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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People in the aviation business were overly friendly, the manual warned, and this was not the way to sell Wacos. “Too often this attitude of unrestraint and informality extends into your organization and the unusual friendliness that seems to be part of our industry reacts unfavorably in the eyes of your prospect, who is probably a man of some consequence....”

The men of some consequence who bought Wacos included Howard Hughes (aviation), Powel Crosley Jr. (radio), and Henry du Pont (chemical company heir). Because businessmen could fly a closed-cockpit Waco in business suits, cabins were the ancestors to corporate jets. Women of some consequence, too, bought and flew Wacos, including Jackie Cochran, who owned a 1933 UIC long before she commanded the wartime Women Airforce Service Pilots.

But one of Waco’s best clients was Henry King, a Hollywood actor, director, and producer. King made more than 100 movies, from his first silent film in 1915 to his last Cinemascope production in 1962, including the ultimate World War II bomber film, Twelve O’Clock High. In 1933, he bought the first of what would be six Wacos—a UIC cabin, according to his son, John.

John King was apologetic about his lack of recall of the UIC, as well as the next Waco his father bought in 1936 and kept for a year. Reached at his home near Charlottesville, Virginia, the retired mechanical engineer confesses that he was six years old in 1933. “I’m a little vague on some of this,” he says. “I’m not sure what I’ve made up or what I was told when I was a kid.” But he vividly recalls the experience of flying with his dad, and he especially remembers the C-40 model, with its huge R-985 engine.

His father’s Wacos were magic carpets, whisking young John off to Palm Springs for lunch and back to Los Angeles for an afternoon swim at a Santa Monica beach club. “My older brother and I were kind of my dad’s autopilot, as soon as we were big enough to see over the instrument panel and reach the pedals,” he says. On a 1935 trip to Troy to pick up a propeller, John rode along while a Waco corporate test pilot made some speed runs. “They would just buzz right down the center of the Waco air strip at about 50 feet off the ground with the throttle wide open. I don’t know if they were timing it or what, but he did it about two or three times. I was in the back seat and thought it was great fun.”

When the United States entered World War II, luxury took a back seat too, even at Waco. For several years, the company churned out gliders of steel tube, plywood, and canvas, as well as P-47 engine mounts and bomb dollies. After the war, Waco made a weak effort to get back to luxury when it attempted to enter the high-wing monoplane market with the Aristocraft, which had an ungainly tail-mounted pusher prop. It never came close to production. Then suddenly, in 1947, Brukner announced that Waco was abandoning the airplane business to become a manufacturer of bread truck bodies, the Orbitan Sun Lamp, and the Lickety Log Splitter. The company was sold to Allied Industries around 1961, and closed in 1965. All Waco drawings, test flight records, and engineering notes were donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Brukner, who had never married, developed a new passion: nature. In 1967, he turned over the 136 acres of wetlands he had purchased along the Stillwater River near Troy to the non-profit Brukner Nature Center.

By then, Waco lovers were pondering the legacy of the airplane. The National Waco Club had been founded in 1958 by five enthusiasts at Ottumwa, Iowa, and the first fly-in was held in 1959 at the South Dayton Airport in Ohio (now called Moraine Air Park). Ten Wacos made it.

The ringleader was Ray Brandly, an ex-B-17 pilot who in the mid-1950s took part ownership of a 1941 Waco UPF-7, an open-cockpit trainer, 600 of which had been sold to the Civilian Pilot Training program. Throughout the 1950s, Brandly grew fascinated by Wacos while they spun out their days as charters, skywriters, and crop dusters. He discovered the old factory’s stockpile of parts in Troy and approached Brukner, who, puzzled by interest in his obsolete airplane, agreed to sell Brandly what was left.

In later years, Brukner’s puzzlement only grew. He became a regular guest of honor at National Waco Club fly-ins before his death in 1977. Though he earned his pilot’s license in 1928, by all accounts he had given up flying by the mid-1930s. Forty years later, the old man was flattered by all the fuss of the Waco revival.

That revival was fueled by Brandly, who died in 1996, according to Dick and Patsy Jackson of Rochester, New Hampshire. They own a rare-as-hen’s-teeth 1934 S3HD, the only known survivor of Waco’s efforts to market a military fighter. Jackson recalled his first visit to Brandly and his stash of Waco parts: “Ray had a barn full of wings and all sorts of stuff. That was 50 years ago and all that stuff is long gone.” Pointing to the rows of restored Wacos at the Mount Vernon fly-in that day, Jackson added, “You’re looking at a lot of it right now.”

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