by Stephan Wilkinson
This article appeared in the September/December 1999 issue of the Falco Builders Letter, and as "Addio, Falco" in the February/March 2000 issue of Air & Space Smithsonian (with the Richard Thompson illustration below).
My wife's Christmas present to me was permission to build an airplane. In April of 1991, I flew that airplane for the first time. In July of 1999, I flew it for the last time.
My Falco was part of the family for thirteen and a half years. First there were pieces scattered throughout the cellar, barn, kitchen and even livingroom -- where the engine took up stylish residence as aluminum sculpture for six months -- and then, finally, I owned a satisfyingly intact vehicle. The airplane was painted in Italian Aeronautica Militare insignia, gray and brilliant red, which caused one angry Brit rec.aviation internetter to flame me as a poseur for my presumption. I'd had the temerity to declare his favorite airplane, the Antonov An-2 biplane, the worst airplane I'd ever flown.
I carried a photo of my arrogant, sleek, Frati-designed speedster when sometimes I didn't even have a picture of my daughter in my wallet. More surprisingly, my wife was never without her Falco photo in her purse. (My daughter carried neither a photo of me nor the airplane.) For 450 hours, I flew N747SW -- a poseur tail number that was granted by the FAA after it was suggested by Air & Space Smithsonian Editor George Larson as appropriate for "the world's smallest widebody" -- and kept a map of the United States with red lines tracing the course of every cross-country flight that I made.
The plot of those flightlines became a starburst of bright red that arced in every direction from the Hudson River Valley of New York. The Falco visited Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, Maine, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, Alabama... pretty much every state east of the Mississippi and a few beyond, many of them several times. I chased Nascar Winston Cup teams, aviation archaeologists searching for wrecks, Detroit and foreign manufacturers introducing new-car models to the world's automotive writers (of which I am a minor one), MIT professors and aircraft-engine overhaulers and classic-car restorers who I decided needed to be interviewed.
I gave a ride to author, pilot and former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving, a gangly six-and-a-half-footer who filled his side of the Falco and half of mine. Unable to come to grips with the Falco's featherlight controls, he proclaimed the otherwise windless day "too turbulent." I was ready to share the cockpit with JFK Jr., with whom I had a mutual friend who insisted that he would get us together, but it never happened. I took weekend houseguests for the classic down-the-Hudson-and-around-the-Statue-of-Liberty lark, went with my wife on a bicycling weekend in Canada, the Falco bearing our folding bikes, and posed in the airplane with helmet, goggles and four leggy models for a New York Times fashion photo.
The Falco became my aerial Interstate cruiser, my long ranger. Cruising at 202 mph and able to fly as high as 22,000 feet, it was, for me, indeed the world's smallest widebody.
The 22,000 feet is a real number. Flying atop an increasingly solid undercast one day, the rising clouds forced me up to an altitude where I realized that I'd better file an IFR flight plan or I'd be in the clouds illegally. "Stand by," said a busy Boston Center after copying my hastily radioed request. Meanwhile, the clouds continued to rise. Befuddled and obviously getting too little oxygen from my simple mask, I climbed with them; 18,000, 19,000, 20,000... I was already above the altitude where I automatically needed to be declared IFR even if the sky was clear.
"Seven Sierra Whiskey, cleared as filed, climb and maintain flight level one-niner zero," Boston finally said.
"Uh, Center, I'm already at two-two zero."
"Seven Sierra Whiskey, what are you doing up there? Don't you know that's positive-control airspace? You're illegal."
"Well, the clouds kept rising, and I needed to climb to stay VFR. It's real clear up here..."
"Did it ever occur to you to turn around? Or maybe hold?"
That did it. I was no longer flying enough to remain skilled, safe, even marginally competent. Doctors talk about gomers, an acronym for "get outa my emergency room" -- hypochondriacs, drunks, terminal ancients and charity cases who waste their time. To controllers, I was a gomas: "get outa my air space."
So it ended. After 32 years and 3,000 hours of flying, I was condemned to life as a fair-weather fun pilot, a role for which I no longer had any desire. Once I was like a 16-year-old with a new driver's license begging for every opportunity to drive to the 7-11 or post office. I was ready to jump into an airplane at even the slightest excuse. Now I saw the airplane as an expensive distraction, costing me considerable hangar rent and insurance money every day it sat unused.
