As soon as you walk past the reception desk at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) in Hood River, Oregon, and into the first of four gigantic aircraft hangars, you know that you’re in a very special place.
Most museums have a few pieces that will put the pilot (or gear head) into a state of temporary awe, but this place — this place is jaw dropping.
Now in its 12th year of operation, the museum houses more than 150 antique and classic airplanes, along with more than 150 antique and classic cars.
If the Pacific Northwest has a mecca of transportation engineering and design excellence, worthy of its own engine driven pilgrimage, the WAAAM just might be it.
“There are 10 other museums on the West Coast, and they’re all full of the same thing,” says founder and museum curator Terry Brandt. “Here, we are a completely different type of museum.”
Brandt, himself an accomplished pilot, says that aviation has been in his DNA from day one.
He grew up on an airport. His father was a private pilot before captaining bombers in World War II, planting a seed early on with his son that shines through in the dedication to antique and classic airplanes at WAAAM.
“We have the best Waco collection in the world, we have the best mail plane collection in the world, we have the best Stearman collection in the world, we have the best Cub collection in the world, and we have probably the best Aeronca collection in the world,” Brandt notes. “We have airplanes of which only one exists — we’ve got it.”
Additionally, Brandt, now with more than 15,000 hours of flight time, has ensured that from day one the museum operate as a “working museum” where the vast majority of vehicles on display continue to drive and fly — including the all-original 1917 Curtiss Jenny, which Brandt flew last year on the aircraft’s 100th birthday.
In part, it’s that dedication to finding and restoring unique aircraft that has put the museum on the map as a “destination” for donations, that Brandt is quick to praise.
“When somebody donates, that donation goes to acquire an asset — an aircraft, car or motorcycle — for the museum,” he says.
All of the day to day operations, Brandt says proudly, “have come from people buying tickets at the door.”
Donations are not only the lifeblood of the museum, but as Brandt notes, that’s how the museum actually got its start.
“About 13 years ago, the wife said, ‘Either get busy doing that museum you’ve been talking about or have an auction, because I don’t want to have to deal with your stuff,’” he recalls.
But just because his personal collection has been rolled into the museum’s doesn’t mean that Brandt no longer finds time to regularly take to the skies.
“Usually, I’ll fly whatever is closest to the door” in any of the museum’s hangars, he says with a laugh.
That includes everything from Wacos, to Steramans, to gliders, to one of several J-3 Cubs — the same model Brandt first learned to fly in as a teenager and a model that he says is still among his favorites.
Inevitably though, with access to so many aircraft, Brandt notes that he always gets asked what aircraft is his number one pick at the museum to fly.
“I always tell them it’s whichever one I am currently flying,” he says.
And while many may not have the opportunity to fly more than 150 different types of aircraft like the museum’s founder, a modified version of that advice is probably apt while touring WAAAM.
“What’s your favorite airplane here?” a fellow visitor might ask.
“Easy,” you might say. “The one I’m currently looking at.”
What I Fly
We have five different J-3s in the museum (all different variations). The only duplication we have is a Piper J-3. One’s on wheels and one’s on floats.
Why I Fly It
It’s been J-3s all my life. It’s still my favorite airplane.
How I Fly It
I just go look at the countryside. Typically, when I fly here, we’re doing a parade, we’re doing Veterans Day, we’re doing whatever. There’s always some reason to go flying.
Learn to fly in a tailwheel airplane — then you can learn to handle anything. The only thing better than learning to fly in a tailwheel is learning to fly in a glider. That is really the best possible pilot you can make.
The second thing would be to learn to fly in Hood River, because then you’ll be able to handle any weather condition that you’ll ever encounter.