)

As Renato Cairo said "There are only two things in Mr. Frati's life: work and airplanes... and they are the same thing." No one seems to be able to remember when Mr. Frati last took a vacation; indeed, he seems more comfortable in his work than anywhere else. He is a quiet, shy and unassuming man who spends most of his time at his office in an industrial suburb of Milan (some distance from an airport) where his aircraft are built. Mr. Frati showed me a photo of the Canguro with members of his company posing with the aircraft, then pointing to the group said "My family." This is a revealing remark, since most of those who work there have been with Mr. Frati for years, and there is a sense of devotion, respect and affection for Mr. Frati that I sensed was the primary reason they were all there.

General Avia is a unique company and a type of institution that exists only in Italy. While all major U.S. companies have their own research and design divisions, Italian companies frequently share the same independent design-and-prototype firms. Pininfarina, Bertone, Giugiaro and other such firms design cars for any company who hires them. They design the car and build the prototype, and then the factory takes on the production. With automobiles, this type of design work is almost always contracted for in advance. For example, Fiat may hire Pininfarina to design a small four seat car, whose specifications are spelled out by Fiat. General Avia -- the only independent aircraft company in Italy, where all others are state owned -- does not design aircraft that others want. Mr. Frati and his band will listen politely to anyone, but money alone does not cause them to design an airplane.

What happens is that Mr. Frati and his team begin to conceive of an airplane which they think is needed. The design progresses on the drawing board in the preliminary stages, during which time it may be shown to interested companies. When they "come to believe in the design, General Avia builds the aircraft." When I told Cairo that many people were curious as to how they could finance such an operation, he replied with a smile and his dark eyes flashing "You should just tell people that we are crazy!"

At that point the construction begins. Like all such work, there are preliminary drawings that must be done, but as the construction progresses, the traditional process breaks down. Mr. Frati spends much of his time in the shop working with Renato Cairo who is in charge of the shop and all construction. The design exists in Mr. Frati's mind as much as on paper, and little details and changes are worked out in the shop as often as on the drawing board. Through all of this, Mr. Macabruni and his team of draftsmen follow the progress and note the changes, at times even photographing the parts made. Most designers work exclusively at the drawing board, and Mr. Frati's method of working is unique and is possible only with a crew of people who have long worked together.

There are many impressions that people have of Mr. Frati that are entirely untrue. I told Mr. Frati of the reputation he had of being somewhat unapproachable -- the man who was as famous for not replying to a letter as he was for his fast, beautiful airplanes. He listened in complete disbelief, amazement and laughter.

Others view Mr. Frati as passionately interested in speed. After walking the flight line at Oshkosh and viewing with dismay the small wings and tail surfaces of the many hot little airplanes, Mr. Frati and Cairo got into a long discussion, ending with Cairo explaining to me that Mr. Frati never designed or wanted to design such "racing" aircraft. His aircraft are always intended to be flown by the average pilot, thus they have more generous tail and wing surface areas -- balanced designs rather than extreme ones. You had a sense he didn't even approve of such designs except in such limited cases as A. J. Smith's racer built for his own use (which A. J. told us he'd flown to 300 kts indicated in a test dive).

But the view of Mr. Frati's passion for the elegant design is a correct perception. He wanted to know why I had not painted my Falco (sorry, I haven't the time) and told my wife, Meredith, that if he had a paint can and a brush, he would paint it himself! Meredith is fluent in French as is Mr. Frati, so they got along well. Passing one crude homebuilt Mr. Frati said something that Meredith could not understand, then she realized he was speaking English, and the word was "Rotten!"

Then during an airshow, when all of the guys who never went to war re-enacted the "glory" of bombing and the air reeked of the smell of cordite, Meredith asked Mr. Frati if he didn't find this exciting. He replied that this meant a different thing to him than it did to her, since he remembered when these same planes were dropping bombs on him in Milan, and once the building he was in was bombed and a wall destroyed. The bombing in Milan was very heavy and effective, and Mr. Frati was among those in the city.

