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Sport Aviation March 1964 and April 1964http://www.angelfire.com/ks2/janowski/other_aircraft/Waco_W



The Last Waco

By Terry O'Neill, EAA 5572
7517 Knightswood Dr., Fort Wayne, Ind.

Part I:
ONCE WACO was king. The largest manufacturer of civil aircraft in the world once - some say. After all those sturdy open biplanes, all those cabin biplanes, all those military troop gliders, what happened to Waco?

When I bought the "Aristocraft", the last of the Wacos, I found out.

Included in engineering data and reports from early 1945 are sketches and information on a new post-war Waco.

This sketchy material seems to grow into more complete studies, drawings, and then blueprints and reports by 1946.

The 1946 records include photographs of a full size mockup of the fuselage, left side, with a high single tail which was later discarded in favor of a twin tail, a la "Ercoupe."

The Waco "Aristocraft" is a high-wing monoplane with the engine in the nose and propeller on the tail. The landing gear is semi-retracting tricycle, and the fuselage sits as close to the ground as a 1946 automobile, for ease of entry to the four-place cabin, especially in consideration of the two large doors and the absence of prop blast.

After a year of engineering, Waco built the prototype, serial number 9850, registered NX-34219. It first flew on December 31, 1946. It was flown more than 40 hours until retirement in June, 1947. During these months, many "bugs" were eliminated, and there were several due to the multitude of novel features included in the prototype.

For example, the ailerons and flaps are one surface on each wing panel. Also, the flaps were initially linked with the elevators to eliminate a separate flap control for slower landings.

The propeller was to be reversible. The main wheels were to be "castering", and the power was delivered from a "Seabee"-type engine to the propeller via a two-piece drive shaft, with one universal at the rear of the cabin, and another perched atop the tail dorsal fin.

At first these universals were lubricated by the engine's oil system, but this proved inadequate. The prototype was modified until, at present, the universals each have their own pump, oil reservoir and lube lines.

A problem with the "aileron-flaps" showed up at high flap-deflection angles, when the ailerons would tend to lock. Permissible deflection was limited to 15 deg., which solved the problem.

The reversible propeller reversed at full power one day . . . but fortunately it occurred on the ground, on the test rig for the universal drive. The reversing feature was eliminated, apparently, for I am unable to find out how to reverse the prop.

The semi-retracting landing gear proved itself, however, increasing cruising speed 10-15 mph, while protecting the fuselage from damage during two emergency landings which had to be made wheels-up. Waco records include photographs of the aircraft in the fields immediately after the emergency landings.

Due to the necessity of adding self-lubrication to the drive-line universals, however, the center of gravity was moved aft, and it became necessary to move the main wheels four inches aft on the prototype. This is their present location, and handling on the ground is good.

These modifications took time and tremendous effort during early 1947. The whole country was gearing up for civilian living after four years of all-out World War, and it is hard for us to recall today the near impossibility of procuring complete, high quality sub-assemblies like universals and engines. There were many problems at Waco, and the Franklin engine added its share, as it came out of prototype stage itself.

Its 12 volt starter barely cranked over the 500 cu. in. engine for starting, and the absence of a flywheel-effect from the remote propeller location added to starting problems.

The abuse of torsional vibration tests on the test rig didn't improve things, and some 130 hours of violent acceleration and high-power running on the ground, even for a self-cooled engine, shortened the valve life so that at around 143 hours the valves were sticking so badly that the spare engine was robbed for six new cylinder assemblies to continue flight tests. With these problems o universals, engine, landing gear, and others, like procuring beaded skins for the horizontal stabilizers, development time of the "Aristocraft" was extending well into 1947.

A second "Aristocraft" was started, serial number 9851, which was to include these changes, and was referred to in engineering correspondence as the "ATC aircraft." Fuselage tubing welding was completed in May, 1947, together with one wing panel assembled, and a second wing panel started. Waco engineers were proposing a revised landing gear, brakes, and engine mount in mid-1947, while outside in the aviation market, trouble was growing.

