My First Flight

by Stuart Gane

This article appeared in the December 1993 Falco Builders Letter.

Vivienne and Stuart Gane with the 39th Sequoia Falco

Little did I know it at the time, but September 7th would be remembered forever. It began with the routine preparations for a normal day, a rushed coffee, feed the dog, the last-minute dash around the house to find something, all done in less than 25 minutes from getting out of bed. Then into the car for the 17-mile drive to Cheltenham, slowing down for those secret places where the traffic police hide waiting to pounce on unsuspecting motorists who don't know where to look. Vivienne, my wife, has a very keen eye after a number of early morning meetings with the local traffic police. I think they are possibly on first-name terms now.

One advantage of having to spend time in a car is that you have an opportunity to let your imagination take you to alternative destinations or plan activities more exciting and novel than the mundane day that lies in wait for you. We live in the Cotswold Hills, some 600 feet above the river Severn flood plain where Cheltenham nestles against the eastern slope of the escarpment. Part of our journey takes us right to the edge the steep escarpment slope where, given the right weather, it is possible to see across the Severn plain, sometimes as far as the Welsh Black Mountains, a distance of 60 miles. In this part of England, with the prevailing winds blowing from the West, you can often see weather coming in for the day ahead.

Today was one of those clear days after a series of weather fronts had passed through. The atmosphere was clear and lots of blue sky as far as the eye could see. A great day for flying. My mind immediately switched from its normal soporific state to how I could find time away from school to get down to the airport to complete the high-speed taxi tests which had been delayed by almost two weeks of solid grey clag.

During school, an observant pupil might have enquired why Sir was looking out the window so frequently, but none did. Possibly they were too engrossed in thinking of what else they could be doing instead of wrestling with the mechanical problems of their current project.

As the last boy left the workshop, I telephoned Ralph Vincent to check if he was available. Ralph is the inspector for my Falco and the would-be test pilot. "Yeah, no problems. Come on down. We'll do the taxi runs", was the reply. Some fifteen minutes later I was in Ralph's hangar looking for a suitable place to park my bicycle (Stephan Wilkinson is not the only cyclist-cum-Falco jockey, although he does it in more style with all the proper gear and, of course, the hat). The Falco was quickly uncovered and pulled out of the hangar, with the pre-flight checks being carried out whilst Ralph telephoned the tower for clearance to carry out the taxi tests.

The tests went well. Ralph did two runs to check the aileron response. The Falco wanted to fly as we raced along the runway. You could feel the wheels were barely making contact as they bounded over small irregularities in the runway surface. My duty was to call out the airspeed as Ralph concentrated on keeping the aircraft in a straight line. Port wing lifted at 34 knots and then the starboard wing rose at 33 knots. "That's it. This bird wants to fly", said Ralph as he slowed the Falco down at the end of runway 27. "I am going to do the test flight. She feels just right." At that moment, I realized what all Falco builders surely dream of was for me about to become a reality.

The taxiing back to the pumps for fuel was made in silence. Ralph kept whatever thoughts he had to himself, whilst my mind was racing about trying to recall if there was anything that I should have done during the construction of the aircraft which would turn a momentous occasion into a disaster. Did I always mix the glue correctly? Was the temperature sufficiently warm in the garage during those long cold nights which I had left a heater on? What about the 'Jesus joint' where the spar joins frame number 4. Did I use the correct technique for gluing? Will it take the weight of the aircraft when airborne? On and on my mind raced checking everything I could remember. Of course, everything had been checked before but this is a time of self-doubt. There is no going back once the aircraft is in the air. It is the ultimate test of one's craft skills to build an aeroplane and then to fly it, except that I was not going to be on this flight. God, I hope everything will be okay. What do I say, what will I do if it doesn't fly, or Ralph is hurt? And so my mind continued, conjuring up even more spectacular failures and disasters until we finally reached the pumps.

Once the canopy has been slid back, I climbed out conscious of the quiet reflective manner which had enveloped Ralph. I wished him the best of luck and walked away from the aircraft to leave Ralph to prepare for the test flight. I eventually stood some 50 yards away on the corner of the airport apron whilst Ralph busied himself in the cockpit. I had some very mixed feelings about what was due to take place. Some were rational whilst others were based purely on emotion. Although I would have loved to have been the first person to fly my Falco, I knew I was not sufficiently experienced. My flying has been limited to Cessna 152 and 172 types, besides Ralph was a very experienced pilot on many different types including the other Frati masterpiece, the SF.260.

