Flight of the Falco

by Dave Barth

This article first appeared in the February 1996 issue of the EAA Rocky Mountain Region Chapter 301 newsletter. Dave Barth has a PhD in managment information systems, is a CFII with about 2700 hours and has flown numerous first flights in experimental aircraft. The article subsequently appeared in the March 1996 Falco Builders Letter.

It was a clear, calm, sunny day in September. One of those days you ache to be aloft. Or at least be at the airport, vicariously enjoying the freedom of flight by watching other pilots take off. It was September 10, 1995, a red-letter day for me. Richard Clements had recently completed his beautiful, yellow Falco. The tired cliché that it looked like it was in motion even when it was sitting still held truth for me as I gazed upon it for the first time.

When Richard first invited me to Jeffco to view the plane, I didn't know what to expect. On my first look at it, I decided that a whale of a lot of effort had been expended to build this ship. It was so smooth. As smooth as a baby's... well, you get the idea. As I drew closer, being very careful not to touch this work of art, I unconsciously scanned the airframe for flaws. Even for those little, forgivable flaws. I saw none. The plane looked like it had been formed out of a single piece of material. When Richard explained that he had spent eleven years hand-crafting the Falco, I had no problem believing it or appreciating the untold hours of detail work that he had put into it.

Lying on my back to see up into the wheel wells, I was struck by the attention to detail in this area that one wouldn't expect to be pretty. The glue lines were ruler-straight and even. After seeing the wells, I believe if you cut off the tail cone or a wing tip, you would find it perfectly smooth and finished inside.

Richard is a former Air Force F4 Phantom instructor-pilot with many hours of high-intensity, get-your-attention, pump-your-adrenaline flight. Why had he selected me, a mere spam-can instructor, to make the first flight? Well, he and his lovely, vivacious wife, Catherine, had agreed that since Richard had spent so much time building during the past eleven years, and hadn't had much time to hone his flying skills, it might be good to have someone else make the first flight.

Generally speaking, from my experience rubbing shoulders with builders, they tend to become emotionally involved with their airplane, their 'baby.' When making a first flight, there is something to be said for the pilot who has a detached feeling regarding the ship. Perhaps it is better to have the attitude that if something goes wrong, "Hell, I'm going to plant this box-of-bolts into that thicket, rip the wings and the gear off, and maybe walk away." A builder might have a more difficult time coming to that kind of a decision. I don't know. That's just a theory, and builders make first flights every day with no problem.

Anyway, I felt very honored to be chosen to make the first flight. I knew there were a lot of extremely qualified pilots out there, including the renown builder/engineer/mechanic/pilot Ted Lemen. But Ted was up to his elbows in his Mustang, so that was a break for me.

Of course, the first flight is always approached with trepidation by the pilot who will make it. Questions pondered are: Will this thing really fly? Are there any hidden surprises that will make themselves evident at the worst possible moment? What am I getting myself into? If I bash this machine, will I be sued for a million bucks? Does the builder worry that I or my next-of-kin will sue him for a million bucks? Is the builder having second thoughts about having me fly his beautiful baby? Has the builder found a pilot he would rather have make the first flight? Another thought I had was that Catherine must be one great wife to be able to put up with eleven years of such an intense building effort!

On the day of the maiden voyage, the activities of getting ready changed the focus. Ted Lemen took time out from his busy schedule to provide some helpful ideas. And Dean Cochran [who used to build exhaust systems for the Falco] volunteered to fly chase with his very nice Thorp T-18.

There is a story about Dean that I can't resist telling. Years ago, Richard went to Oshkosh to look at examples of planes he was considering for a building project. When he returned to Denver, in front of a group of EAA members, he gave a talk about his observations. One item was that he had decided against building a Thorp T-18 because it was so ugly. Three Thorp proponents promptly got up and walked out of the meeting. Dean was one of those. Richard realized, too late, that such a comment is a bit like telling a proud papa his child is ugly. Since then Dean and Richard have become close friends.

Anyway, Richard, Ted, Dean and I huddled for some time working out the plan for the first flight. I wasn't about to 'kick tire, light fire' for the first one. Using the current winds and runway in use, we discussed the general plan and the associated 'what-ifs.' Then we hammered out a more detailed plan which included orbiting the airport for a certain number of circuits so if something happened, I would have the benefit of a manned tower and emergency equipment strategically positioned on the field.

