by Alfred Scott
In the mid-1950's, at a time when Paul Poberezny and a tiny band of Milwaukee homebuilders were starting the EAA, Eisenhower was in the White House. Detroit produced whale-cars with chromium baleen and enormous fins. Black-and-white television was just being introduced. Martin Luther King was in graduate school. Piper Aircraft was selling the Tri-Pacer. And amid the rubble of World War II, a little-known 35-year-old engineer bent over a drawing board in Milan, Italy, and designed an airplane for the ages.
Stelio Frati at Oshkosh '95 with suit, tie and EAA hat
The plane was built in a shop with few power tools and then hauled to the airport on a horse-drawn wagon. It was designed of readily available materials, native poplar and birch plywood. Italian labor was cheap then, but with 3,500 hours required for the production of each aircraft, the plane sold for $6,000, three times the price of the Tri-Pacer. It flew perfectly on the first flight, but it was an impractical machine from the beginning, too labor-intensive to be competitive with American mass-produced designs, and after all it was made of wood -- that stuff rots! --in a world falling in love with stamped metal.
So how could the designer have foreseen that 40 years later, he would travel to a Wisconsin airport and celebrate the birthday of the design amid 18 specimens of the airplane built by a couple of petroleum geologists, a flight instructor, mechanic, machinist, retiree, roofing contractor, photographer, writer and others? Or that a Brazilian engineer, who already owned an airplane, would spend $100 a pound to build the plane in his own shop, and then fly it across the Amazon guided by dual satellite navigation equipment, one hand-held, just for the pleasure of attending a birthday party without a cake?
Dave McMurray fires up his Falco
Yet that's what happened. But what is more remarkable still is that this machine, 40 years after it was designed, is among the most modern airplanes on the field, the most gorgeous looking aircraft ever built and with handling so perfect that owners like to tantalize spectators by kicking the turf and saying in a down-trodden way, "It flies better'n it looks."
Stelio Frati. If you had said those words 20 years ago to a typical American pilot, you'd have received a blank stare. What's that, some kinda scouring pad? Even among the aviation press, there were less then a dozen writers who knew who Frati was. Nigel Moll, Budd Davisson, James Gilbert, Howard Levy, Jack Cox, Peter Garrison, Peter Lert, Steve Wilkinson, Robert Cumberford and Ed Tripp knew about Frati. They all revered him, yet none of them had ever seen the reclusive designer.
(Cumberford, then European editor for the old Air Progress, used to write Frati letters, but never got a reply. He concluded Frati was arrogant and aloof. Even James Gilbert, who wrote glowing articles about Frati and included an entire chapter on Frati in his book, The Great Planes, never got a letter back from Frati. In fact, we now know that Frati is an unfailingly polite man, who means to write you back, but he is so busy working on the next design he just never gets around to it.)
The cognoscenti of aviation knew Frati, but the Gordon Baxters and good ol' pilots of the U.S. didn't have a clue. When we started selling the Falco, I thought a little mystique would be a good thing, so we included a brochure on Frati as part of our literature. When we first printed it, we sent a single copy to Frati. Everyone in his shop gathered around competing for the book until an excited Frati grabbed it and raced from the office so he could read it in peace.
Tom Poberezny welcome Stelio Frati
As the Falco and SF.260, his best-known design, sold in greater numbers, their reputation spread and with it a growing awareness of Stelio Frati. Ten years ago, Frati came to Oshkosh for the first time, and he was a bit overwhelmed by the reception he got from Falco and SF.260 pilots. Frati is a public-relations nightmare. He will wander among the lemme-tellya-about-me promoters of aviation and never say a word, and he will pass by the most important aviation editor and not even know who the man is.
Frati in his EAA hat and 'designer' shirt autographing a hat. Carla Bielli talks to SF.260 owner Bill Vitale
But today, everyone knows who Stelio Frati is. It was fun to watch people who would see his name tag and then look up at his face in awe and not say a word. Others would shake his hand and ask for autographs. Frati signed everything from hats to Falcos. Even cynical journalists would say, "It's an honor to meet you," as they shook his hand. Frati was a bit stunned by it all, and seemed to have little idea of how revered he is in the U.S. Occasionally someone would ask him a design question. Frati would do a rough sketch on a piece of paper and explain it in a gravelly voice. Then came the embarrassing moment: "Can I have that?" they'd ask, pointing to the sketch, and Frati, unaccustomed to the role of a celebrity, was non-plussed and hardly knew how to react.
