First Flight,
Steve Wilkinson

by Alfred Scott

This article appeared in the June 1991 issue of the Falco Builders Letter.

One of the delights of being in the Falco kit business for the last six years has been having Steve Wilkinson as a builder. Like so many other builders, Steve has become a good friend, but he's also a writer and has written so much about the process. You've read all his articles, but they are but a small percentage of the letters and faxes that make up a six-and-three-quarters-pound file of correspondence. (If all our builders wrote as much, our correspondence files alone would weigh more than three Falcos.)

And the neat thing is that Steve's letters are often as wonderful as his articles. Thus, I've not been looking forward to Steve's first flight with any enthusiasm, as it would bring an end to an era when I could arrive at work to find the fax machine with his familiar "SW" signature at the base of a frozen fountain of paper.

So I thought it might be interesting to let you 'see' the first flight of Steve's Falco by wire-tapping our fax machine (Steve has one of those other brands of computers, and the type looks weird):

23 May 1991. The Teterboro MIDO is going to make me do a 40-hour test flyoff on the Falco. The inspector-one John Donaldson-is, though very pleasant and friendly, being very sticky about this. Unfortunately, Mattituck placed prominently in the engine logbook the following statement, as a result, I assume, of having put the 45-degree injector elbow on the engine: "This engine has been modified out of its original type certificate data sheet and should no longer be considered a type-certificated engine. It is approved only as a modified IO-360-B1E for experimental use."

I don't care an enormous amount one way or the other, being always able to resort to what you once called "Black & Decker time."-SW

22 April 1991. The barn is empty, cavernous. The airplane is at Dutchess County Airport (Poughkeepsie), in a hangar yet. Tower, nice long runways, approaches, etc. We moved it Saturday, with a crew of eight wonderful people, some of whom I didn't even know. One was a professional rigger, used to dealing with immense objects. Another was a recently retired state trooper who would have been invaluable, I'm sure, if we'd had any wide-load problems crossing the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. A third was somebody who'd been towing heavy trailers "for 45 years," he said. A fourth was Dave Noland. And so on. Everything went off without a hitch, though I was a wreck. Eventually, I had to go off and do idle tasks-making lunch for the group, cleaning up tree limbs that had to be cut, etc.-while more competent people such as Jim Catelano handled jobs like loading the airplane on the trailer.

We even had the Cornwall Police stop traffic to allow our caravan out onto Route 9W, and a convoy of six cars, a truck, and a large van towing the trailer wended its way to the airport.

The hangar was arranged by Mark Reichin (who'll be doing the first flight), and belongs to somebody else I don't even know, whose airplane is being annualed. We have it for several days and then will be given ramp space, I understand, at a nearby A&P shop. Engine's hung, airframe's together, control surfaces are on... I now know why I built an airplane all by myself, though: having four people running around "helping" with the assembly is infinitely more trouble than it's worth. Only two are competent, so I've sent everybody else away.

They keep asking things like, "When will it be ready to fly?" I've taken to telling people who ask, "That's like asking me when I'm going to fuck Kim Basinger: maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next year, maybe never. I don't know." Be amusing if I beat Jonas, though.-SW

8 June 1991. The FAA inspected the airplane on the sixth-a team of two inspectors from Teterboro. One was a young man being broken to harness, the other his boss, who came along to watch over his shoulder. I had been cautioned by my friend Montaine Mallet, one of the French Connection CAP-10 aerobatic team, that it was necessary to leave something, anything, undone so that the inspector could find at least one "fault" and thus not explode from terminal frustration. (Montaine deals with Teterboro constantly, since they have smoke systems and the like to get approved, and they assemble and certificate all the CAPs sold in the U.S.)

I knew the Teterboro MIDO was big on placarding the canopy with open/close instructions, so that was my lure, and indeed the inspector took it, demanding a placard that will read "handle forward to open, aft to close." (I can't ignore it, since the Teterboro office requires an actual on-site final inspection too, after my 40 hours are flown-or Black-and-Deckered-off.)

The inspector also wanted me to remove the engine's data plate and alter it to record that it was no longer an IO-360-B1E but a Wilkinson, but fortunately his boss told him to back off-said that was rather unnecessary.

