WHAT IF YOU COULD bring back the magic of the golden age of aviation without the hassle of oil leaks, crummy brakes, no electrical system and short-lived fabric covering? Wouldn’t that be heaven for a pilot? Well, that’s exactly what Waco Classic Aircraft does. It builds brand-new sport biplanes right out of the 1930s but without the reliability and maintenance issues of 75 years ago.
In the mid-1930s, Waco was one of the most successful builders of personal and business airplanes in the country. Wacos were powerful, fast and a delight to fly, and they were expensive. That’s why pilots coveted the graceful biplanes then, and now.
Waco — pronounced wah-co, not way-co like the city in central Texas — began life about 1920 as the Weaver Aircraft Co. After the relocations and management shuffles that were the norm for new airplane makers in that period, the company settled in Troy, Ohio. In the late 1920s, the company changed its name to Waco, probably as an acronym of Weaver Aircraft Co. Some say the name came from an airfield near Troy. Since Waco airplanes generate enough passion to support a museum in Troy dedicated to Waco airplanes, I am sure there are experts who are certain of the root of the name, but there is not necessarily agreement.
In the early years, Waco built dozens of models of biplanes, probably no two exactly alike. The company was among the first to offer a fully enclosed cabin biplane designed for purposeful transportation. By 1935 it created the YMF, what many pilots believe to be the most beautiful and desirable sport airplane ever built. That is the model that is back in production now by Waco Classic Aircraft.
The original Waco company devised an almost incomprehensible model identification system of letters and numbers. The first letter referred to the engine type, the second to the fuselage design and the third to the wings. At least I think that’s what they mean. To make it more complicated, numbers were tacked on after the letters to indicate the first year of production, or maybe some other model change.
The “Y” in YMF-5 stood for a Jacobs radial engine. Why Y instead of J? Who knows? The fuselage was an M and the wings F. There seems to be little consistency to the identification system, and the difference between models is often subtle.
Waco flourished through the Great Depression, or at least survived to create a steady stream of new models. As World War II loomed, the company supplied trainers for the military with many cadets flying the UPF-7 in basic training. Waco also built a large number of troop transport gliders.
The postwar boom in airplane demand that failed to materialize doomed dozens of airplane manufacturers, and Waco was one of them. By 1947, the company was out of business, and its type certificates and drawings went into the public domain.
In 1985, a small group of airplane enthusiasts in Michigan realized that the Waco type certificates were still valid if somebody wanted to put the airplanes back into production. The YMF-5 was the obvious choice because of its beauty and the huge number of Jacobs radial engines that are available to power the airplane.
It is an oversimplification to say that Waco Classic Aircraft simply set up shop and started building the YMF just like the original Waco had done 75 years ago. Though the type certificate is technically still valid, there are many changes that were necessary either because the same materials were no longer available or because superior materials and methods had been developed during the intervening decades. So returning the Waco to production required a series of STCs to the original TC.
One of the primary structural changes was replacing the mild steel tubing used to form the fuselage frame with high-strength 4130 steel. The steel tubing is now corrosion-proofed internally and epoxy-coated externally. The mechanical brakes were replaced by modern-design hydraulic toe brakes. A 28-volt electrical system was installed and the instrument panels were modified to accept full IFR instrumentation and avionics. Heaters were added to the forward and aft cockpits. The tailwheel was raised three inches and made steerable. A new stainless-steel firewall meets current burn-through standards. And on and on.
As complicated as it was to update the type certificate, the really big task for Waco Classic — or any airplane manufacturer for that matter — was to obtain a production certificate. An FAA production certificate authorizes a manufacturer to certify that each airplane it builds meets the standard of the type certificate. The requirements for control of materials, parts and procedures is daunting, but Waco Classic succeeded in meeting all of the FAA’s demands.
The Waco’s wings are made of wood and are covered in Dacron fabric. I am sure the FAA had to reach back in its archives to find the standards for wood used in primary airframe structure, but it did. The wing spars are Sitka spruce, a wood prized by airplane builders for its long, straight grain and uniform strength. Waco Classic buys only “aircraft grade” Sitka but rejects a substantial portion of each delivery because it fails to meet the company’s certified standard. Only the very best pieces of spruce are shaped into wing spars.