Biplanes and Us

25 years later, it’s a complicated relationship.

<b>Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a</b> Its initials stand for Scout Experimental, but the S.E.5a was one of the most effective fighters of World War I. At about 135 mph, it was faster than most airplanes it came up against and was flown by four of the Unite
Its initials stand for Scout Experimental, but the S.E.5a was one of the most effective fighters of World War I. Philip Makanna

For the cover of the premier issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, published in April 1986, we chose a biplane, a configuration that aircraft designers had all but abandoned by the 1940s. Our coverplane was a Great Lakes trainer, a 1931 two-place, open-cockpit sportster, owned and restored by the late, illustrious Cole Palen, founder of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in upstate New York. Rhinebeck is just one of the hubs of vintage airplane activity around the world where you can still see biplanes fly, some of them 100 years after the first of their types left the ground.

Why is that?

One reason is history. Dozens of biplane types stand out in the history of aviation—as military trainers for both world wars, corporate aircraft, barnstormers, transports, crop dusters, and showplanes. Most of the biplane owners we’ve hopped rides with say they regard themselves as caretakers, preserving a bit of aviation heritage until the next owner can take over the job. In recent years, more and more airplane fans have been spending their money and time restoring vintage aircraft—biplanes among them—and reaping more financial reward for doing it. “There are more Classic restorations being completed, many for the second or third time on a particular airplane,” says H.G. Frautschy, executive director of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s vintage group, referring to the EAA category of airplanes built before 1955. “I’m also seeing a trend that as their value increases, fewer aircraft are being discarded, and are being restored. The increase is not dramatic, but it’s heartening to see the numbers hold steady or climb.”

Biplanes are not only still being restored, they’re also still being manufactured. Since 1991, WACO Classic Aircraft Corporation of Battle Creek, Michigan, has been producing Waco YMF models under the original type certificate and has sold more than 125. The company recently announced that this year it will begin to manufacture the biplane that was on our cover 25 years ago, the Great Lakes. Even these newly manufactured biplanes teach their pilots and passengers something about flight in its youth. But anyone who has ever had the good fortune to look over the side from an open cockpit at the country gliding by below knows that history can’t fully explain why biplanes are treasured. And utility doesn’t explain it either. Though a biplane can get you from here to there, that seems to be just an excuse to fly it. The biplane’s real purpose is to entertain.

Maybe that’s why we at Air & Space, feeling our age at 25, also feel an affinity for biplanes. Here is a sample of the types still entertaining.

