First Flight: George Richards

by George Richards

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


October 21, 2003. The first run of my engine on the aeroplane.


Isn't it funny how many people can appear when you don't want them to. I'd just landed with a very rough running engine and the bloody thing stopped. Fortunately I'd made it off the runway but pulling the Falco to the hangar was a long hard slog. I would have preferred an empty airfield at that stage. But evidently the popping and coughing of my engine brought out all the "experts" to look on from afar. At least they could have helped pull the airplane, although if they said anything dumb like "Gee, you're lucky it didn't stop up there" (you think?!), like the only person with the decency to help, then forget it.

It was the third flight of my newly flying Falco when all the planned pleasure evaporated and a little more concentration was required. I'd just got airborne and was laughing to myself as I smoked (not literally I don't think!) past the preceding 152 when it was time to pull the power back a little. I'd only just moved the throttle a fraction of an inch, and I'd wished I hadn't touched it. Now the engine had changed from a smooth sewing machine to something resembling a jack hammer. I could see the left corner of the baffling trying to smack itself a hole in the cowl and the whole engine compartment took on a completely new dynamic. What did I do first?? Push the bloody throttle back in, quick smart! A natural reaction I guess, try to undo what you just did. Well fortunately it worked. It didn't give me a hell of a lot of power, but it was a lot smoother than before. I rejoined the circuit and when I was entering the downwind I dropped the gear to attempt to get the speed under control since full throttle was my only option unless I fancied a spot of gliding... er.. not today thanks.

Full power..ish gave me about 90 kts with the gear down. Not great but things could be worse. At least I could maintain height. I tried to reduce power a couple more times but each time the engine tried to abandon ship and beat me back to the airfield so I stuffed the throttle back in again. A tight approach and successful landing followed and as strange as it might seem, I was really enjoying myself since it was the first real bit of 'handling' I'd done in my Falco. After the landing I reduced power again and the engine quit. Not quite what I'd had in mind for the third flight, but at least I got the thing back.

After Einstein and I dragged my plane back to the hangar, I popped the cowls for a look inside. Everything looked OK but now my emotion turned to disgust. How could this bloody engine turn what should have been an enjoyable experience into such disgusting drama? I decided to push the thing into the hangar and get the engineer (mechanic, if you live in the USA) to sort the thing out. Turns out that the problem was due to a blocked injector nozzle. With the good old 1950's technology that we enjoy on our machines, the fuel control unit serves up fuel for four. When only three are doing the eating it makes them run way too rich as well. Added to this, my engine was running a bit rich anyhow, so when one shut down and the remaining rich three ran richer, it wasn't good. It could have been made to run better by leaning, but I doubt very much than anyone would be leaning the engine when it's trying to vacate the premises.


January 2, 2004 George Richards on his first flight.

After trying to get in the air on 29th Dec which had low cloud and poor viz .. then 30th Dec.. strong winds (not much of a summer at that stage) The 2nd dawned the best day we'd had in a long time. I'd been flying all night bringing NZ206 from Brisbane Australia to Christchurch, New Zealand.. When I finally got home I did my best to sleep for a while in the day but the weather was too good. I wasn't going to miss another day.

Taxi testing went pretty much as expected although I must say that after reading about the aileron and elevator testing I was dreading the elevator test somewhat. In reality it was simple, and the Falco did everything it was supposed to with no risk of getting prematurely airbourne.

First takeoff went great it climbed out just as it should have and everything stayed in the green. All turns etc felt normal. Stalls were just like the other Falcos I've experienced. Very small buffet and with Flap 15 the left wing dropped. Nothing too exciting and recovery was absolutely normal. Stall with F15 and power off worked out at about 58 kts so I planned on 80 kts for final.

Air Traffic Control kicked me out of the airspace since Qantas decided that they wanted the ILS despite no cloud and 99 K viz so I descended for the circuit. Approach with 80 kts felt great with F15 so the landing turned out to be uneventful.

All in all the first flight was a great success the only problems to date, a slight left wing heaviness and the exhaust burnt a hole in the cowl where it was too close. not too bad..

The next day I flew again and retracted the gear all went well. Despite some relective alloy tape, the hole got bigger so I'm making a more permanent mod to the cowl today since the weather is bloody awful again.

