Today’s Waco: A winning combination

WACO 8135 Cgilroy 2An open cockpit airplane is fun, whether it was built last week or 50 years ago. But when you take a classic design and make it from modern materials, you have a winner all around. That’s the formula pursued by the Waco Classic Aircraft Co. in Battle Creek, Mich.

“The Waco harkens back to a time when aviation was more of an adventure,” said Peter Bowers, CEO of Waco Classic Aircraft as he carefully wiped the morning dew off the gleaming red and white airframes during this summer’s AirVenture. “The Waco is not transportation, it is flying. It is an airplane that a lot of people lust after because it’s an incredibly sexy airplane. It is a fun airplane to fly and it brings back memories of yesterday. It’s not like the kind of flying that you get today in so many other types of airplanes where it is a more sterile experience.”

BowersAccording to Bowers (pictured above), many people approaching the company’s Oshkosh exhibit were surprised to learn that the two Wacos on display, the YMF-5 and the Super YMF, are modern refinements of the classic design. Among those refinements is a wider door on the front passenger compartment. “It’s easier to get into now,” he said.

The three-place airplane is a natural for pilots who want to use it to give aerial tours, he noted, adding that most of his customers use the Waco just for pleasure.

“We get e-mails from our customers all the time telling us about their flying adventures,” he said. “Many of them are used to flying jets or high performance singles at 6,000, 7,000 or 8,000 feet up in rarified atmosphere. They get to fiddle around with the instruments and they’re almost hoping that something goes wrong so they will get a little excitement. But flying the Waco is completely different. You are down so low that you can see the cows, you can smell the freshly cut fields, the whiff of the oil coming off the engine, the wind blowing your hair around — it’s just a magical experience.”


The first Wacos appeared in the 1920s. The YMF airframe was launched in the 1940s, and reintroduced in a slightly modernized form in 1986.

“The modern airplanes are certified to the 1935 Type Certificate,” said Bowers, noting Waco Classic is the only aircraft manufacturer certified by the FAA to produce biplanes like these.

He bought the company in January 2008. The first year was a challenge, he noted, but it helped that “the Waco is one of those airplanes that, when you want it, you want it, and nothing else will do.”

And while you don’t make big changes to a classic airframe, “it has continued to evolve, just like a Porsche has,” he said.

Some of those changes are because people are bigger these days. “In the early 1990s, starting with serial number 40, we stretched the fuselage 6 inches and all that extra space went into the pilot’s cockpit. That is the Waco YMF Super.”

Bowers noted there is a lot of room for adjustment in the modern design. “We can move the panel, the stick and the seat, we can even lower the floor a little bit,” he said. “We can pretty much accommodate everyone.

“We cater to the customers,” he continued. “This is a custom-built airplane. It’s like getting a custom-made suit.”

When it comes to the powerplant, customers have a choice between a Jacobs R755B2 Radial or B2M engine, with 275 horsepower and a fuel injection option. The propeller is a fixed pitch Sensenich wooden prop, but there is an option for a constant speed propeller.

Other enhancements include modern hydraulic toe brakes and the latest in avionics. The customer can have a basic TOMATO FLAMES panel or load up with steam gauge or glass.

“In some ways the Waco is a time machine in that in transports you back in time, but systems-wise it is a fully modern airplane,” Bowers said. “We have one coming off the assembly line that is an IFR glass airplane. There is not a round gauge in it and that is what the customer wants.”

Mixing modern and vintage can make selling the modern Wacos, which have a starting price of $395,500, a challenge, said Bowers. “People say, ‘it’s an old airplane,’ and we say, ‘well, no it is not. It is a brand new manufactured airplane with a full electrical system.’”

It’s also a sturdy plane. The frame of the modern Waco is 4130 steel. The covering is Seconite, a dacron-polyester material with a life greater than 50 years, according to Bowers. “We use a paint process from PPG called Delta. It is very resilient, very color fast and easily repairs if you scratch it. Seconite is very strong. If you punched the airplane you’d break your hand before you damaged the fabric.”

Waco Classic provides up to 25 hours of dual flight instruction to all its customers to make sure the new owners are safe and comfortable pilots.

“The transition time is about 15 hours average, depending on their aptitude and amount of tailwheel time,” said Bowers. “They are going to spend a lot of time on landings on both concrete and grass.”


The company is in the final throes of flight testing its newest model, the Waco YMF D. Chief test pilot Carl Dye reports dramatic performance improvements over the C model.

“The combination of the new Jacobs R-755-A2 300-hp engine and new design MT propeller are producing almost unbelievable results,” he noted. “Performance is expected to improve dramatically in all areas of flight. Initial data suggest a substantial improvement in climb, 5-plus knot improvement in top speed and reduced takeoff distances.”

The company is processing the data and will release final numbers in a few weeks, with FAA certification to follow.

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  1. Sam Ivey says

    What a joy for an old pilot (84 now; private ticket at 18) to see the Waco back in production and close to my old home too, Coldwater. Last Waco I saw crashed at a Three Rivers air show around 1949) killing pilot and a newspaper photographer. to those responsible for resurrecting a great name and a great plane – Salute!

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