It would be really easy to dislike Mike McCafferty. Jealousy has a way of doing that to us. It would be so easy to look at his lifestyle as he tours the country like a free bird in his brand-new Classic Waco YMF and write him off as just another rich guy playing with his toys.
Spend five minutes with him, however, and you'll find it hard not to like him. His enthusiasm is contagious, and he is constantly expressing amazement at his own good fortune. Spend a day with him, as I did, and you'll find it hard not to come away inspired.
Mike McCafferty made the American Dream happen. He didn't just live it or have it handed to him on some sort of wildcard investment platter. After taking his share of falls, he sat down and made it happen, one methodical step at a time. He had a dream. He went for it, and he got it.
All the time McCafferty was struggling to build his companies, he was not a pilot. He'd started trying to learn to fly back in his college days, and even that had its share of the uniqueness that seems to follow him around.
"I started learning to fly in Cessna 150's, but they definitely didn't turn me on," he said. "Then I saw my first Stearman and knew that's what I wanted to fly."
At about the same time, he ran across an ad for a company (MCMD, which is still in business) that re-manufactured Stearmans. Even though he hadn't even soloed, he loved the idea of a new biplane, so he contacted the company. The going price for a completely zero-timed airplane was $7,500!
"I thought, 'Yeah, I can handle that,'" he says. "Of course, I was only making about $6,500 a year at that time."
By the time he came up with the $7,500 and called them, the price was up to $11,500. By the time he got that, the price was...Need we tell you more? Then a wife and family came along, then house bills and all the other stuff that kills flying careers. But the dream of a big biplane never died.
Most people have ups and downs in their lives, but the sheer intensity of McCafferty's roller-coaster ride precluded getting back into flying. Either he was working so hard to build a business and things were happening so quickly he didn't have the time, or he was flat on his butt broke and couldn't put two dimes together.
All of that came to a screeching halt several years ago when he sold his burgeoning software company and suddenly found himself with the best combination a man could possibly want: lots of time and money.
It was time for a big biplane and learning to fly. In that order.
"Originally, I was taking lessons in a Stearman and thought that's what I would probably buy. But then we went to a fly-in where I saw a Waco YMF hopping passengers, and I was really in love!"
The day McCafferty returned from that fly-in, he called the factory in Michigan and sent them a deposit check. At that point, he had never even sat in one of the airplanes. "Heck, I didn't even know how to fly, so what would I have to compare it to?" he reasoned.
Shortly after that, his son sustained a paralyzing spinal-cord injury in a tragic accident, and McCafferty put his plans on hold for a few months. As soon as his son began to show some movement in his legs, McCafferty's urge to fly returned, and the Waco project was moved ahead.
The first time McCafferty actually sat in a Waco was when he went to the factory to take delivery of his own airplane. "At that time, I had about 15 hours in the Stearman, most of it cross-country to fly-ins, though I had never actually landed it."
The factory check pilot, Carl Dye, strapped McCafferty into the back seat, then crawled up front to begin what he thought would be a normal checkout. McCafferty laughs when he says, "After about 50 landings, during which I couldn't do anything right, Carl turn to me and said, "Tell me again how much experience you have?"
His factory checkout turned into a cross-country that included taking the airplane to Oshkosh, where it was the factory display airplane. "I had to spend a week watching people crawl all over my airplane," he recalled. "But it was there, listening to the comments of the crowd, that I developed a greater appreciation for what I had."
From Oshkosh, Dye and McCafferty headed for San Diego, California, where Dye checked out out several local instructors who would finish McCafferty's training.
"I wanted to do all my training in the airplane, but the insurance company wouldn't let me solo it without a private license," McCafferty explained. "Finally, I was just flying around with an instructor in the front seat, logging time. After about 100 hours, one of them wrote a letter to the insurance company, so they relented and let me solo it."
It's been just a little less than two years since McCafferty took delivery of his first Waco, and in that time he has logged more than 500 hours in them. We say "them" because the first airplane suffered major damage during a maintenance hop -- with an instructor flying it. The parking brake, it seems, has several peculiar mechanical characteristics, and it is possible for it to lock itself in flight. That's what happened during the test hop, and the rest is too ugly to tell. The insurance company bought Mike a new Waco.
You can walk around McCafferty's airplane until you're blue in the face, and all you'll see is a beautifully made biplane. It isn't until hanging your head into the cockpit that you realize this isn't your average, old, round-motored machine.
McCafferty uses the airplane just like anyone else would use a cabin-class twin. He loves to fly it and considers it transportation. It's fun but still transportation. For that reason, he has the panel set up as if he is going to go where the airliners go. It has everything but auto-throttles.
It is a full-IFR airplane with dual navcomms and glideslopes, HSI and an Argus 7000 moving-map display coupled to an RNAV Star 5000 GPS. It also has a BFG StormScope and a Ryan TCAD for collision avoidance in the packed airspace around San Diego. It doesn't take much imagination to realize the airplane belongs to a gadget freak who has spent his life in the computer business.
If you don't believe he's a gadget freak, check out the lipstick-tube video cameras mounted in the tail and wings. The man loves to play!