After we were confident we had covered the critical aspects, Richard turned to finishing up some details while Ted, Dean and I went to the tower to discuss our plan with them and get their approval and assistance in coordinating the first flight. I was surprised at how willing the tower personnel were in accommodating us. Then I realized Ted and Dean are well-known and respected members of the flying community by the controllers at Jeffco Tower because of their skilled, professional approach to flying. One tower manager who had never met Dean recognized his voice, and said, "Hey, you're N-number is such-and-such," and Dean nodded affirmative.

So, it was time to go. Although Richard had done extensive taxi tests, I taxied around for a little, weaving down the taxiway, testing brakes and steering, while Dean followed. Although Dean knew what I was doing, those casual observers who weren't aware this was the first flight might have wondered if I was three sheets to the wind, plowed, snockered, etc.

The plan was that my first trip down the runway would be a high-speed taxi. Although Richard had already made these tests, I needed to get the feel of how the plane reacted on the ground. (It is so embarrassing to have a perfect flight marred by a runway excursion on roll-out due to pilot error.) With that accomplished, I was feeling more confident with the ground-handling characteristics. However, flight is a whole different hand of cards.

Back at the run-up area, by prior agreement, Dean joined up with me to fly chase as a flight-of-two. This wouldn't be a true formation flight because Dean was staying well clear, but he would be closer than anyone else to act as an observer to report discrepancies or take a look in case I felt something on the exterior needed to be checked. He could alert me if the plane began to exude liquids, solids, or (forbid) smoke. I felt very comfortable with Dean keeping a close eye on the plane, ready to alert me of any potential problems.

As we rolled down the runway for the first takeoff, I was reaching the pinnacle of pucker. To me, the most critical phase is that altitude between one and 50 feet. If a plane suddenly gets twitchy or the engine quits, I'd like to be either an inch off the runway or at a thousand feet. If it suddenly rolls over at twenty feet, there isn't much room for doing anything. And if the engine quits at fifty feet, and you're beyond the point of being able to put it back down on the runway, not good, especially for runways 29R/11L at Jeffco. The departure areas for those runways are a mess in the event you have engine failure.

So, with Dean safely behind me, I lifted off. The Falco literature indicated the plane had docile slow-flight characteristics, but I always take such verbiage with a grain of salt. I was ready for any sort of odd design or builder defects that might cause problems. But no problem. Once I was at the pre-planned attitude of 7,000 MSL, I began orbiting above the traffic pattern with Dean quietly flying behind. This was one instance where no news from Dean was good news. The Falco flew like a jewel.

When we had completed the requisite number of orbits, I requested a departure of the pattern to the north. This might seem foolhardy for the first flight, and that argument is valid because upon landing, something about to become a problem might be discovered. But, the plane was performing flawlessly, and I had included it in the plan, in the event everything was okay at this point, because I wanted to do some turns in the opposite direction and some altitude changes to expand the test envelope.

For a few minutes we flew out over the fields just north of Class D airspace, then returned for the first landing. Now, some pilots might say that the first landing is the most critical event during the first flight. My thought is that the plane has already proven that it can operate on a hard surface, and the final phase, if executed properly, will be a little faster than normal with the speed bleeding off at a height of inches. Assuming the plane isn't shedding parts on the approach, even with an engine failure, a successful landing is very possible. The worst that could happen would be a gear collapse on landing. (That happened to me once in my Quickie, but that's another story.) A belly landing is usually no big deal (to the pilot -- not to the builder), but you want to make a timely exit in case flames begin to lick the machine.

Having examined Richard's landing gear, and since the plan was to leave the gear down for the entire flight, I was very confident that the gear would hold up. However, the worst part for me was the worry that I'd bounce the plane since there were a considerable number of observers, some of whom had video cameras following me every inch of the way. A bounce wouldn't necessarily be bad, but it would be embarrassing, and captured on tape for eternity.

But the Falco gear is designed to soak up bounces and bumps. The landing wasn't perfect (I could have lowered the nose a bit more slowly) but it was smooth and I was satisfied. In conclusion, Richard's Falco had performed flawlessly on its maiden flight. I couldn't believe that I had no squawks to report. A wave of relief washed over me as I slid the canopy back to taxi back to the hangar where Richard waited like an expectant father. As I taxied up, the first thing I said to his query was, "Magnificent!"