With perfect weather forecast for the next day, a Friday, we immediately scheduled the first flight for the morning. As you know, I'd already arranged with my good friend Mark Reichin to do the test flight. I have 2,700 hours and 130 different aircraft types logged over the last 25 years, so I have no doubt that I could have made it around the pattern, but I have very little time during the past two years. And I really believe that currency, not total time, is the heart of proficiency. Reichin is a 4,000-hour singles-and-twins pilot who probably does 500 hours a year and flies his Mooney (and a variety of other types) with the familiarity of a commuter driving his station hack.

Still, Mark approached the job with caution. He and I had already broken in the brakes, and then he made about 10 high-speed runs up and down Duchess County's 6,000-foot main runway (not all at once but about half of them during an earlier test session). The advice of Mattituck's Mahlon Russell, by the way, was to break in our Cermichromed engine on straight mineral oil and not to listen to the "street advice" that it was okay to use Phillips XC right from the start. He also said to change the oil and inspect the filter after the ground runs and before the first flight, which we did.

Another Mattituck proviso: run a newly overhauled engine as long as you want, at high power settings and assuming the head and oil temps stay in the green, but if you do shut it down, don't for any reason restart until the cylinders are cool enough so that you can hold your hand against them.

On the last taxi runs, Mark got "good air," as the skateboarders say, and flew in ground effect. He then taxied back and took off, climbed to 3,000 feet with the gear down-I'd removed all the doors-flew around that way for a while and then retracted the rollers. He put about 45 minutes on the airplane and even got a chance to use the Northstar loran to record a groundspeed of 160 knots inboard from the Kingston VOR, this on a virtually windless day, no gear doors, at 3,000 feet and a power setting of 24 squared. The airplane doesn't seem to have a heavy wing and flies just fine. (Today I calculated a TAS of 164 knots at 3,000 feet, 24"/2400, full fuel and with the three basic gear doors back in place. Seems reasonably fast.)

Mark cycled the gear three times and for some reason had to crank it down manually the last time-no popped breaker or anything, it just wouldn't come down electrically. I haven't had such a problem since.

Our only other problems are that the engine is running very rich and that the fuel flow gauge is inop. It is obviously the instrument's fault, since there's fuel in the line and air pressure applied to the line by mouth makes the gauge work... backward. In flight, the fuel-flow needle points to something like 20 inches of manifold pressure, and the meter movement has obviously been messed up.

That means that of the four instruments bought from IFR, three of them have been faulty in one way or another and all of them took many months to be delivered. The ASI arrived with its needle lying in the bottom of the gauge, the g-meter was of some oddball World War II shape that required modifying the panel cutout extensively, and now the fuel flow is a piece of dreck. Anybody who deals with that miserable company gets what they pay for: junk.

The emotional content of the first-flight event was oddly mixed for me. I sensed the airplane would fly perfectly well, having felt it get light and responsive during my own taxi tests, so seeing it fly was not as big a thrill as others might assume. I found myself talking about mutual racer friends with an acquaintance of Mark's-a race-car builder from Boston-while the airplane was flying around, while a visitor from the local EAA chapter avidly taped the proceedings for that night's chapter meeting. (He also told me, predictably, that he couldn't understand how any normally hung male could bear to let somebody else make the first flight in an airplane they'd spend six years building. "Like letting somebody else screw the woman you've spent six years chasin'," he said. Yeah, right.)

Then, interestingly, I had mixed feelings about flying it myself. Mark and all the bystanders peeled off and left me with my sweating little airplane in the hangar, and I uncowled it, put the gear doors back on, wiped off and tightened the couple of tiny oil leaks, found other make-work tasks to do... and puttered around safe in the knowledge that my biennial had lapsed and I wasn't legal or insured to fly it anyway.

Then, just as I was about to leave the airport, a friend who had promised to give me a biennial sometime during the weekend showed up, and we went out and did it, in a borrowed 150. Now I'm legal. Do I fly the Falco? Wait till tomorrow? It's getting late, Susan will be home soon... but we're not doing anything tonight anyway. There won't be enough fuel... but the gauges indicate both tanks half full. I ought to wait for a new day... but in the stillness of late afternoon, the airport is quiet, windless, virtually untrafficked. I'm out of excuses.