Seven years after I purchased the plans, this was the day I had been working towards, the moment when all those countless hours of work would be put on the line. It was during 1985 that I purchased the Falco plans. I was attracted to the aircraft by a series of adverts in Pilot magazine. The Falco looked very sleek and appeared to possess the characteristics of a machine designed to move through air with speed and grace. Very different from the type of aircraft I had trained on which have about as much sex appeal as a Morris Minor car.

Having only a year before just completed building my house, I was looking for something to do which would be different and a challenge. So, off went my cheque to Sequoia for their brochure. By the time I had read all the booklets in the information pack, I had decided that this was to be my next project. It was not a very rational approach because at that time the pound was almost at parity with the dollar, but that's what an attractive aeroplane like the Falco does to you. When the plans arrived, I was initially a bit overawed by them. There were so many sheets, all beautifully drawn and printed. I studied them on and off for about six weeks before finally purchasing some spruce.

I actually started work on January 1, 1986. From then on until 1990, I worked most evenings and weekends gradually becoming more and more involved in the project. By 1989, the Falco was becoming too big for the garage. In order to keep the project at home, where I could at least meet my wife twice a day to remind her that she was still married, the decision was taken to build an extension to the house to accommodate what she must have thought was on occasions a cuckoo, and which seemed to be taking over the house and our finances. Six months work provided a garage suitable for the Falco and later, when the plane has departed if we ever made it to the Big Time, space for four cars.

The raised device in the back of the canopy is the GPS antenna

It seemed to me that as the Falco was going to be one of the most time-consuming projects I had ever undertaken, I needed to treat the construction of the aircraft as an end in itself. The flying would come as bonus at the end. Each rib or frame would have to be something to enjoy making for the pleasure of getting it right. What new skills I learned during the process and generous people I met who were willing to pass on their knowledge! There were times of frustration when the spruce would not bend sufficiently to take the profile of the leading edge on a rib without breaking into a multi-fiber expensive fly-whisk, and the great pleasure in discovering the joys of steam bending. I wonder what the neighbors thought as they passed the end of our drive and witnessed the clouds of steam and the gentle rumble of liquid emanating from the converted oil drum and wooden box long enough to cook any snake that might be kept at London Zoo. What annoyance and despair on discovering that all the hinges I had spent most of one winter making turned out to be made from metal of a lower specification than called for in the manual. They filled a 5-liter paint bucket when I disposed of them. I was so pleased with their faultless finish but it all came to nothing. I still have them now, and occasionally give the bucket a vicious kick. Not being able to face making them again, I purchased new ones from Sequoia. When I read in the Falco Builders Letter recently how somebody has had his total project destroyed by a flood not once but twice, I really appreciated in some small way what he must have felt seeing all his effort come to nothing. Take heart, it will be worth it.

Whilst the Falco gradually came together, I found it necessary to purchase various items of machinery which otherwise I would never have considered I needed, amongst the most useful being the bandsaw which, apart from cutting spruce, also proved capable of cutting other materials such as aluminum and fiberglass. Another machine which at the time was indespensible was the compressor and the pneumatic stapler. To use a pneumatic stapler is like having your own little machine gun. You can be in command of the situation with the plywood begging for mercy as it is forced to perform all sorts of unnatural acts. Seven years of working in a garage can do funny things to one's mind.

One major change was to raise the Nustrini canopy by 32mm. I did originally fit the canopy as per drawings but found that I had to bend my head to avoid hitting the plastic. This was fine for hangar flying but not something I thought I could cope with on a long flight. Even so, I was very reluctant to undo all that work. Eventually common sense took command. It did take some courage, I must say, to pull the thing apart. Raising the canopy and frame was easy but changing the dorsal fin and, worse, extending the canopy skirt took some three weeks full time work. The canopy is still close, but there is no need to bend one's head anymore. I'm glad I made the change.

As the Falco grew towards completion, I began to worry how it would be transported to Staverton airport. My mother-in-law asked if I was going to be able to take off using the driveway to the house? "Well, er, not exactly, Ma'am. The drive is not quite long enough." The drive in question being only 20 yards long. Eventually the problem was solved by using a 40-foot mobile-home transporter lorry.

