Admit it. Even if you fly Boeing 777s or Airbus 380s for a living, haven’t you always wanted to climb into the rear pit of an open-cockpit biplane and launch for near horizons? When you attend an air show, don’t you feel a twinge of envy for that guy flying by in a ’30s vintage biplane’s back seat, black leather skull cap confirming his superiority to everything else in the sky, white scarf flowing in the breeze as he rumbles past at a leisurely 100 knots?
If you’re watching what looks to be a marvelously restored Waco buzz the field, be aware it could be a 2015 model.
How could that be? It’s true the original Wacos are antiques from the 1930s, but starting in 1985, a group of biplane fanatics in Michigan decided to resurrect the type and build updated versions of the then half-century-old classics. The plan was to stick to the already certified configuration of the original airplane to avoid reinventing the wing, and suffering the financial pains and endless delays associated with FAA recertification.
The modern Waco YMF-5D is a charismatic execution of the original premise, still constructed the same way it has been produced sporadically for 80 years. The major difference is that today’s Waco is light years ahead of the old airplane in materials.
Today, you can order a new Waco biplane with all systems and materials upgraded in every way. Waco Classic Aircraft in Battle Creek, Mich., will paint your new Waco in your choice of scheme and colors, lavish leather in the interior, fit the panel with Garmin glass and install practically anything else your credit line will bear.
So far, Waco Classic Aircraft has produced something like 140 YMF-5Ds, most with a 275 hp Jacobs R755 seven-cylinder radial engine. The newest airplanes, introduced in 2010, are blessed with a 300 hp version of the same round powerplant, and they’re nicknamed the Super.
It’s a dramatic oversimplification to consider the modern Waco as merely an updated renovation of the 1935 model, however. Despite the physical resemblance, this isn’t your great-great grandfather’s Waco. From spinner to tailwheel, the 2015 model incorporates a cumulative 300 improvements that make it a very different airplane, though the basic type certificate remains the same.
Out on the nose, the current prop is a composite MT design, an option to the standard Sensenich wood propeller that many pilots still favor. The MT is a German-made elliptical tip design, a fixed-pitch tractor made of composite material. It’s slightly heavier and more efficient than the wooden blades. The new MT prop features the same diameter—92 inches—but with a 60-inch pitch rather than the previous blades’ 68-inch camber. The result is allegedly better cruise AND improved climb, a seeming contradiction in terms. An all-metal, constant-speed, 93-inch diameter Hamilton-Standard 2B20 is an option, as is fuel injection.
The engine remains the original Jacobs R755 seven-cylinder radial, though it has been upgraded to an A2M configuration, boosting horsepower from 275 to 300 (at 2,200 rpm). These days, the STC for all things Jacobs is owned by Air Repair Inc. of Cleveland, Miss. Air Repair produces a variety of overhauled round mills—Jacobs, Continental and Lycoming—for a number of pre- and post-World War II airplanes. Air Repair still maintains the Waco engine and recently completed a top-to-bottom update on the Jacobs 755.
TBO on the newest Jacobs is 1,400 hours, compared to 600 hours on the original mill—a tribute to the fact that the new engine incorporates much more than a few improved metal pieces. Air Repair looked at all components, and modernized and improved everything that made sense without generating excessive production incorporation costs. The Jacobs mill that was once regarded as the “Shaky Jake,” now moves and breathes with the synchronicity of hot butter—its seven cylinders providing almost glass-smooth power.
More horsepower wasn’t the only improvement in the move from the 5C to the 5D. Out in front of the firewall, in addition to the new prop, Waco has installed an improved oil cooler, upgraded magnetos and battery capacity, and added an Airwolf oil filter system. The new Waco also includes a 28-volt electrical system.
The quartet of Clark Y airfoils installed behind the Jacobs engine is essentially the same as the originals, only different. The top wing spans 30 feet, whereas the bottom wing measures only 27 feet across. They’re all constructed of Sitka spruce—the best possible material for aircraft construction.
Wood is lighter than aluminum, and it really does grow on trees. Sitka spruce is noted for its high strength-to-weight ratio, long, consistent grain and generally superlative quality. Its application to aircraft goes all the way back to the Wright Flyer that used Sitka spruce as the predominant construction material. Examine a set of Waco wings before covering, and you’ll be amazed by the exceptional workmanship—one characteristic that hasn’t changed since the 1930s.
