The Old Guys Sometimes Got Airplanes Just Right


“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. (Of course, 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’m posting this blog on Friday afternoon because Waco is showing the airplane this weekend at AOPA’s regional fly-in in Tampa. If you’d like to get a look at it, what better opportunity? I’ll have a video on it later in the week. I think you’ll be impressed with the execution.

And here a shout out for Peter O. Knight Airport, where the fly-in is being 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 Cirri 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. The weekend promises a little cloud and showers, but the show will go on, as it always does.