George Richards


Anyhow, all that seems to be fixed now but somehow things still seem to be conspiring against me completing the test flying. February is normally our best month down this way but for some reason the weather gods have decided to try and float New Zealand to a new location by dumping as much water as possible on it, and then blowing like hell. All in all, not a good Falco flying experience so far with 3.6 hours flown, 0.2 of those hours with an increased heart rate. While I hope that is not the conclusion to my Falco experience it certainly seems a disappointing end to what was otherwise a lot of fun.

Early 1994 was when it all started for me. I was browsing through a second hand bookstore while I waited for someone when I spotted my first Kitplanes magazine. "Hmmm, maybe these crappy shops are worth something after all". The book immediately sparked my imagination. The rest of the day was spent reading it from cover to cover. The plane that stood out, of course, was the Falco. I'd seen it several years earlier in a Flying magazine but never before had I considered building a plane myself. By then I'd got myself a job with Air New Zealand, I needed a new challenge and that was going to be it. About five years I thought, so I better tell everyone ten, just as well I did!

Living in a small country with a weak dollar makes purchasing parts in the US very expensive and right from the outset I knew that I couldn't really afford it. All the more reason to do it.

First things first, buy the plans. Here was my first setback. Holy Cow! Information overload. How on earth does someone make a spar like that! Instant 'mope around the house' mode. There was no way I was going to get my dream machine. But ever so slowly, after nights of lying in bed thinking and more plans inspection, I started to realize that this was possible and to hell with it. I was going to give it a whirl. Right. Let's spend some money!!

Since the kits were a bit out of range for me at that time, I started with a wood-to-size kit from Jean Peters. Within a couple of days of its arrival I had the Auckland Falco Factory in full production. After only one week I had a rib, or maybe two complete. Gee, won't be long now! Certainly the whole time spent building was doubled doing things like this. On the whole I enjoyed making everything, but I'm sure I spent a lot more time wondering if I'd ever finish than if I had bought the kits. I would certainly recommend buying the kits to anyone able to.

By the time I'd laminated all the frames I was sick of laminating and boy those wing ribs seemed to go on forever. At least with the kits you make aeroplane parts, but I was just making boxes of nondescript bits. I would generally make enough parts to make a structure, and then build it. I don't know if this was a better way or not but I guess it worked for me. While this method stopped me getting sick of making parts, it did slow the momentum considerably at times. Just when I was excited about finishing a structure, I was back to making bloody bits again. Not ideal, but that's the life of a plans builder I guess. I don't think I'd have the stomach to do it all over again without the kits, but I guess I'm a bit wiser now. I admit I completely underestimated the amount of work left in the job once the airframe is basically complete.


First touchdown

The call sign is ZK-SMR. ZK is only needed for international flights.


For the most part the construction went reasonably well. I spent a lot time thinking about how to do something and planning it in my head before actually doing it. With that said, there were parts that didn't go quite to plan, for instance, I didn't enjoy making the aileron and flap assemblies, and I did them more than once. I'm still not convinced I have a good method of making the flaps sorted out. I made things in a slightly different order due to space constraints. I built the fuselage before the wings and then tipped the front fuselage on its nose and built the wing up the other way (leading edge down) because the space between the rafters in my workshop wouldn't fit the firewall. Also the tilting door wouldn't open with the leading edge up but with trailing edge up the wing taper left enough room to get the door open and get a car in alongside.

The airframe is glued up with resorcinol, Aerodux to be specific. There is a bit of Aerolite in the tail, but I preferred working with the Aerodux so I stuck (no pun intended) with it. The only thing I didn't enjoy with the Aerodux was the ugly stain the squeeze-out leaves behind making the completed structure look a bit rough underneath. I guess a truly compulsive builder would mask the joints, but I didn't and so my structure doesn't look as pleasing as the Aerolite or epoxy-glued equivalent. I also had a crack at making an engine mount. It was a long drawn out exercise, (ask my wife), but the end result was quite pleasing despite having to make one 'leg' twice. On speaking to another builder I changed my mind about using it. He convinced me to be skeptical of my own welding so after much thought I decided to go with the peace of mind of a Sequoia mount, and I think I can trust the welds better than my own since I was relatively new to welding back then. Since then an engineer friend said something like "Aw heck, just keep your eye on it" but what's done is done, and it does help peace of mind. What I should have done, in hindsight if I wanted to make it, was tack weld it and get a pro to finish the welds off.

