by Jacob Brouwer
During my whole flying career, which after eight years in the Dutch air force, was for the rest spent in airline flying and instructing in light aircraft, I have always had considerable interest in constructing a homebuilt airplane. In Holland, this was a thing that one could only dream of, because of the massive bureaucratic hurdles which made such an undertaking sheer impossible. Until in the eighties some of the rules for homebuilt aircraft were changed and construction under stringent supervision became a possibility. So, when I visited Sun and Fun in Florida and seeing all these beautifully crafted flying machines, my decision was taken. I was to build my own airplane!
I had been building wooden racing yachts in the past, which probably influenced my decision to build something fast and good looking, and preferably in wood or fiberglass. I also know that my plane had to be more or less acrobatic, should have a good range and be able to fly IFR. Although the latter is not allowed for experimental aircraft in Holland, it comes in handy when the weather turns bad on you.
Soon I had a lot of info-packs and videos for kits like Glasair, Lancair, Velocity, RV's, etc. I made several trips to the USA to visit the shops where these were made and to make demo flights. Some planes were fancy looking but had poor flying qualities -- I will not mention names here -- others had good performance, but did not look so good or were of inferior quality. At last-of course "at last" as will be the case with every Falco builder-my attention was drawn by the Falco. This was the plane that suited my ambitions.
I ordered the plans and discovered that due to the dimensions of the plane and the method of construction, I first had to find a workshop. Since I wanted it to be near our home, we decided to construct a new two-car garage. We is me and my girlfriend Petra. We spent a good two years on this project, in the meantime also enlarging the house with another room. When this work was finished, and I was about to order the first kits, I saw an ad in Trade-a-Plane in which somebody offered a partly completed Falco. Having spent a lot of time already in the construction of our house, I sensed an opportunity to cut short on building time. I called the phone number in Florida and yes, it was still available, but some serious buyers were coming next Sunday. Of course, these could be the words from a salesman, but I decided to have a look at it anyway. Since it was Thursday, the only thing I could do was get on a flight the next day.
The partly finished plane I saw the next day convinced me that a very good job had been done here, everything had been crafted very neatly and the measurements I took were exactly according to the plans. I was convinced that someone had done this job with great care and only had to sell because he ran out of money. That same day I was the owner of some nice pieces of a Falco. Two weeks layer, we came back to load the parts in a container, together with the kits for gear retraction and electrical system, which I had picked up in Virginia some days before and sent this to Holland where it arrived two weeks later.
Since I am co-owner of a small charter company with a maintenance base at the Amsterdam Schiphol airport where we rent some hangar space, I decided to assemble the airplane in the attic of our shop/office there, where I would have to use a crane to put it down on terra firma later, but where I would be able to work without too many people disturbing me. Another advantage here was the vicinity of several big airline maintenance bases and the then-still-active Fokker company, with experts in every field of aviation construction and a wide array of special tools, which proved to be an immense help during the following three years of building.
Some parts like the fuel system, part of the landing gear, the gear doors and door retraction system, instrument panel, I made myself, while the more difficult parts like the nose gear, oleo struts, engine mount and cowling were ordered from Sequoia. I made some what I considered minor modifications that later turned out to have far greater implications that I first thought. As an example, I angled the right half of the instrument panel 20 degrees toward the pilot in order to improve the vision on the instruments in this part of the panel, in particular on the LED's in the radios and the GPS. This in turn meant I had to modify the front fuel tank, the instrument panel mounting, the glare shield and the right control stick.
The end results is really what I expected it to be, a real improvement which looks good, and I am very proud of it. Still, I doubt if it is worth all the extra effort I put in. So my advice to anyone building a Falco: don't modify the plans unless you are certain of what you are up to. The plans are really good and where I had any questions they were solved by sending a fax to Sequoia and receiving an answer overnight. I also added a cabin exhaust with a push-pull control on frame No. 6. I know from experience that these cockpits with bubble canopies can become very hot in summertime (yet, even in Holland), and this will increase the flow in the cockpit considerably.
