The scene unfolds in a sharply mown hayfield on the outskirts of a smalltown in the Midwest, with the tang of the shorn stubs rising so that you can taste as well as breathe in the scent. The lower of the two stacked wings of the almost-new biplane brushes the tips of the stalks left standing, and music plays behind a young woman as she stands at the fence. She’s taking it in, listening to the low rumble of the radial engine, smelling the oil that reminds her of the machine shed back at the farm. The humidity will filter up into a mist tomorrow morning, but this early August evening stays clear enough and as bright as her eyes at the prospect of flight.
Back in the mid 1930s, my grandmother took her first joyride in a biplane. For $5 that she split with her best friend, Marion, Isabel Barker defied her father’s explicit instructions not to go up in one of those “newfangled contraptions” and snuck in the secret flight at the county fair in Maquoketa, Iowa. She confessed to him later, being the honest soul she was. But she never forgot that view from the front seat—perhaps a Standard.
But maybe it was a WACO model D.
She’s gone from us 7 years now, and the details remain lost to history. Alex Skiba, former sales and marketing manager for WACO Aircraft, figures many of those pilots who purchase a new WACO YMF-5 in 2023 still do so in order to use it for sightseeing operations. Similar in feel and spirit to those flights from a county fairground, the romantic taste of the sky that an open-cockpit airplane affords hasn’t lost its appeal.
And neither has the WACO.
The WACO takes you back into a beginner’s mind, not only because it evokes the beginnings of aviation’s golden age but also being the first airplane for many cadets facing entry into the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. Then, as now, WACO is an acronym, standing for Weaver Aircraft Company in honor of its original co-founder, George “Buck” Weaver, who in 1920 with Elwood “Sam” Junkin, Clayton “Clayt” Bruckner, and Charlie Meyers launched the nascent aircraft builder in Lorain, Ohio (see “The Dream Machines”). You also understand instinctively when approaching it that this flight experience will be completely different from any-thing you’ve had before.
Like preparing for a special first date, I walked through in my mind my previous piloting time in biplanes. A few hours in the stately Stearman, and a quick aerobatic flight in a Christen Eagle—that would be the sum total. My experience is not uncommon among those who choose to purchase new WACOs—like the stunning ed and blue YMF-5 featured in these pages that belongs to Ed Stadelman. As a retired airline pilot—with a 40-year career spanning from Allegheny Airlines to USAir to American, from which he last flew the Boeing 777 out of New York—Stadelman recognized his flight time flying a previously owned Cessna 206 and 310, and a few hours years ago in the Stearman, would not serve as a sufficient precursor to taking on the WACO. It’s not that it’s hard to fly compared to other tailwheel airplanes—it’s just that the sight picture is quite different with the looming cowl blocking most of the forward view from the rear seat, where the airplane is flown from.
Stadelman negotiated a 20-hour training package with the purchase of the YMF-5, and he took a tailwheel refresher course prior to beginning that tutelage—a path he recommends to anyone without significant time in a big-engined biplane.
A. The rear cockpit is laid out with most of the WACO’s instrumentation, according to the owner’s desires. But certain legacy touches, like the teak-handled control stick and flooring, echo back to the original design.
B. The “six pack” on this YMF-5 features two Garmin GI 275 electronic instruments that can be configured for IFR flight.
C. The JPI EDM 930 engine monitoring system gives detailed data from the powerplant and fuel system.
D. The Garmin GTN 750 offers a modern navigation option, even though the owner isn’t likely to file IFR in the open-cockpit biplane.
E. An S-TEC System 55 autopilot is an option, along with a second com radio to round out the IFR package.
You Need a Ladder
Yes, you need a stepladder for most any thorough pre-flight. But this walkaround absolutely requires one. And not just any ladder, but one that will allow you to check the fuel caps on the upper wing—there are at least two, and four if the owner has opted for long-range tanks. The preflight encompasses standard items for any airplane—checking the flight controls, landing gear, fuel and oil levels—but with many nuances special to a biplane with fabric covering and bracing wires.