Two dirty old pilots. Cecil Rives and Perry Burholm with their Falco
But the truth is that Stelio Frati had a wonderful time at Oshkosh. The EAA was great and really made him feel welcome. As he is wont to do, Frati wore a suit and tie on the first couple of days, and finally relaxed and wore an EAA hat and specially monogrammed knit shirt ("il Designere Frati") that Al and Nancy Aitken made for him.
Part of the reason Stelio Frati came to Oshkosh was to help promote the Pinguino and Sprint aircraft that the LoPrestis are now selling in a marketing arrangement with General Avia. Frati and his long-time assistant, Carla Bielli, divided their time between the LoPresti display and the row of Falcos. While he did his duty with the Pinguino/Sprint, he tired of the jut-jawed, arrogant, what'll-she-do egos in Ray-Bans, and it was obvious that Frati was most at home among the Falco builders. He was amazed that anyone would spend five, ten or twelve years working on one of his designs, and he hung around the Falcos like a Border Collie with a flock of sheep.
He would peer into the engine compartment of Dave MacMurray's Falco, that looked exactly like an ice cream parlor, and ask "Does it use oil?" He autographed most of the Falcos there, and would spend hours going over the planes, all of which were more carefully finished than any production Falco. "Falco pilots walk like this," he would say, standing straight up, "and Nustrini pilots walk like this," cocking his head to one side. He loved moving among the tight-knit group of builders and seemed to prefer the company of the quietest men like Rex Hume and John Shipler.
Carla Bielli and Stelio Frati
For a man who often seems humorless, Frati was happy around the Falco builders, and Steve Wilkinson said that when he taxied up after landing, one of the first people he saw was Frati. "He was smiling. I never saw him smile before."
All of us know what 'compulsive workaholic' means, but our normal understanding of the phrase comes nowhere near describing Stelio Frati. He works all the time. That is what he does. Friends say he works every day of the year, except for Christmas morning, when he goes to church, and then he goes to the office. "If you want to kill Stelio Frati, keep him from working," says his old friend Giancarlo Monti. Even on a supposed vacation, Carla Bielli would order breakfast sent to Mr. Frati's room because, if she didn't, he would forget to eat.
Stelio Frati autographing Dave McMurray's Falco
Machiavelli once wrote that a great man cannot be a good man. Inevitably, people who accomplish great things have a distortion of character and their single-minded focus on one thing comes at the expense of other traits we consider normal. Driven, highly intelligent people are often short-tempered, intolerant of lesser intellects and abrasive-the entire computer industry seems to be populated by these types. So it comes as a distinct pleasure to find that Frati is an unfailingly polite man, and quite formal. He's very quiet and many describe him as meek -- a far cry from the image once conjured when he didn't respond to letters.
Stelio Frati and Tony Bingelis
Even so, it is still possible to push even the most polite of men too far. Hoping to find some bizarre creations like the "briefcase ultralight" of a few years ago, Jack Amos and I took Frati down to the ultralight area. It was very hot, and Frati really didn't understand where we were going or why, but when we got there, he said with disgust, "We have these things in Italy" and turned on his heel and hurried back to the Falcos.
Without Carla Bielli around, Mr. Frati sometimes seemed almost lost, like a little boy, and his English was noticeably better when Carla was around. Carla came to work for Mr. Frati when she was 19 and has been with him for 25 years. She is a glamorous lady with unending enthusiasm for Frati's designs, and she tell tales on him with a tinge of tragedy in her Milanese accent. Like when they were proof-loading the Falco wing during certification and how the Italian government inspector with a warped sense of humor snapped a stick of wood behind Frati. "Engineer Frati, he jumped like this." Or how when the Falco first flew, it had a reputation as a hot ship, so to prove that anyone could fly in the plane, Stelio Frati took lessons in the Falco and learned to fly in the plane he had already designed. On one of his first landings, however, he hit the runway with an 8g impact, and the student pilot Frati had to inspect the airplane before it could be flown again.
Alfred Scott, Stelio Frati and Carla Bielli
Carla loves America and all things American. She takes her vacations traveling in the U.S, and she is proud of her role in the Falco. Years ago, when I wrote Mr. Frati and suggested we sell plans for the Falco to homebuilders, Frati thought it was impossible, that only a factory could build the Falco. "When Meester Scott first proposed to Engineer Frati that he should sell copies of the plans, Frati said no no no. I told Frati, you don't know the Americans. They can do anything."
In a quiet moment, Carla speculates what Frati might have done if he had lived in the U.S. instead, but I disagreed and argued that Frati has lived at precisely the right time and right place and has had more independence than he ever would in a large U.S. company. It is better that he crank out prototypes in Italy, only a few of which reach production, than to be lost in the power games and politics of a company like Beech or Cessna -- and the mind recoils at the thought of Stelio Frati in the Wichita Bowling League.
