Waco Manufacturer History
Garages and fields across America were filled with eager aircraft experimenters after World War I. Pilots, mechanics, and enthusiasts were sure that aviation was going to be a major new business and they rushed to find some way to participate. The early days of aviation’s Golden Age saw hundreds of shifting partnerships and companies, many advertising undeveloped products using outrageous performance claims.
One such group of enthusiasts, all in their early 20’s, formed the first of the companies that later produced Waco aircraft. George “Buck” Weaver was a flight instructor and barnstorming pilot. Elwood “Sam” Junkin had been a draftsman and worked together with Clayton “Clayt” Brukner, an assembly foreman, at Curtiss and another aircraft company. Constantly seeking development funds, these three combined their talents to try building airplanes. Like many before and since, they learned that designing and building airplanes was much more difficult than flying them and that building a successful airplane company was even more challenging.
Their early efforts would have discouraged a less enthusiastic group. While still in high school, Junkin and Brukner made an unsuccessful attempt at building a biplane powered by a motorcycle engine. Their second design was flying boat that turned out far too heavy to fly. Their third aircraft, the parasol-design “Waco Cootie,” looked promising, but it crashed on its first test flight, destroying the plane and leaving Weaver with extensive injuries. They continued to advertise it for sale, however, with exaggerated performance claims. The Weaver Aircraft Company, as it was then known, was in constant need of money to fund development. The partners barnstormed using war surplus airplanes, dropped samples of candy and cereal, did odd jobs and sold shares in the company to optimistic investors.
A redesigned “Cootie,” now a biplane design, had more success. It set the stage for their first commercial success, the “Waco Four” three-person biplane. With a small family to support, Buck Weaver left the group to seek other opportunities. Junkin and Brukner each learned to fly and continued testing new designs, now as the “Advance Aircraft Company.” Their products continued to carry the Waco name, however.
The Waco Nine biplane firmly established “Waco” as a respected trademark. In 1926, it became the country’s most popular mass-produced airplane, costing about $2,500 with a production rate of one per day. About 75 men and boys built the airplanes in a former horse wagon factory. A key to the low price of the Waco Nine was its relatively inexpensive and readily available OX-5 engine. The engine’s low power limited the airplane’s performance, however.
In 1927, the Waco Ten was delivered, still using the OX-5, but also able to accommodate more powerful engines. The Model Ten had major design improvements, such as “oleo” strut hydraulic landing gear, a larger cockpit and a horizontal stabilizer that could be adjusted in flight. Improvements continued with introduction of the famous Waco Taperwing design in 1928. Company employment grew to almost 200 and production was moved from the wagon factory to a new facility built with its own airfield on the outskirts of Troy, Ohio.
The Great Depression, which started in 1929, forced many airplane companies out of business. The popularity of Waco designs allowed the company to survive, although with a reduced production rate. To meet varied customer needs, different Waco models were developed and produced simultaneously, many with fully enclosed cabins. A complex system of letters and numbers was used to identify Waco models in the 1930’s. While design improvements continued, most Waco models remained as biplanes with a welded tubing structure, wooden wing spars, and fabric covering.
World War II created needs for different styles of airplanes, emphasizing higher speeds and metal construction. Waco continued as a supplier of various aircraft subassemblies and was famous for producing CG4-A troop carrying gliders. The company that was so nimble in adapting to customer needs in the 20’s and 30’s was unable to adapt its designs to compete in the post-war market. After Waco ceased production the remaining Waco airplanes have been prized by collectors and aviation enthusiasts for their rugged and handsome design.
Of the three early principals, only Clayton Brukner survived to see the full span of Waco history. Buck Weaver and Sam Junkin each died before reaching the age of thirty and without knowing the impact the Waco name would have on aviation history.