Launching La Dolce Vita

by Dan Dorr

This article appeared in the March 2004 issue of the Falco Builders Letter.

 

Dan and his Falco, christened 'Dolce Vita'

 

In college I majored in aeronautical engineering, and my first job after graduation was working as a civilian flight test engineer at the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB. I took that job because the flight test engineers would often get to fly in the back seat of the chase planes (T-38s and F-4s). On Saturdays I would drive over to the Mojave airport where Burt Rutan and his partners at the Rutan Aircraft Factory would fly demonstration flights in the Long EZ. During the two years I lived in the desert I learned how to fly, and I learned a lot about aircraft design. I also decided I would build an airplane.

I moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1985 when I took a job at NASA Ames Research Center. Some of the NASA pilots, who were also Air Force Reserve pilots, helped me get an Air Force Reserve pilot slot flying C-141s (and later C-5s) at Travis AFB, and off to pilot training I went. As T-38 training was winding down, and after a few years of pondering which aircraft to build, I decided it was time to start building. I chose the Falco because I wanted an airplane that was aerobatic with great handling qualities and also had good cruising speed and range. Plus the Falco was easily the most beautiful homebuilt design available. So in April 1988 I bought plans and started making a few wood parts in the woodshop at Vance AFB in Oklahoma. I was 27 years old.

During the first few years of construction I lived in apartments, so I only assembled the smaller parts-landing gear, ailerons and flaps, tail components, anything that would fit. The drill press in my bedroom was always a good conversation piece. I had two jobs (NASA and the Air Force Reserve), and I was finishing up an aero engineering graduate degree, so progress was slow. I knew it would take years to finish building the Falco (I was guessing about ten).

I met Larry Black and was able to see his Falco under construction about two years before his first flight. I took a lot of photos, and I referred to them many times over the years. Larry had good advice on most facets of the construction, and I called him several times with questions on things that had me stumped.

I needed a garage to get the construction seriously underway, and all the garages seemed to be attached to houses. Housing prices in the San Francisco Bay area are among the highest in the country, so buying one was a difficult proposition for me, but in 1994 I managed to break into the housing market. I finally had a two-car garage, and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. (I sold that house in 2001 for more than twice what I paid for it, so the way I see it, the Falco didn't cost me anything-it's the best investment I ever made, because the only reason I bought the house was to build the Falco.)

During the years that the fuselage and wings came together, I would usually attend the annual West Coast Falco Fly-In. These were fantastic opportunities to look closely at other Falcos, talk to the builders, and fly in the airplanes. During those years I flew with Larry Black, Ray Purkiser, John Harns, Dave Nason, Dave McMurray, Cecil Rives, and Bill Russell. I'm very grateful to all these guys for their outstanding construction advice and the experience of closely inspecting and flying in their Falcos.

I remained single throughout most of this time, and at the fly-in one year Dave McMurray noted "Dan brings a different girl every year." I met Alyson in 1997, and at the following West Coast Falco Fly-In, Pat Harns expressed her approval saying, it would be okay if I brought Alyson again next year. Apparently she had made the same observation as Dave. I agreed, and Alyson has gone with me to every fly-in since.

I loved my job as an engineer and pilot at NASA, but in 1997 I was ready for something new. I took a job flying for Southwest Airlines, which gave me more time off to build the Falco. Hauling cargo all over the world in C-141s and C-5s was also a great experience for me, but in 1998 I got out of the Air Force Reserve, which allowed me even more time to work on the Falco. My project was starting to look like an airplane. Alyson and I got married in 2000, and a year later we moved to the wine country north of San Francisco, where I now had a hangar.

Engine and systems installations took a couple more years, but by the middle of 2003, construction was complete. I made the decision to have the airplane painted before flying it, which I would not recommend. The paint job dragged on for five months, which was very frustrating, but the end result was very nice. It's amazing how a coat of paint transforms a 15-year woodworking project into a beautiful red Falco.

Larry Black graciously flew over to give me some stick time in his Falco before my first flight. Although I have about 7,500 flying hours logged, most of that time is in heavy jets, so the opportunity to practice landings in Larry's Falco was quite valuable.

The FAA inspector was very impressed with the airplane, but he withheld the airworthiness certificate because a few placards specified in the flight manual were not displayed in the cockpit. A "No Smoking" placard was one such example, and I said that I didn't feel that the missing placards were necessary. He said that the flight manual requires them, so they must be displayed. A few days later I crossed out the omitted placards from my flight manual, and since I was then in compliance, I received my airworthiness certificate.

First flight was on December 17, 2003-the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers first flight. I followed Al Aitken's flight test plan (thanks Al), and after the taxi tests, N708WC jumped into the air following a very short takeoff roll. There were no surprises during the flight, which lasted about 30 minutes (not even an aileron trim tab required). The landing gear stayed down, and the plane handled just like other Falcos I had flown. I stayed over the airfield and slowed it down to 60 KIAS, where a little bit of buffet told me it was about to stop flying. Normal approach speed would be fine, and it was time to descend for the landing. The wind was calm, and the landing was as smooth as I could have hoped for. It was a fabulous way to celebrate the centennial of flight.

I have 22 hours on the airplane now, and I'm having a blast flying it whenever I can. It climbs out at 1,800 FPM, and at 6,500 ft with 75% power, it cruises at 175 KTAS, or 201 MPH (computed by averaging GPS groundspeed in opposite directions). And the nosewheel doors have not been installed yet. The empty weight of 1,330 lbs. is a little heavier than most Falcos, but it has a lot of equipment. I installed the 180 HP IO-360 engine, inverted fuel and oil systems, a two-axis autopilot, oxygen, and IFR avionics.

In addition to all the builders who helped, I'm also grateful to Alfred and Susan for all their help through the years. I could not have done it without you. It's amazing to me that Sequoia Aircraft Corp. is a two-person company, and I'll bet that's unique in the homebuilt aircraft business. I also have to give credit to Alyson who helped on occasion, but who mostly put up with my obsession to build this airplane. Only a few times did she mention that I was spending too much time working on it. In my defense, I could only say that I'd been working on it for almost a decade before I even met her, so it obviously came with the package.

Aviation has clearly been a big part of my life, and building a Falco has been a dream come true. I really enjoyed the building process, and that continues, because there will always be things to tinker with on the airplane. But now, when I drive out to the airport, open my hangar doors, pull that beautiful red Falco out, and take it up for a flight, there is just no better feeling. Dolce Vita.

 

Dan and Alyson celebrate the first flight

 

 

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