In combination with the fabric cover, the YMF-5D is a highly labor-intensive airplane. It’s constructed totally by hand and requires something like 5,000 labor hours to complete—the majority of that time spent on the woodwork and fabric covering.
About that fabric cover on the Waco: It’s still Dacron, lovingly swathed in multiple coats of dope—a plasticized lacquer that tightens and stiffens the fabric as it dries—then covered in PPG Aerospace Polyurethane paint, rendering it airtight, waterproof and incredibly strong. Today’s fabric is an upgraded aircraft-grade Dacron/polyester composite known as Ceconite—far stronger and more durable than the original material. For hangared aircraft, the new cover has an estimated life of 50 years. (Bellanca Aircraft also used Ceconite to cover its wood-winged Viking 300 models right up to the close of production in 1992. Back in the 1980s, Ed Lamb, the West Coast regional sales manager, used to carry around a polished steel ball bearing slightly smaller than a baseball and weighing several pounds. When someone argued that fabric covering is less durable than sheet metal, Lamb would get out the heavy steel ball, hand it to the sales prospect and ask what would happen if he slammed it into the side of an all-metal Piper/Cessna/Beech/Mooney/ Commander. The answer was obvious. There would be a huge dent and a comparable repair bill. Lamb would then rear back and throw the bearing hard against the aft fuselage of his Viking 300 demonstrator. Of course, the bearing would bounce off the taut fabric harmlessly, leaving no dent and no sign of damage. The Waco’s covering is built and cured to the same exacting standards.)
The fuselage on a Waco is constructed of German 4130 steel tubing rather than the milled steel used on the 1930s airplane. It’s almost a roll-cage structure, more appropriate to a NASCAR stock racer. Collectively, the strong tubing and tough wood wings result in G-limits of +5.2 and -2.1.
New-generation Wacos are approved for two passengers in a wide compartment up front and a pilot in the large cockpit in back. Waco widened the forward door to allow easier access to the front pit. It’s possible to fly from the front seat, but only in dual mode. The forward pilot has little more than stick, rudder, throttle, mixture and trim.
The instrument panels in both pits have been widened and redesigned, though the front cockpit usually is fitted with little more than an altimeter, airspeed indicator and a wet compass. If you’re giving rides, the forward cockpit is surprisingly wind free. A standard couple in the front seat should be modestly comfortable. If you’re flying solo cross-country, you can remove the forward windshield, strap your bags in up front, cover the forward pit and fly away.
The aft cockpit can accommodate pretty much anything you can imagine in any other general aviation airplane, and it’s a roomy enclosure for people, as well. Company CEO Peter Bowers explained that starting in the early ’90s with serial number 40, they stretched the airplane six inches, and all that extra room went into the aft cockpit.
Bowers also commented that there’s still more room for adjustment in the rear pit. Waco can move the stick and the seat, and they can even lower the floor slightly, if necessary. “We can accommodate practically everyone,” said Bowers. “This is, after all, a custom-built airplane.”
The customizing extends to the panel, as well. If you prefer round gauges, Waco will provide, but the airplane is approved for a full panel of Garmin glass, and that’s what most buyers choose. The YMF-5D is IFR certified, and it’s legal for installation of XM Weather.
A full-color JPI EDM 930 engine analyzer is standard in back to help the pilot keep track of fuel, CHT, EGT, oil temperature and pressure, and about a dozen other operating parameters.
Waco long ago abandoned those atrocious heel brakes that everyone hated. All the newer Wacos have been converted to hydraulic toe brakes, designed to help facilitate asymmetrical braking on the way to the run-up area.
Finally, back on the tail, a jackscrew controls elevator trim, resetting the entire horizontal tail, rather than merely moving a tab. The tailwheel on the new Waco was converted from nonsteerable to steerable, and raised three inches to reduce the deck angle and improve over-the-nose visibility. A banner-tow hook is also available.
Flying The Biplane
I caught up with the Waco crew at the Oshkosh 2014 EAA AirVenture and arranged with Bowers to take a refresher hop in the new 2015 Super Waco YMF-5D. Demo pilot Bob Wagner was along to make certain I didn’t break anything.
If you’re like me—and I know I am—flying an updated 1930s Waco biplane is a privilege right up there with driving an F-15 through the Mach. It may not be quite as big a thrill guiding a Waco low and slow, but it’s a cross between what Disneyland used to call an E-coupon ride and a very exciting nap.
