New points of view on old wings
WHITEFIELD, N.H. - Tucked into the open cockpit of a replica Waco biplane, cruising between the clouds and the granite of Mount Washington, I feel it could be 1935 in my lovely and exclusive perch in the sky.
This is what it would have been like seven decades ago to be a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families. Now it is the newest way to see Mount Washington, which at 6,288 feet is the highest mountain in New England.
Traditionally tourists have had three ways to get to the top: being a ground-pounder and hiking, riding the cog railway, or driving the auto road.
Flying provides a far different perspective, said Greg Westcott of Lancaster, who owns the plane and runs Summit Scenic Flights. For him the Waco YMF-5 was a logical choice both because of its glamorous history and its ability to seat two people up front, with the pilot in the rear.
“What better way to do it than in something unique and adventurous,’’ he said.
The YMF-5, produced in 1934 and ’35, was a sport plane bought by wealthy families, said Andy Heins, curator of the Waco Historical Society Air Museum in Troy, Ohio. “People that had quite a bit of money bought these and all they were was a toy,’’ he said. The planes were pleasant to fly and had good range and speed. “And they looked nice,’’ he said.
The company stopped building aircraft just after World War II. But since 1985 the Waco Classic Aircraft Corp. of Battle Creek, Mich., has been putting modern machinery inside the classic biplane.
Wescott’s 1991 Waco (number N994TT) has a globe-hopping history. In the 1990s its Canadian owner decided to fly around the world. He became seriously ill in India and the trip ended. The aircraft was disassembled and shipped back to the United States.
One might think of the YMF-5 as an air limo in reverse because the chauffeur sits in the back. The passenger compartment is up front, providing a prime view.
Getting into the passenger seats requires some indelicate contortions to ease through a narrow door while ducking beneath the upper wing. There is plenty of legroom and the seats are comfortable, but the cockpit is narrow. With two people body contact is inevitable.
Westcott’s cockpit is a few feet to the rear. Once he is ready there are a few clicks and then the 275-horsepower, seven-cylinder radial engine starts and quickly thumps into a steady rhythm that slightly rocks the aircraft.
On the ground the Waco has an odd, nose-up attitude that makes it temporarily impossible for pilot or passengers to see over the front. Westcott increases the power and by about 75 miles an hour the Waco is lifting off, the tail rises, and suddenly we can see the White Mountains ahead.
One would expect a lot of buffeting in an open cockpit, but a stubby little windshield does a good job of shielding those up front. A small heater means that a light jacket keeps most people comfortable. There is a little jostling and the big engine sends a steady thrum through the aircraft. Headphones reduce the noise and allow conversing with Westcott.
Westcott banks the Waco above the Mount Washington Resort and its red-roofed hotel. Then, the plane climbs and edges along the ridgelines heading for the summit of Mount Washington. The world below is a mix of woods, huge ravines, fields of gray rock above the timberline, and finally the weather station and buildings at the top.
About 10 minutes later we’re approaching the Mount Washington Regional Airport in Whitefield, which is Westcott’s base. He says flying the Waco is like putting on the way-back aviation machine. It is clearly a treat for him. But he acknowledges one tricky aspect.
“It can be a little temperamental on landings. Landings you got to be on your toes a little bit,’’ he said.
In fact, National Transportation Safety Board records show that since 2004 Waco YMFs around the United States have been involved in seven minor accidents. Typically they happened during landings and pilots blamed unexpected crosswinds. None involved Westcott.
For me, however, the 30-minute flight ends not with a thump but with a chirp as the tires delicately touch the runway. A few minutes later we taxi back to Westcott’s hangar. He kills the engine and we are back in 2009.
Christopher Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.