No Jet Engines Here

T he very first thing is to learn how to pronounce it. No rhyming with the home of Baylor University in Texas. And it’s not to be confused (well, at least not too much) with those just a sandwich or two short of a picnic. It’s WACO…sounds like taco. As aficionados of the venerable airplane […]

Historic small planes converge on Troy’s WACO airfield


Author Marla Simon Boone does preflight check on a 1928 WACO Straightwing. Even in summer, open-cockpit flying calls for warm clothing.

By Marla Boone

The very first thing is to learn how to pronounce it. No rhyming with the home of Baylor University in Texas. And it’s not to be confused (well, at least not too much) with those just a sandwich or two short of a picnic. It’s WACO…sounds like taco. As aficionados of the venerable airplane like to say, “We’re wackos flying our WACOs in Waco.”

September 14 through 16, those wackos will be flying their WACOs in Troy. They come for the yearly fly-in, sponsored by the WACO Historical Society (WHS…about which more in a minute) and held at the WHS’s WACO Field airstrip on County Road 25A. Gates open at 9 a.m. each day. It is an ideal time for those in the antique airplane community to share their passion with visitors. But how WACO Field came to be is the first part of the story.

The Weaver Aircraft Company (get it, W-A-CO?) came to Troy, Ohio in 1923. Once established, the company proceeded, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to become the largest manufacturer of civil aircraft in the world. Legacies loom large, fame can be fleeting, and some airplanes garner less than their fifteen minutes of notoriety, but for a group of antique aviation enthusiasts, the WACO airplane lives on and on.

In an effort to sustain the recognition they felt the brand deserved, a group of Troy citizens founded the grandly-named WACO Historical Society in 1978. The original mission was to preserve the memory of the airplane. In the late 1990s, a large parcel of land on 25A became available. Sitting on a flood plain, the land was undesirable for most applications. The WHS, though, was able to purchase the land, borrow land credits, and establish an airfield to promote its message. A barn dating from 1856 was donated, dismantled, moved to the site, and rebuilt. The next projects were the building of a 7,500 square foot hangar/museum and the laying-out of a grass runway. If you build it, surely they will come.

They did, but in very modest numbers. As strange as it seems to me, one who has drunk the antique airplane Kool-aid early, deeply, and with great gusto, the allure of eighty-year-old aircraft is not universal. While local citizens and those in the world of old biplanes supported the endeavors of the WHS, it was clear a wider audience was necessary. Or, as one of the Hobart brothers famously said at one planning meeting, “Who wants to look at a bunch of dusty old stuff?”

“Preserve the Past, Inspire the Future, Be an Asset to the Community” became the new mission statement. Coming right on the heels of this re-written intention, seminal perhaps to all ensuing activities, was the establishment of a learning center. Born on the crest of the wave to increase STEM education, a week-long summer camp was organized to provide a unique, fun, hands-on opportunity to expose kids to aviation through the avenues of math and science. Those with financial need are provided with scholarship funds to attend the camp, which has proved to be immensely popular.

Under the leadership of some enormously gifted individuals, another hangar was erected in 2009. This second hangar shelters some aircraft and aircraft components that represent a great deal of Ohio aviation history. The Mackey Taperwing, which won an international aerobatics competition in France in 1936, is on display as well as two of Foster Lane’s (of Lane Aviation, Columbus, Ohio fame) WACOs. A flown replica of the WACO 4, of which one was built, is also housed in the hangar. Hartzell propeller, a long-time leader in the industry, has examples of their products in this hangar. No less a personage than Orville Wright suggested Robert Hartzell start manufacturing hand-carved wooden propellers. The late mayor of Moraine, Harold Johnson, was famous for his airshow act and for his brilliant checkerboard-painted WACO. Harold’s family generously donated his airplane to the WHS and it has a place of honor in the original hangar. The newer building has suitable rental space for meetings, wedding receptions, talks, parties, and dinners. Other notable items in the hangars are a recently acquired one-of-a-kind WACO RPT that is aching to be restored. During World War II, WACO won a government-sponsored design competition for combat gliders. Over 14,000 of the CG-4A gliders were built throughout the country, with over 1,000 of them being built in Troy. WHS volunteers have built a glider nose-section mock-up in which a film depicting the gliders’ part in the war effort is shown.

Once a physical plant capable of handling more activity was completed, the number of programs offered by the WHS multiplied. In addition to the Aviation Summer Camp, there are now three activities dealing with robotics, an aviation lecture series, an early learners’ program, and a teacher workshop co-sponsored by the NASA Glenn Research Center. Building on $1M seed money from the Robinson Fund, the WHS has broken ground for another 12,000 square foot building to be used primarily as a learning center. Scheduled to be completed by Thanksgiving, the structure will also house a large exhibition space and offices. There are plans for a work area in which aircraft restoration techniques can be demonstrated. It is hoped the RPT restoration can be the inaugural project in this space. Funds are needed to furnish the building. The Duke Foundation, long a supporter of activities at WACO Field, has stepped right up. The Foundation has made triple matching funds available for all donations up to $40,000. Thus, a $50 gift multiplies into a $200 donation and, if someone were so inclined, a $40,000 check would blossom into $160,000.

