Preserving the Miami Valley’s rich aviation past at the WACO Museum in Troy
By Tim Walker
Longtime Dayton residents, along with any individual who’s ever visited this area, can vouch for the Miami Valley’s much-deserved longtime love affair with its historic aviation connection. Dayton is the home to Wilbur and Orville Wright, widely celebrated as the inventors and first pilots of a heavier-than-air flying machine, the travel brochures say. We’re home to the United States Air Force Museum, the Dayton Air Show and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the billboards announce. Images of aircraft are everywhere; they decorate the exit ramps on the interstate and the streets of our downtown, and there’s even a large and not-altogether-popular sculpture in the middle of Main Street between Fourth and Fifth that represents that first historic flight that the Wright B Flyer took in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
The WACO Museum in Troy, and the company it celebrates, is one major piece of our area’s aviation heritage that is quietly tucked away just to the north of the Gem City and is rarely mentioned on the billboards or brochures. In fact, most area residents may not even be aware it exists at all, or that one of the company’s aircraft had a major impact on one of the pivotal moments of WWII.
But a local organization is working hard to change that fact.
The WACO Museum and the proud members of the WACO Historical Society that work to maintain and manage it are dedicated to preserving the memory of the WACO name, a local airplane manufacturer that operated in Lorain, Ohio from 1919 until 1922. In 1923, they moved to Medina, Ohio and then to Troy in 1924. The company was originally founded under the name Weaver Aircraft Company of Ohio by a group of four area businessmen, and the name WACO (it’s pronounced just like “taco” and there is no connection to the city in Texas, which is pronounced differently) began as an acronym. The name was officially changed to WACO Aircraft Company in 1929 and the company operated under that name until it ceased building aircraft in 1947. They remained in business until 1965 doing sub-contract work for the U.S. Air Force as well as manufacturing non-aviation items such as the Lickety Log Splitter and the Orbitan Sun Lamp as well as building aluminum truck bodies.
One of the most historically significant aircraft to come out of the WACO factory while it was in operation was the CG-4, the combat glider that was heavily used during World War II’s D-Day invasion, when allied forces invaded Normandy, on the coast of France. It was also used during Operation Market Garden.
“The WACO company came up with the design for the CG-4 glider, which was the most commonly used, and then the government selected that for manufacture,” said John Schilling, president and former executive director of the WACO Historical Society. “WACO didn’t have the capability to produce as many of the gliders as the government wanted to buy, so it was leased out to a bunch of other companies. But WACO also manufactured over 1,700 of the gliders themselves right here in Troy.”
The CG-4 gliders were heavily used by Britain’s Royal Air Force as well as by the U.S. military, however WACO produced around 80 models of aircraft and about 42,00 planes total, excluding the CG-4A, CG-13 and CG-15 gliders. So while they were perhaps considered the most successful product of WACO, the company had plenty of other successes.
“Between the World Wars, WACO was the airplane of choice,” said Dan Patterson, a world-renowned aviation expert, photographer and author who lectured on aviation at the Smithsonian Institute, and has written about the WACO Aircraft Company. “It was very easy to fly, very stable. Barnstormers flew them. They’d land them in a cornfield and give rides. There was a cabin WACO that was one of the first sort of ‘corporate’ aircraft, and that was also in the 1930s. They were all biplanes and the company did not survive the Second World War. They built all those gliders and then shortly after the war the economy changed, and their hope that everybody would want to have a Chevy in the driveway and a WACO at the airport didn’t happen; the post-war economics really did the company in. They started laying people off, they started downsizing and they finally closed the doors in 1947.
“One of the interesting things about WACO,” continued Patterson, “is that they made so many different versions. The one that Harold Johnson flew was a UMF-3 — and Harold Johnson was the ‘Flying Mayor of Moraine’ – he used to fly the air show at King’s Island. He flew a gorgeous red UMF7, and he was really a local character. He unfortunately passed away in January of this year, but he was one of the founders of the Aviation Hall of Fame and he was definitely a local legend in the field of aviation. ”
Historic WACO Field, which hosts events put on by the WACO Historical Society, opened in 1997 and is located south of Troy. It consists of a 77-acre site and features a 2,200-foot runway. The first building to be erected on the field was an historic 1856 barn, which was relocated to the premises and christened with an old-fashion barn raising in October 1997. Over 300 volunteers from all over the U.S. helped to erect the barn, which is currently used to house tractors and other maintenance vehicles.
The field is also home to several hangars, aircraft, museums and historical displays, including a 7,500-square-foot hangar that is the home of the WACO Aircraft Museum, and a new Museum Hangar which was completed in September 2009 through a grant from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Foundation. That building is the home to several vintage WACO aircraft and numerous displays, including the history of the WACO Aircraft Company. The field also has a radio-controlled aircraft flying field located on site that is home to the WACO Barnstormers RC Club.
Don Willis, a retired executive, former Air Force officer and pilot, is also a history buff and the current executive director of the WACO Historical Society, a non-profit organization founded in 1978. “The Historical Society has three objectives,” he explained recently. “The first one is historic preservation. The Society is dedicated to the preservation of the aircraft and also the artifacts and everything that has to do with the WACO Aircraft Company.”
The second goal, he said, is education, “And we achieve that goal through our learning center program. We have about a dozen programs aimed at the education of young people and it’s primarily elementary and middle school, although we’ve now started a high school program as well. Some of those things are a robotics workshop and camps, and we have robotics teams who compete. We also do rocketry, where students come in and learn how to build and fly rockets. We have an aviation summer day camp … about 15 to 20 children will go through an entire week which teaches them the history of aviation and they also do hands-on projects. Everything from lighter-than-air craft – they’ll build and fly hot air balloons and gliders – to powered aircraft. Then we end up with a flight in an aircraft where they sit up front and act as the co-pilot. We’re also working with Upper Valley Joint Vocational School to put in place an aviation careers vo-tech course at the high school level. This will prepare students to move on into aviation-related careers. We’re just putting the course together this year, and the first students will come in the fall.”
During the weekend of July 8, 9 and 10, the WACO Historical Society and the WACO Museum will be host to the third annual WACO Military Experience, a weekend of fun and educational activities which will feature flights and displays of vintage aircraft, tanks and many different military vehicles from the WWII era right up to Desert Storm, live performances, and tours of the historic hangars and facilities.
This leads to the third and perhaps most important goal of the Historical Society; community service. “… We achieve that goal through ongoing community activities – our major events, like the upcoming WACO Military Experience, and our vintage fly-in,” said Willis. “All of our activities are very hands-on. This October we have a camporee, where the Boy Scouts come out. Last year in total we touched the lives of about 1200 students over the course of the year.”
With the help of Don Willis, John Schilling and the rest of the WACO Historic Society’s members and volunteers, the WACO Aircraft Company and the city of Troy’s contribution to our area’s rich aviation history won’t soon be forgotten.
The WACO Military Experience event will take place July 8, 9 and 10 at the WACO Museum, 1865 South County Road 25A, in Troy. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for military veterans and $4 for ages 7-17. Children under 7 will be admitted free. Hours are 12 – 6 pm on Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information on the WACO Historical Society, visit www.wacoairmuseum.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.