Back in the Air

by Stuart Gane

This article appeared in the September 1997 Falco Builders Letter.

The morning after the accident to G-GANE in Belgium, Vivienne came to visit me in the hospital. By the expression on her face she did not look very happy. For a second, I thought she might be disappointed that she was not going to collect on my life insurance, as I was very obviously alive and well, if not a little sore from our bounce into the trees of the Ardennes Forest. There again, I thought she might herself be in some pain as she was sporting a huge black eye which even a panda would have been proud of. After a brief conversation, and exchanging details of our injuries-which thank goodness were minor-Viv told me she had been to see our Falco, which had been removed from the site of the accident and placed in a hangar.

I could tell from the manner in which she was describing the state of our aircraft that it was badly damaged, although she did not actually use the words "the Falco was a write-off". It was while she sat at the end of my bed trying to, very sympathetically and kindly, let me know how bad the damage was, that I resolved, if at all possible, G-GANE would fly again.

The first thing I wanted to do after listening to the bad news was to go and see the damage for myself. However, the hospital authorities had other ideas. They knew that if I did not remain in their care for a minimum of 24 hours, they would not be able to recover their expenses from the UK health authorities. So I had to sit and wait for about four hours until they would release me. Part of the time was spent walking somewhat painfully down the hospital corridors until I realized that the hospital gown I was wearing was most respectable from the front, but left little to the imagination when viewed from behind (no pun intended). I hope my brief appearance in the doorway of the wards I passed brought a smile to the little old ladies that seemed to occupy most of the ward's beds.

The first destination after leaving the hospital was to see how bad the damage was to G-GANE. As we traveled along the Belgian roads, I became even more determined that I was not going to be phased by what I saw when first setting eyes on our Falco. When we eventually arrived at the hangar, I had psyched myself up to the point that no matter how little was left, or what others said, our Falco would be repaired.

At first sight, even I was taken aback at the state of the Falco. It really did appear a wreck. While preparing this article, I looked again at the photographs taken shortly after the accident. It is truly amazing and very sobering that we both walked away from the crash with no serious injuries. I think we must have used up our entire lifetime's ration of good fortune on that fateful afternoon. Mind you, it has not stopped us from buying our weekly National Lottery ticket, fat chance we have now. At the time, I was determined to play down the potentially dangerous experience we had been through just twenty hours before. I suppose that was my way of dealing with what we had just experienced.

The remains were piled up in two large heaps with various bits and pieces, which had detached themselves during the accident, placed in smaller piles around the central mass-or perhaps it should be mess. The wreckage had a most distinctive smell which came from the fire service's foam. Everything appeared to be covered in a repugnant smelling brown sticky goo. This smell still haunts me even to this day whenever I catch a whiff of it from some of the equipment I salvaged.

Francis and Francine, our Belgian friends, looked on sympathetically as I shuffled around the heap, assessing how bad the damage was. Everyone was silent and seemed to be waiting for my reaction. Viv told me later, that when she first saw the state of the Falco while I was in the hospital, it moved her to tears. She knew how much time and effort had been invested in what was now just firewood. It did not help her emotional state to see that one of our flying hats had been placed on top of the splintered heap of wood, which once made up an aircraft of great beauty.

After a few minutes of poking at and lifting broken, twisted bits of wreckage, I said, to what I think was the amazement and disbelief of those with me, that I didn't think it was too bad and that I thought it could be repaired. I can tell you now, there was a considerable amount of bravado in those words. All I knew was that Viv and I had survived and that I was not going to walk away from seven years work. I had built the aircraft more or less from nothing, and it seemed to me that I was not going to have to start right from the beginning again. 'Look', I said, to the others. 'This is not damaged very much', as I pulled at the tail section of the aircraft while it lay on top of what remained of the crumpled and splintered remains of the forward half of the fuselage. I don't think anyone was very convinced.

It became apparent, to me at least, after ten minutes of inspecting the damage, that the Falco really could be repaired. The aircraft had split in two at frames no. 8, and the tail section remained attached by the various cables which ran fore and aft. There was very little physical damage to the tail section. A couple of punctured plywood panels, but damage beyond repair had been sustained to frames no. 8. Amazingly, the longerons in the tail section had completely escaped damage. The structure forward of frames 8 was fit only for firewood. The main spar had snapped on the left, leaving a forest of jagged splinters, ready to stab the unwary should they come to close. The spar had taken on the appearance of a splintered branch from a tree which had sustained a massive, explosive blow, shattering the structure to match-sticks and woody fiber.