The end result is a good looking airplane even though I still have to finish the paint on the cowling and have to add the fancy Falco striping to the white color. Since I opted for the IO-360 engine, I had to modify the cowling in order to accommodate the front cylinders and also the lower cowling on one side where it touched the exhaust. In order to satisfy the Dutch environment regulations two exhaust-end mufflers were added which I ordered from a German company called 'Liese'.
They made these specially for the Falco, and they fit exactly in the exhaust port where they are hardly noticeable. They really make this Falco a quiet aircraft, compared with other Falcos, Glasairs, Lancairs and others with straight stacks. I also had to use a three-blade constant-speed propeller, to reduce noise. It is a wood-and-epoxy prop made by MT in Germany. It is almost the same prop they use for Mooney and Extra, and it performs well. The price is comparable to the standard Hartzell prop, but it weighs far less-only 46 lbs including the spinner. An advantage of this prop is that it has no fatigue limit.
All the inspection-hole covers on the aircraft are made of aluminum sheet, with countersunk screws which gives a smooth appearance. I also expect them to stay in better condition in time than the wooden panels. The main gear doors are made of aluminum, with stiffeners on the inside. Since they are not as thick as the fiberglass doors, they are almost flush with the underside of the wing. Also they are very rigid so I hope I will not open slightly during flight, as I notice with other Falcos. I installed the gear and the main doors with the aircraft wing in the vertical position. Even though the access was excellent, I spent a lot of time adjusting the doors. The nose gear bay cover is made of stainless steel, stronger than fiberglass at almost the same weight.
The canopy is the 'normal' Nustrini. Since I am 6' 1", I had to make the seat cushions half the original thickness. This created just enough headroom, but next time I think I will opt for the 'elevated Nustrini'.
With all the extras I added, like inverted fuel and oil system, an interior decorated with gray leather and with the surface on the outside made smooth with epoxy and microballoons before painting, it is not a light aircraft with just over 1,300 lbs empty weight, but the CG is right in the middle of the certified range, and I will be able to do acrobatics up to 6 g's with partly filled tanks.
With the aircraft almost finished, I had to apply for the Certificate of Airworthiness. This used to be a difficult and lengthy process in the Netherlands, but a few years ago the rules were changed, and I think we now have the easiest system in the world to get a kitplane certified. The idea is that when building a proven design, the builder is the only one responsible for the quality and the safety of the airplane as far as building and flying is concerned.
So now you only have to find an A&P who certifies that in his opinion no serious defects can be found and the airplane is built according to the plans without major modifications, you must have the avionics, instruments and weight and balance checked by a certified person, satisfy certain noise requirements and send all the paperwork to the authorities. If everything is OK, you receive your experimental C of A within weeks.
One of the restrictions of this C of A is that you are only allowed to fly within controlled airspace with prior permission from ATC. Since my first flight was to be from Amsterdam International Airport, which is becoming one of the busiest airports in the world, this turned out to be a problem. Obviously they could not have me test-flying over the airport amidst arriving and departing IFR jet planes. On the other end, however there are a lot of nice long runways on the airport, and I would use one of these to do all the taxi tests up to flying speed, the last test being a short hop into the air with subsequent landing. However if no problems would arise at the first takeoff, the first fight had to end at a small uncontrolled airfield about 40 minutes flying to the south of Amsterdam.
I was amazed how all systems just worked fine the first time I tested them. Apart from a leaking front fuel tank, no problem turned up. It was a weld in the cavity of the tank where the radios find their place, which had opened under the compression caused by the installation of the tank. Of course, this had not been welded properly. I had to take the tank out for repairs which is including the re-installation a lengthy process so I added at the same time two inspection holes in the tank which may save me at least two days work in case more leaks develop in the future, or which something drops into the tank! If you add these holes, be sure you use a good tank sealant when closing the inspection panels, otherwise this solution is worse than the cure!
When the C of A arrived all the ground testing had been completed and the plane was ready for the first flight. Since I am an experienced pilot with almost 20,000 hours flight time and lots of experience in light airplanes, I never had any doubts who would be the first one to fly this airplane. Now this crucial moment had arrived, I reconsidered and wondered if I had been critical enough. After consultations with some expert friends, we concluded however that I was best suited for the job.
