A Legendary Airplane,
by Jean-Pierre LaFille
This article appeared in the June 1994 issue of Aviasport in France.
Special thanks to Kate Roy Christian for help with the translation.
If for everyone the legendary car is signed "Enzo Ferrari", the comparable airplane generally comes from the drawing board of Stelio Frati. A gifted Italian aeronautical engineer with soft pencils in a velvet-gloved hand, Stelio Frati has designed numerous airplanes with pure, slender lines-including the F.8L Falco of which everyone speaks but which very few have seen other than in a painting or in a photograph.
I saw a Falco once, years ago in a hangar at the Annecy airfield, but it was a sad sight amid a flock of Rallyes and Jodels, cut off from its aeronautical universe by a doorway, and it was too dark to be able to admire the purity of its lines.
However, last April my favorite editor-of Aviasport, of course-told me to drop by the town of Nevers one day, where a man by the name of Xavier Beck was prepared to let me fly in his personal Falco. This is why, in early May, I barged into the hangar of the aero club. There I discovered a beautiful airplane with pure lines attired completely in white, without cowling or propeller, surrounded by several businessmen, all of them a bit dirty from working on their airplanes.
I let them work in peace, went to lunch with friends, and returned just in time to see the last piece of cowling go back on and to help push the machine out of its hangar. I was then able to interview Xavier Beck and to try out his beautiful airplane.
Stelio Frati designed the Falco shortly after World War II. The prototype's engine was a 90 hp Continental, however after several flights-the Italian runways of the day being what they were-the engine was replaced by a 135 hp Lycoming 0-290-D2B.
The Series I Falco was born. It reached a maximum altitude of 18,000 feet, had a maximum speed of 202 mph and climbed at 950 fpm at a weight of 1,530 lbs. Almost immediately, the Series II was developed, with a 150 hp Lycoming O-320-A2A engine. It had a service ceiling of 19,000 feet, climbed at 1,070 fpm and had a maximum speed of 210 mph at a maximum weight of 1,700 lbs. The Series III Falcos had some minor improvements, and then, with a 160 hp Lycoming O-320-B3B, it became the Series IV. This Falco climbed at 1,140 fpm and flew at 212 mph in level flight according to the specifications. The gross weight was increased to 1,800 lbs.
Aesthetically, the Falco is almost perfectly designed-I say almost because, as the saying goes, perfection is not of this world. This impossible perfection might have been approached by using a slightly longer tail. The wing's aspect ratio is a modest 6.4, with 4° of aerodynamic twist and 5° of dihedral. The airfoil is the NACA 642212.5 at the root and 642210 at the tip. In the end, the result is classic and in good taste. I note that the wing has stall strips approximately 25 centimeters long near the root of the wing, that the aileron and flaps are apparently of equal length, and that the tricycle landing gear is retractable.
Xavier's Falco is a Series III but equipped with a 160 hp engine and a fixed-pitch prop. Xavier bought the Falco in February 1992, flew it to Nevers, and disassembled the plane with the idea of doing a detailed inspection. He estimated this would take three months, but it ended up lasting two years.
The first problem was the disassembly itself. The wing is constructed in a single piece that includes the cockpit and forward section of the fuselage. The tail section separates at the trailing edge of the wing, a technique that permits easy construction, but laborious disassembly and transport.
At the beginning of this process, the 'master mechanic' in charge of the reconstruction had 100 hours of flying time, but he was, in fact, barely capable of recognizing a screwdriver. Xavier Beck simply wanted to do everything himself, but he was careful to get advice from others on the engine, airframe, woodwork, fabric-covering and general tricks of the trade.
Everything was restored to new condition, including all new screws, bolts and wiring, and while they were at it, the Falco was completely equipped and approved for IFR. Only the canopy was formed elsewhere, on a mold created jointly with a nearby aero club. At last, in February 1994, the machine was able to fly again, after two years that were a bit trying on a gentleman for whom the maintenance of airplanes is still not his chosen profession.
On this spring Sunday afternoon, I was finally able to take my place in the beautiful machine designed by Stelio Frati. I had some fear that the cabin might be a bit too cramped, but I was immediately surprised at finding myself rather at ease. The cabin width is adequate, however from the moment I closed the canopy, I regretted that it is not three inches higher, which perhaps might harm the looks but certainly not the speed.
The cockpit is well designed. There's a single throttle in the middle which is not bothersome except during formation flying. The rudder is a bit cramped, since the pedals are very close to each other, but that is not a problem as long as you do not have to apply the brakes. The rest is traditional.
Taxiing is rather surprising and not very agreeable for a pilot new to the Falco. The suspension is hard and the steering makes for a certain amount of sport. The steering mechanism is a bit unstable, and this requires constant corrections. The problems are further aggravated by a central heel brake, but it's well known that an airplane is not made to travel on its tires.
At takeoff, the acceleration is not very rapid, despite our modest weight of 1,650 lbs, the maximum authorized for aerobatics. This is normal, however, since the airplane has a fixed-pitch propeller optimized for cruise.
Once in flight, after an uneventful gear retraction, the airspeed indicator shows 115 knots and a rate of climb a bit better than 1,000 fpm. The only problem during the climb results from the absence of rudder trim, and this requires that I lean a bit heavily on the right pedal, or fly with the ball to the right.
In level flight at 1,500 feet and 11°C, the engine reaches 2,450 rpm, and the speed settles down at 140 knots-a very acceptable figure for an airplane that is, at present, deprived of its propeller spinner. But what is excellent about this Falco is the balance and feel of the controls. It is endowed with exact, regulation longitudinal stability, a modest induced roll, and insignificant adverse yaw. The little Italian two-place responds immediately to the slightest input, but without being too lively, too unstable or too undisciplined. In a steep bank, for example, it does not drop its nose and loses only a bit of speed, which is not the case with most airplanes.
The only slight defect in the controls might be a certain lack of authority in the elevator trim, but that is absolutely not a problem as long as you have the stick at your disposal.
In the stall, the ailerons are totally useless, but if the stall is clean, the wing does not tend to drop excessively, and the plane recovers easily after a perfectly acceptable loss of altitude.
During aerobatics, the Falco goes about almost everything from cruise speed, however the engine quits abruptly whenever the G's go negative. But apart from this, few single-place competition planes are as pleasant to handle or have controls as precise. At the very most, I might criticize it for a slight lack of authority in the roll to the right-probably due to the design of the rudder or a slight error in rigging.
On approach, after a lengthy deceleration due to the cleanliness of the design, I drop the gear, then the flaps, and approach the end of the runway at 70 knots in order to land at 58-60 knots, since the stall with full flaps is only 52-53 knots.
Like the flare, the landing is easy to do precisely, however our touchdown is too hard for a trailing-link gear, probably due to excessive pressure in the shock absorber struts. Next comes the deceleration which is not effective enough for my taste because, even with firm pressure on the brakes, you roll almost 1000 meters, to say nothing of the zigzags due to the difficulty of steering during braking.
And there you have the impression left me on by the F.8L Falco, an extraordinary "flying prosthesis," an aerial vehicle with astonishing purity of line (especially with a propeller spinner), but not very agreeable during taxiing and a bit cramped for comfort, particularly on headroom and especially during aerobatics.