Just as I'm about to squeeze the trigger, the airplane ahead jinks into a tight, descending right turn, wings nearly perpendicular to the ground, pulling hard. I'm caught a little off guard and wrap my airplane over, slightly past vertical, trying to catch up. The adrenaline pumps, and I pull too hard and push the G-meter to 5.0, right into the stall buffet.
My vision tunnels, I back off just enough to ease some G and remember my name, then roll back to 70 degrees of bank and strain my neck against the G's to look for the bad guy. He was smarter than I was, didn't pull as hard and saved some of his energy. My untimely stall caused me to mush, lose energy and position while he continued to turn. He's well ahead of me now, gaining on me in the turn.
I pull harder, again encountering the airplane's signature buffet, and my instructor chuckles at this amateurish mistake. I swear into the intercom, back off the stick, roll level and unload the airplane momentarily in hopes of gaining some energy. Then I reverse and pull again to gain height and challenge my adversary from above.
My flight suit is soaked in sweat; I'm obviously being too aggressive with the airplane, and I'm having way too much fun.
This was air combat with everything but the guns. It was 15 years ago, and Air Combat USA of Fullerton, Calif., had graciously allowed me to try my hand as a fighter pilot.
Well, almost, anyway.
Tony Bill and Mike Patlin (below) are two of four partners in the Marchetti SF.260 featured in this article. They're passionate about this remarkable air-combat trainer.
One of the perks of writing about airplanes for a living is that I'm sometimes extended the privilege of flying fairly exotic equipment. I won't bother to mention all of the various models I've been allowed to fly, but the list includes about two dozen of the world's best piston and jet trainers and fighters, mixed in with 280 other models of aircraft.
I will, however, mention the Marchetti SF.260, my vehicle at Air Combat USA (www.aircombatusa.com), because it's an attainable dream. Many of the other models were so far beyond me that I couldn't have afforded even an hour's worth of fuel.
The famous Marchetti has the distinction of being the weapon of choice for many air-combat schools around the world. In fact, it's still in production—sort of. Aermacchi of Venegono, Italy, will build you a new SF.260 on special order for just under $1 million. If that price tag is a little outside your budget, there are plenty of good, used examples available for less than a third of that figure.
Hollywood actor/writer/producer/director Tony Bill is one of four partners sharing ownership of the Marchetti on these pages. (Before you ask, no, it's not for sale.) In addition to his passion for one of the world's most responsive piston singles, he's also one of those people granted a soapbox to help popularize flying. His most recent cinematic effort was Flyboys, the story of the WWI Lafayette Escadrille. Bill directed the movie, which emphasized action sequences of the air war over France.
The director-cum-pilot can trace his fascination with aviation back nearly a half-century. He learned to fly in gliders out of Torrey Pines, Calif., and flew without benefit of an engine for the first 35 years. Bill transitioned to powered flight in 1990 when he purchased a 150 hp Swift.
"I was into aerobatics from the beginning," says Bill. "It just seemed as if every airplane should be able to fly in three dimensions, and the Swift was the most agile flying machine I could afford." Bill flew acro competitions in a rented Pitts; he next bought a Cessna 310 for cross-country travel, then purchased a Cub simply because it was a Cub, and finally joined the Marchetti Mafia with Mike Patlin, Ray Myllyla and Dan Canin on one of the best SF.260s you could ask for.
"I can't imagine owning an airplane that isn't capable of aerobatics," Bill explains. "For me, the Marchetti is pretty much the perfect airplane. There's virtually nothing it can't do. It's a wonderful aerobat and a quick cross-country machine. Also, it can carry three people or two plus two if necessary. I use it mostly as a toy, kind of a poor man's three-seat P-51."
It seems virtually every Marchetti owner feels the same way. In keeping with its usual mission (fun), Bill's airplane isn't heavily equipped, but it's in near-perfect condition. "Ray Myllyla is an A&P/AI, and he's an expert on maintaining the airplane," Bill comments. "Mike Patlin, up in Camarillo, owns Air Power Aviation Resources (www.airpower-aviation.com), the SF.260 distributor for the States. Finally, partner Dan Canin is a former U.S. Navy test pilot with time in a variety of military jet fighters."
By any measure, the SF.260 is one of the most responsive and exciting sportplanes in the sky. It's not a dedicated aerobat, so it doesn't have the instantaneous "if you can think it, you can do it" reactions of an Extra or a Pitts, but it's likely the world's best-handling aerobatic airplane with more than two seats. (The narrow, aft bench seat is rated for 250 pounds max and can't be occupied during aerobatics.)
In fact, the SF.260 is perhaps best known outside the United States as an airline and military trainer. The brainchild of famed Italian designer Stelio Frati (who also designed the beautiful, all-wood, homebuilt Falco), the Marchetti has been exported all over the world since its introduction in 1968.
Hundreds have been delivered to airlines, such as Air France and Sabena, and to the air forces of Italy, Turkey, Belgium, the Philippines, Burma, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela and two dozen other countries as trainers and even counter-insurgency ground pounders. In military trim, the airplane can be fitted with hard points under the wings to mount bombs or missiles. Bill's partnership SF.260 is a demilitarized, former Burmese Air Force airplane, one of four imported into the United States.