Learning Center Director Nancy Royer defines the new building as “hangar space for educational purposes so youth can learn the basics of flying, and also acquire basic aircraft restoration and repair skills.”

As with any 501(c)(3) organization, fundraising is a constant issue and finding a way to keep the lights on is never far from the leadership’s thoughts. With that in mind, Nancy added that there are still naming rights available for rooms in the new building. The American WACO Club has donated $10,000 to sponsor a classroom and the Tom and Helene Hartzell Fund has done the same. The large central space will be known as Robinson Hall in a fitting tribute to those whose vision enabled the first shovelful of dirt to be turned. The robotics lab, a classroom, the flight simulator lab, concession space, and a large airplane hangar space are still waiting for a generous donor’s imprint. There will also be space suitable for other aviation-related corporations (optimally) or other businesses to rent on a long-term basis.

Biplane rides are sold throughout the fair-weather months by two entities. Steve Koch from Louisville, Kentucky comes north several times a year and sells rides in his red airplane. The WHS itself has a bright yellow WACO named Sunny, donated two years ago, which is used to carry passengers. In an effort not to be in competition with each other, the two airplanes extend different products. Steve sells 12–15 minute rides for $100 per person. The WHS plane offers a $300 half-hour ride for one or two people. Other events hosted on the ample grounds include a large International Harvester Scout/Light Truck Show, this year featuring emergency vehicles. A family kite fly day is held in April. Being a good neighbor to the city of Troy, the WHS provides a parking venue/shuttle stop during the June Strawberry Festival.

But the core, the very soul of the organization is that glorious unfettered airplane, celebrated, flown, and admired at the annual fly-in. Weather permitting, WACOs will begin arriving Thursday (an unofficial fly-in day) and Friday. In a perfect world, the sky will be filled with the sound of thrumming radial engines powering these graceful, four-winged birds back to their natal home. On Friday the planes will be on display. On Saturday more pilots will be available to talk to the public and answer questions. A candy drop by a radio-controlled (RC) aircraft and an RC demonstration are scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Kids’ activities, including building and launching paper rockets and paper airplanes, airplane puzzles, and other aviation-related fun will be taking place between the hangars from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. If someone can get the WACO pilots organized, which is a somewhat more hopeless undertaking than herding cats, there might be an aerial parade of WACOs. On Sunday, most of the WACOs leave. But Care Flight will be on display that day, as well as ultra-lights and cars from the Ohio Cruisers Car Club. The museum will be open throughout the weekend and admission to all buildings is included in the cost of attending the fly-in. Food vendors will be on hand and 94 octane aviation fuel will be available for fly-in participants. All aircraft are welcome, with the caveat that WACO Field (FAA identifier 1WF) is a 2,400-foot-long grass runway with trees at the south end and wires at the north. Flyer beware.

Flying an open cockpit airplane manufactured just twenty-five years after the Wright Brothers showed us how is an experience so precious it makes me clutch just to write about it. With aviation gas hovering around five dollars a gallon, flying an antique biplane still ranks as the cheapest psychiatrist on the planet. This is my world. This is a world of open vistas, singing wires, and the delicious aroma of hot oil wafting back from the rumbling engine. This is a world as broad as the horizon, yet as narrow as your newly-centered self. This is a world in which you get your hairdo and your priorities rearranged at the same time. This is a world that makes me want to be a better pilot. This is a world that moves me to be deserving of the privilege of caretaking and flying this wonderful airplane. For this is how we with WACO view ourselves, as caretakers. We don’t really own them, as the sterile FAA registration slip suggests. We just keep them flying until the next generation steps in to cherish them and tend to them and offer them forward. I have been asked countless times why I go through the expense and hassle and rigors of flying a very headstrong airplane with ninety years of skies behind her eyes to this event and others like it. My answer? It’s what I do. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. When the angle of the late afternoon sun is just right, the airplanes seem to glow. Reflected in their sleek skins are the work, the worry, and the very real love we have invested in these stout, timeless ships of the air.

Gretchen Hawk, the executive administrator of the WHS, has been involved with the organization for years and has been on hand for many fly-ins. She offered this thought: “The fly-in is an opportunity for people to experience the golden age of aviation through the homecoming of WACO airplanes.” The fly-in in Troy is somewhat unique in the vintage aircraft world in that the public is invited to come and mingle among the planes and the people who fly them.

The WACO Historical Society is located at 1865 South County Road 25A in Troy. The annual WACO Fly-in will be held Sept. 14 to 16. For more information, visit wacoairmuseum.org.

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Marla Boone has enjoyed a varied career, from nursing to aviation. She is an active volunteer with the WACO Historical Society in Troy. Reach DCP freelance writer Marla Boone at MarlaBoone@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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