Sequoia Falco F.8L
by Stephan Wilkinson
This article appeared in the April 1987 issue of Pilot magazine in England.
It's probably hard for a European to understand how baffling the handling qualities of a Falco are for American pilots brought up on our Buicks of the airways. Stolid, steady Cessnas and predictable Pipers... admittedly remarkable airplanes in the artfulness of the compromises their designers have chosen to make in pursuit of all-things-to-all-people utility, safety and economy. But outside the ranks of pure-aerobatic machines, we have no winged Ferraris, no aerial Porsches, not even any MG TCs. Oh, people make a fuss about Mooneys being sporty, and 3l0s were once thought of as hot rods, and I'm sure there are homebuilts that handle daintily.
But the Falco is a bolt from the blue for a pilot with yoke-shaped hands and chair-contour buttocks, a totally new set of sensations for the aviator who wants a good roof and preferably even a wing over his head, a shock for the airman who soldiers along with bobweights and bungees, springs and wing levelers lending a hand.
I remember the first time I ever drove a sports car-it was a TC, in 1955-and my first flight in the left seat of a Falco was much the same. The same narrow, dark scuttle into which your legs disappear, the same high-arched panel in your face, the same sudden feeling of a vehicle cuddling you in a sparse cockpit while at the same time opening an unaccustomed 360 degrees of airiness all around. The same unbidden skittering until peace was made with the unaccustomedly sensitive controls, the same total disruption of all your old kinesthetic cues, the same shocking realization that an entire world of new sensations waited Out There.
Few homebuilders get the privilege of first flying the same kind of airplane they're building, unless it's a common type such as a Pitts. The rest of us buy kits and plans based on hearsay, hangar stories, emotion, wishful thinking and the enthusiastic pilot reports in homebuilder magazines that never met an airplane they didn't like. (In part because many of their reports are written by the people selling the very airplanes they're describing.) Thanks to James DeAngelo, however, I'm one Falco-builder who was able to get an early taste of the banquet to which I'd already committed a considerable amount of money and effort.
DeAngelo is a Wallingford, Connecticut baker, a maker of fine Italian pastries, breads and wedding cakes, who admits that he was drawn to the Falco because it was Italian. His was the fourth kit-built Falco to fly, and Pilot chose to test it because it's a representative airplane: competently built but not compulsively over-detailed. Made on a budget-older avionics, a nearly run-out engine-rather than being a cost-no-object showpiece. And an airplane that utilizes virtually every available Sequoia Aircraft Corp. kit component rather than being the product of some innovative homebuilder's deviations from stock.
In other words, it's the airplane you or I would build. DeAngelo even did it in a one-car garage, the walls of which he progressively knocked out as the airplane spread its wings. (His first glimpse of the entire airplane, in fact, came only after roll-out. He'd even managed to paint the near-faultless sweep of the fuselage stripe piecemeal, spraying one section through a garage window, the next through a door, never seeing the entire arc). Other Falcos claim to be faster, and there will doubtless be some slower-there's a candidate under construction in my barn at this very moment-but the DeAngelo airplane is a realistic example that shows the inevitable compromises, minor faults and vast virtures of the modernized version of Stelio Frati's classic design.
Much of the emphasis in recent Sequoia kit advertisements has focused on the Falco's speed, partly because of competition from increasingly popular composite-airframe kit homebuilts such as the Glasair and Lancair-plus the big-engined aluminum Swearingen SX-300-making a wide variety of 200- to 250-mph speed claims. The contest seems a bit like electric and acoustic guitar makers arguing about those instrument is louder: ultimately pointless, for the builder attracted to the instant-airplane fiberglass designs or the King Kong Swearingen will have little in common with the heretic mesmerized by the prospect of converting spruce to sawdust.
And it is handling that is the Falco's strong suit, not simply speed. Handling so sweet it makes you wonder why you've spent twenty years heaving yokes and stomping on pedals when the opportunity to instead tickle a Falco's stick existed. On takeoff, you wait for the controls to heavy up-"to come alive", they call it over here, as though life were a dead weight-but unless you're gauging the pressure with a single finger, you'll wait forever. The Falco slips into the air subtly-not hesitantly, but nor is there the rotation-and-lunge of other lightplanes. Take-off torque is surprisingly strong, for this little 160-hp, 1880-pound woodchip wonder's power-to-weight ratio is lower than that of almost any production U.S. single.
