I have no history with hot air balloons, but plenty with Wacos since my father was an avid restorer of the antique airplanes. And I even had hopes of learning to fly my dad’s mainstay, Big Red. That was before he and two others in the airplane went down into Lake Apopka (I have yet put the details to writing, and I’m not sure I’m ready to here in this blog, so bear with me).
So suffice it to say, when Peter Bowers of Michigan-based Waco Classic Aircraft Corporation (wacoclassic.com) contacted the magazine that its new YMF D model would be at Sun ‘n Fun, my interest was piqued — for very personal reasons. Like I’ve mentioned in past blogs, I never looked back after my dad’s death. Little did I know that a company had started a modern production of the Waco YMF in the early 80s with the first YMF receiving FAA certification under the original Waco type certificate a few years later. The new D Model settled into Sun n Fun for a week of demo rides and aerobatic performances with Bob Wagner at the stick — and I had a chance to hop in for a ride.
The balloon experience took a bit longer than anticipated so I barely made our appointment. I literally jumped out of the chase van and beelined to where the demo airplane was parked on the flight line, right next to the Aeroshell Team’s T-6s. A sight in and of itself!
Pilot Bob Wagner got me situated in the front cockpit, briefing me about the controls, attaching my harness belt and helping me don the helmet. It was familiar from the moment I walked up to the airplane, but when he yelled “Clear the prop!” and the 300 hp Jacobs radial engine roared to life, I was back home. I can’t explain it properly, but that’s as close as I can get to it in words. Bob taxied out to the runway and we and another airplane were cleared for a tandem takeoff immediately after some warbirds that were ahead of us. We flew out as a group before Bob split off and headed south to do some maneuvers. It was a beautiful day for an open cockpit experience. The wind rushing by, the comforting rumble of the engine.
Bob’s voice came over the radio and told me to take the stick. I did some turns and then straight and level flight before performing a stall. It felt very stable. He then took the controls and said “Here’s how you do a lazy 8 for your commercial license, nice and easy.” I quickly pointed out that I wasn’t going for a commercial license, but he had already commenced the maneuver. It seemed pointless to add that I had never experienced a Lazy 8! It was smooth as silk. I loved it, my laughs disappeared into the windstream! After completing the maneuver, he then piped into my ear “This is how you do a FUN Lazy 8!” I stopped my protest b/c it was too late, he had already begun the FUN maneuver. Wow! My delight overtook my fear as I was pressed down into my seat. Leveling out, we headed back in to join the war bird arrival at Linder. As we cruised along, I couldn’t help wonder what my dad would think. Not only about me in this moment and my renewed interest in flying, but about how much the Waco has progressed with modern production. The pilot’s cockpit is outfitted with a glass panel, something that was not even around when my dad was. And I had to chuckle that it now had LED landing lights! If he had lived into this century, unlike some his age, I’m sure he would have embraced such technology (and would have become computer savvy and surfed the Internet). Despite the technology and the modern production, I’m sure the flight experience is not so different from that of decades ago in his vintage aircraft restorations. I can hear his laugh, not too unlike mine just moments prior.
After a smooth and easy landing, we taxied back to the Waco’s parking spot so Bob could get ready to perform with the warbirds. Just before thanking Bob (another ironic twist, for my dad's name was Bob), I asked him if he might have known my father. Yes, he had met him, he told me, when he had been hired to deliver one my father’s last restorations, a taperwing, to the gentleman who had purchased it. I didn’t really know what to say…I wanted him to give a yes answer, but didn’t expect it. So I just said, thank you for a great ride and took my leave.
As a kid, I went to Sun ‘n Fun quite a few times with my father and I remember them as being fun. But, my first Sun ‘n Fun in nearly 30 years was one to remember, on so many levels. I can’t even imagine what 2011 will be like!