As you know, the dress at Oshkosh is always informal -- some people don't even wear shirts -- but it took some talking to persuade Mr. Frati that a coat and tie were not essential. He only made it for one day and wore at least a necktie for the rest of the show, but he felt more comfortable in that dress. He also commented on the number of flags he saw flying at businesses and in front of homes, a custom he said that Europeans had lost.

Jim DeAngelo and Stelio Frati

Mr. Frati got his first look at a homebuilt Falco early one morning at the Appleton airport. For two days, Jim DeAngelo was unable to land at Oshkosh -- the field was closed to arriving traffic since all parking spaces were filled. I didn't see it, but Brenda Avery said that Mr. Frati had an almost childlike look of wonder as he first saw the Falco, a design he'd created thirty years before and which had just recently been built in a lovelier form than ever before. He grabbed the wing tip and shook it, promptly breaking the plexiglas wing tip light cover. If it had been anyone else Jim DeAngelo would have reached for his shooting iron and wasted the offender on the spot, but instead he turned to Anita and said with a smile "Mr. Frati just broke my Falco!" In this day of designer jeans and sunglasses with their "Design by ..." labels, only Jim DeAngelo can -- with considerable pride and affection -- use the label "Broken by Frati".

Stelio Frati and Larry Wohlers

Larry Wohlers brought his Falco to Oshkosh and gave Mr. Frati a tour of his airplane. Larry now has about 200 hours on his plane. Larry's Falco weighs in at 1,146 lbs, still the lightest Falco yet built. Larry usually cruises at low power settings, but still indicates 180 mph at 23"/2450. Flat out, it will indicate 202 mph, but he's never bothered to figure out what the true airspeed is -- it's fast enough for him. Larry says "I fly with some Bonanzas, and you can get away from them pretty easy."

I think Mr. Frati was unprepared for the reception given to him by Falco builders and others who admire him. He spent the week signing autographs and accepting compliments, and always with a graceful and appreciative nod of the head. There was a genuine feeling of affection as well as respect. Other designers when they realized that this was "The Stelio Frati" would get slightly wide-eyed and ask for an introduction.

On Sunday night, Flying magazine had a party to which we were invited. Nigel Moll, executive editor, has been in love with Frati aircraft since his first flight in an SF.260 at the age of 14. During dinner, Mr. Frati, Renato Cairo, Nigel Moll and I had a long talk while poor Brenda Avery bravely kept the headphone salesmen at the same table from butting in -- "Say, you from It-ly?"

The questions were largely technical. On composites, Mr. Frati's is not enamoured and thinks they should be used for secondary structure. He has used composites for decades and noted how Boeing, Lockheed and other major airframe companies used composites. He did not see entire airplanes being built of the material, except for a few experimental research aircraft.

Of the Voyager, he thought the aircraft a fantastic thing, but observed that his experience was that technology progressed in small incremental improvements-and the Voyager was a giant step forward entailing too many risks and too many unknowns for him.

Nigel asked Mr. Frati which of his designs were his favorites. Mr. Frati immediately said "Falco" and then started to think of what the other four would be. Then, after some thinking and discussion with Cairo, named them in chronological order: Rondone, Trento, Falco, SF.260 and Delphino. All of them basically two-seat aircraft. The next evening, Steve Wilkinson asked Mr. Frati similarly to name his favorite designs, and Mr. Frati replied "It is hard for a designer not to be proudest of the airplane that has sold in the largest numbers, so the SF.260. But then there is the Falco...."