At various stages in its production, the SF.260 has been fitted with both carbureted and fuel-injected versions of the popular 540-cubic-inch Lycoming engine, though most incarnations were offered with a carbureted O-540-E4A5. Bill's airplane is a standard, carbureted, 1979 model SF.260C, and it's stock in almost all respects.
If you've never flown a Marchetti, stock is more than good enough. If I ever write the book, 20 Airplanes To Fly Before You Die, the Marchetti will be near the top of the list. The SF.260's airfoil is thin and jet-like in configuration, only 12% thick with five degrees of dihedral. The wing is tiny by general aviation standards, only 109 square feet (compared to a Bonanza's 180 square feet and a typical Mooney's 170 square feet). This generates a high wing loading and helps impart handling characteristics closer to those of a T-33 jet than those of a piston trainer.
At only 2,430 pounds gross (in the utility category), the SF.260 enjoys a power loading of a mere 9.3 pounds per horsepower, and while its enthusiasm on takeoff may not rival a Ferrari's, it will still knock your hat in the creek. The book spec for climb at sea level is 1,770 fpm. Even if that's a little optimistic, the real number is still impressive. It's better than virtually any other production single, some with turbocharging and as much as 90 more horsepower. A few aerobatic singles and high-powered piston twins can beat the Marchetti in initial vertical speed, but not many.
Dual center sticks offer pilots exceptional control. Handling is excellent; rolls are smooth and spins can be instantly recovered. A Plexiglas sliding canopy provides pilots with excellent visibility.
The fuel system is simple and straightforward, but the four tanks—a pair of 18.3-gallon tips and twin 12.7-gallon wing tanks—do require some management. Total usable capacity is 62 gallons, and at a burn of 14 gph at high cruise, you have about three hours and thirty minutes (and reserve) before you'll need a fuel stop. Those strange people who like to fly fast airplanes slow can realize even better endurance and range.
Cruise with the short wings and clean drag profile is excellent—175 to 180 knots. Remember, that's with only 260 hp on the nose. That's about as quick as the current generation of normally aspirated hot rods, the Cirrus SR22, Columbia 350 and Mooney Ovation3. More than coincidentally, all those models employ 310 hp and 17 gph to achieve their speed.
Where the Marchetti shines brightest is in its handling qualities. At the risk of overstatement (hard to avoid on a Marchetti), the SF.260 probably has the best handling of anything even remotely close to its class. The Frise ailerons impart a right-now roll rate, pitch response is light and control harmony is suitably aerobatic. Casual acro is only a fingertip away, provided you've left the tip tanks empty and limited takeoff weight to 2,205 pounds. Rolls are so smooth that even a magazine writer can accomplish them without practice, and loops require little touch across the top, provided you pull to 3.5 G's or more on the entry. The Marchetti performs easy, confident spins with instant recovery by simply easing off the back pressure and applying opposite aileron.
In air-combat maneuvering mode, the Plexiglas sliding canopy provides you with as good a view of your adversary as you'll find in anything, except perhaps an F-16. Just hope you don't need to take a long cross-country over the desert in summer beneath all that Plexiglas.
It's not hard to understand why Marchettis make ideal air-combat planes. They offer military maneuverability, and partner Mike Patlin has flown with pilots from the test-pilot schools for the Air Force, Navy and the civilian National school, evaluating handling qualities.
As mentioned above, the engine on Bill's airplane (and the majority of other Marchettis) is carbureted, and that means you can't sustain inverted flight, at least not with the engine running. The Lycoming will spool down at the mere suggestion of negative G's. Hammerhead turns are a thing of beauty in the SF.260, but only if you keep the pitch to about 80 degrees. Arc the nose up to vertical, and the engine will quit long before you reach the stall. The SF.260 is technically approved for snap rolls, but neither Bill nor the other partners subject the airplane to such stresses.
As perhaps the most active partner on the SF.260, Bill couldn't be happier with his choice. "I can't imagine life without a Marchetti. I've always said I'd love to own a Spartan Executive someday, but I'd be unwilling to sell my Marchetti to get one."
Not everyone gets to fly an SF.260, and that's a shame. Though the SF.260 is a gorgeous design, it's one of those airplanes that can't truly be appreciated on the ground. Fly one and you'll love it. I absolutely guarantee it.
My opponent had anticipated my move. Unseen behind me, he had reversed and climbed above me, then reversed again and was looking down at me when I assumed I'd be looking down at him.
Unlike modern fighters that rely on heat-seeking missiles rather than guns, altitude is still an advantage in a Marchetti. In my case, my "enemy" locked on to my six and nailed me with a laser shot. Later, I found out he was an old Vietnam-era Phantom pilot turned 737 driver, renewing his acquaintance with air-combat maneuvering in one of the world's most agile airplanes.
SPECS: SIAI-Marchetti SF.260