The editors

Antonov AN-2 - The Russian all-purpose An-2 entered production in 1949, and in the years since, more than 18,500 were built and served in more than 30 air forces. The An-2’s fuselage is almost as wide as a DC-3’s, and its typical takeoff roll is 1,600 feet (but pilots claim they can get an empty one off the ground in 600). The one above belongs to California’s Planes of Fame Air Museum. Philip Makanna
Travel Air - Before they became the all-stars of U.S. aviation, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, and Lloyd Stearman converged in Wichita, Kansas, in 1925 to create the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. Though the three entrepreneurs soon went their separate ways, the company built about 1,500 biplanes (and a smaller number of monoplanes). A dozen are still giving joyrides today. Gilles Auliard
Bücker Bu 133 Jungmeister - A Bücker Jungmeister, part of the Fighter Collection in Duxford, England, doing what Jungmeisters do best. Agility assured the survival of the one-seat German trainer that dominated aerobatic competition in the 1930s and ’40s. Though few still fly competitively, many are still looping and rolling for fun. Philip Makanna
de Havilland D.H.89 Dragon Rapide - Sumptuously restored in 2010 by Avspecs Limited in New Zealand, a six-passenger D.H.89 was made to look like the one that transported King Edward VIII before he abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. The Rapide is owned and operated by the Fighter Factory of Virginia Beach. When it’s not flying, you can see it there at the Military Aviation Museum. The type was first flown in 1934. Gilles Auliard
Pitts Special - The Pitts is proof that biplanes have plenty more to give. Airshow pilots still tweak the design to squeeze more performance from the airplane that Curtis Pitts created in 1944 for homebuilders. It was the aerobatics champ of the 1960s and ’70s. The two-place version went into production in the 1960s. The oldest surviving Pitts Special is in the National Air and Space Museum. Sean Tucker is the most famous of several airshow pilots who today are making nipped-and-tucked Pitts Specials perform the seemingly impossible. Tyson Rininger
Grumman G-164 Ag-Cat - This 1957 crop duster may be the one exception to the biplane rule: Entertainment is not its thing; it was built to work. Over a farm in Woodland, California, an aerial applicator makes the job look like fun. Known for its toughness, low stall speed (67 mph), and good visibility, the Ag-Cat was manufactured by the Schweizer Aircraft Company (Grumman was busy with military orders) through the 1980s. What author Stephan Wilkinson wrote in our first issue is as true today as it was then: For certain purposes, nothing beats a biplane. Chad Slattery
Mong Sport - A little plans-built airplane, with a wingspan half the length of a Stearman’s, was designed by Ralph Mong Jr. of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1953. The prototype was donated to the EAA’s Museum, and Mong Sports still show up at the homebuilders’ Oshkosh gathering from time to time. Mong designed his plans to allow a builder to be inventive. Tom Aberle used them to create the Phantom racer. Arnold Greenwell
Curtiss JN-4 Canuck - Biplane lover Al Stix, a fan of early aviation and part owner of Creve Coeur airport, near St. Louis, Missouri, owns a 1917 Canuck, the version of the JN-4 “Jenny” built by Canadian Aeroplanes, Ltd. A World War I military trainer, the Jenny has been called the “Model T of the air” because, in its barnstorming role, it was the airplane that introduced flying to the American public. Don Parsons
New Standard D-25 - Born to barnstorm, the 1928 New Standard has a capacious front cockpit with bench seating for the four lucky ducks who are squired around the sky by the pilot, sitting in the rear. Several still give rides. Find schedules at waldowrights.com and planerides.net and just do it. Ted Davis (waving) of Brodhead, Wisconsin, offers rides throughout the Midwest in his restored New Standard. Gilles Auliard
Brunner-Winkle Bird - The Brunner-Winkle Aircraft Corporation of Queens was just one of a multitude of companies that started building airplanes after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight—and one of a multitude that shut down in short order when orders were indeed short. But in just three years, the company built more than 200 airplanes, and, according to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Long Island, 70 are still around. Gilles Auliard
de Havilland DH-4 and Waco - There’s just one DH-4 flying (foreground), and it’s another of the many aircraft in Al Stix’s golden oldies air force. Stix bought the project in 2003, and four years later, craftsman Glenn Peck finished the re-creation. Almost 5,000 of the British design were built in the United States during World War I, but less than half went to war. Instead, the DH-4 made history pioneering the U.S. airmail service.

The most successful depression-era airplane builder, the Waco Aircraft Company had sold 2,500 biplanes by 1935, and that’s before it won a contract from the Army to build 600 trainers. Wacos are among the most comfortable biplanes flying today. To read more on the The Classic Wagon click here. Don Parsons
Fairey Swordfish - The last biplane to serve in the British Royal Navy, the Fairey Swordfish Mk.II was a World War II carrier-based, anti-submarine spotter and torpedo bomber that helped sink the German battleship Bismarck. A pair of them were restored and are flown at airshows in England (and by the Dover cliffs) by Royal Navy Historic Flight. And if you visit Quebec, you can buy a ride in one from Vintage Wings of Canada. (vintagewings.ca.) Philip Makanna
Fokker D.VII - As part of the armistice ending World War I, Germany was made to surrender every Fokker D.VII its air force flew, evidence of the fighter’s lethality. Several replicas fly, including one re-created by Memorial Flight, a French association located near the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace north of Paris. Built 40 years ago from original blueprints as a family project by a private pilot, this D.VII was one of five World War I replicas acquired by the Vintage Aero Flying Museum in Fort Lupton, Colorado, and flown to the EAA AirVenture in Wisconsin last summer. Caroline Sheen
Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Canary - Equipped with either landing gear or floats, the N3N was an all-metal, fabric-covered trainer built by the only aircraft manufacturing company ever owned by the U.S. government. Its nickname was “Yellow Peril,” like many yellow-painted trainers, flown by pilots fresh to the field of aviation. The N3N was the last biplane used by the U.S. military. Brian Sanders of Sanders Aeronautics flies his N3N-3 near Cambria, on the California coast. Damie Malone
Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a - Its initials stand for Scout Experimental, but the S.E.5a was one of the most effective fighters of World War I. At about 135 mph, it was faster than most airplanes it came up against and was flown by four of the United Kingdom’s top aces. You can see an original fly in Bedfordshire, England, at Old Warden Park, home of the Shuttleworth early aircraft collection. The two S.E.5a replicas flying over Masterton, New Zealand, are part of the collection managed by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, whose 1914-1918 Aviation Heritage Trust employs 68 craftspeople who have restored or recreated 13 types of World War I aircraft. Philip Makanna