The aircraft flight manual is 28 pages long. This is notable, as it’s about 20 times shorter than the AFM for a new FAA Part 23 certificated airplane with standard factory-installed avionics. Since everything in the panel—save for the legacy instruments such as airspeed, altimeter, and engine gauges—is an option, those supplements stand alone and are not woven into the manual. There aren’t pages of performance tables for altitudes into the stratosphere, nor are there expanded systems descriptions and pages of warnings for the pilot to wade through and heed gingerly. Maybe that’s because this particular airframe and engine have no airworthiness directives applied to them since the original type certificate was blessed by the CAA in 1934.
The preflight checklist is thorough. It goes from the front and rear cockpits to the left lower wing trailing edge, where in addition to normal checking of the wing and aileron surface and freedom of movement, the slave wire between the upper and lower aileron is addressed. Proper tension of the landing and flying wires, and the security of the interplane strut must be verified as well.
At the nose of the airplane sits the now-standard 300hp Jacobs R755 A2 7-cylinder radial powerplant, with its MT Propeller two-bladed, fixed-pitch prop attached to the hub. There’s an option for an MT-Propeller controllable-pitch version too. The manual advises against flying with less than 3 gallons of oil on board.
As a potential WACO owner, you’ll be pleased to note that those Jakes are still on the market, when it comes time for the 1,400-hour TBO. The R755 A2 can be ex-changed for an overhauled model for $36,950—or you could buy one outright for $43,950—at Radial Engines Ltd., in Guthrie, Oklahoma, for one, at press time.
A Modern Version
Instead of squinting our eyes for flocking aerial competitors around that farmer’s pasture, today’s pilots plying the trade of air tours have ADS-B to call out traffic on a series of optional avionics offered as add-ons to basic VFR and IFR packages.
Stadelman opted for a Garmin GTN 750 WAAS-enabled GPS/nav system and a second com radio, as he flies around the busy New England states from his home base at Falmouth Airpark (5B6) in Massachusetts. He prefers the modern, IFR-capable panel, though he has no plans to fly his prize in the soup. “Even on marginal VFR days, it’s nice to have,” he said. Stadelman also chose the long-range tanks—taking the normal 46-gallon capacity up to 70 gallons—so that he doesn’t need to refuel if going into a grass strip with intermittent or nonexistent services.
Other nice touches in the rear cockpit include backup electronic instruments, additional com radios, and a JPI EDM 930 engine monitoring system. For my flight test, I was paired with N577S, a 10-year-old YMF that WACO keeps for training and demonstration purposes—and virtually identical to Stadelman’s 2022 model in all the ways that mattered, including the modern displays in the rear panel.
Ready to Taxi?
Flying from the back seat actually gives you a little better forward perspective than from the front, where the cowl with its signature bumps looms closer and blocks the view almost completely. I’m up front to start to familiarize myself with the airplane while WACO instructor Bob Danielson learns more about me.
I sit up straight to no avail, then begin wide S-turns to supplement my forward view. I work our way out to the runway at Battle Creek Executive/Kellogg Field (KBTL)for a short flight over to Brooks Field (KRMY), where a vintage hangar and open grass alongside the runway will make our morning photos more historically appropriate. The tailwheel is fully steerable, which improves handling on the ground but preserves the need to lock it prior to landing—lest the airplane trend off quickly from the centerline if the wheel isn’t aligned.
Hands and Feet On Takeoff
You need to be a steady partner with any tailwheel airplane, and the WACO rewards stick-and-rudder competence. The YMF-5 will lift off before you want it to in a three-point attitude unless you firmly place the stick forward as soon as the relative wind over the elevator allows for it. My first takeoff from the front had me working as I figured out the controls, but we managed to come off after about a 1,000-foot ground roll. Liftoff speed hovers just below 60 knots, with VX at 63 kias and VY at 66 kias. We cruised at about 1,000 feet agl for the14 nm hop over to Brooks for my first landing. Danielson coached me through the pattern and landing speed (about 75 kias), and I stayed on it to keep the runway in sight as we came down final. I lost the numbers under that stately cowl several beats before “normal”—and then transitioned to a side view for the touchdown, with Danielson ready on the pedals in case my sense of the rudder pressure required was inaccurate.