Renato Cairo and Stelio Frati

Throughout the week, many questions were put to Mr. Frati. As Mr. Frati speaks little English, Renato Cairo served as interpreter. Cairo's English is excellent, and with many questions Cairo would simply give the answer without translating the question to Mr. Frati. Remember, Cairo has worked with Mr. Frati for many years and knows the construction and design of Mr. Frati's aircraft as well as Mr. Frati. Renato Cairo is a very impressive man, who handles himself well and can speak expertly on many subjects. I don't know if he has an engineering degree, but it is immaterial since he has attended the Stelio Frati school of design for many years and is as knowledgeable as most experienced aeronautical engineers. During the dinner with Nigel Moll, Nigel noticed something that I had failed to see: while Cairo did most of the talking, Mr. Frati listened carefully and would occasionally correct Cairo's English.

Nigel asked if they used computers in their design. The university at Milan has a Univac which they use occassionally for finite analysis, but that is all. Mr. Frati, in fact, still uses a slide rule.

When I was in Milan several years ago, I saw a number of drawings and models of aircraft that Mr. Frati had worked on, but which had never been built. There was a business jet, a high wing transport with two Fiat Topolinos inside, a Mosquito-like tandem bomber, a tandem SF.260-like trainer, and numerous two and four place piston singles. We asked Cairo to tell us about some of the Frati designs that had died still-born. Mr. Cairo replied that he would like to talk about one in particular, a design of about twelve years ago. The airplane was very similar in design to the Cessna Citation jet, but with two tractor turboprop engines -- similar to the prop fan designs being talked about now as the wave of the future.

Nigel Moll asked if any of Mr. Frati's designs had been considered for production in the U.S. Mr. Frati said that one had, but he did not want to talk about it. Naturally, this sets everyone's minds going as to whether it was Beech, Piper, or Cessna. In fact, it was none of the major aircraft companies, and the whole thing is a matter of limited public record anyway for anyone with some old copies of Jane's and a little deduction. A number of years ago, Mr. Alexander Berger imported a few European designs under the Waco name. The SF.260 was the Waco Meteor; another SIAI-Marchetti design and a French airplane were also imported and sold with a Waco name. Mr. Berger was President of Allied Aero, which owned Franklin engines. There was some discussion about installing a Franklin engine in the SF.260. Allied Aero purchased a license to build the F.15D Picchio, which was identical to the F.15E but with a 250 hp turbocharged Franklin 6AS-350 engine. Unfortunately, Mr. Berger died suddenly just one week before the prototype flew, and the project was abandoned.

The Canguro has been built in three versions. The first had turbocharged Lycoming engines, which were subsequently replaced with Allison turboprops. General Avia also designed and built a retractable gear version of the Canguro, working furiously to have the airplane ready for the Paris Air Show. The work was finished in time, and they were prepared to fly the airplane to Paris when the instructions arrived from SIAI-Marchetti to disassemble the airplane, and load it on a truck for the trip -- a decision, I sensed, that was not met with much pleasure at General Avia.

While the Canguro was designed and flew a number of years ago, it is only now approaching production at Siai-Marchetti. The Canguro was being considered by Federal Express, but Cessna won the contract with its Caravan in a close competition.

Mr. Frati's latest design is the Jet Squalus, a single-engine jet trainer being built for a consortium in Belgium. The airplane uses the same Garrett F109-GA-100 engine used in the new USAF trainer. This engine delivers 1,330 lbs of thrust. They are also considering a 1,500 lb-thrust Williams Research engine. The Jet Squalus is a utilitarian design with simple construction designed for low maintenance. The Jet Squalus has two seats side-by-side. Some of you may have seen an article in Flight International with a three-view of the plane-unfortunately the drawing has only a passing resemblence to the Jet Squalus. Plans call for a shock-mounted wood skid down the center of the belly of the plane. This is for possible gear up landings, and this feature will likely be installed only on the prototype.

Mr. Frati also had with him a three-view drawing of yet another new design that is in the consideration stage, of which I will say little except that it is something of a larger Canguro.