The plan was to wait for good weather-which may take a long time in winter in Holland where low ceilings and visibilities may last for weeks -- and then take off in the afternoon when the airport is relatively quiet between two peaks of international in -- and outbound traffic. In order not to disturb the airport authorities too much with this 'experimental first flight' and not to feel the pressure of a lot of spectators, the decision was made to keep this first flight kind of 'low profile'. Only two friends would be there as assistants, one on the ground and one in a chase plane. Also ATC was informed about the nature of the flight (fire brigade and ambulance could be alerted by them and could be there within minutes).
I got my own runway for takeoff and took all the time in the world to make sure everything was perfect. This first takeoff proved to be nothing spectacular. The plane took to the air like it had been flying for several years already. At 1500 ft, I reduced power in order to keep the speed low, which proved to be sort of a problem because this plane was designed to fly fast even with gear and flaps down. Since I had been flying Falcos before, I was familiar with the light controls but even then I was surprised at how effortless one can fly this airplane. After a few minutes, the chase plane caught up, the pilot confirmed to me that everything looked okay, and that it really was a nice airplane.
The route to the turf aerodrome we were heading for was across typical Dutch landscape with meadows and farmlands, divided by small waterways, hardly any trees and only some high-tension wires to watch for, so there were lots of emergency landing fields if needed. Everything went smooth however and while enroute I performed some of the flight tests.
Since the chase plane was there all the time, I used this opportunity to cycle the gear and have the main gear doors checked-the nose gear doors are not installed yet. This worked out fine. Thereafter I did some slow flight with turns which proved to be nothing spectacular. After 45 minutes, we approached the destination airfield, where I did not get the green gear down light upon gear selection. A check on the emergency handle confirmed the gear-down condition and an uneventful landing was made. Later it proved to be the same problem that landed a Lockheed Tri-Star in the Everglades some twenty-five years ago-only the light! You may be familiar with this story.
Although there were no family and friends to welcome us with champagne to celebrate on the spot, and nothing abnormal had happened, it still was a great sensation to fly for the first time with this Falco. Of course, the construction has cost me a lot of time and has been the cause for some headaches occasionally, but I feel it was worth it. Now I am getting more nervous than before, because I want to fly every day and the weather has not been very good. Up till now I accumulated only 4 hours and still a lot has to be tested and confirmed, and although the airplane is flying, still a lot of work remains to be done.
One problem that turned up is the exhaust pipes running too close to the cowling, coloring the paint on the outside-a reason may be that the mufflers give too much backpressure causing the pipes to be hotter than without them. I am modifying the cowling so as to create more room for the pipes and will add so-called cool-mat on the inside of the cowling next to the pipes.
Many people ask me how fast it flies, and I must say I don't know yet. I tested the speed range now from stall speed to 180 knots. It cruises at 165 kts IAS on 22" and 2300 rpm, but I still have to calibrate the airspeed indicator and see how fast it will go with 25" and 2500 rpm-which is about 75% power-and with the nose gear doors installed.
At the higher speeds, I notice a slight tendency for right roll, so I added a small trim tab on the left aileron, which cured this problem.
Looking back on the project, I must say it was worth every minute of my time. I have to thank many persons for their help and advice, like the people at Sequoia and Hans Sonntag from Germany who let me fly his Falco and advised me on the silencers or Henk van Rooy, who's help was invaluable, and many others. Without people like them, a project like this is unthinkable.
Looking forward I see my next project, which I already started. I am building a house with a hangar in France on a private aerodrome called Vendee Airpark, situated near the Altantic coast between Nantes and Bordeaux and incidentally also between two famous wine regions, the Bordeaux and the Loire. An airpark is something quite normal in the USA, I know, but unique for Europe. We sold our house in Holland and with the money gained between I bought this plot. Once finished (end of this year?), I will use the Falco to travel between my rented apartment in Antwerp, where I now live and my house in France-it should be a two-hour flight. Although a private aerodrome, Falco owners are of course always welcome.