by Bernard Chabbert
The following is a translation of one chapter of the book Manche et Manette (Stick and Throttle) by Bernard Chabbert, published by Air Press, 14 Cite de l'Ameublement, 75011 Paris, France and available from them for 120 FF + shipping-VISA cards accepted. Many thanks to Marcel Morrien, Richard and Catherine Clements, and Robert Cumberford for translating the chapter.
On the left side of the instrument panel, there is a dial labeled: indicatore di velocita.
Airspeed indicator in English. The figures on the dial go to 400, the marks continue to 450. The units are kilometers per hour. It's not usual, instruments reading that high. There's also a red line painted on the glass, at 383 kph, and a placard on the instrument confirming that this is the Vne. Speeds like that apply to 700 hp twins, you say.
Ma no, str..zo!
This is an Italian airplane, idiot, and Italian machines are made to go fast, capito? Moreover, this Italian machine is the golden standard of pure performance and elegance in a sporting design. Anglo-Americans even have a phrase for machines like this: "One of them red Italian jobs." It's a Falco, a Frati Falco.
Go ahead, tip your hat: Stelio Frati is passing. If you want to place him in the ranks of contemporary Italian engineer-designers, you must evoke names like Bertone, Gandini, Forghieri, Colombo, Chiti-those who work on cars. But they're not prejudiced in Italy. Airplanes, automobiles or motorbikes, the moment it's mechanical and it moves, it can become Art. Among Italian works of the twentieth century to be found in future museums, there'll be Ferraris, Lancias, Alfas, Agusta motorcycles, and at least one Falco.
If you are a violinist, you've dreamed of playing a Stradivarius one day, just as pianists dream about the Steinway, vast as an aircraft carrier, on which Bernstein interpreted the Rhapsody in Blue. If you're an aviator-not just a pilot-you've wanted to fly a Falco, or you will want to some day; after having seen one, caressed it with your eyes, your first...
In the Seventies, you could have bought an old Falco for 50,000 French francs [$10,000]. Then, we found it tiny, tight, noisy-too fighterlike to be a respectable touring aircraft. Today, at the end of the Eighties, you'd have to pull together ten times as much cash to buy a Falco, in any condition. In 1999, they'll be five times as expensive. I speak here, obviously, of true original Falcos, those built in small numbers in the Fifties and Sixties by companies like Laverda (which it seems still has the tooling). Since then, Falcos are built by homebuilders, certainly superb, but not original in the collector's sense of the term. Anyway, there are practically no Falcos for sale....
In the Seventies, I flew a Falco based on a superb airfield in a valley near the Alps. At that time, the instructors of the club considered that it wasn't enough to be capable and to want to fly it, but also worthy to climb the steps of a temple reserved for the initiated.
The expression, "casting pearls before swine" takes on its full meaning when one speaks of flying a Falco. It's not very difficult, no, rather it is subtle, nuanced. It's better, then, to keep such an airplane for true lovers of flying-and that explains why so few aero clubs bought Falcos.
In the nose, there's 160 hp. For such a small airplane, it's a lot. When you see how Frati cowled the engine, you'll want to burn all the other airplanes on the ramp. It's awful to see that they still build flying machines with noses like cauliflowers when the machinery of the Falco is housed in such a refined profile. The best of it is that the cowling is no harder to open than any other, and it cools as well as any normal airplane.
The Falco is wood, all wood. But it could have been made of ivory, the surface is so smooth. You're wide-eyed, starting to walk around it, figuring out how it's made. It's made like the Mosquito-of molded wood-and it's an assemblage of three sections.
The front, with the engine-for the fourth series, a 160 hp Lycoming with constant speed propeller. It was made by Laverda, builder of motorcycles, boats and... house trailers. Earlier series, made by Aviamilano and Aeromere, had 150 hp and fixed-pitch props.