The first response to my Trade-A-Plane ad for the Falco was from a United States Senator. At first, I didn't recognize the name. "What's a Falco? Is it the kind of plane my kids could fly?" he boomed. "They're both pilots."
I explained that first of all, it was made of wood. He needed to understand that, if he didn't even know what a Falco was, and yes, his "kids" would be able to fly it as long as they were competent pilots accustomed to relatively high-performance aircraft.
"Just lost my plane, so I need another one," he said. "Prop came off. Totaled it in the crash landing. Send me some photos and we can talk." When he spelled out his name and the Washington address, it dawned on me, and I made a weak joke about the election. "Anybody but Gore," he growled.
"Dear Senator," I wrote a few minutes later, "You're 1/a high-visibility individual, 2/assumedly a lawyer and 3/a father who wants his children to fly an airplane that I personally built, repaired and maintained. Sorry, but there's no way on earth I'd ever sell it to you, and it's not because you're a conservative Republican. Don't feel bad. I wouldn't have sold it to John Denver either."
The Senator's legislative assistant called several days later to say that his man was not a lawyer. Yeah, but....
Liability -- the fear of a destructive suit -- is the most troubling part of selling a homebuilt airplane. No homebuilder has yet successfully been sued for workmanship or errors that caused a fatal crash, but someday it'll happen. Somebody who built an airplane as a well-meaning hobby will see his or her life become a shambles because a buyer did something dumb and died in an airplane the seller had built.
John Denver's estate is suing the builder of the Long-EZ in which Denver perished after the engine stopped at a very low altitude and the airplane plunged into the Pacific off Monterey, California. At least as I understand it, the builder of the airplane had made a perfectly reasonable change in the fuel system and placed the tank-switching valve on the fuselage decking behind the pilot rather than on the floor in front of the seat. The amateur builder felt it was risky to have fuel lines snaking around the cockpit floor. But he never intended for the valve to be operated at 200 feet above the water after a pilot forgetfully ran a tank dry. One supposition is that Denver, in a desperate effort to get the engine running again, pushed the delicate control stick forward, nosing the airplane rapidly downward as he hastily swung around to try and turn the valve.
The liability was a problem I'd wrestled with, initially boasting that I'd take a chainsaw to the Falco before I sold it. (Inconceivable? I have an acquaintance, a well-off doctor, who did exactly that to his own kitplane.) Then I decided to donate it to an aviation museum of some sort and take a huge deduction for the contribution, but it turns out that unless you're Warren Buffett, you can't get tax credit for a one-time gift of that size. I considered spending thousands of dollars to have the engine overhauled long before it was due, thus transferring the liability for that vulnerable component to a professional shop. (I'd partially overhauled the engine myself early in the Falco's career, so I was the mechanic of record.)
Finally, I simply contented myself with having a lawyer draw up a complex, 12-page hold-harmless paper, filled with boilerplate, for a new owner to sign. It may ultimately be of little legal consequence, since such documents have no real validity, but at least I felt better. I would have an initialed and signed document in which a buyer affirmed his or her awareness that, "the seller is the builder of this aircraft and has no training or experience in building the aircraft... the seller repaired, maintained and inspected the aircraft but has no expertise, training nor prior experience as an airplane mechanic," and the like. But who would buy such a pig in a poke?
Meanwhile, I needed to do the annual inspection, so that a buyer would take over an airplane that could legally be flown for another 12 months before having to find a mechanic willing to do the same job. A homebuilder can inspect, repair and service the airplane he built, but only that airplane. A buyer has to either persuade the original builder to continue doing the annual inspections or find a commercial shop willing to take the responsibility of servicing a strange machine of unknown quality. Some professional mechanics won't touch a homebuilt, since it's their name that goes into the logbook to approve it for another year's flying.
Annual inspections are the bane of low-utilization airplane owners. Fly an airplane 300 hours a year and an annual is done after the equivalent of roughly 60,000 miles of travel. Fly 25 hours a year, as I was, and the poor little airplane is stripped bare and laid open, its innards poked and manipulated only 5,000 miles after the last examination. Sometimes more damage is done by an annual than is uncovered during it.
