Taking to the skies in style

This is the second of two stories on businesses based on historical planes in Southwest Michigan.
Peter Bowers, president of WACO (pronounced WAH-co) Classic Aircraft Corporation in Battle Creek, stands with legs apart, arms crossed over his chest, eyes on the plane. It is one of seven planes currently in the hangar, and seven is full capacity here, but two more planes are coming.

"We had a record year in 2014," Bowers says. "$5 million in sales, but we will be introducing the E model in April 2016. Keep the customers interested. We solicit feedback from our customers, and we put that feedback into the next plane. We’re always improving; every plane is better than the one before."

Outshining the sun in the open hangar, facing the runways of W. K. Kellogg Airport, is a bright yellow WACO YMF-5D Biplane with an open cockpit. It’s not quite yet ready to fly, and a sticker that says as much is taped to the standard fixed pitch MT wood propeller, but it will be soon. Somewhere, a customer is counting the days.

"About 25 percent of our business is offshore," Bowers says. "Every year, at least one plane goes to Europe. We just sent one to New Zealand, another to Australia."

Bowers has been running WACO for seven years. His father, Jon Bowers, is a minority partner. WACO, however, goes much farther back in its history. During what’s known as the Golden Age of Aviation, between 1919 and 1947, the WACO Aircraft Company began as a family-owned business in Troy, Ohio. WACO appears to have been the acronym for the original name of Weaver Aircraft Company.

The aircraft manufacturing company saw its booming years during World War II, building twice as many planes as any other aircraft manufacturer. They also build an open-cockpit biplane, the WACO YMF, for the barnstorming pilots of the 1930s. It is that vintage plane that Bowers has brought back to life for pilots of today.

"These are the same planes, only with today’s technology and superior craftsmanship," Bowers says. The electrical system fits today’s standards, and the pilot no longer needs to worry over oil leaks or materials giving out. Cotton and linen fabrics no longer cover the biplane frame, but have been replaced with Dacron polyester. More than 300 engineering changes were made to the original design.

"With the annual maintenance required by law, these planes should last forever," says Bowers. With a price tag that ranges from $439,600 for the VFR model, $489,600 for the IFR model, with other custom-made planes at WACO ranging around $650,000, a customer appreciates that kind of life span. "It all depends on what the customer wants us to add into the plane," Bower says. "We can do anything."

It was in 1983 that the work of the company returned to production, resurrecting the planes of yesteryear. Bowers tells the story as he strolls through the hangar. He tells of two men in Lansing, Mich., who were obsessed with the open-cockpit plane.

"They were both airplane nuts, and they thought the YMF biplane was the greatest plane ever," he says. "But they couldn’t find one to buy. There were maybe only two or three still flying at that time. They worked out a deal with Weaver Aircraft to build one."

Building an experimental plane had all kinds of legal strings attached to it, Bowers says, but they checked with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and found that there was no law against building one, but to do so, they would need a production certificate.

"A type certificate, or TC, is the intellectual part of the plane, the design," he explains. "The production certificate, or PC, allows you to build a plane. Get the TC and the PC, and you can start building your plane. The FAA told the two of them ‘just this once,’ and so they built the plane." Bowers smiles. "And they’ve been building them ever since."

That first redesigned biplane flew in 1986, and in 1999, the renamed company of WACO moved to Battle Creek, and to its current site in 2000. "We have 34 employees working here now," Bowers says. "That includes four pilots and me. You’ll find that most airplanes in this country are built by foreign-owned companies, but we are family-owned, all American-made by artisans."

Bowers had first gotten to see WACO and learn about its operation as part of a tour group. He came back yet again, and when he heard the general manager mention he was selling the company, Bowers expressed an interest. WACO is his labor of love. He can be found there seven days a week, he says, sometimes working the night through.

The biplanes are made one at a time, with all the welding and assembly done on site. Each plane takes about 6 to 8 months to build, and each one is unique. Bowers shows off a plane in the process of receiving its custom paint job. Bright red streaks vary with yellow swirls, and the patterns are carefully taped on prior to painting. The taping of the layout alone can take two days.

"We do FaceTime with customers to discuss the design," Bowers says. "Customers are very particular about the paint they want. They can obsess over half an inch this way or that."

Once the plane is built and ready to fly, the propeller is tested. "We run that for 110 hours, that’s three weeks, full power and non-stop," he says. "Then there are flight tests, performance tests, approvals. It’s a long process, but these are safe planes."

On the WACO YMF-5D Biplane, the wing-span is 30 feet for the upper wing, 26 feet for the lower wing, and the plane has a cruise speed of 123 mph.

"The wings are still spruce or Douglas fir," Bowers says. "Wood has no fatigue life, whereas metal does. On high-end acrobatic planes, you want wood, although wood is much more expensive."

Bowers points to a wall filled ceiling to floor with engineering drawings, each drawing rolled inside a cardboard tube. More than 8,000 drawings are inside these tubes, some dating back to the first biplanes.

"That hasn’t changed since the old days," Bowers says. "We still make the drawings by hand and send them to the FAA that way. I suppose at some point we’ll move to a CAD system," he says, referring to computer-aided design system. One senses, however, that he’s in no hurry to change what has worked so well for so long.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Zinta Aistars.