Text and photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, '78 (or so),

I've always considered the SF260 to be the ultimate personal airplane. This was written 20-25 years ago and I've flown nothing that has made me feel any different since. For that reason this is a much longer pirep for a lot of different reasons. Among others I go through the difference between the early and late airplanes (I prefer the early straight 260's) and I fly the TUROPROP POWERED SF260TP! Hey, someone has to do it, right? Don't miss the tales at the end about demoing airplanes in third-world countries. Some funny stuff there!

Ah, yes—the Italians. Their's are the absolute finest of obsessions. The list of magnificent Italian obsessions includes: beauty in all things, sex, speed, sex, visual and physical excitement, and, you guessed it—sex. These categories are requisite in all objects Italian . . . from Sophia Loren to Ferraris, from architecture to their cooking. To be Italian an object must be finely crafted and finely formed. This object must be possessed of graceful performance, but with a hidden touch of danger under the satin. This describes the Siai-Marchetti SF.260 in all its variations. It is the quintessential aluminum Italian.
Right up front we ought to clear up one thing: the SF.260 is not everyman's airplane. If you don't yearn for a 200 mph aerobatic, stick controlled, mini-military reciprocating model, the SF.260 M, and the strictly-military Allison turbine-powered SF.260 TP. Recently I spent a couple of very exciting weekends playing with all of them and I'm still trying to figure out where my wife hid the checkbook. In the interest of clarity, we'll treat the turboprop version separately, for it is an entirely different breed of cat. Also, when we’re referring to “A” models, it should be pointed out that the “A” model SF 260 never existed. They jumped from straight 260’s to 260Bs, but we’re going to use “A” model so you’ll know we’re talking about the early airplanes.
The SF.260 is not a new airplane. Far from it. The Stelio Frati design is now coming up on its twentieth birthday and that's a long time for a design to retain freshness, especially for a single-engine recip. But Stelio Frati has never been known for designing anything but classics. Few of his dozen or so better known designs are anything but extensions of the Italian legacy of beauty and speed.

All of the military and about half the civilian 260's are set up for right hand command. Notice there's not only a center throttle but one on the left cockpit side, as well. God meant us to fly with our right hand on the stick, left on the throttle!

The reciprocating SF.260 is currently in use by twenty-four air forces as a basic and quasi-advanced trainer and a total of 800 have been put into uniform. Although there is considerable controversy as to exactly what a military trainer is and what it must do, in most ways the SF.260 must be one of the very best. In any type of trainer the concept of challenging the student to expand his learning envelope—yet making the aircraft manageable enough so as not to discourage him—is a complex problem for the designer. In today's economy, those first forty or fifty hours of flight time are critical because the student attrition rate is norm-ally extremely high because of talent limitations, so the dollar per student must be kept to an absolute minimum. The airplane must be inexpensive to fly yet be capable of teaching those who will continue as well as eliminating those who don't have basic capabilities. The SF.260, especially the later C models, do that admirably. However, the SF.260 has a number of other factors in its favor. In the first place, it is a true high-performance airplane that stands with one foot in the primary training area and another in the tougher basic training categories. The SF.260 has taken students from first flight to their first step into a jet. The Belgian Air Force currently transitions their students directly out of the SF.260 into the state-of-the-art Alpha jet.

OVER AND ABOVE BEING A TRAINER THE SF.260s are equipped with pylons and hard points under the wings to carry a variety of weapon stores in an effort to convert the plane into that often attempted, but never quite achieved, design goal of COIN (counter insurgency) mini-fighter. For thirty years or more, some companies have thought that smaller under-developed countries could profit from having a low-powered, medium speed weapon delivery system that would let them go tearing around over the bush putting down local rebellions. Somehow, this has never really worked but the SF.260 certainly comes as close as any in filling that role. In fact, several unnamed countries have had a number of combat losses in SF.260s. The turboprop version has an extra 100 horses and higher speeds which should make for a much better COIN fighter. In fact, the SF.260 TP may indeed make that category absolutely useful.
As successful as the SF.260 has been in the military market, its civilian performance has been less than stellar. Certainly a large part of that lackluster performance comes from the fact that Siai-Marchetti is in the military market, which is an entirely different game from selling their planes to the civilian market. In the first place, the price differential is a problem. And why bother worrying about selling airplanes to a civilian market when the military is buying enough airplanes to keep your metal benders busy? Siai-Marchetti never tried to neither support nor penetrate the civilian market because, from a purely business point of view, there was no reason. This makes a lot of good business sense but it really frustrates SF.260 buffs all over the United States.
The original four SF.260s were imported into the United States in the late 1960s under the name WACO "Meteor" . . . a name which has stuck to them almost to this day. Those four airplanes were part of an abortive attempt to develop a marketing company which imported semi-completed airframes of several different designs from overseas and marketed them under the WACO banner. Two of those four Waco Meteors became famous as mounts for the Larry King/ Harry Shepard formation team of the 1970s, which featured the very tightest formation flying seen on the airshow circuit. Their straight wing "A" models weren't really designed for the type of maneuvers they were doing which included canopy-to-canopy loops and rolls with a maximum vertical separation (propeller tip to canopy) of less than two feet.