One thing I did every year was check the timing of the engine's magnetos, a simple operation that involves carefully moving the propeller to a predetermined position and listening to the change in tone, like an apartment-door buzzer, of a little battery-powered box hooked to the mags. Standing by the prop spinner, I reached across the horizontal prop blade to switch on the squawk box. Somehow the propeller, whether it actually briefly fired or was driven by the built-up compression in one cylinder perched at top dead center, swung swiftly through a quarter-turn, catching me under my arm near the armpit.
Damn. Ouch. Uh-oh, more than damn-and-ouch. There's blood on the prop blade and more pumping all over my pants leg, from what will turn out to be a nicked artery inside a deep gash in my arm. The Falco, obviously aware that it was about to be disposed of like a hound dog gone songless, had bided its time and bitten me when I wasn't looking.
Could have been worse. "Saw a guy lose his arm once," a mechanic at the airport excitedly tells me the next day, after I have been bandaged and allowed to drive myself to an emergency room for stitches, narrowly avoiding the enthusiastic use of the expensive medevac helicopter that happens to be stationed at our airport. "He was standing on a ladder, working on the left engine of a Beech Baron, and the engine was just lumpin' along, barely idling. Someone asked him for a tool, and without thinking, he pointed to where it was, right through the prop arc. Flang his arm right up against the hangar wall, WHACK, 30 feet away. We put it in ice and brought it to the hospital, but it never did work right again."
If this was the worst the Falco could do, I'd consider it a deal. For there was another awkward, unspoken reason why I was cashing in my airplane chips. I had become increasingly afraid of the consequences of flying.
It all happened within a surprisingly short time. First to die was a good friend whose single plunged into a river on short final. The poor man achieved USA Today notoriety when the feckless FAA investigators found Viagra in his overnight bag and blabbed that they'd sure be looking into its possible role in the crash.
A science writer I read and respected, a friend of my editor at Conde Nast Traveler, crashed his two-seat homebuilt not 30 miles from my home and lost a leg. And worse, his nine-year-old son.
A test-pilot acquaintance suffered a jammed aileron in a prototype lightplane that must have seemed like a kiddiecar compared to the F-16 fighter that he normally flew. It killed him nonetheless, and he left behind a wife and infant child.
Coming home from a trip one lovely Sunday afternoon, I watched in horror as a push-pull Cessna Skymaster struggled into the air on one engine while I was turning downwind to land. By the time I touched down, the pilot was dead, hanging upside down from his seatbelt in a swamp a mile from the end of the runway.
The most experienced Falco pilot in the world, Italian air racer Luciano Nustrini, inexplicably dove straight into Auckland Harbor while watching the start of an around-the-world yacht race, killing himself and his wife.
Of every 500 piston-engine lightplanes in the United States, many of them flown only occasionally, at least one would kill somebody this year. I no longer liked those odds.
My ad for the Falco said, "Will deliver." So do I get lucky and find a buyer in next-door Connecticut, or at least New England? No. I find Bob Hendry, a delightful Australian marketer and one-time semi-pro footballer who works for an Internet-miracle company in Portland, Oregon.
Alone among major cities in the Lower 48, only San Francisco is slightly farther from my New York home. Even Seattle and San Diego are closer than is Portland. At least I specified, "Will deliver in the continental United States." Hendry will be disassembling the Falco and putting it on a ship when he returns to Melbourne.
Bob and his young, enthusiastic wife, Theresa, a landscape designer, come by airline all the way to New York to try out the Falco. They arrive at the hangar to find me sweating over the airplane in shorts and sandals amid a July drought, but Ozzies don't stand much on ceremony. Hendry spends the rest of the day helping me button up the airplane after the annual, since I've left it as disassembled as possible to allow him a good look at the interior of the hull and wings, and I'm relieved that he seems impressed by the workmanship. (I think he's in fact attracted to my compulsiveness-lists, papers, records, research, documents, as my mother used to say a place for everything and everything in its place. You don't become a success in the computer business by being disorganized.)