Nine and one half years from kick off and the aircraft sat basically complete in the hangar (in the very same spot Luciano's famous I-ERNA sat) sans paint and interior, awaiting final inspection.

The aeroplane itself at this stage was, and still is, very basic. I wanted a very basic VFR aeroplane and so all I have for radios is an ICOM IC-A200 comm and a Microair T2000 transponder. The only gyro I have is a turn co-ordinator, although I do intend to put in a horizon at some stage soon. For engine instruments I opted for the Rocky Mountain monitor for a few reasons. Mainly since I could get all its functionality for a low cost but also because it is very light and since I have an electronics background, I could build it myself. I did have reservations about digital gauges as I have never really been a fan, but I've got around some of those problems with a good colour-coded placard I designed myself. I also have the Rocky Mountain encoder, and I really like it. I particularly like the TAS at the flick of a switch and the fact that it makes a good backup all in one instrument. One slight omission (no, not a mod) I made was to leave out the vacuum system. The only experience I've ever had with vacuum systems was bad, so I decided to go all electric. With a well-planned system, I figure it will be more reliable and my aeroplane is only intended to be VFR anyhow.

The engine decision was made about mid-project. I had changed my mind several times on engine size until one day I had the pleasure of meeting Luciano Nustrini, who was certain that the best engine for the Falco was the 320. How could I argue with someone with so much experience with Falcos? So the search was on for a used 320, preferably without too many accessories so I could add a few light weight options. After quite a lengthy search, I found one in Sydney, Australia and had it shipped here. The engine had suffered a prop strike. Actually it had a whole aeroplane strike with the demise of the occupants, but I try not to think too much about that.

I had the engine stripped down and my engineer was pleased with the internals so we top-overhauled it and put it back together. I purchased a light weight alternator and was ready to test run the engine but still needed a starter. I tried to order a Magnafight starter but was advised that there had been a number of case failures and so the company had removed the starters from the market while they sorted out the problem. I looked further. I had heard a lot of good things about Sky-tec starters and, while they didn't fit the Falco, I knew that there was one about to be released that would. I emailed Rich Chappie at Sky-Tec and pleaded with him to let me have one pre-release. Rich was great and I can honestly say he really knows what customer support is all about. Even though he could have told me to bugger off, he took time from his busy pre-Oshkosh chaos to make and ship me a starter. The new NL starter fit like a glove and has behaved flawlessly right from the first start. It has masses of torque and spins the prop on my 320 as if the spark plugs were left out.


Kiwi body language.


With the lead up to the final inspection, I got my engineer to go over it and give me a hand with a few remaining items. This period I didn't enjoy, it was too much like hard work. Kevin, the engineer, worked like a man possessed and since I was paying him I couldn't just say, "well I'm knackered, I'm going home." So by the time he had finished, I had done enough 'Falcoing' for a while. With that said, I was very pleased I hired Kevin, he spotted a few things I had missed and suggested a better way to do a few things also. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that Kevin is building an RV6 and insists on calling my Falco a tree, I'd say he is an all round great guy.

A few days after I kicked Kevin out of the hangar, I was greeting Brian Farrell, New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority's inspector. Brian was very thorough, and very pleasant while keeping me in the loop the whole time about what he was looking at and why. In just over two hours he was done and signed me off for the required Experimental Airworthiness Certificate with only a few minor corrections he would like me to make. One was to either vent the battery to the outside or change to a gel cell and the other was to put switch guards on my ignition switches since I don't have an ignition keyswitch. Both easily corrected. Kevin's work had paid off so now all I needed was a suitable day to fly it.

The second day in January was looking like it was going to be a great day for the first flight, the only problem was that at 4 A.M. I was midway between Brisbane, Australia and Christchurch, New Zealand bringing a load of holiday makers home on the 'Red Eye'. On landing I rushed over to the domestic terminal and grabbed an early flight home to Auckland, rushed across the parking lot and sped home. I figured that my present state was no way to test fly an aeroplane so I jumped into bed and got a couple of hours sleep.