That's followed by the biggest chunk of the airplane, the center section with the wing and cockpit, constructed like a boat hull, and of a quality that has nothing to do with ordinary cabinet work-it's violin-making. From Michelangelo to Frati, the Italians are artists.
And to finish, there is the rear fuselage, a spindle of great purity that ends in triple petals made by tail surfaces of the same construction.
The Falco is very precisely made by the most expensive-both in man-hours and knowledge-methods known. As it happens, these methods are also the most elegant, and above all, the strongest. Have you ever tried to crack a walnut with your fingers, without hitting it? The Falco is a streamlined walnut with 160 hp in the nose, light as a classical guitar and solid as a mountain. Of course, it is aerobatic, with an ultimate limit of 9 g's, for example. You gaze around the cockpit while trying to restrain yourself from saying "Amen" after every third dial.
Va bene: It's a Falco, yes, but it's also an airplane. On the right, the instructor has carefully explained how everything should be. You check the parking brake before firing up, and that's the first surprise. Frati is without doubt a great airplane designer, but he has never noticed how a man is designed, physically and psychologically. The Falco braking system proves it.
On the left, under the instrument panel, there is a big horizontal handle. Normally, a handle is pushed, or it's pulled. Not this one. To make it work, you must put two fingers on it and push it downward very hard. This puts both main gear brakes on at the same time. There is no differential, left-right braking. Hmmmm.
Now to set the parking brake. Pump this handle down a couple of times, and then pull on a knob placed above the lever that resembles the piston of an enema pump like the one the set designer of the Comedie Francaise still has, for Le Malade Imaginaire. Strangely, the piston stays pulled out. It must work. Especially since the instructor seems happy.
You look for the primer. No pump. It's like a car. So you shout, "Clear," turn the key to both magnetos, give the throttle a couple of pumps to squirt fuel into the cylinders, and hit the starter button. Brammmm. It's started. The noise is intense but agreeable. Nothing like the clattering and bangings of modern airplanes made of thin aluminum sheet. It's smooth, powerful, flat. If you wear a headset, it's even bearable.
Let's go. First the parking brake. Push in on the enema pump piston, jiggle the handle under the panel a couple of times to make sure, and the airplane's rolling. Brake test: push down on the lever, and the airplane vaguely pretends to slow down a little. Got it-brakes were invented right after the Falco was built. To leave the ramp by the paved taxiway, I have to turn. Push on the right pedal to steer the nosewheel, which is supposed to be connected to the rudder, and the airplane will make a vague curve that way. Whoa! It doesn't turn sharply, you have to anticipate far ahead. Rolling over a little joint in the pavement makes you think you just drove off a curb. As far as suspension systems go, the Italians have always liked their sports cars to be directly connected to the road. But an airplane isn't made to drive, it's for flying.
For my part, I prefer airplanes that fly well and have a hard ride on the ground to those that ride like Cadillacs and fly like paving stones. Oh, yes, those exist. But let's stop psychoanalyzing the Falco on the ground and get it into the air.
End of the runway. Checklist. Try the controls. You wiggle the stick, and find it hard to believe that there are surfaces at the end of the linkage, it's so light. You need to look at the wings and the tail feathers to be reassured. Yes, they're out there, and they move. Immediately, anxiety-what's it going to be like in the air, with transparent controls? It'll be necessary to be gentle, gentle... And since there's nothing left to check, there's nothing to do but spring into action. Let's take off.
The visibility is phenomenal. You have a superb view of the runway, ahead and to the sides, and you advance the throttle deliberately, without braking. The airplane starts instantly in the dull fracas of the engine, accelerating like a Group B Lancia rally car, straight ahead like a jet. By the time the throttle is full on, you're already at 100 kph! You're a little stupefied, you let a second pass and force yourself not to pull back, not even press the stick aft, to take off. Think, "I'll take off," the thought runs along your arm to two fingers delicately poised on the grip, and the Falco flies away, straight as a string. Bring the wheels up, hit the switch, and the cockpit erupts with the sound of a palace coup-it's the flap warning horn. "Ignore that," shouts the instructor from my right. The indicatore de velocita climbs like an arrow. You want to hold 160. You think 160. Fingers tremble. The nose rises, rises, and the needle stops exactly at 160. Adjust the engine and the prop. One eye on the rate of climb-God of the skies! With two big guys aboard, with a half tank of fuel, it climbs at a constant 1200 feet a minute, the airplane firmly on its trajectory, spirited as a Ferrari under the two fingers.