When McCafferty and I headed out into the desert, I wormed my way into the front seat, which requires a little pirouette with my knee on the seat because the center section is so low. Once inside, McCafferty cranked it, and we were on our way. The front seat is designed for two 1930s-size butts, which means it might be just a little tight for the 1990 versions, but it is still very livable. The factory widened and lengthened both pits from the original to make them more comfortable for modern pilots.
The YMF is like all other Wacos of its era in that, on takeoff, the initial effect of moving the throttle forward is increased noise. Then the airplane begins moving forward in a very genteel manner. Almost as soon as the tail is off the ground, the airplane is ready to fly, lifting off the runway with almost no help from the pilot. With the wind on the nose, the airplane needs only the slightest encouragement with the rudders to keep it straight.
With the wonderful sound of the 275-hp R-755-B2 Jacobs washing over us, we bent around out of the pattern and worked our way up to altitude at 600-700 fpm.
Once the nose is pushed over into cruise (figure 100 knots for flight-planning purposes), the aileron response tightens up noticeably, and the airplane appears more eager to answer the helm.
In flying airplanes of this vintage, it helps if you forget what we've come to expect in the way of stability and control. We're talking about designs over 60 years old, and they were based on knowledge that hadn't changed appreciably since right after World War I.
Although brand-new, the Classic YMF is still a brand new antique, and should be expected to fly like one. However, with the subtle mods the factory has made in the design, the new YMF is much better than the original. The Waco asks the pilot to help it a little in the stability department, especially since turbulence upsets the ailerons a bit and the pilot has to tweak his wrist once in a while to maintain a level attitude.
Gee, isn't that too bad! An airplane that asks to pilot to fly it. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?
Although we had a little turbulence coming up off the mountains to play with us, and the airplane was so light it rode over most of it, the overall ride is really quite comfortable. It reminded me of a '38 Buick -- sort of soft and undulating. And very civilized.
All biplanes of this vintage are inherently dirty. If you don't believe that, look at all the gas tank plumbing hanging out in the breeze. This means that power-off, they come down at a fairly steep angle and bleed speed quickly in the flare. This is not a criticism, just a characteristic.
The nose is far enough down in approach that most of the runway is in view, but the second the glide is broken and the airplane is flared, the pilot's head goes back to begin looking out both sides at the same time. The airplane is no blinder than most of its vintage, and its ground handling is actually better than most. When three-pointed, it only asks that you plant it on straight, otherwise, you'll find your feet busier than usual.
When the factory lengthened the airplane from the original design and added an aerodynamic balance on the rudder, they did a lot to improve the airplane's ground handling, as well as improving stability in the air.
McCafferty has some big plans for his airplane. In the past few years, he has taken extended barnstorming trips all over the West, and has made a transcontinental swing all the way back to his his home in Philadelphia to attend a college class reunion. But he wants to make the mother of all cross-countries (or is that a mother of a cross-country?).
His next big project is to launch an around-the-world flight in the YMF, which would make it the first private, open-cockpit biplane to ever circle the globe. The only time it was done previously was in 1924, when the Army did it in Douglas World Cruisers, burning up 17 engines in the process. It took them six months, and to beat that means logging at least two hours a day -- not an easy task, considering weather and political problems.
McCafferty wants to do this as a fund raiser for a foundation dedicated to research in spinal-cord injury recovery. Any of you out there who want to jump on board as a sponsor give him a call. There aren't too many records still waiting to be broken that also serve a good cause.
One of McCafferty's friends, Larry Grismer, had come over to fly photo ship in his Cessna 182, and he volunteered to take me back to San Diego to catch my flight. As we lifted off the runway and turned out over McCafferty's little piece of paradise, I saw him standing in the open door of his house/hangar. He wasn't looking at us. He was enjoying the mountain views and the way the setting sun played with the Waco's lines. He was smelling the desert and listening to the rare call of a road runner.
Actually, what he was doing was living his dream. And as I looked down at him. I was, again, just a little bit jealous.
I know this is supposed to be a story about airplanes, specifically the Waco YMF in its 1990s reincarnation, but in this particular case, to tell you about the Waco without telling you about the man behind N250YM would be cheating you of one of the strongest learning experiences I personally have ever had.
You see, in many ways, Mike McCafferty's success can be directly attributed to the Waco and a Ferrari -- a 275GTB/4, to be exact.
A little over 15 years ago, McCafferty was in the serious throes of an entrepreneurial endeavor. A computer freak by both trade and choice, he had a great idea and was working hard to make it happen. His idea was an electronic yellow pages. It was a natural. He could sell advertising space in it, sell the software, put it online and sit back while the money rolled in.
Problem was, that was 1978-79, and there was no such thing as "online," and PCs were still toddling around, leaking bits and bytes out of their electronic diapers. To make a painfully long story painfully short, he was ahead of his time. PCs were still five years away from being accepted as a necessary part of life, and his partner decided to pull the financial plug. He had to sell his 275 Ferrari. And his regular car. And everything else that was worth anything.