On climbout, strict attention to the rudder is needed to keep the airplane straight. Takeoff flaps (fifteen degrees of the total 45 available) can be retracted right after the wheels are in the wells with imperceptible sink and hardly any change in pitch attitude, and initial climb is strong and stays that way: DeAngelo and I averaged a stopwatch-timed 1,210 fpm from a near-sea-level takeoff to level-off at 7,000 feet, 120 pounds under gross weight on a standard day (fifteen degrees centigrade on the ground), and we were flying it at a cruise-climb rate of 105 knots to retain over-the-nose visibility. (No builder has yet completed a Falco with the optional 180-hp Lycoming installation, but that engine should make the climb even more dramatic and give a Falco the ability to quickly reach and comfortably cruise at oxygen altitudes and bust through lower-level icing without the complications of turbocharging-to me the prime advantages of over-powered/underweight airplanes.)
In cruise and even doing aerobatics, the only way to fly a Falco is to rest a forearm on your thigh and literally hold the stick between thumb and forefinger. A firmer grip overwhelms the control system, and instead of the pilot reacting to what the airplane is saying the controls will be responding to the weight of your wristwatch or the unconscious angle of your hand. Unfortunately, the Sequoia Falco's sticks are not the ideal shape for such delicacy, though future kits will apparently correct even this tiny fault. Transplanted largely intact from the 1960s Italian production version, the sticks end up about two inches too tall in the kit-built version which has thinner seats and utilizes a different stick grip. The result is that you finger them just below the rubber handle.
Whether or not it's typical of kit-built Sequoia Falcos-and I'd guess it will prove to be-Jim DeAngelo's airplane is a 155-knot cruiser: 180 mph on 160 hp at 7,000 feet and at a rational power setting (23 inches/2,400 rpm). The real-world speed was confirmed by a 112-nautical mile run between two VORs, half of it upwind and half downwind, during a glass-smooth, clear, temperate (+6.5° C at altitutde), relatively, windless New England autumn day with the airplane at a mid-cruise weight. True airspeed computed from the ASI insisted that we were going 158 knots, but the ground going by doesn't lie.
One U.S. Falco kit builder, Karl Hansen, claims a speed of nearly 230 mph at 6,000 feet and says he typically cruises at 195 to 200 mph at 60 to 65 percent power settings, and the well-known Luciano Nustrini full-race Falco is supposedly capable of over 240 mph. Perhaps... though I find the concept of a fifty- or sixty-mph speed difference between identically configured airplanes ostensibly of the same horsepower difficult to accept. Nustrini's modified but factory-built 1956 Aviamilano has ram-air induction, a lightened interior with a tiny instrument panel, full landing-gear doors, aileron and flap-gap seals, no wing walks and a wax job glossier than Tina Turner's lips.
Hansen has also installed full gear doors, and Sequoia's Alfred Scott insists the doors are worth as much as ten knots in speed alone. Hansen is also using a no-filter induction system that he says gains him another 2-1/4 inches of manifold pressure at altitude, as well as a wide variety of aerodynamic tricks.
All three of these airplanes also make use of the most obvious of Nustrini's speed mods: the "Nustrini canopy", offered as an option with Sequoia Falco kits. With a lowered roofline, aftswept canopy bow, steeply raked windshield and gently faired runout from canopy trailing edge to tailcone, the Nustrini canopy looks infinitely better than it works, and it seems odd that many of the same enthusiasts who worship Falco designer Stelio Frati should appear so ready to ignore the cockpit canopy that he postulated as correct for the airplane. (Sequoia's Scott estimates that fully half his current builders plan to install Nustrini canopies.)
The lower half of the laid-back Nustrini windscreen shows enough distortion to confuse the issue of exactly where the runway is when the nose comes up in a flare. The relatively fat windshield frame, a beefy spruce lamination, leans aft to a point where it becomes especially obtrusive in the pilot's range of vision. And worst of all, there's no room under the canopy: I'm five feet eleven inches and had to fly with my head cocked to the right to keep me from constantly rapping the Plexiglas. The Sequoia Falco's moderately reclined, thin-cushioned seats numb your coccyx after about 45 minutes, and though the ache might be eased by a slight shift in position, the Nustrini canopy to your left and the passenger's shoulder on your right literally lock you in place.
Having ridden in a production Falco with the stock canopy and having now flown one with high-speed version, I find the latter a triumph of sex appeal over good sense. Unless a builder is seriously knots-crazed and plans never to spend more than an hour at a time in a Falco, the original Frati canopy should be retained.