In fact, it was not a problem at all. The Falco was split in two at frames number 8, and the front half still with the engine attached was towed down the drive with the ride-on lawn mower, and then winched onto the back of the lorry. The tail section was tucked in beside the front half of the Falco. It was all so easy in the end. Like a lot of problems, they are often only difficult in the mind. Before we left, I asked the driver not to go above 40 mph. He decided 25 mph was plenty fast enough and so we crawled our way to the airport. I think we must have caused one of the biggest tail-backs on the road to Cheltenham for years.

Once the Falco was safely installed in Ralph's hangar, I remember calling Sequoia for some part of other and telling Alfred I was nearly finished. "Another two months", I said confidently. Alfred muttered something about taking another 6 months. Alfred was right (he always is). Word soon got around the airport that a Falco was about and quite a few folks came and had a look. If you are the owner of a Falco, it would be very difficult to fly incognito. Those six months at the airport included two months full-time work during the school holidays. During that time, I did the final hooking up of the engine and avionics, and just when I thought I could apply for a permit to fly, word came from Virginia that the flap system had to be modified. That was another two days with my head buried in the bowels of the plane. At last came the final inspection. I was told to increase the thickness of the washers wherever a split pin was not entirely positioned right down in the slot of the castellated nut. Otherwise, it was okay.

The paperwork was completed and sent off to the PFA for a permit to test fly. Approval was received in just over a week. Insurance was taken out, and then all that was needed was a time when Ralph was free and the weather was suitable. We waited. It seemed as though the weather would never behave itself.

On completion of the pre-flight checks, Ralph taxied the aircraft to the runway. At last, after what seemed an interminable wait, the Falco was given clearance to take off. I am not sure how to describe that moment as the airplane began to move. Slowly at first and then rapidly picking up speed, the nose lifted, and she was flying. It certainly was a mixture of elation and fear as the little Falco climbed away. Happiness that at long last I was witnessing something that had occupied both my conscious and subconscious for so long. Everything was out of my control now, and there was nothing I could do until the aircraft returned. I recall thinking about how I had planned to have Vivienne with me and one or two friends who had taken a keen interest in the project. But there I was, standing alone at the corner of the customs building with nobody to share my thoughts, nobody to exchange the tremendous feeling of exhilaration. I did see a chap walking nonchalantly across the apron with his hands in his pockets towards me. I wanted to rush across and tell him that is my aircraft, I built it, this is its maiden flight, but he changed direction and walked behind the customs building.

Inspector and test pilot, Ralph Vincent, and Stuart Gane

Ralph flew the Falco for 30 minutes, returning to make a textbook landing. I need not have worried. She flew well but needed some trim on the right aileron and a trim tab on the rudder. Later that afternoon, Ralph and I went up together, and the Falco proved to be everything I had hoped for. It climbs like a bat out of hell. It is so positive in handling that if you want to bank left or right it seems only necessary to turn your eyeball in the chosen direction and around she goes.

Initially there was very little warning of the approach to the stall inspite of fitting stall strips, but with subsequent moving of the starboard strip higher up the leading edge there is now a very slight buffet before the left wing drops. I would guess the nose falls to about 30° in a full stall. Since the maiden flight, the Falco has flown another 4.5 hours including some basic aerobatic manoeuvres-all of which the aircraft performed impeccably, although it has proved very reluctant to spin to the right.

In level flight and without gear doors, it indicates 155 kts at 3,000' and 10°C. She climbs at 1400 fpm from takeoff, and the noise level is no problem. I am used to flying Cessnas without a headset so, in the Falco with a headset, the noise level is below what I have become accustomed to.

The Falco has a 160 hp Lycoming IO-320-B1A factory zero-timed engine (£10,000 including buying a core). The radio stack includes a Magellan 5000 GPS, KX155 nav/com, KR87 ADF, KT79 transponder and RST marker beacon. The interior has been upholstered in a light grey Connolly leather with two dark red flashes on the cockpit side walls, and the grey perforated leather to the seat cushions and back. The weight is 1,319 lbs with a CG at 64.9" empty but including engine oil.

The Falco has a white primer-filler paint which as been applied quite generously as I intend to fly it until everything has had a chance to settle down. As to the final colour, the current plan is to paint it Ferrari red with white stripes á la Hansen but that will depend on how tolerant the West Microlight filler which I have used is to high surface temperatures. We do occasionally get good weather in the UK, usually when I am at school and can't get away. I still feel withdrawal pangs every time I walk into the empty garage where it was built. I would do it all again if I could afford it and if Vivienne would let me.