The main gear leg had split and opened up like a tin can. The entire aircraft structure above the gunwales had been stripped away. The worst damage was mostly confined to the left side of the aircraft, which was almost totally unrecognizable. The instrument panel and the front fuel tank appeared to be undamaged. Fortunately, at the time of the accident, there had been no fuel spilled. The propeller had been bent on both sides to 90 degrees from normal and the spinner had been left with a rather comical upward bend to the front end. Covering everything was this foul smelling brown goo which, as I was to find out later, is highly corrosive and would create even more damage as it ate away at any exposed metal parts during the ensuing months. All in all, not too bad-really!

My bravado was all very well, but I knew that unless the insurance company accepted my claim, there would be little hope of rebuilding our Falco. Contact was made with the insurance company, who agreed to send an assessor to inspect the damage. In the meantime, the wreckage had to be moved to a safe place to await the insurance assessor and until I could make arrangements to take the remains back to the UK.

Viv and I were very fortunate to have the support of Francis and Francine, our Belgian Falco building friends, who not only allowed us to stay for much longer than was expected in their home, but also arranged to have the salvageable parts of the aircraft stored in a garage belonging to a friend of theirs. In addition, Francis offered to be present when the insurance assessor inspected the damage. Francis and Francine were a tremendous help immediately after the accident and for the weeks following. Without them our job of recovering the Falco would have been immensely more difficult. Francis was able to deal with the Belgian airport authorities who, while in no way were being difficult, nevertheless appeared anxious that no blame was placed on them for the cause of the accident.

Day two after the accident the remains of the Falco were placed on a trailer and roaded to the place of storage where they would remain until I was able to arrange for transport back to England. Viv meanwhile had returned home by Eurostar train, as she should have been at work two days earlier. I followed 48 hours later, feeling more than a little anxious as to whether our insurance claim would be accepted. It was to be some four weeks following the accident before the insurance company was prepared to regard G-GANE a constructional write-off. In the meantime, once we were both back in the UK, preparations were made to return to Belgium with a trailer to collect the Falco remains. No worries this time about the length of the main wing on a road trailer, there was only half a wing left, and besides, the engine had fallen off!

Some two weeks after returning home, we set off again for Belgium. It was not to be such a short or pleasurable trip when we crossed the English Channel en route to St. Hubert, full of anticipation on one of our longest journeys to date in a Falco. On that occasion, the entire trip only took 2 hours 10 minutes, this time it would take two days. On our arrival at Francis and Francine's home we were welcomed as one of the family. That evening we spent planning the next day's operation to recover one smashed up Falco.

The following morning the Falco was loaded on to the trailer ready for it's journey home. Merde, a French swear word frequently heard during the day's work, aptly described the sticky brown substance which covered the aircraft remains and ourselves by the end of the day.

Francine, Francis and Viv with the Falco remains loaded and ready to return to the U.K.

That evening we all went out to dinner. It was our way of saying thank you to Francine and Francis for their tremendous hospitality and generosity for all the assistance they gave, always with a smile and never for one moment giving any hint that we had taken a big chunk of their holiday time.

The journey home was slow. The polyethylene sheeting which we had used to cover the wreckage lasted about 2 miles before it decided to emigrate to Belgium. The remainder of the journey attracted some very quizzical looks as we passed by. We were not a good advertisement for how safe flying really is. At the Channel ferry port, we had to wait for three hours in the car park before boarding the ferry, during which time almost every car or coach load of new arrivals came and peered at our forlorn and smelly load. By now, the fireman's goo had dried to quite a dark brown, which looked increasingly like dried blood, which only added to folk's curiosity. Little boys seemed fascinated by it. I never did work out whether it was the sight of an aircraft up close or a gruesome desire to find a body in the partly shrouded remains.

The day after arriving home, the job of dismantling and checking for damage started. It was a strange activity to be pulling something apart which you had given so much care and attention to, over many years. During the first day it soon became apparent that the only part of the fuselage which could be used was the structure from frames No. 9 aft, including the rudder and elevator. Forward of Frame No. 9 the entire wooden structure was beyond repair. I contacted Sequoia with my shopping list to see what parts they had in stock, which turned out to be everything except the main spar.

How was I going to pay for the parts, as the insurance company still had not paid me? A few days later the insurance assessor telephoned to confirm that his recommendation to treat the Falco as a complete constructional write-off had been accepted, and all I needed to do was agree to a value for the remains. Having really no idea what a pile of excrement-covered, bent and splintered wood was worth, I sought guidance from the assessor who, acting as arbitrator, suggested a figure of £4000, which seemed reasonable in spite of the remains smelling and looking like a pile of sewage.

