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Its initials stand for Scout Experimental, but the S.E.5a was one of the most effective fighters of World War I. (Philip Makanna)

Biplanes and Us

25 years later, it's a complicated relationship.

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For the cover of the premier issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, published in April 1986, we chose a biplane, a configuration that aircraft designers had all but abandoned by the 1940s. Our coverplane was a Great Lakes trainer, a 1931 two-place, open-cockpit sportster, owned and restored by the late, illustrious Cole Palen, founder of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York. Rhinebeck is just one of the hubs of vintage airplane activity around the world where you can still see biplanes fly, some of them 100 years after the first of their types left the ground.

From This Story

Why is that?

One reason is history. Dozens of biplane types stand out in the history of aviation—as military trainers for both world wars, corporate aircraft, barnstormers, transports, crop dusters, and showplanes. Most of the biplane owners we’ve hopped rides with say they regard themselves as caretakers, preserving a bit of aviation heritage until the next owner can take over the job. In recent years, more and more airplane fans have been spending their money and time restoring vintage aircraft—biplanes among them—and reaping more financial reward for doing it. “There are more Classic restorations being completed, many for the second or third time on a particular airplane,” says H.G. Frautschy, executive director of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s vintage group, referring to the EAA category of airplanes built before 1955. “I’m also seeing a trend that as their value increases, fewer aircraft are being discarded, and are being restored. The increase is not dramatic, but it’s heartening to see the numbers hold steady or climb.”

Biplanes are not only still being restored, they’re also still being manufactured. Since 1991, WACO Classic Aircraft Corporation of Battle Creek, Michigan, has been producing Waco YMF models under the original type certificate and has sold more than 125. The company recently announced that this year it will begin to manufacture the biplane that was on our cover 25 years ago, the Great Lakes. Even these newly manufactured biplanes teach their pilots and passengers something about flight in its youth. But anyone who has ever had the good fortune to look over the side from an open cockpit at the country gliding by below knows that history can’t fully explain why biplanes are treasured. And utility doesn’t explain it either. Though a biplane can get you from here to there, that seems to be just an excuse to fly it. The biplane’s real purpose is to entertain.

Maybe that’s why we at Air & Space, feeling our age at 25, also feel an affinity for biplanes. Here is a sample of the types still entertaining.

The editors

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