A little under 12 years ago, McCafferty was in the throes of depression and abject financial failure -- no job, no car, no credit, no future. Not good!
"I spend about a year just floating." he remembers. "Then one day, I looked around and said to myself "this is it, this is the bottom." I bought a bunch of self-help books and began talking to myself. I had to build myself up before I could build a business."
We were talking in the bar that overlooks his living room on a private airport community in the desert east of San Diego. From that vantage point, we could see his Southwestern-style bed in the middle of an acre of white carpet against the wall; his open-air office took up the far corner opposite the pool table. The entire thing was bright white, and skylights in the roof let the desert sun in to light the entire area naturally. It was all very organic feeling.
It was the living-room decorations that made the entire scene come alive. The centerpiece was an off-white (maybe beige) Waco YMF. The lights played on it, accentuating the way it fit into the rest of the room.
On one side of it sat a classically streamlined Scaglietti-bodied coupe that I didn't recognize. Few do, it turns out. It was custom-made for Carroll Shelby when he was trying to sell what eventually became the AC Cobra concept to GM. Under the flowing aluminum body is a 1959 Corvette. GM wouldn't buy the concept. Ford did.
Acting as a bookend on the other side of the Waco is another low, flowing, red coupe. It is a 275 GTB/4 Ferrari with only 6700 miles since new. It is identical to the one that McCafferty had been forced to sell in earlier times.
The story connecting the two Ferraris should be written into a motivational self-help book, because McCafferty did what almost any of us could do but don't because we lack the motivational mechanism he had to develop within himself. He grabbed himself by his shoe laces (since that was the only thing he owned at the time), decided on a goal and kept that goal in front of him every minute of his life from that point on.
The physical embodiment of the goal was a plastic model of the Ferrari, which sat on top of his computer as he designed a new software package aimed at supporting telemarketers.
"I would sit at the computer for hours and hours in my tiny apartment overlooking the ocean, and two things kept me going. One was the Ferrari model, the other was a biplane that would periodically fly up the beach. I'd see that and say, 'someday,'" he explained.
McCafferty became something of a self-help junkie, reading all the current attitude-adjusting literature. However, rather than letting it flow through his mind as a temporary placebo, he filtered out the most important ingredients, gradually recombining them into his own recipe, which was to be his guideline for the next decade. He kept those guidelines stuck to his computer, shaving mirror and anywhere else he might be looking.
They read as follows -- I hope he doesn't mind me sharing them:
McCafferty put his head down and his shoulder to the wheel and just kept pushing. A little over 10 years later, he sold his company, bought the Ferrari and the Waco and built his dream house in the desert. Quid est dictum, as we used to say in calculus class.
There's a lesson for all of us in there somewhere. It's hard to be jealous of a guy who did it the hard way. It is also hard not to feel inadequate around folks like him.
I now have my own version of the McCafferty guidelines taped to my computer. It starts: "Today I begin a new life." Makes a lot of sense!
There's an old saying in aviation that if you want to make a small fortune in aviation, start with a big fortune. The history of aviation is littered with the burning hulks of thousands of businesses. It's just not a healthy way to make a living.
That's exactly what Dick Kettles and his partner in General Aviation Services, an FBO in Lansing, Michigan, were thinking in 1984. They were watching aviation die around them, and the Michigan automotive industry wasn't doing much better. To survive, they had to diversify, and at the same time they wanted to create jobs. Both were worthy goals, but who would think of putting a 1930s biplane back into production?
Dick Kettles remembers their thinking, "We decided we should build a limited-production airplane, and rag and tube made sense because it took less capital investment. We looked at all the designs out there and decided the YMF made the most sense."
The type certificate for the airplane was in the public domain, which means the government officially owned it. They found microfilm of most of the plans in the Smithsonian and the rest in an FAA office in New York. Incidentally, Kettles talks about the FAA's cooperation in the project in glowing terms.
They placed an ad in the trade papers looking for help in putting the airplane back into production, and one of the first to answer was Bob Edelstein. Piper Aircraft had just shut down in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, where he had been Assistant Chief Engineer of Design. He and several of his engineering friends moved up to Michigan and formed the core of the new staff. Edelstein has stayed on as General Manager.
The first airplane was delivered in March 1986, and they have delivered over 60 since then at an average cost of slightly over $200,000. Current base list price is $215,000.
The engine is the 275-hp Jacobs seven-cylinder radial of World War II vintage, but it is built to new specifications by Jacobs Engine of Payson, Arizona. They have all the factory rights to the engine, and when they don't have new surplus parts, they make what they need. This is not an old engine, but one that has been remanufactured. It, too, has been continually upgraded, and the factory can't seem to say enough good things about the success they've had with it.
Dick Kettles says many of their buyers purchase the airplane almost sight unseen, and many have no tailwheel time. For that reason Carl Dye is kept busy checking pilots out. The average buyer is a successful manufacturer who is dearly in love with the airplane. In fact, one customer bought two just in case one was lost in a hangar fire or Classic quit building them.
The Waco line has always been legendary, and now it appears as if its new lease on life will be so open-ended that is may never truly go out of production.