In the Glorious Open Air
After a trip back to Battle Creek Exec and a lunch break at the WACO Kitchen—I recommend the Wagyu tacos, but then again, I always recommend the tacos—we set off on a true demo flight, with me taking the backseat. The WACO is soloed from the rear cockpit, and as Danielson termed it, “it’s pretty lonely up front” with nothing but airspeed and altimeter, throttle and stick to work with. The front cockpit is built for up to two passengers—and often has the front stick removed lest they get any crazy ideas. So it was truly an act of courage for him to grant me that hallowed rear pit.
I found the YMF was easier to taxi from the rear, and we made it out for an intersection takeoff without too much heartache. But I failed to push forward quite enough on the stick during the takeoff roll, and we lifted off a few knots lower in airspeed than desired. Fortunately, we made up for it in ground effect and carried on up into the blue-and-green patchwork June afternoon.
Under a scattering of fair weather cumulus, I lazed into gentle turns above Gull Lake to the northwest of Battle Creek. Though it felt like breaking the serenity of my brief moments with this considerable companion, I know that many WACO pilots enjoy the highly maneuverable biplane for its grace in basic aerobatics. We hadn’t prepped the cockpits for anything upside down—nor were we sitting on chutes—but I tried out steep turns to 55 degrees of bank and pulled the YMF into a lazy 8 or two, followed by Dutch rolls, to test out its coupling. Perhaps one of those edged into a wingover… Amazingly, for an airplane built when serious adverse aileron drag seemed like it came standard one very model, the YMF didn’t present such vagaries but rewarded even rudder pressure with smooth control.
We circled the lake a few times to allow for anyone on the water to enjoy the sight of a navy blue-and-old-gold biplane against the cloud backdrop. Then I called up Battle Creek Tower, and we headed back in for my first landing attempt from the rear seat. Harkening back to my days flying a Globe Swift, a tail-low wheel landing feels most comfortable to me in taildraggers—and it works well for WACO pilots too, for the most part.
Keeping a few hundred rpm of power in, I targeted 75 knots on the tape and rode down to the long runway at KBTL. I had 10,000 feet to work with, so my aim point was about halfway down the pavement—about where I’d started my takeoff roll. With a gentle lean to compensate for a breath of crosswind, I leveled off and began to feel for the ground, easing out power and taking in a measured inhalation ’til the mains touched.
Was I ready for it? The gods of wind and summer thermals were on my side, and the WACO answered my control pressures honestly. What more could you want from any return to terra firm a than that moment of joy?
Courtesy of the WACO, it can be yours to pursue.
Price, as shown: $658,400; VFR packages start at $590,000
Engine: Jacobs R755 A2, 300 hp
TBO (with current SBs): 1,400 hours
Propeller: MT Propeller MT233R150-6AJ, fixed pitch
Wingspan: 30 ft.
Wing Area: 234 sq. ft.
Wing Loading: 12.6 lbs./sq. ft.
Power Loading: 9.83 lbs./hp
Length: 23 ft., 4 in.
Height: 8 ft., 6 in.
Baggage Weight: 75 lbs. aft, 25 lbs. forward
Basic Empty Weight: 2,145 lbs.
Max Gross Weight: 2,950 lbs.
Average Useful Load: 628 lbs. (805 lbs. max)
Fuel: 46 gal. std; 70 gal. with long-range tanks
Max Rate of Climb: 865 fpm
Stall Speed: 51 kias
Maneuvering Speed:120 kias
Load Limits (at 2,950 lbs.): +5.2/-2.1
Cruise Speed: 100 ktas, at sea level
Max Endurance/Range, Max Range Power, Long Range Tanks: 450 nm at 2,500 ft. msl
Takeoff Distance, Sea Level (over a 50 ft. obs.): 1,556 ft.
Landing Distance, Sea Level (over a 50 ft. obs.): 1,650 ft.
This article first appeared in the August 2023/Issue 940 print edition of FLYING.