The Republic "Seabee", a marvel of aviation mass production reduced to approximately 200 man-hours per aircraft, was terminated! Since Waco planned to use this engine, the cost from Franklin soared. Other costs were rising, while at the same time, the aircraft market began selling fewer and fewer aircraft.

The signs began to be apparent at Waco, as a vice-president noted in a memorandum that . . . "As 1947 continues, the number of our proposed aircraft dwindles, and how all the changes are to be made . . . becomes difficult to see."

About a month later, on June 2, 1947, while the purchasing agent was on vacation, Waco laid off employees and announced to the CAA that they were suspending work on their type certification program for the Model W "Aristocraft."

At this stage Waco test pilots had conducted performance calibration flights with CAA "trailing bomb" equipment.

The pilots felt that the "Aristocraft" could successfully pass CAA flight tests for two-control category aircraft. The observed top speed was 154 mph at 3,200 Ibs. gross. Cruise on 161 hp was listed at 135 mph. Climb at gross was 960 ft./min. The aircraft carried 60 gals. of fuel, which would give it a range of approximately 520 miles and more than 4 hours.

The Model W was pulled into the big white Waco hangar, its wings removed and stored beside the fuselage next to a wall.

That was the end of Waco as an aircraft manufacturer in 1947. It was the end for others, too, as the postwar aircraft market collapsed.

The "Aristocraft" was built in the Waco tradition. Some of the fuselage tubing is heavy enough for a truck bed, as no cost or weight was spared for strength. Also, the amount of craftsmanship in the plane is remarkable, even for a 1947 aircraft. The all-wood doors, the molded-wood wheel and tail fairings, and the fiberglas nose cowl and belly-pan required many man-hours and skill.

One of the final Weight and Balance Reports lists the "Aristocraft" at 2,237 Ibs. empty. Most 1947 four-place aircraft were 300 to 600 Ibs. Iighter.

An employee of Waco reported that approximately 300 orders had been placed for the Model W, with $100 deposits. The money was all refunded. The Waco "Aristocraft" would not be built.

In November of 1962, a rumor in Fort Wayne had it that the "Aristocraft" was still owned by Waco in Troy, Ohio, some 100 miles away, and was up for sale.

What a classic this would be today, even though it probably wasn't ATC'd.

A telephone call got me Charlie Moffet, Waco's almost legendary service manager of the 1930's, and now sales manager.

Charlie confirmed the rumor and I drove to Troy one afternoon to see it. With Charlie, I walked up to the dusty old maroon bird's carcass, sitting in suspended animation with disengaged wings, up against the big hangar wall.

Except for two tears in the fabric-covered fuselage, the plane appeared to be complete and undamaged. Only the sensitive altimeter and the radio were missing from the instrument panel at the front of a very roomy cabin for four.

A very curious mixture of old and new: tube-and-fabric fuselage, with a beaded metal wing and wooden doors, with fiberglass nose cowl and belly-pan, and a wet-sump engine with flexible Pliocel fuel tanks.

With the fuselage parts, Moffet said, would come spares ordered for the project, including a spare engine, propeller, two sets of propeller blades, some instruments, driveshafts, etc.

After successful negotiation, a contract of sale was signed and I became owner of the last Waco. Even after living with the Model W for nearly a year, this still gives me a mild shock.

As many vintage aircraft fans know, the most exciting and physically exhausting part of finding a treasure is in wresting it from its resting place and dragging it home.

The "Aristocraft" proved this in spades. Shoehorning this 1,400 lb. fuselage into a 16 ft. van was like trying to squeeze Moby Dick into the back of a milk truck!

If it wasn't for the enthusiastic assistance of fellows like John Bendik, Orvel Yarger, Carl Buecker and other EAA members, the old Waco might still be in Troy. A note of appreciation is due to Waco President C. J. Bruckner, too, who insisted in putting air in the tires, accumulating all spares at once for easier removal, and in rigging a chain hoist to the hangar trusses, which was indispensable to remove the fuselage.

