The Classic Wagon

Why families still travel in Wacos.

Morning light warms Tom Brown’s QDC, which came to Wynkoop all the way from Unity, Wisconsin. (Don Parsons)
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I left my heart one summer day in the back seat of a 1934 Waco UKC. It was a “cabin” Waco, the classic biplane with an enclosed cockpit. It had red wheel pants too, and a Continental W670 220-horsepower engine. David Parsons was flying it last year at a fly-in at Wynkoop Airport, a private grass strip near the central Ohio town of Mount Vernon. For David, his wife Sally, and their children Abbie and Zach, the biplane is the perfect family conveyance for Sunday morning pancake hops or antique airplane reunions—rear bench seat, sea-green wool upholstery, wood-trimmed windows. Pushed aboard through the single side door, I was suddenly back in my Uncle Tom Kelly’s earthbound pride and joy, a 1947 Mercury, but with wings. The UKC bounded down the grass and up into a cloudless sky. We circled round the pattern, above orderly rows of Wacos parked in a checkerboard of banana yellow, buttermilk cream, and watermelon red. There were the graceful, open-cockpit biplanes, especially straight- and taper-wing models that made Waco the epitome of Golden Age helmeted aviation. And there were the slightly boxy cabins of Standard and Custom models, the final word in 1930s private flying, with their roomy, heated interiors. In 1931, Waco converted to a system of three-letter codes denoting models by engine, wing style, and fuselage, an endless delight for the cognoscenti but near-total confusion for mere airplane lovers. Called the King of Biplanes, the youngest Wacos at this June 2009 fly-in would be eligible for Medicare, with many others near 80 years old.

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I landed with two questions: What ever happened to Waco? And why are so many Wacos still flying, all these years later? We may need pronunciation lessons in the 21st century—it’s not “Wake-o” or “Whack-o,” but “WAH-co,” to rhyme with “taco”—but in its heyday, from 1926 to the early years of World War II, Waco was a major brand, America’s leading manufacturer of small commercial airplanes.

For more than 25 years, Andy Heins, co-president of the National Waco Club, has been creating a database of every Waco built by the original manufacturer. The company moved twice before settling in Troy, Ohio, some 50 miles from Mount Vernon, and changed its name several times, once without any clear notation in the corporate minutes. It also wrote its name as both Waco and WACO. Today, the National Waco Club spells it lowercase, while the American WACO Club uses all caps. The American club, based at Creve Coeur Airport near St. Louis, Missouri, broke away from the National club in the early 1990s, largely over personality clashes that no one wants to dredge up. Many owners belong to both, and the president of the American club, Phil Coulson, is always welcome to fly his 1932 UBA to the National club’s events. There is also a Western Waco Club in the San Francisco Bay area.

The Parsons family is something between a dynasty and a squadron. David’s brother Doug is the National Waco Club’s other co-president. Their dad, Lee, joined us that day in Mount Vernon after flying from the family farm in eastern Ohio in the 1931 open-cockpit QCF he’s owned for 48 years. After the 1973 oil crisis, Lee decided that the QCF had to earn its keep. Together, they hopped passengers at county fairs and towed banners over stadiums, until insurance premiums forced the QCF into retirement from commercial work. Maybe one reason so many Wacos are still around is that they function so well, like elderly family members who are still healthy and very much a part of the team. (Don Parsons, the photographer for this article, is not related.)

In the early days, one of Lee’s first passengers in the open-front cockpit was his wife Donna, holding five-week-old Doug. Lee recalled, “The doctor said that we were going to expose him to all sorts of other things anyway, and that if we wrapped him up good, we could take him.”

Doug seems to have suffered no harm. He had arrived in his 1934 YKC cabin with wife Trenna and kids Brandon and Brooke. And I met sister Dianna and her husband Randy Scott, a pilot, who’d been Doug’s college roommate. Dianna never learned to fly. She and Randy are restoring a Stinson 108-2 Voyager. Stinson? The rest of the clan seemed remarkably tolerant.

Waco production was brisk and steady up through World War II, says Andy Heins. This excludes the 14,000 troop-carrying CG-4A gliders, designed by Waco and cranked out during World War II by a variety of manufacturers. After 1942, the company never produced another powered aircraft, save for a prototype dud that first flew in 1947. Military gliders aside, Heins calculates that between 1920 and 1946, Waco made about 4,150 airplanes, give or take five percent (he says that good records were not kept prior to 1928). Going through Federal Aviation Administration registration certificates, he’s found 756 Wacos still listed and estimates that fewer than 300 are flyable. Some exist only on paper, with no parts. Some are “lost” in barns and basements, in parts but without papers. Leaving out foreign-registered Wacos (Heins knows of at least 35) and those hanging on wires in museums, this means that about 18 percent of all the airplanes ever made are still around, with maybe seven percent of the original 4,150 still flying. Compare that to your average 70-year-old automobile—you won’t find seven percent of many car production runs from 1940 on the road. It’s a different story when you compare other biplanes from the era: Of the 8,584 Stearman Kaydets built between 1934 and 1944, and the equivalent of 2,000 more in spares, about 1,500 are still flying. And a few hundred Beech Model 17 Staggerwings are still in the skies, even though just 781 were built between the end of 1932 (the first flight) and 1949.

It all started in 1919 with two Michigan high school chums, Clayton Brukner and Elwood J. “Sam” Junkin, who worked briefly as mechanics for Aeromarine Plane and Motor Company in New Jersey and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation in New York. That year, with Harold Deuther, they started a company in Lorain, Ohio, called DBJ Aeroplane Company. Of three airplanes they made, just one, the DBJ Scout, got into the air. The two failed efforts were flying boats. Later that year, the three men joined with George “Buck” Weaver, and called themselves the Weaver Aircraft Company. By September 1, 1920, the company was incorporated, with the four men as its officers. They built a midget, high-wing monoplane they called the Cootie, which soon crashed, nearly killing Weaver. While he recovered, the others rebuilt the Cootie as a biplane. It never sold, and at the end of 1922, Weaver left the company. Moving to Troy, Ohio, a few months later, the company changed its name to the Advance Aircraft Company. There the men had their first success with the Waco 7, and sold 12. The Waco 9, with its airframe of welded steel tube, was their breakthrough design: They built 283 between 1925 and 1927. Starting in 1927, the Waco 10 became the company’s bestseller—1,232 through 1930. The 10 was sturdy, moderately priced, and forgiving of new pilots. In 1929, the company changed its name to simply the Waco Aircraft Company.

By then Deuther had left, and Junkin was dead. The company became the creature of Clayton Brukner, an industrial visionary who remained a closed book to all but his closest associates. He had business managers, marketing directors, and first rate aircraft designers, but it was he who ran the company in its pre-war glory, all the way to the end.

During the Depression, other companies such as Cessna had to shut their doors, but Waco flourished. By the mid-1930s, the company was selling a premium product at a premium price, and its slogan radiated confidence: “Ask Any Pilot.” In 1937, a top-of-the-line EGC-7 with a 320-horsepower Wright radial, cabin heater and ventilator, wheel cuffs, ashtrays, dome light, and broadcloth upholstery listed for $10,625 (a 1937 Chevrolet cost $620). The price climbed with wheel pants, custom paint, or a fancier propeller. An internal sales manual read, “While nobody can lay down precise and exact rules for selling an airplane, the study of human nature is even more important in aircraft selling than in other forms of merchandising.”

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