Flying The WACO’s YMF-5F Floatplane
Written by Paul Bertorelli – Not your father’s amphib, but your grandfather’s. Besides being stupid fun to fly, it’s also a people magnet on ramp or river. The number of airplanes that can legitimately be considered jaw droppers is both small and diminishing. Mustangs and Corsairs are such staples on the U.S. airshow circuit that hardly anyone notices them anymore and, in any case, all my friends have them. Yet still it’s possible to dazzle as Waco has been doing this fall after it slapped a couple of Aerocet floats on its classic YMF-5 biplane.
That this elicits endless what-the-hell-is-that moments shouldn’t be surprising. Biplanes on floats were never much of a thing and as far as we can tell, the open cockpit version of YMF-5’s progenitor never went to sea. So why do it now? You may haul a cooler of fish or a butchered moose in your 206 or Beaver, but I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the YMF-5F—“F” for floats—will never see so much as a smudge of moose guts in its leather-appointed interior.
In other words, it’s intended as nothing but undiluted fun for rich guys. Waco CEO Peter Bowers told me he got his float rating about 18 months ago and after storming around the Midwest on floats, it occurred to him that, hey, this is pretty fun. Floats do that to a guy (women, too), but not many are in a position to command that floats be attached to the airplane they happen to manufacture. Bowers was. So he did.
The $595,000 YMF-5F is a sight for sure. When you taxi by in it, people stop what they’re doing; they drop things; they panic-grab cellphones and trot along side the airplane. It’s actually a little embarrassing if you’re the center of all this attention. I mean, it’s just an airplane, still.
The F-series Wacos date to the 1930s and the YMF series that Waco builds as new production first appeared in 1934. In 1986, a newly reconstituted Waco revised it and put it back into production. The company has continued to improve the airframe and the float variant is just the latest iteration. The YMF-5D on which the new model is based has a 300-hp Jacobs R755A2 engine with either a fixed pitch wooden prop or a wood/composite, both by MT. As you may have surmised, Waco is a boutique brand, turning out four to six new aircraft a year from its Battle Creek, Michigan shops.
Nonetheless, the floatplane came together on a schedule that would rival Cessna’s best. Bowers declared the project intent in January of 2017 and it flew 10 months later. It helped that the test article was re-manufactured from a wrecked air-frame and that both Aerocet and MT hopped right on the project.
“Peter Bowers from Waco contacted me almost exactly one year ago and expressed his interest in putting the 3400’s on a YMF-5F,” said Matt Sigfrinius from AEROCET. “We shipped a set to them in mid-May of 2017 and for them to design the rigging package, get the floats installed, and be flying in five months is quite remarkable in my experience with aircraft manufacturers. It really is a testament to their dedication and experience. I can’t wait to personally see this plane up close and get feedback as to how it performs.”
MT Propeller said the MYV-15-AA-C/C260-29 prop it designed for the Waco is the first fully EASA and FAA-certified constant speed spline-type propeller for a vintage aircraft.
Obviously, both the floats and prop are new production, but nobody is manufacturing new radial engines in the U.S., least of all the vintage Jacobs. Technically, it’s an overhauled engine with a lot of PMA parts, such as new cases, new pistons, rods and valves. But it sports the original data plate from the 1940s. A Mississippi company called Air Repair owns the type certificates and does the overhauls. The engine has a 1400-hour TBO.
Three-hundred horsepower on a 2500-pound empty weight airplane gives the Waco good performance off the water. I timed a couple of runs at 15 seconds, followed by a brisk climb to 1000 feet. Although I expected a face full of spray from the prop, that was not to be. Not even so much as droplets on the windscreens. That’s because the cockpits sit really high on gangly struts well aft of the engine. But that also means the visibility forward isn’t very good and it’s little better out the sides because the lower wing blocks it. Despite 80 years of progress, the view out of biplanes is what it has always been: a jungle of wires and struts that requires the pilot to judge height and attitude by feel.
This takes some getting used to because of the high perch. For a couple of water landings, we used the glassy water technique of just letting the airplane settle onto the surface in a slightly nose-high attitude. With the pitch trimmed for about 75 MPH, all you have to do is wait on it. Kersplash. Done. The Waco is astonishingly trim stable. If you trim it for 72 MPH, it will stay there as if on rails. Change the power slightly to adjust descent rate and the airplane hunts for a second or two to find the trimmed airspeed, but find it it does.
Ditto for landing on turf or asphalt. These need to be power-on approaches with a fair amount of throttle; more than I thought I would need to counteract the drag of those Aerocets. Judging the flare height, again, takes an educated eye, but the mains are equipped with a robust oleos to soak up the shock of an over-enthusiastic touchdown. Taxiing was the real surprise. The airplane tracks precisely and turns easily on the ramp, even relatively tight turns. I expected it to be more difficult than that.
The float package includes an electro-hydraulic system that handles gear retraction and extension. There’s a short Johnson-bar pump under the pilot’s right forearm. It will require 150 strokes or so to raise or lower the gear. Better hope you’re current on upper body exercises. Aerocet provides its own gear nanny system that has gear-position indicators for all for wheels for both up and down. It has an audio annunciator that continuously reminds you to check the gear position for the landing you’re about to make until you intentionally cancel it. It needs to be louder; I could barely hear it.
On the water, the Waco putters along at idle and the water rudders are effective enough. I didn’t find the need to blast the rudder with power to get it to turn. To slow the water taxi even more, Bowers recommended using carb heat because when approaching to dock, slow is better than fast. And…docking? A little tricky, perhaps. The lower wing is about 3 ½ feet above the water, so you’ll need to stay away from conventional pile-and-deck docks, unless the piles are short. Approaching a low-profile dock float should be no problem, but you can’t see the edge of it as you can in a 206 or 185, with the wing above you. I wouldn’t hesitate to surrender bravado to 10 feet of paddling, frankly. Fabric and metal rent by a piling would just ruin your classy arrival. And by the way, Waco put a nice handle in the end of each lower wing to assist with docking.
Cockpit wise, the Waco is well appointed in leather, with tasty teak decking for floorboards. The front hole has a nice little door and will fit two largish people or three smaller ones. Useful load is 718 pounds on a gross weight of 3218 pounds. With 46 gallons of gas aboard, that’s 442 pounds for flesh and bags and there’s a big baggage compartment behind the rear hole. Waco bumped up the gross weight on the 5F to accommodate the float weight, which is about 400 pounds.
In the panel, Waco offers a Garmin G5, a GTX 345 transponder for ADS-B In and Out and a digital navcomm and engine monitor. Although the YMF-5D is offered IFR certified—yes, really—the 5F is VFR only. And that’s just as well, because if you owned one, you’d spend most of your time under 500 feet looking for the next good lake.
For more on YMF-5F, see www.wacoaircraft.com.
Seaplanemagazine.com was invited to test-fly the Waco, which we could not possibly do without a travel budget. We reached out to Paul Bertorelli for help, who is a ATP-CFII and also Editor at Large for www.avweb.com and asked if he would fly the aircraft on our behalf. Our sincere thanks to Paul for the help and great article!