Bruckner also put Charlie Moffet in charge of collecting all engineering reports, CAA correspondence, drawings, tracings and engineering data, and he did an excellent job. There is only one group of drawings I haven't been able to find, and I suspect they may be included with several tracings which haven't been unrolled yet. The marvel of this will be appreciated by those of us who have been associated with million dollar military contracts which often teeter precariously on one smudged pencil sketch, with R & D drawings constantly undergoing untold revisions. The Waco prints were very complete.

After finally getting four ambitious EAA enthusiasts together, and the airplane parts pile completed by the Waco factory, we were hit with the worst snow storm of the winter! We managed to get to Troy that Saturday . . . Orvel Yarger driving about 150 miles through the worst blizzard around that part of Ohio, and still arriving hours ahead of us (due to a truck rental mixop) and loading the spare engine on his pickup truck.

Orv helped us while we planned the gargantuan feat of hoisting a 1,400 lb. fragile fuselage up 42 inches by chain hoist, and backing a 16 ft. van truck around the dangling airframe. With Carl Buecker's boat winch nailed to the front of the truck, Carl, John Bendik and I had to hang on the chain to raise the fuselage a mere inch at a time. But finally, it was high enough. I backed the truck around, and by removing the truck's chain rail we were able to winch the main wheels in far enough to rest on the edge of the truck bed. We had less than a quarter inch on the top, and we had sweat, dirt and skinned knuckles between ourselves. We then stuffed every nook and crevice with doors, cowling, prop blades, seats, driveshafts, boxes of castings and the like, until it was full. Then we tied the whole mess to the rear of the truck, using about 300 ft. o clothesline rope. It looked like some giant spider had sealed itself into the back of the truck.

Jim Campbell helped us out, and as dusk approached, I had to admit that I couldn't pack it all into the truck or my station wagon driven down by Carl Buecker. We had to leave behind a crate of driveshafts and two of the wing panels, plus some castings.

Dusk fell as we drove cautiously out of the big Waco hangar where, just 16 years earlier, the "Aristocraft" had been born.

It snowed some more for the drive home, for which we were not thankful. Carl got lost en route, and we half froze in the poorly heated van truck.

When we pulled up in front of the house with the clothesline "spider web" and the tall, propeller-nosed face of some maroon monster peering out of its cocoon, small wonder that neighbors walked out onto their snowy lawns to gape. I didn't dare leave it over until dawn, so drove it all across town to my friend Buecker's home, where I found my "lost" station wagon, which dear old Carl had already unloaded alone, bless him!

(The following weekend Bendik and I made a second trip to Troy for the wings and shafts, wrapped them in one dollar carpets from the Salvation Army, and brought it all home without trouble) . . . and that's how the last Waco came to Fort Wayne, Ind.

Part II:
THE FOLLOWING morning was freezing, snowy, and a Sunday . . . yet nearly every local EAA member I know turned out to help unload the Waco.

Since there was no truck pit, and since the Smith Field hangar hoist was inadequate, we couldn't find a way to get the heavy fuselage of the truck until we spotted a pile of stoker coal behind a hangar.

With at least a dozen male aviation enthusiasts scurrying about the coal pile and plane, it took us two heavy planks and about an hour to pull the thing from its "cocoon" onto the coal pile . . . and then shovel the coal out from under until the Waco was on the ground. By this time the plane, the moving crew and the surrounding snow were covered with coal dust.

We tethered the beast behind the truck and pulled it - like a captured maroon elephant - over to my T-hangar in a procession that resembled a crazy African safari in the winter.

With Bendik and camera in the lead, then came the truck with me, and the Waco with Joe Travis, then numerous station wagons and cars with Carl Buccker, Al Wilcox, Casey Kruse, the two Yargers, Art Whitacre, Bob Guildenbecker, I think, and possibly True Daugherty, Dan Roth, and others. This was the start o the long rebuilding process which lasted 10 months, most o it in an unheated T-hangar with a floor alternately muddy, frozen or flooded. I patched fabric, replaced rubber, battery, and bought and replaced nuts and bolts. It took three men and two boys to put on each wing panel, which net 178 lbs.!