You climb, you think about things like "right turn, 45 degrees bank angle," and the Falco swings right at 45 degrees. Or "level off," and zip, you're there. It doesn't obey you, it's an extension of the pilot. And it never goes farther than you ask it.
With behavior like this, right away you find yourself exploring the airplane in a peaceful corner of the sky. 30 degree turns? Ridiculous. Uninteresting. 45 degrees? Easy. The ball stays glued in the center of its tube the whole time. A 90 degree bank? Let's go. Index finger presses the stick perpendicular to the horizon, and your buns are welded to the seat. Tighter? A millimeter more aft stick, a little more g, another millimeter, you feel your cheeks start to sag, another millimeter, your elbows are heavy. Okay, boom, you reverse in the other direction! And in two seconds, as though on rails, the Falco finds itself in the same turn, but in the opposite direction. It's bewilderingly easy. It's the simplest flying, the purest that one can imagine. This airplane with the reputation of being touchy is, in fact, unbelievably docile. Yes, it is hypersensitive, but not hysterical. It obeys. It's faithful. It only does what you ask of it. And it does it instantly. An Alphajet is like a Renault R5 alongside this.
Never has an airplane so well deserved the nickname "little fighter." So, let's fight. We're in level flight, at 270/280 kph (cruising at 24 inches and 2,450 rpm; the performance of a good commercial airplane with twice the power). A little back pressure, hold it. Some g force, the nose climbs, climbs in the pure, clear skies above the edges of the Alps. Very softly, I roll to the right, the wing descends, and we make a beautiful chandelle.
Let's do that again. The right wing lowers until it points at the greenery far below, and the sun bursts into the cockpit, warming the face and hands. Turn slowly, and the nose tips down, very softly. I don't touch the engine, still at cruise power, and we drop into a slight dive-the airplane on the invisible rails of a gigantic scenic railway, scaled to the Alps that are visible in profile, twenty kilometers farther on, under the sun. The indicatore de velocita rises, but... it's rising quickly! Stop all this poetry. Reach for the throttle.
The instructor stops my hand. "No. Leave the nose down. Let it go."
"How far shall I go?" I ask.
All the way to the redline, then. It accelerates continuously, peacefully, a little frightening.
Three hundred and fifty kilometers. I've never gone so fast in a little single engine airplane in a shallow dive. It's not all that fast, in absolute terms, but in flying, everthing's relative.
Toward 360, I bring the nose up, very, very gently. Despite my care, I feel the airframe load up, as in a real fighter. The cowl comes back to the horizon, the airframe whistles a little. It keeps 360 kph without effort, flowing through the air with grace, like a salmon. Most other airplanes jostle the atmosphere to force a path through it, using a lot of power and energy. I mumble a few comments, and the instructor laughs.
"You should know Frati's test pilot pushed the Falco up to 600 kph!"
Evidently, I'd forgotten. [So has Frati. Don't believe this.]
It took a good two minutes for the speed to fall to 290, where it stayed with cruise settings. Consumption is then around 30 liters [7.9 gallons] per hour. It's sublime. The design of this airplane dates to 1955, and not only is it an exceptional beauty, but also its performance beats everything made since, even by Frati!
But there you are. Since then, engineers have emphasized making airplanes easier to fly, safer at low speeds, harder to stall, harder to spin inadvertently-pure performance sacrificed to safety. And I said as much to the instructor, who laughed again. "Oh, yeah? Let's explore slow flight, steep turns and all that tra-la-la..."
