Builders who are seriously contending for the championship bring not only their airplanes but detailed logs and photo presentations of the construction process to help prove they have done the work themselves. (I’ve brought a snapshot by my 13-year-old daughter, but it seems to make little difference.) It’s not uncommon—though strictly speaking, illegal—for wealthy sports to contract with professionals to assemble their kits. “That’s not what we’re looking for,” warns judge Barry Basse. “Even some guy who puts $150,000 into the instrument panel but has an avionics shop build it, that’s an automatic downer for me.”
“You look at the photos and ask a builder how he’d built the ribs,” says Herman. “If he starts bumbling around, you know the hardest work he did was signing the checks.”
Some builders wear matching husband-and-wife jumpsuits in the colors of their airplane, with caps embroidered with its registration number—a move that should have no bearing on their score. “Theoretically it’s not supposed to,” Herman says. But, he admits, “If the builder is running around in a shirt he hasn’t washed for three weeks—well, different things impress different people.”
It’s soon clear I’ll never win a thing at Oshkosh, but the crowd loves the Falco for its classic shape and feisty paint job. I’ve placed a rude placard on the propeller warning spectators not to manhandle the airplane: “Kippa u hens off, doan wokkonna wings, doan opinnacowl,” it begins. “U messwiddit, mei brekka u bonz.” One friend, when asked whether she thought the sign amusing or tasteless, said, “Can’t it be both?”
But the spectators buy into it, and soon people are dragging their friends over to read the placard, laboriously translating the pidgin Italian. And despite my ethnic incorrectness, the Falco soon becomes the Little Italy of the fly-in. Pilots, engineers, and enthusiasts from Roma and Modena, Torino, and Firenze gravitate to the airplane, clap me on the back, get their pictures taken shaking my hand, peek up the Falco’s skirts and down its throat.
Some reminisce about their old friend Stelio Frati, a national hero in the Italian aviation community, and one tells me in broken English I am “man with golden hands.” (“Yeah, and a golden pocketbook,” grumbles a nearby homebuilder who seems to resent the money I’ve lavished on my toy.)
But then one of the Italians gently takes me by the arm and leads me to the Falco’s military-legended vertical tail. “No ‘i’ in MILITARE,” he says. “You have French—MILITAIRE.”
I wonder: if my airplane had been otherwise perfect, would I have lost the Grand Championship because of a typo? What a fate for a writer.