The Sequoia Falco has a splendidly modern and effective instrument panel that Scott somehow managed to fit within the confines of the haphazard 1950s/60s panel. (The space is tight enough that the front fuselage tank includes a large notch into which the radio racks nestle.) Resembling the panel of a tiny turboprop rather than the Royalite-trimmed displays of many singles, it in some ways anticipates the no-nonsense panel of the Piper Malibu.
Power controls are now smooth-acting quadrant levers rather than plungers, and the instrument layout is neat and coherent, with room for a surprising number of wallet-flattening toys, some undreamed of when the Falco was first designed: electric outside air temperature; a panel-mounted, voice activated intercom unit (headsets are a virtual necessity in any Plexiglas-canopied airplane, and the Falco is no exception); an electronic fuel-flow indicator/totalizer; an ammeter and voltmeter and an alternator analyzer.
There's also a battery of little miniature-bulb warning lights that some-especially those who have managed to make do without blue and white bulbs to indicate that their strobes, fuel pump, master switch, landing light or nav lights are on-might argue are excessive especially while they glow mindlessly at night. (One logical school of cockpit design holds that nothing should ring, beep, peep, whistle, wink or illuminate unless there's something terribly wrong.)
The only other change I'd make would be to relocate the landing-gear switch to the center of the panel, near the power quadrant. As configured, a takeoff, missed approach or go-around requires the left hand to be on the stick while the right sets and guards the engine controls, then you switch hands to raise the gear, then dance back again to bring up the flaps with the switch below the power quadrant. (DeAngelo's Falco has an optional left-hand-throttle installation for aerobatics, but even that requires switching hands to reach the flaps.)
I'd expected something close to a neutrally stable airplane, probably because the Falco's controls are so light that ham-handedness makes the machine at first feel unstable. Also, the elevator trim is easily the least-used control in the airplane, largely-I think-because the minor trim changes caused by gear, flap and speed changes are more conveniently dealt with through almost-inadvertent stick pressures than through trim-wheel-cranking. But surprisingly, the Falco is decidedly stable in pitch and after displacement returns to level flight with only two well-damped and moderate phugoids. The airplane also snaps back to normalcy after an extreme cross-controlled skid without any tendency to fall off on a wing, though it's subject to spiral displacement due to the slightest lateral weight inequities. Nobody should consider flying this airplane hard IFR without a wing-leveler (installation of which is fully accounted for in Sequoia's phenomenally complete Falco blueprints).
Instrument flying will be a bit of a challenge in a Falco-at least for those unaccustomed to making tacan approaches while juggling charts and joysticks in F-4 cockpits. A control stick is a dynamically unstable device: it wants to fall over, especially when it's part of control circuitry as light as a Falco's. A yoke would just as soon stay centered, aided not only by its symmetry but by the intermediate plumbing, bicycle chain and bushings between it and even the beginning of the control cables. A Falco on the ILS will doubtless go exactly where you tell it go exactly when you tell it, but I'd just as soon trundle down the glideslope in a machine that doesn't need to be told quite so often.
Another problem for instrument pilots will be the considerable range between letdown airspeeds of 160-plus knots and the 108-knot gear-extension speed. With power back to twenty inches, it only takes a 500-foot-per-minute descent to put the airspeed right up against the yellow arc (161 knots), and 1,800 fpm down is all that can be managed without exceeding Vne (208 knots). In the real world of instrument flying, that's going to mean occasional engine-chilling descents with power back to idle and the prop at full fine pitch for braking-the only speed control a Falco offers-followed by some interminable deceleration to gear speed that makes you need to plan well ahead for marker inbound. Especially if it's your own loving labor that crafted the landing-gear doors.
(Some would say this is irrelevant for a homebuilt, but Sequoia'a Falco promotion does depict an instrument panel replete with dual King Silver Crown navcom, glideslope, ADF, transponder, DME and marker-beacon lights a standard panel fitment.)
The Falco stalls relatively benignly for the high-performance airplane it is. The beautifully harmonized controls-easily the best-matched pitch/roll yaw combination I've ever flown-remain effective right down to the stall, and there's no need to mop the cockpit with the stick to stay in control. There's only the slightest burble before the stall-DeAngelo chose not to mount the leading-edge stall strips that assumedly would give greater warning-but the pitch-down is moderate and straight ahead, power off or on. I'm told the Falco can easily be pulled into a secondary stall, doubtless as a result of overeager recovery combined with the light stick-force-per-g, but normal recovery causes no such problems.