When I woke up the day was just as I left it, clear sky and calm, it was one out of the box. I rang around my supporters, and Vicki and I jumped in the car bound for Ardmore airfield. I dragged SMR out of the hangar and gave it a thorough preflight. All was in order, the excuses we evaporating, this was going to happen. In the interests of safety, I put on my Nomex clothing and jumped in ready to go do the taxi tests.

The taxi testing was planned out as per the Falco test cards and ran pretty much as planned. I did find that when it came to the aileron and elevator tests that things went a lot easier than expected. I was worried that I might get prematurely airborne in the elevator test but by using full power and not exceeding the recommended maximum speed, everything went just as it should. My confidence was growing with the machine by the minute.

When the taxi tests were complete, I taxied back for one last look around the engine compartment. I rang the Air Traffic Control center to try to get a clearance into the airspace above the field. It is usually very busy airspace above Ardmore since it is situated below the approach fan for Auckland International and so most times they just don't want to know about the "bug smashers". Fortunately it was such a nice day that most traffic were carrying out visual approaches, and there wasn't a lot of international traffic due for a while. So the supervisor gave me a code to squawk, and I was back in the plane and heading for the runway with Vicki and a few friends looking on.

I waited for a quiet time, lined up and paused. Have I done everything? It was now or never, so I smoothly applied full power and SMR tracked straight down Ardmore's runway 21. Before I had time to think about a hell of a lot, I eased gently back on the stick. The earth slipped gently away below, no wild roll, no strange vibrations or smells. Just a nice straight, smooth climb.


It's done.


It might seem strange, but I don't think I had any real flood of emotion at that stage. Maybe I was too busy. But it seemed business as usual for the main part which in hindsight seems oddly disappointing. I continued to climb, called ATC who cleared me to operate up to 4,500'. All was very normal in the climb, and on leveling out all the engine parameters were normal with the exception of an unserviceable CHT. Just as I was beginning to go through a few maneuvers I started to get shoved around by ATC. It started to become clear that my idea of remaining over the airfield in controlled airspace wasn't going to be such a good one, and in fact, wasn't even going to be achievable.

By then I was getting so busy with ATC that the test flight was starting to take a back seat, not exactly what I had in mind. I could see that time in controlled airspace was becoming limited so I set it up for some stall tests. The recovery from the onset went as planned although the stall warning from the strips was very light. I don't know that the cue would be sufficient on its own, but it will do for now.

The sudden drop in my airspeed was making it hard for ATC to keep me away from an approaching 737. I was told to vacate controlled airspace. Bummer. I really needed to do one more stall in the landing configuration to get my approach speed sorted. I wasn't going to let this spoil my day so I set up for a stall while descending. Not ideal, but it would have to do. The stall warning came just as it did before, but then SMR departed to the left and the stick unloaded slightly. A normal recovery did everything it should, and I now had my approach flaps-15 stall speed sorted out at 58 kts.

I would have preferred a couple more stalls to confirm the speed, but I wasn't going to do them down low, so that was that. Just to be on the safe side I rounded my approach speed calculation up to 80 kts since I had plenty of runway. Approach went just how it should so the landing was uneventful and right in front of the small gathering that had collected to watch and film the event. There was so much other activity when I shut down that I don't think the reality of what I had just done actually set in until later that night, and by then it didn't seem that important. I was pleased, for sure, but I wouldn't go as far as saying ecstatic but I think my time will be when I finally take my wife for a fly in my creation. I remember back to when I was a flying instructor when my most satisfaction came when my students took their first passenger, that was a real blast for me, and I think my Falco experience will be the same.

Since my engine problems, we have had very unseasonal weather for February, with severe flooding and some very high winds. This has kept me very busy at work and grounded on my days off so I haven't had a chance to get back out and get some faith back in my machine. At present I'd be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed, hopefully only temporarily, but disappointed just the same. I know I will miss the building part, of course I haven't finished yet so I don't need to worry about that just yet. But I have enjoyed the 'creating' aspect so much that it will leave a hole in my life if I ever do manage to get it entirely finished. I guess I will just have to keep it as a work in progress. Overall I have enjoyed the process extremely, I have learned a lot and met some great people along the way, so overall am I pleased I did it? You bet, I just hope I don't have any more unexpected crowds.


Nustrini and Richards, the first Falco formation in New Zealand.



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