Steve Wilkinson and Stelio Frati
On Friday night, we gathered in a restaurant for the official birthday party where in after-dinner speeches, we all took turns describing what this whole experience meant to us. Out of context and without the give-and-take banter, the comments seem a bit disjointed and don't flow particularly well, but here is a sampling of that evening:
Cecil Rives: "I'm a low-time pilot -- 300 hours -- so I was apprehensive about flying a Falco, but my fears were unfounded. I can't say enough good things about the airplane. I don't think it has a single bad habit. Building this airplane, I learned an awful lot about airplanes, but more importantly, I learned a lot about myself. Which is very important."
Bob Bready: "My Falco has been flying since July 21, 1994. It took about 12 years to do it, and as Cecil said, you learn an awful lot about yourself and work habits and everything else. But I think Mr. Frati should be classified as kind of our father. Without him, none of us would be here. So it has been good working 'with' him. You never got to meet him, but you were able to see how he thought, the kind of work that he does. And here we see the kind of people he's brought together. For that, I am grateful."
Jim DeAngelo: "Ten years ago, Mr. Frati flew in my airplane and put his signature on it by shaking a wingtip and cracking the nav-light lens. That crack is there to this day. Mr. Frati would go on to design all these other beautiful, wonderful airplanes, but this one was his Mona Lisa."
Stelio Frati and Jonas Dovydenas
Jonas Dovydenas: "I'd like to apologize to Mr. Frati, because I flew him here from the airport up in Appleton, and I was so intent on doing everything right and keep him comfortable that I forgot to give him the stick and offer him a chance to fly the Falco himself. But I made a good landing for him. After I finished my Falco and started flying it, I began to resent the time that I'd spent building it."
Al Dubiak: "Six years ago, I came to Oshkosh and admired Pawel Kweicinski's Falco, and late one afternoon, he took off, pulled up about six feet off the ground, pulled the gear up, and I was in love. I fought the urge for three years, now I've been building for three years. I'm about half done, I'm having a great time, and I'm looking forward to flying it someday."
Dave MacMurray: "I was up in bed about 10 years ago and turned the page of an aviation magazine and here was Karl Hansen's Falco, and I said 'Look at this beautiful little airplane, Barb'. She said 'What is it?', and I said it's all wood... 'Why don't you build it', she said, and I said 'I think I will.' And that's how it started -- a picture of the aircraft and the ageless beauty of it. And that's the reason it's 40 years old and is still being praised."
Pierre Wildman: "I'm working on the elevator, so I've got a long, long way to go. I was counting on four years, and now I'm hearing stories about six years, eight years, ten years. I'll get it done before I retire. I'm very much looking forward to creating something beautiful, and I'd like to thank Mr. Frati and Mr. Scott for providing me with the opportunity."
Dave Gibb: "I looked at everything out there, and nothing was quite right, nothing was me. The very first time I saw the Falco, I told my son that's what I'm gonna build. It took a little while to convince my wife. After seeing these beautiful airplanes at this show, I called my wife and said 'Get over here to Oshkosh. You've gotta see these things in person."
Mary Gibb:. "It's been pure pleasure from day one. I enjoyed being in the shop with him until it was too long, so I'd go home and eventually he'd come home, so we moved the Falco home. That made it a little easier. We have enjoyed working together, encouraging him when he'd get discouraged. We're all crazy, aren't we?"
Dan Dorr: "My name is Dan Dorr, and I'm a Falcoholic... I'm an aeronautical engineer with NASA out at the Ames Research Center in California. I remember one day at work, another engineer and I were talking about various homebuilt designs. He looked at me and said, 'You're like me. You're not going to build any of those other airplanes, you're going to build a Falco.' And he was right."
Nigel Moll: "In the course of writing for Flying for 16 years, I've flown about 150 different kinds of airplanes, and the SF.260/Falco is still my benchmark for the way an airplane should fly."
Steve Bachnak: "I spent six years building a Falco, and I've been flying it for about six years. It is without a doubt the finest airplane I've ever flown."
Al Aitken: "I'm going for the award for whoever took the longest to build a Falco. I've been working on mine for eight years now and the tail section's done, so I think I'm right on schedule. But I've flown a number of Falcos, and they all fly exactly the same: they all fly perfectly. Because of that man [Frati] sitting right over there."
Jerry Walker: "I've built the Falco, and I'm flying it, yet I'm still involved in the experience, and it's not going to end. 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. I never built anything before."