When I contacted Sequoia about placing an order after I had received the insurance claim money, Alfred very generously gave instructions for my order, which was well over £20,000 ($30,000) to be sent immediately, and I could pay on settlement of my insurance claim. There cannot be many companies that will send to a foreign country, goods of such considerable value without payment first. It was a great morale booster and a privilege to think that one could be trusted to that extent, and it also meant that I could start rebuilding before my summer holiday ended.

The rebuilding was not such a big task as it might have appeared. For one thing I decided to purchase as many parts as I could from Sequoia, and secondly, I still had all the jigs from the first build. I nearly threw them away once but decided to hang on to them in case they were needed. Not to tempt fate again, once I had finished using the jigs a second time, they were quickly thrown away.

I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly things came together. Three months after the accident the main wing was ready for skinning, and by 6 months I had skinned and taken the wing out of the jig and was ready to join the old Falco to the new. It was a bit like car 'rigging". Having built a Falco before, there was not the thinking time required, pondering how to carry out a particular task, I just got the parts and began assembly. Building Falco mark 2, I was able to change a few things which I did not like in mark 1 and correct a few things which could have been done better. One aspect I did not manage to avoid was the necessity for an aileron trim tab on the right hand side and a rudder trim, but at least I was consistent.

Stuart tractors the Falco out of the shop

I did however, manage to reduce the empty weight by 22 lbs. This was achieved by fitting a lightweight starter and substituting the right hand magneto for an L. S. E. electronic ignition system. The old carpet which had been soaked in fireman's foam was replaced with a much lighter type, otherwise the new Falco is a carbon copy of the old. It is the same Ferrari red with white stripes as before, although I used a different paint system, made by a company called PPG, which has given a superb result and has been very easy and forgiving to apply. Well worth considering if you are near the painting stage. I understand it is available in the US as well as the UK.

A quick prayer before leaving for the airfield

Falco 2 flew for the first time on August 17th, 2 years, 1 month and one week after the incident. I did the test flight, having re-familiarized myself with the type in Neville Langrick's G-BYLL. The second maiden flight was just as gratifying as the first. I made damn sure that the Falco was well into the flying envelope before we broke ground. Readers may recall it was during take-off that we had our mishap. Boy did we leap into the air as I relaxed pressure on the column! It was great to be back.

The PFA, our regulatory authority in the UK for homebuilt aircraft, were superb, once they had tracked down the chief engineer, Francis Donaldson, who, although taking his annual leave, gave permission for the test flight from a phone somewhere in Scotland. The Falco was put through its testing programme and given its permit to fly, all within two weeks.

Of course, I wish we had not had the accident in the first place. For one thing, Vivienne is not quite so sure about flying as she used to be. So far, she has flown twice in Falco 2 and each time she gains a little more confidence. We even flew to France a few days ago, but she is far more tuned into what is going on in the cockpit now. As for me, well, I must be some sort of masochist, as I truly enjoyed building the Falco just as much the second time.

I have now been building Falcos since 1986 with an 18-month flying break after the first seven years. It is hard not going into the garage of an evening to cut and glue plywood anymore. I don't think I would have been prepared to spend so much time building again if the Falco had not been such a superb plane to fly and a machine of great beauty. I remember walking down the homebuilt flight line for the first time at Oshkosh and seeing this vast array of amazing flying machines and wondering if I was going to see something that I would have preferred to build. There was nothing, and I still feel the same today.

During the 25 months of rebuilding Falco 2, I have had plenty of time to reflect on why we had the accident and, like so many previous aeroplane accidents, there were a number of factors which led to what could have been a tragedy. The time of our departure was the hottest part of the day with a temperature of 98°, so hot that the wing walk on the sunny side had slid off the wing and was partially lying on the grass. The aircraft was inadvertently filled with more fuel than I had intended because of a misunderstanding due to language difficulties. The airfield was at 1800', which calculates out at a density altitude of 6000'. I lined up the aircraft where I had seen a glider tug taking off all day, which, after the accident, I was informed was not the correct place. ATC did not tell me to move at the time because they could not speak English. Consequently, on our take-off run, we hit a trough in the grass which launched us prematurely into the air. Had we gone to the correct position on the grass runway, we might have missed the trough altogether. In addition, the Falco aircraft was at almost maximum weight, which would have made our climb out performance very poor in any case.

It was a tough lesson to learn, but c'est la vie.