The single significant change in rebuilding was the drive-coupling between the engine and driveshaft. This was a donut "sandwich" of steel-rubber-steel. When spring came I briefly started the engine (with a loud bark), and the coupling (molded by Firestone in 1946) failed. Rubber smoke was everywhere and the engine was hastily shut off. Had this happened in the air a fire might have resulted. I tried a spare "sandwich", and when it failed after an hour of taxiing, I determined to replace it. A corresponding friend (by now it was early summer) by the name of Molt Taylor had written an extensive article in SPORT AVIATION describing his fine "Aerocar" and its drive-line, which included a Dodge "Flexidyne", a "dry" fluid-drive using steel-shot for fluid. Molt recommended it, and offered to let me have a proper sized one for my use, but it was the wrong type, being a "drive" rather than a "coupling" which I needed.

With the wonderful help of EAA'er Stanley Protman and his father Ralph, both machinists, we machined the necessary changes on the Flexidyne, and installed it. It works wonderfully, and has never been any trouble.

I started correspondence early with the FAA, and met with them and explained the project to them in full early in the spring of 1962. They have been most cooperative since, and repeatedly offered possible solutions and suggestions to some problems I was encountering. When I asked permission to try to take the "Aristocraft" to the 1962 Antique Aircraft Fly-In in Ottumwa, Iowa, they were most cooperative, and offered to come to Fort Wayne on a moment's notice for an Airworthiness Inspection, and would supply me with an operation permit to make the trip under suitable and reasonable restrictions. Unfortunately, the landing gear struts prevented the trip, but I am still thankful to the FAA for their offered help.

In consideration of the complicated machine before me, I wanted to reduce risk in the first flight to a minimum. The big Franklin was run at high power for nearly an hour on the ground, and then the drive-line was checked. This is tough on engines, even self-cooled ones, but a mechanical failure would be even harder on it. Everything checked "A-OK."

Then I borrowed an "Ercoupe" from Denny Sherman at Baer Field - the closest type aircraft resembling the two-control "Aristocraft" - and looked my field over from the air.

Runway 5 was the only one which permitted emergency landings on open fields all the way around the pattern . . . and fortunately was also the longest . . . some 3,300 feet. Then I invested in a good crash helmet, and telephoned FAA Representative R. A. Guss in Indianapolis and requested Airworthiness Inspection. He ofered to come the following day if I wished, but suggested that if there was no hurry, he could spend half a day with me the following weekend.

It couldn't have been a more perfect day. Late summer, bright and clear, with a 5 mph wind down the selected runway!

Ray Guss showed up right after lunch, and we looked at the aircraft and discussed the flight. He suggested I run two high-speed taxi runs for him to watch, to which I agreed. I had performed 24 runs during the two preceding weeks, and gained much assurance from them. It was only fair to share this assurance with Ray, since his name had to appear on the Airworthiness Certificate. We completed the paper work and I started the big Franklin with its agonizing, slow crank, while Ray held the CO2 bottle for me.

I checked engine gauges and the universal pressure gauges, watched the cylinder head temperatures slowly climb to 150 deg. C, and taxied to the end of the runway. Ray drove over to the intersection area, and waved a green flag at me to assure me that the field was clear, as the far end of the runway wasn't visible.

I checked the magneto - 50 drop - and the distributor - 60 drop - and checked all cylinder temps, universal temps, pressures, etc., and the prop. Ray waved the green flag, and I shoved the tach up to 2000 rpm and released the brake, and then ran the tach up to 2400 rpm. The big bird surged forward - always surprised me, the acceleration - and I reduced the throttle to stay under the 2400 rpm limit for the Flexidyne.