On Tuesday afternoon, the EAA conducted their "manufacturer's showcase" in which kit manufacturers were invited to fly their designs. Jim DeAngelo flew his Falco with Mr. Frati in the right seat. Mr. Frati was installed in the Falco amid a nervous circle of camera-clicking Falco builders. One of Jim's mottos is "you don't push" and prefers to check everything out and fly at moderate power settings. Even after some 30 hours of flying his Falco, Jim throttled back and cruised around the pattern. Jim is the son of an Italian immigrant, and while Jim never learned Italian he has all of the arm-waving head-bobbing shoulder-shrugging and combination of English and Italian words that allow him to communicate nevertheless. After the flight, Jim reported that the flight had been an arm-flailing affair between him and Mr. Frati, with Mr. Frati gesturing for high rpm and full power, and Jim trying to explain his conservative you-don't-push philosophy with hand language.

Bob Bready watches as Stelio Frati straps into Jim DeAngelo's Falco.

For Jim it was difficult to hide the emotion, and he was rather choked up and misty-eyed after the flight. He later said that the three most special aviation events of his life were the first flight of his Acroduster, the first flight of his Falco and the ride around the patch with Mr. Frati at Oshkosh. He could not express why it affected him so -- it just did.

The dinner on Tuesday night was a lovely, warm affair. It was not so much a Falco Builders Dinner as it was a Stelio Frati Appreciation Night. In all, there were 102 people at the dinner, and we gathered at our private bar and rattled at the mouth at each other. Nigel Moll handled the introduction of Mr. Frati, and Mr. Frati was greeted with a standing ovation from all present. We didn't have the usual how-I'm-doing-on-my-Falco talks. Frank Sanders was there and is forming a five plane aerobatic team of SF.260, but I suppose he is not ready to give up his Sea Fury yet. In one of the funnier moments of the evening, Tony Bingelis said that Mr. Frati must be a very brave man "for riding in a home-made airplane built by an Italian baker who can't even speak Italian." You had to be there. Steve Wilkinson asked Mr. Frati how it felt to ride in a homebuilt Falco thirty years after it was first designed, and Mr. Frati said it was just like the first time he flew in the Falco prototype.

Stelio Frati at the dinner at Oshkosh '85

Mr. Frati gave me a silver tray in appreciation for the work I have done on the Falco. It has a drawing of the Falco on it along with an inscription, and it has already been put to good use in our house. I had intended to do something similar for Mr. Frati, but in the rush of preparing for Oshkosh it had been overlooked. Frank Strickler, whose Fox 51 Ltd. imports the SF.260, presented Mr. Frati with a drawing of the SF.260 which had been signed by all of the SF.260 owners.

We gave out the Compasso d'Oro decals to Jim DeAngelo and Karl Hansen. (Jimmy Shaw did not make it to Oshkosh, and John Harns arrived the following day due to some problems with his brake system.) Mr. Moretti, marketing director of Agusta, was there and served as interpreter for a short, eloquent speech Mr. Frati made. I don't remember all that Mr. Frati said, but his opening line was "I am so happy to be in the country of the first flight and the moon walk." He went on to say how he had read about Oshkosh for many years, but he was overwhelmed by the show. He was pleased to see the homebuilt Falcos and to meet everyone involved with the Falco and the SF.260, and he thanked everyone for the kind welcome given to him.

I hope Mr. Frati enjoyed coming to Oshkosh as much as everyone else enjoyed his visit. My only regret is that we did not have more Falcos for Mr. Frati to see. At this time, eight Falcos have flown that have been built from our plans, and two more should fly very shortly. Next year, we should have a dozen or so there if everyone comes. When the week began, Mr. Frati and Renato Cairo stayed in tight formation, but as the week progressed, Mr. Frati took to wandering the flight line with Falco builders and others that he had gotten to know. I began the week thinking that this was probably going to be the only time that Stelio Frati would ever come to Oshkosh, but at the end of the week I had the feeling that Mr. Frati's "family" had grown a little larger and that he might come again. I know I speak for all of you when I say thank you, Mr. Frati, for coming, and we all hope you will return soon.