DeAngelo also chose to install non-aerobatic gyro instruments, and as a result of their increasing lethargy has stopped doing aerobatics. Timing a roll resulted in a relatively moderate seventy degrees per second, but a better aerobatic pilot could probably improve on that with a more precise, less barrel-y procedure. Construction technique could have an effect as well. A rate of 140 degrees per second was routinely claimed in the late 1950s for Frati's F.14 Nibbio, a scaled-up four-seat Falco, and Scott consistently clocks his own arrogantly ratty production Aeromere Falco at just under 130 degrees per second. He also points out that each of the two new kit-built Falcos he has flown seemed slower in roll than in his elderly airplane. The Falco's wings and ailerons are subtle shapes, and there may be more than a little legerdemain in the relationship between them-a synergy determined by precise control-hinge placement, correct aileron-gap depth and exacting aileron construction. Still, it was obvious that the light stick and rudder forces, the precisely mated controls and the reassuring solidity of this +6/3g airplane-it has a main spar the size of a tree truck and a monocoque melding of the airframe that makes it a super-rigid little splinter-would make occasional aerobatics irresistible even for those of us who find that (as an airline-pilot acquaintance once put it) straight-and-level pays better.
And finally-every pilot's cake-icing whether you're an Italian pastry-maker or not-the Falco's approach characteristics are predictable and its touchdown satisfying. Eighty knots is the approach speed DeAngelo uses, and it not entirely coincidentally puts the ASI needle straight up and down. Though I'm told it's not uncommon on European airplanes, that's a configuration 90 degrees opposed to U.S. usage, which generally has the needle roughly horizontal on approach. Scott's intent, in specifying the design of the instrument face, was to have the fast/slow indications of the needle during an approach analogous to a car's speedometer rather than maintaining the aviation convention of having the nose pushed down when the needle goes up and vice-versa.
Though 80 knots might seem fast (seventy knots would be 1.3 Vso), the airplane decelerates surprisingly rapidly for a machine apparently so slippery. In fact, gear extension alone requires a goodly power application-throttle up to about 21 inches-to maintain level flight on the downwind, and DeAngelo considers normal landing flap to be only 20 degrees of the rather large slotted flaps' full 45 degrees; the latter he reserves for power-on short-field approaches, for he feels it too often leads to a hard touchdown if treated as a standard landing configuration.
The Falco's brakes are relatively small and shouldn't be called upon to save a hot landing halfway down the strip. DeAngelo says he approaches every touchdown as the beginning of a no-brake landing. (Unless builders choose to install the optional pilot's side footwell rather than the standard flat floor, they'll have to remember to steer with their heels during the rollout while keeping their toes from making unwanted brake applications. Most of us who fly roomy domestic iron have gotten in the habit of working them with the balls of our feet, moving toes up to the brakes only when necessary, so this takes a bit of self-discipline in the Falco at first). The airplane does seem to need nimble feet on rollout, perhaps because the trailing-link landing gear that does such a good job of absorbing touchdown loads also imparts a self-steering action rather than a dead-center tendency.
Is DeAngelo happy with what he hath wrought, now that he has just over 100 hours on the airplane and knows where his $35,000 went? (You'll spend a lot more than that on a kit-built Falco today, but Jim bought when prices were lower.) "I'm not trying to overglorify the Falco," he says, "but it's a terrific little plane. A helluva lot better than some of the professionally made airplanes I've flown. Down low, it feels like a sports car, and up at altitude, it's a totally different, smooth-acting cross-country airplane. And on the ground, it's a sporty-looking aircraft that everybody likes to look at. Frankly, I enjoy the attention."
And how about me? Did I assume I was building a placid, quiet, ordinary cross-country machine? In that case, I'd be busy writing a 'Falco parts for sale' ad instead of this article after flying DeAngelo's airplane. Was I a low-time pilot for whom stepping up to a Piper Arrow meant the big time? I'd now be convinced the Falco would eat me up, were that so. Was I depending on the Falco to be an idiot-proof IFR sedan? I'd best start practicing patting my head and rubbing my belly while folding a chart.
No, the Sequoia Falco is not any one of these things but a remarkably special airplane that offers a fair measure of the virtues for which American production machines remain unsurpassed-cross-country, VFR/IFR capability-but that could also have me doing something I've never done before: driving to the airport to go flying simply for the fun of it.