I rolled the Falco out, closed the hangar doors behind me, fired up... and one final distraction arose. Across the taxiway sat a 182 that had been parked about 15 minutes earlier by a young couple carrying beachbags and the looks of new lovers. As I sat in the cockpit waiting for the temps to come up, I realized the 182's strobes were silently winking away. I shut down, walked across the taxiway, found the Cessna's door unlocked, and every switch in the airplane still on. (That must have been some... uh, trip.)

All I did was go once around the pattern, gear up and then back down, but what an unexpected thrill. All my "it's just another airplane" and "building's the fun part, flying's just a hole in the sky" posturing evaporated the instant the Falco lifted off, and I found myself sitting in that wonderful fishbowl, holding those incredible controls. With the 180-hp engine, torque is enormous on takeoff, for a lightplane, and it really pulls hard to the left on the roll. With a narrow runway, you'd really want to feed in the power carefully. I found myself climbing out at a normal angle at something like 110 knots and couldn't resist pulling it up at what seemed like about a 45-degree angle to get a normal climb speed. Nor could I resist squaring the pattern with 60-degree banks. And the approach and landing are so stable and controllable, with that soft, inimitable power-off whistle I've noticed in several Falcos now, that you do it once and then feel you could put this thing into a tennis court.

I have to admit, it was a thrilling little ride.-SW

10 June 1991. After just three hours of operation, the exhaust system is beginning to burn through the cowling, at the point where the left-hand pipe is closest to the fiberglass. A dime-sized spot is browning, as seen from the outside, and the cowling is tangibly "soft" just after shutdown. Unless you have a better idea, I'm going to insulate the area with a double layer of Fiberfrax, a rectangle about 4x8 inches, glued in place with woodstove silicate gasket cement (supposedly good to 2,000 degrees).

This is happening even though my pipes are wrapped with that Thermacon (or whatever it's called) insulating tape, which is really amazing stuff: you can literally touch the exhaust pipes right up at the ports a minute or two after shutdown. So I think you either need to specify that builders do something to insulate that area as an integral part of assembling the cowl, or modify the cowl design slightly with a bump of some sort to put the fiberglass slightly farther away from the metal. As I recall, it's happening right at the tailpipe ball joint.

Speaking of bumps, you might be interested that there seems to be no need for a rocker-box bump on my left-hand cowling door to accommodate the 180-hp engine. Either it's a smoother engine than others or there's enough room for it to rock around on startup and shutdown. It does, by the way, seem to rock substantially less than, for example, Jim DeAngelo's engine, though I do use the technique of running it to 1,000 rpm before I pull the mixture to idle cutoff, which is supposed to make for a smoother shutdown.

An unexpected benefit of the Falco: Susan went for her first ride yesterday afternoon and adored it. So much so that she said, "You know, I think I might like to get some dual and start flying again with this airplane." She hasn't had the slightest interest in flying in at least 10 years, and she never touched the Comanche's controls.-SW

11 June 1991. I'm awed by the speed of this thing. Took it up to 7,500 today and at a power setting of 21.5" and 2,400 rpm-not particularly carefully leaned since I haven't calibrated my EGT yet and it's reading almost off-scale-got a TAS of 194 mph with only the three basic gear doors and my ratty nonpaint job. Maybe Karl Hansen isn't fibbing.

The tower, incidently, said that my radios "sound better than 95 percent of the airplanes based here-really amazing, like you're sitting next to us." Wonder if it has to do with the antennas, since the radios are the same KX-165 and -155 everybody else is using.-SW

17 June 1991. Interesting: Mark came back from a flight recently and said that he was just beginning to run out of elevator authority on landing with full flaps. I worked out the weight-and-balance numbers and the CG came out at literally exactly 68.64 inches, which is your published forward limit.

Flew against some acquaintances who have a small-engine (225 hp) Debonair on Saturday. They were humping along at cruise at 2,500 feet when I formated on them, and I had to pull the throttle back into the gear-warning horn to try and stay abeam and was still creeping past them. (Admittedly, the horn comes on at 17 inches.) I called and told them and they laughed and said, "Yeah, and we've shut our engine down, hah hah." Pushed the transmit button and nodded my head down so the boom mike was near the horn. The reply was, "Aw, don't tell us that."