I slowly pulled the power off completely, not letting the Falco lose altitude. And I went at least fifteen kilometers to get down to 130 kph. I squirmed in my seat. With these tiny wings, thin as knife blades, it's going to stall sharply. Be alert. I started to drop the flaps and the gear, but the instructor stopped me.
"No, leave it clean. It's sportier."
That's what worried me.
3,000 feet. The engine murmurs, I hold the nose high, on a slope of at least 20 degrees, and I wait for the aerodynamic cataclysm. The ball is centered. The speed falls. 105 kph. Nothing. Then suddenly there's the impression of being machine-gunned with tiny bullets-more of a vibration than a shudder. The nose comes down by itself in the line of flight and stays there. That's all. Ah, I had the stick back just a little, I still held it there, but there was at least 20 centimeters to go. Okay, another centimeter back. The nose rises just a little, more bullet strikes, the nose shrugs, and bang, we're back in level flight. Good, I try again-stick back a little, bullets, a little stall. One ought to be able to continue like that for a long time. It's amusing, I'm not even afraid now. I now understand that Frati, in making this airplane, has succeeded in squaring the circle. Of course, if you yank the stick back with both hands, bawling like a logger, the Falco's going to depart like a cracked whip. But you'd have to be a little nuts, doctor.
So I'll play a nut case. I haul it back brusquely, the nose climbs, and bam, the Falco's gone, the left wing moves down, my right foot does, too, in the next half-second, by reflex. In the back of my skull a little voice says, "You're going to spin, dummy!" But no, the foot has brought the wing back up at the same time as the hand has moved the stick a few centimeters forward. The Falco flies, descending slightly at 100 kph, straight as a die. Ticklish, this Falco, but not vicious. Certainly not. Beside me, the instructor's laughing. This airplane makes him happy.
There's nothing left to do but land this Milanese jewel. Directly above the field, downwind, power back, I let the speed fall to 170 kph, put the gear down and in the process set 20 degrees of flap and 20 inches of manifold pressure. Level flight. The airspeed needle is exactly on 160. I verify that the wheels are out by looking at each wing-when the gear goes down, little red plates the size of a franc rise above the wing surface. They're up. The airplane is all set up. I feel a little nervous, but the instructor is watching the trees and pastures slide by our wings. He's sightseeing. Good, that's reassuring. I turn onto base.
160 kph is a little faster in the pattern than most light airplanes. Let's slow down, toward 130 for the stall speed of 100, just as the book says. 13 inches. Full flaps. Prop full fine pitch. 145 kph. A touch of power to lock that in. And with a finger, the last turn.
It's a dream, this airplane. A prosthesis for flying. You don't have to know how to fly. It's enough to look where you want to go, and it goes there.
Lined up on the runway, I leave the trickle of power that seems necessary. We slide down rails. Little gusts don't even have time to tip the airplane; I kill them instantly with tiny pressures. We pass the threshold at two meters. Round out, stick back a finger's width, and I gently remove the last trace of power.
The nose rises a little, the airframe whispers, it... thump. The wheels touch. Life is gone instantly. The nosewheel descends. Touches. Nothing left but to brake.
Ah, that's right. The brakes. Okay, don't brake. It doesn't matter, it's a long runway. The instructor speaks.
"Hell of an airplane, no?"
I've heard all kinds of things about the Falco. And I continue to hear all sorts of stories, of the "this airplane is a booby trap" variety.
So much the better. Let's hope that lots of people keep repeating it, that it's very, very difficult to fly. Very, very vicious. Let's not hold back anything. That way, there'll be room for the others, those who know-who know that the Falco is the archetype of Airplane, without doubt one of the five or six ultimate airplanes ever built, along with the Spitfire, the Jungmeister, and.... And?
In any case, bravissimo, Signore Frati!