The airplane is analogous to a flying panda bear, gentle and forgiving to a fault, on the ground and in the sky. Taxiing the big Waco isn’t much of a challenge, though it could become more exciting in a strong crosswind. The circular Jacobs engine limits visibility straight ahead, so S-turns are mandatory to see what you’re about to hit. Still, pedal pressures aren’t heavy, and it’s a fairly easy task to snake your way down the taxiway to the run-up area.
When it’s time to take the runway, standard procedure is to line up on the centerline and pour on all 300 hp. Crosswinds don’t demand any major steering concessions, and you can usually control any deviations with minor taps on the rudder pedals. More normal takeoffs allow you to raise the tail in the first 100 feet of runway and lift off in a more traditional wheel attitude. A standard Waco takeoff from sea level usually demands no more than 700 feet of runway.
|With modern materials, Waco Classic Aircraft still constructs the Waco YMF-5D the same way it has over the last 80 years.|
Once you’re off the ground, you pitch for about 90 mph and let the big Jacobs pull you uphill at 800 fpm or better. The Waco feels solid and stable in flight, and you get the idea it would be an excellent formation machine.
It is. I’ve flown three air-to-air photo missions in a YMF-5D, and while the controls aren’t especially light, the airplane snuggles comfortably into position and stays there with a minimum of fuss. The Waco is a little like a T-6 in that regard. It may look large and heavy on the ground, but once in the air, the airplane’s personality becomes a ton and a half of fun. Typical of its original generation, the Waco does manifest considerable adverse yaw, however, so you’ll need to lead every maneuver with rudder to keep the ball inside its cage.
Just don’t plan on being in a hurry. The Waco’s drag signature is so high with wings, guy wires, struts, cabanes and wheels hanging out all over the place that cruise speed, even with the big engine, is modest—exactly as it should be. If you need the extra punch for climb or short-field performance, however, the big Jacobs may be worth the expense.
Max cruise under ideal conditions is about 120 mph. Normal fuel limit is 48 gallons, and typical burn is 14-15 gph, so you have about 2.5-3.0 hours’ endurance, worth 300-350 statute miles between fuel stops. The optional 72-gallon tanks extend that to an easy four hours, and most pilots agree that’s long enough to sit in any open-cockpit airplane, no matter how romantic and glamorous you may think it is. The extra tanks can push range out to 500 sm.
In akro mode, the YMF-5D manifests all the composure of a Packard roadster with wings. Roll rate and pitch response are gentlemanly, though the airplane does have an aileron on each wing—four in all. This makes the Waco a standard loop and roll machine with an occasional hammerhead stall thrown in for good measure. For a garden-variety aileron roll, you dive to 120, pitch to 20-30 degrees above the horizon and unload the wing to improve the roll rate; then, deflect the stick to either stop and watch the horizon rotate.
Full stick deflection roll rate is probably about 60 degrees/second, so a full horizontal aileron roll requires six to seven seconds. As the name implies, barrel rolls are gentle rotations that demand little more than 1.3-1.5 Gs. The Waco is also approved for spins.
The magic speed for practically any aerobatic maneuver is the aforementioned 120 mph, though you might want slightly more to prolong the vertical up line for
Landings don’t present any special challenges. Most pilots already proficient in taildraggers will make the transition in a few hours. Even pilots with no tailwheel time shouldn’t need to work hard during transitions from sky to ground. Bowers says 25 hours of dual are included with the purchase price, but most buyers need less than 15 hours to become comfortable in the airplane.
Base price on the 2014 Waco Super YMF-5D is $479,250 (2015 prices weren’t available at press time), but as we mentioned earlier, the airplane is ultimately customizable, so the option list is long.
Nearly every Waco buyer purchases the 25-gallon aux tanks, and the Garmin G500 is another popular option. Add a Sandel EHSI, an S-TEC 55X autopilot and a few other common accessories, and an utterly blissed-out Waco will run just north of $575,000 out the door.
Bowers owns the company, so you might expect him to be a strong proponent of the type, but Waco buyers are a peculiar breed of pilots who don’t care much for the normal parameters used to judge airplanes. “The Waco is not transportation; it’s flying” says Bowers. “It’s an aircraft a lot of people lust after because it’s an incredibly sexy machine. It’s not the kind of flying you get today in so many other types of airplanes where [aviation] is a more sterile experience.
“Flying the Waco is completely different,” Bowers continues. “You’re down so low that you can see (and smell) the cows, you can smell the fresh-cut fields, the whiff of the oil coming off the engine, [enjoy] the wind blowing your hair—it’s just a magical experience.”