By Neal Goodfriend, EAA 278893
This piece originally ran in the November 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
I have always liked the vintage cabin biplanes. There is nothing like the sound and feel of rumbling through the air with your elbow hanging out the rolled-down window. After pulling into any FBO the airplane marks its spot with a growing shiny puddle, and still, everybody is glad to see you. After surviving three airline Chapter 11 bankruptcies, one Chapter 7, and a furlough, my career was finally blessed with a new “stable” employer, and my wife and I decided we needed a big red biplane. Not having the finances for a Staggerwing and talking myself into thinking they were too complicated and expensive, I decided on the cabin Waco series. After looking into a few projects, we decided on VKS-7F NC31674 that was for sale in Oklahoma. The thing that really inspired me about this particular airframe is that it had all the original logbooks back to the first test flight, and as far as I could tell it had never in its 3,200-hour life been damaged. It was complete, unassembled, and in need of restoration. Little did I know that the process would take two decades, three kids, and three dogs to complete.
It would take a book to describe this process. The bottom line is that it was a team effort. My main team was an understanding and very patient family. The old girl needed new wings, a new/overhauled engine, and pretty much the restoration of every single part. My son was 1 year old when we started. Two wonderful daughters followed, and over the years the machine became a fixture in the family. The kids grew up accustomed to Mom and Dad working in the hangar all hours of the day and night. I cannot even guesstimate how many hours we spent doing all the varied tasks that it takes to put one of these machines back together.
We learned to sew headliners and leather and lay carpet. We built a woodworking area and then turned it into a sheet metal spot, then a welding room, and finally a paint booth. We hydro dipped, bead blasted, sanded, varnished, painted, sanded some more, painted some more, wired, plumbed, hammered, sanded, and painted some more, and finally in just less than 20 years, the machine rolled out of the shop for its first run. By now my son could help me lift the heavy Hamilton Standard propeller into position. We all gathered while the beast came to life belching smoke and coughing in true radial style. It ran perfectly from the start thanks to Radial Engines Ltd. and its team of artists that put these old engines together like new. Our family team extends to many folks outside my household. The type clubs and family-operated businesses and restoration shops that support this industry are indispensable, and without their help these machines would drift away into dust behind old hangars and barns.
The first flight was Mother’s Day 2021 and lasted about 30 minutes. With only one squawk I was very happy. Turns out that the most modern piece of equipment in the machine, a Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ADS-B In/Out transponder was the only thing that wasn’t working. I think the old Waco rejected it like a bad organ transplant. It was just too modern for the old girl. One trip to the factory due to a board issue and all is well. We decided that if we got through the first 25 hours without issues, we would make the big trip to Oshkosh 2021. The first maintenance at 25 hours requires retorqueing the engine nuts and bolts, especially cylinder hold-down nuts, checking tappet clearances, and a general inspection. All checked out good so away we went. It was a wonderful trip, and my son and I got to do our first Fisk arrival into KOSH together.
The Oshkosh experience was enlightening to me and my family. It seems that we have something so very special here in our aviation community. We were all amazed at how over-the-top nice everyone was. Maybe it’s the fact that my two-decade hibernation isolated me from this world while the airplane took shape, or it could be that it has always been this way and I am now finally getting old enough to notice. In the end it was a perfect trip. A perfect ending to a project that many times tested our perseverance and dedication. It was also the beginning of a new phase, a phase of sharing what has taken shape. My brother was the airplane nut in our family, but he left us at a young 18 years old. I have always dreamed of a way to honor him and pass on the seed he sowed in me. With a little luck and one big red biplane, I think it will continue to grow.