The cowling insulation did no good at all. The exhaust burned right through the Fiberfrax and continued to ventilate the cowl, so you're right, as usual: a blister is the only solution.

I'm surprised at the amount of ram-air pressure that's on the induction side of the air filter-i.e. air that has already made its way though the filter. The other day, I taped closed my alternate-air door on the funnel that leads to the SCAT hose. I didn't want to have to continually hook up and unhook the actuator cable every time I removed the lower cowling, so I simply used two large pieces of duct tape, figuring that if anything, the engine would be sucking air at that point, tending to pull closed the door in any case. (It's mounted to manually open outward rather than springloaded to be sucked inward.)

To my surprise, the door was blown open, against the grip of the duct tape, during the next flight, making it clear that there's considerable air pressure in there.

File under Trivia.

I did some shots for the newsletter-mostly me with my Italian-components bike, in front of the airplane, in full Greg LeMond getup, the point being that like any good yuppie scum, I ride my bicycle 46 miles round trip to fly my $74,000, 10.5-gph airplane in order to save a gallon and a half of gasoline plus a 75-cent bridge toll.-SW

And so it goes and has gone for six years.

For those of you who have tuned in late, Steve Wilkinson is a Harvard-educated writer, having been only one of seven to be selected for Archibald MacLeish's creative writing class. Out of college, he went to work for Cosmopolitan magazine, switched over to Holiday magazine, where he worked for a while. One day somebody suggested that he do an article about learning to fly, so he took his lessons, soloed, bought an Alon Ercoupe and promptly jumped ship for Flying magazine, where he was a part of the wonderful crew of writers that Bob Parke assembled. He was the editor of Car & Driver for a while-until David Davis decided he wanted his old job back-and then Steve moved back to Flying, where he became Executive Editor and married Flying's talented Managing Editor, Susan Crandell.

Fired by Dick Collins in a basically dull-vs-interesting personality clash ("the best thing that ever happened to me") Steve became a free-lance writer and his articles have appeared in Air & Space, Connoisseur, Pilot, Working Woman, Condé Nast Traveler, and many others. (The way I figure it, with what Steve gets paid to write articles for these magazines, our files must be worth more than his plane.) Steve also works with a crew that does a lot of documentary films that he writes-many of them such stupid self-serving promos that Steve can't even remember writing the five of his films which were proposed for Academy Awards-and many other writing jobs, most relating to the automobile industry.

Steve, Susan and their daughter, Brook, live in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, just down the Hudson from West Point. Steve works in his studio at home and enjoys the role of househusband while Susan Crandell commutes to the big apple where she is Executive Editor of Travel & Leisure.

For the record, Steve's Falco, N747SW, is the 31st Sequoia Falco to fly and has a 180 hp engine. The canopy, of course, is the standard, non-Nustrinified tall one. The paint scheme is presently cat-puke beige, and sometime this fall Steve will paint it in the final scheme-a 1960's Italian Air Force fighter paint scheme: grey overall with black on the top of the cowling, red-white-and-green rondelles and red elevator and rudder. All the external placards will be in Italian, and the N-numbers will be hidden under the horizontal tail. The sole survivor of the Free Italian Air Force's notorious Squadrone Marinara.

Steve has always maintained from the beginning that his only interest in the Falco was the experience of building it. Once it was finished, he'd probably just sell it. I've always found that hard to imagine, and so far Stelio Frati's skill at designing seductive aircraft is having an effect. Who knows what the future holds for Steve and the Falco? Maybe he'll sell it in a couple of years. Or maybe he'll fly it until he's ninety-five. I don't have a clue, but I do know that for the last six years, he's enriched the lives of us all. Thank you, Steve. It's been a wonderful time.

"Me and my Italian-components bike,in front of the airplane, in full Gregg LeMond getup, the point being that like any good yuppie scum, I ride my bicycle 46 miles round trip to fly my $74,000, 10.5-gph airplane in order to save a gallon and a half of gasoline plus a 75-cent bridge toll."--Steve Wilkinson