In the middle of the speeches, a bunch of SF.260 pilots arrived. The doors crashed open and in they came, and in the best one-liner of the weekend, Susann Flowers instantly pegged them as "Harley guys with money." I later mentioned this to them, and it turns out all of them do, in fact, own motorcycles, mostly Harleys and one BMW.
Rex Hume points to Frati's autograph on his Falco
Rex Hume: "I saw an ad in a magazine, and I said, 'Boy, that looks just like a two-place Navion.' I always loved the Navion. I said, 'This would be a good retirement project. I could probably knock one of these out in a year or so.' Well, it only took me 10 years to complete my airplane. I've been flying it six years now, and I'm just having more fun than one person ought to have, so I thank Mr. Frati for designing it and Alfred Scott for making it available to me."
John Shipler: "I want to thank Mr. Frati and Alfred Scott for making it possible for me to create something which I think is a masterpiece -- the lines, the aerodynamics, it's a great airplane. I really feel thankful that I was allowed the privilege of building it. I'm not an artist, but they set it up in a way that made it kind of like painting by the numbers, so you could build a masterpiece without being an artist yourself."
Marty Benham: 'It's a good thing that Piper never got it together to produce their homebuilder Cub kits, because I was totally overwhelmed by the Falco plans, and the builder manual. I told Howard, 'We can't possibly build so complicated a project, I want something I can fly in the next year or so.' So we call Piper and said, 'We want to buy one of those Cub kits. When can you deliver it?' They said, 'Two years from today.' The next day, Howard started to build the Falco. We brought it here today. It's not even a month old, so thank God Piper didn't come through with that Cub kit."
Brian Nelson: "Pop songs come and go, and there are a lot of homebuilt designs that have come and gone, but the Falco is a piece of classical music. And it says a lot for the design that it brings together a group of people like this."
Paulo Franke: "In Brazil, I work for an airframe manufacturer, and I have a good idea of how hard it is to build and fly an airplane. This group, there is one striking thing to me. I have heard words such as 'classical music', 'sculpture', 'masterpiece', okay? And I've also heard words like 'years to build', 'ten years', 'before retirement', 'effort', 'sweat'. So there is a very unique thing about this adventure -- getting these things together -- this is not a very common thing, to unite art, grace, spirit, effort, strength.... We have to thank Mr. Frati for this. You are a very unique bunch."
Clive Garrard: "I'm a product designer by trade, so I really admire things with beautiful lines, especially Italian design, and I think it really is a classic. I've looked at lots of airplanes here over the last few days, and they certainly all get people into the sky. But there's not a one that I'd really want to own, apart from the Falco."
Marcelo Bellodi: "A lot of people ask me about the trip that we made from Brazil, and I answer them by telling them how beautiful it was. But more beautiful than that is to be with all of you, who are now part of my family."
Robert Cumberford: "I was a young car designer in Detroit in 1955. We had the virtue of getting every car and airplane magazine in the world in our library, and since there was nothing to do in Michigan except stay out of the snow and draw pictures of cars and airplanes and read about them, I read about them. And there was this most wonderful single-engine airplane I'd ever seen. It became my esthetic standard for airplanes. Alfred had a really good designer design an airplane for him, and he sent me drawings of it. I said, 'Okay, I'm sure it's strong, but it sure isn't very good-looking. It's too bad it's such an ugly thing when it could have been like a Falco."
Carla Bielli: "I work with Engineer Frati for 25 years, and we build in this time 10 prototypes. But honestly speaking, I never saw that somebody could build this beautiful Falco alone. We were 20 persons in the shop. Somebody ordered materials, some other did drawings, Engineer Frati did designs... I know there is something special, honestly, about you people. Now I see how to build aircraft."
Stelio Frati: "First, I would like to thank you for your cordial welcome and your belief in my knowledge. I wish to tell you a brief story. A request came from Mr. Scott for the the Falco plans. My response was that it was too difficult to construct. It cannot be done. I set the letter aside, but Mr. Scott kept requesting the drawings. Eventually, the drawings were sent, and Mr. Scott started the project.
"Ten years ago I came to Oshkosh and found a large passionate family building the Falco. The reason I call you a family is because you act as though you are related to one another and because of the warm reception you have given me. You are not only people who build airplanes, but you are also kind and cordial to one another and everyone else. I know many homebuilders in Italy, but the builders of the Falco are astonishing. This is a credit to Mr. Scott.
"When I design a prototype, it takes about a year, but I notice it has taken some of you 10 years to build the Falco, and yet even after all this time you still have that passion to the very end. Your enthusiasm continues and has never left. This is a very important attitude to have, and it shows how professional you are! This is a virus that lingers on and has no cure. I hope we will see each other in ten years. Thank you all for your friendship! We hope to come back for the 50th anniversary."