Bob is a bit challenged by the light-handling, fast-landing little ship, but Theresa takes a ride with me over the Hudson Highlands and is thrilled by the speed and the bubble-canopy visibility after having known nothing but passengerdom in narrow-windowed Pipers, Cessnas and an occasional Mooney. She compliments me on the smooth landing, which at least proves to her that the Falco can be brought home gently even if her husband will at first have to work at it a bit.
It's hard to put a specific value on a commodity that has virtually no market track record, an airplane of which there are only a global 200-counting both the 50-odd homebuilt Falcos and those made during the 1950s and '60s in Italian factories-few of which ever change hands. I've come up with a number based on... well, terminal optimism and a WAG (wild-assed guess). Says Hendry, "I've always wanted a Falco." Well, he's got one, since his reaction to my asking price is, "Sounds fine to me." It's nice to negotiate with Internet-stock millionaires.
Somewhere over Ohio, westbound toward Oregon atop a cottony layer of broken clouds, I tilt my head back and look up through the clear canopy at a thin layer of stratus scudding past just above, as though I were flying fast over an inverted ocean. I'm giving this up forever. Moments later, well below me a long line-astern of four C-130 Hercules cargo planes groans eastward like placid milk cows heading back to the barn, another sight I'll never see from such a vantage point.
Do I mind? No, not really. Once upon a time I skied often and thought nothing was more glorious than a cold morning atop a mountain, the world spread out below and the first run of the day awaiting. Haven't done it in years and haven't missed it. Life is a series of stages, and I'd rather be open to new experiences and projects than become obsessed with old ones.
Never has the Falco felt so vulnerable. I'm over ground new to it -- Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota -- and for once, I'm aboard what suddenly seems to be a huge flying banknote, its value declared as never before. Did I get too much of a magneto drop at that last runup? Is that alternator charging rate too low? The oil temperature a bit too high in a hot Midwestern July sky? What if the GPS that I so lazily depend on fails? Do I really know exactly where I am with only 45 minutes fuel left and empty spaces below that seem vast and friendless to an Easterner? I want very much to land in Portland with the same airplane that Bob Hendry bought.
Over western Iowa, I dip a wing into the top of a small cumulus cloud like a boater trailing an arm in the water, the Falco banking and jinking as though it were a Star Wars racer. Illegal, yes, since I'm VFR and am supposed to stay well clear of clouds, but I can see for 75 miles... and will never do it again. Massive afternoon buildups are starting to tower all around me, and the clear air under the growing canopies blowing off the cumulonimbi is bumpy, playing with the Falco as a spiteful kitten might. In the distance, the clouds take topiary shapes -- here a rearing Ferrari-horse, there a sphinx, next to it a camel.
Over Wyoming the next morning, it is a stifling 85 degrees even at 4,500 feet under a sky silver with heat. The ranches on the brown earth are half a horizon apart, and I land to refuel at quiet, parched Riverton. As I sign the gas receipt in the cool office, there is a bang from the big hangar attached to it. The lineman and I look at each other and walk out to see a wounded Cessna Citation, its nose in the air and tailcone touching the ground. The tug driver pulling the bizjet out of the hangar never noticed that the door wasn't raised high enough and whacked the vertical fin right into it. The damage will cost more to fix than my entire airplane is worth.
The Rockies loom just to the west, and there's no getting around them. The Falco struggles to 16,500 in the hot air over Jackson Hole and punches through the turbulent air surfing over the mountains, and I'm very lonely. I made this airplane, and it is surmounting the biggest physical barrier in North America. How strange it is to be so close above clearly seen rocks, tiny lakes and summer snow-puddles even though the altimeter insists I'm well over three miles high. It's the first time I've ever tackled such a challenge in a machine of my own making. And the last.
As I descend several hours later into the incredible Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, idling downward a few wingspans away from lacy waterfalls plummeting hundreds of feet, Portland-Troutdale Tower responds, "Seven Sierra Whiskey, make a straight-in approach to Runway 25, call a three-mile final." Fuel pump on, front tank selected, mixture rich, gear down, green light, flaps 15, landing light on for traffic... it's a litany I'll never repeat.
Hendry is waiting on the ramp as the Falco, now his
Falco, taxis in. He leads me to his new tee hangar in a nondescript
pickup truck. I wheel N747SW into the gloom, help him trundle
the doors closed and walk away.