I glanced at the air speed, and as it passed 65 mph we approached the intersection. I pulled the wheel back toward my chest, and up came the Waco. I reduced power and it went back down onto the runway and porpoised a little. I coasted to the end of the runway and turned around for one more "aborted take-of" for my witness. Ray gave me a thumbs-up as I went by, and we went through the same procedure again . . . this time no porpoising. Very smooth! The next time would be the take-off! Though I had determined not to, I thought for a moment of my five little O'Neills and my patient spouse. I turned into the light wind and ran through the take-off in my mind, recalled the path of fields off the end of the runway. Up went the electric tach and off went the brakes. The Waco leaped forward and I let her go. A couple of twists of the prop vernier kept the tach below 2400 rpm, and as we passed 70 mph just before the intersection, I pulled her off. A little sluggish, but up we went, and stayed up. The controls were a little stiff . . . probably the nosewheel friction-shim . . . and we crossed the railroad tracks and began a gradual climb to the left at 95 mph. I stayed over the path of fields, and nervously watched the instruments. Oil temperature was a little high. The felt seal around the cooler had probably blown out again . . . but the cylinder head temps were a nice, cool 185 deg. C, so we went around a second time, slowly gaining altitude. Nearly 1,000 ft. above terra firma, and the last of the Wacos was flying again after 17 yrs. in storage!

The plan was to climb to about 3,000 ft. and check slow-flight, raise the flaps and partially raise the gear, but on the third time around the pattern, I noticed the first shaft bearing shaking a little. Possibly it had always done this . . . never noticed before. Reluctantly I pulled off the power and came back down, sailed over the Phillips station at the four-lane highway, and touched down gently about a third down the runway. Boy! The tension disappeared, and I realized I was grinning big as I pulled up to the T-hangar. Ray Guss came over and I showed him the bearing. He said, "Nice flight, Terrence."

Then a car came screeching around the corner of the hangar and two guys piled out. "What the h--- is it?" they asked. "We were driving down the highway and almost ran off the road when we saw it didn't have a propeller on the nose, and didn't look like a glider or a jet." They looked it over while Ray and I talked. He suggested it felt a little hot, and I decided to pull the shaft and check the bearing, and put a thermocouple on it.

He asked me to drop him a little report of the flight if I would like it to appear in the FAA Newsletter, and I did.

I thanked Ray, and after discussing the project a little more, he left for South Bend.

I pulled the shaft and found the race a little out of round and had it ground, and flew it about 45 minutes a week or so later, for some air-to-air photography. It's nice to fly. No torque on take-off, due to the tail prop. And in the air, no re-trimming is required except for slow-flight and landing. I flew it in formation with a friend's Piper "Clipper" while John Bendik shot movies and 35mm shots, and though I anticipated trouble flying formation with two-control, it was a breeze.

It is also very stall resistant, and can be flown all day at 65 mph on 1600 rpm and 17 in. manifold pressure with the wheel fully back. The nose nibbles up and down a little, but full aileron control remains, and altitude is controlled with power.

Though I can't fully retract the gear, the old model W seems to have the ability to make its CAA-calibrated performance cruise of 135 if I could retract the wheels. It cruises at over 120 mph with the gear down. But if you land slow, at stall speed, you have to do the flareout with a little power because all the elevator is already used. At 70 though, all landings have been "squeakers."

I've never flown Wacos before, but am beginning to appreciate their appeal. This is an airplane that surrounds you with heavy structure, and is thoroughly predictable . . . Iike a good friend. It assures you . . . even this model W "Aristocraft", the last Waco.

You can't help but speculate what the ship would look like today, had Waco made it through the 1940's, to evolve like the Cessna 170's into the Skyhawk . . . only with a no-prop, jet-like nose. You can't help but conclude that it would be both beautiful, jet-like, and characteristically . . . a Waco . . . even with a propeller in the tail.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4:
Gently, and with a scant clearance the Waco slides out of the van truck onto the planks and the coal pile. The coal pile was then lowered, letting the fuselage settle to ground level.

Photo 5:
Out of the truck and off the coal pile. the Waco "Aristocraft" is towed across the airport to a waiting T-hangar.

Photo 6:
Saddled on the tail of the Waco W is Keith "Casey" Kruse, while Al Wilcox helps to move it off the coal pile.