The Old Guys Sometimes Got Airplanes Just Right

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“Charm” or “character” are words sometimes used to describe old airplanes and maybe not even airplanes that old. A drafty cabin in an old Tri-Pacer is an example of character and the fact that a pre-war J-3 has but a passing nod to pitch stability is charming until you fly the thing on a 100-mile cross country and then it’s just a pain in the ass. Charm has its limits.

That’s another way of saying that airplanes of the 1920s and 1930s were built at a time when aeronautical design and manufacturing were emerging arts and just as much was unknown as was known. An airplane was just as likely to be significantly compromised across a range of design considerations as it was to be completely sorted. The Waco line may be an exception to this and I was reminded of it yesterday when I met Waco’s Peter Bowers to fly the company’s new amphibious version of the hulking YMF-5D, which they call the YMF-5F, for floats.

As you probably know, these are new production airplanes, essentially resurrected from the original designs produced during the golden age of biplanes in the 1930s. In the mid-1980s, the YMF got a makeover, but it’s essentially the same airplane designed and certified even before CAR 3, which didn’t appear until after World War II.

I’d flown the land version of the YMF a few years ago and my impression of it must have been dulled by time. For what it is, the Waco is a surprisingly nice flying airplane. It’s not too heavy in roll or pitch and although it has adverse yaw and you need to use the rudder, it’s not so bad as to bounce your noggin off the cockpit combing if you get lazy of foot. When Bowers threw me into the rear hole, I was a little apprehensive about what those two big Aerocet tubs were going to do to performance and handling. At 3200 pounds, this ain’t no LSA.

Cruise speed does take a 10 MPH or so hit and power off, the airplane is between an anvil and a brick. But trimmed up with power—the trim is one of the 1930s window cranks like we have in the Cub—the airplane is stunningly stable in pitch and roll. I’d say fingertip control, but it almost doesn’t need even that in cruise flight. (That’s about 100 MPH on 14 GPH.) For a water landing, I set the power and trimmed it to 75 MPH and essentially did nothing else. It alights gracefully and without drama. The same was true on a hard runway landing with the floats. It does require a power-on approach, but without even looking at the MP gauge, you can just feel through the airframe when the power setting is exactly right and you’ll have to work to screw up the landing. I’m not so sure a student couldn’t solo in the YMF-5. (At nearly $600,000, the lessons would be a tad expensive.)

The point is, before wind tunnels for every little design tweak and computational fluid dynamics became a thing, those old guys with slide rules and lofting sticks were capable of producing remarkably nice flying airplanes. Maybe not all of them, but some of them. The YMF-5, even on floats, is one.

I originally posted this blog on Friday afternoon because Waco is showing the airplane this weekend at AOPA’s regional fly-in in Tampa.  I’ll have a video on it later in the week. I think you’ll be impressed with the execution. Of course, the market for this type of airplane is almost nil. It's but a unique toy for the very rich or collectors, maybe. But that doesn't make it any less cool.

And here's a shout out for Peter O. Knight Airport, where the fly-in was held. This is one of country’s remarkable airports and set in what I find to be the most interesting neighborhood. It was built by the Works Progress Administration in the same era that Wacos were to aviation what Cirruses are today. At one time, Peter O, as everyone calls it, was Tampa’s main airport. And short of landing on the city’s streets, the location couldn’t be any closer. It’s hard by the Port of Tampa and there’s a nice little yacht basin opposite the port. Nothing like sitting on the airport veranda watching airplanes, ships and sloops come and go, as Peter Bowers and I did on Thursday in perfect weather. 

Comments (6)

Ahhh, a breath of fresh air. "... bounce your noggin off the cockpit ..." Pure poetry in motion. Welcome back stranger.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 27, 2017 5:57 PM    Report this comment

This is a timely commentary on the Waco. I had dinner and a tour of the Waco museum in Troy, Ohio, yesterday evening. It was interesting to see the number of iterations they went through before hitting on a winning design. The earlier attempts were not very good flyers, even if they were good looking planes for the time. It was pretty obvious that their knowledge of aeronautic principles was fairly lacking at first. However, they learned quickly as was evident in the evolution of the design. It's nice to know that their ultimate product still holds up today.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 29, 2017 12:32 PM    Report this comment

On the first day of May in 1931, the Empire State building opened. Construction had taken just over 13 months. Construction of the Hoover dam began in 1931, and took about 5 years. In the 1940s and '50s, new aircraft designs went from brain fart to serial production in a matter of months. Today, it often takes nearly a decade. When I started my engineering career, we had pencils, T-squares, vellum, and slide rules. Still, we managed to design and build useful things.

The consequences of the proliferation of advanced design tools sometimes appear to me to be a perverse corollary of the Khazzoom-Brooks postulate. Moving the goalposts isn't always a good idea.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 30, 2017 8:38 AM    Report this comment

I think it's a good thing you can still buy a new Waco. At the same time, I'm not so thrilled about the damper put on the market by airframes you couldn't get certified today.

Maybe an output level should be placed on old designs? Not that it would matter right now, but it might make some sense.

Posted by: Eric Warren | October 30, 2017 9:51 AM    Report this comment

I'm a long time admirer of the YMF. It looks like the perfect candidate for a retired duffer (commercial rated) to hang out a shingle and give rides to the multitudes (well, at least to the curious youngsters that might show up). You wouldn't get rich but you might be able to pay for the gas while generating a lot of aviation dreams. Mr. Bowers has done a huge favor to the community and I thank him and his people. Because, as you can see, those aviation dreams aren't restricted to youngsters.

Posted by: Larry Martin | October 30, 2017 4:28 PM    Report this comment

The Great Lakes, the Travel-Air and Stearman are also wind-in-the-wires octogenarians worthy of mention

Posted by: Richard Montague | October 31, 2017 7:14 AM    Report this comment

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