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I'm sure you hear it all the time: Someone's writing a book and want to know how to fly a plane. I'm no different in that regard. However, I have a specific plane: a Waco Standard Cabin QDC, 1931. The year of this book is 1935, taking off from a small airport, no frills, and this scene is in April. Do I have to be so specific? No. Do I want to be? Yes. Why? Because writing matters enough to me to invest time and money into it, even if I'll never break even and the only payment in the end is the reward of having something I'm proud to say I was a part of.

If it makes ANY difference, the weather that day was a low of 34°F and a high of 48°F, no precipitation. (I'm that dork who looked up the actual weather for that actual location on the actual date because even if no one else will know, I will know.)

Give it to me technically. If possible, screw the layman's terms. What would a pilot look for? What would they do? Trying to be as accurate as possible matters a lot to me, even when it's details no one is likely to notice. If there's a flight manual out there for this particular plane, I'll read it if I can be hooked up with it.

(No it doesn't necessarily be this specific plane, but whenever I've seen questions like this asked, the comments were full of people asking specifics about the plane, year, make, model, engine type, etc. I'm heading that off at the pass.)

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    $\begingroup$ "a lot (low) of 34 and a high of 48"... is that in Fahrenheit or Celsius (are we in a desert in North Africa, or a typical upper midwest early spring? $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Feb 10 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ I'm gonna venture a guess there are some that still fly this particular plane, and hundreds of those flying very similar ones. I've never flown any such machines so I can't help, but I bet some here have flown and still maybe do fly these or a close match. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Feb 10 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ airbum.com/pireps/PirepWacoQDC.html $\endgroup$
    – Jim
    Feb 10 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ GdD, I know the majority, if all, of my audience wouldn't know the difference, but my audience also knows that I research to the hilt. I've got some FOIA requests in right now for a later book in this series. Would anyone know if I fudged what that's about, or if I made up the date for a law chance in New York? Nope. Do I care? Absolutely, and when your audience comes to expect research to the point that they look into things themselves to try to find somewhere where you may be wrong, then many in my audience WILL know. $\endgroup$ Feb 10 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD I highly respect every author who tries to get it right. So many books spoil all the fun by making stupid and simple to avoid mistakes because the author was sloppy. One wrong detail is already enough for me. $\endgroup$ Feb 10 at 20:46

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A few basics to get you started:

Very few light aircraft from 1931 had electric start (though it wasn't unheard of), and I'd be surprised if this Waco model did; the engine was started by pulling the propeller through by hand (this was an option even with electric start installed; the battery technology of the day was such that you couldn't really depend on the battery if the airplane had sat for even several days, never mind several weeks).

That model (based on the one photo I found quickly) appears to have no flaps, and if it had wheel brakes, they were rather weak by today's standards (wheel chocks highly recommended during starting). That said, stall speed was fairly slow for aircraft in that general category; they were rather light and had a lot of lift from the biplane wing; takeoff was probably not much over 40 kt.

As mentioned in comments, with any conventional gear (taildragger) aircraft, one has limited or no forward visibility over the nose with the tailwheel on the ground, so would have to make S-turns during taxi to avoid hitting stuff -- and taildraggers also experience P-factor (a yaw force, usually to the left, due to the angle of airflow into the propeller) both at rotation for liftoff (as with all single engine propeller aircraft) and when the tailwheel is barely off the ground; this requires some right rudder pedal input to compensate (though light planes with, in this case, 160 hp weren't the widowmakers that aircraft like the Corsair fighter, with 2700 hp, were).

FWIW, you might look up some of Richard Bach's writings (best known for Jonathan Livinston Seagull) -- he owned and flew and wrote about some model Waco biplane, and they were all more similar than different.

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  • $\begingroup$ You should also mention the obvious details, like snaking during taxi to see ahead and a yaw to the left (if the prop turns clockwise) when the tailwheel lifts off. Airfields in those days were round and allowed to take off and land in any direction, which made sense, given the influence of any wind at the low flight speed. $\endgroup$ Feb 10 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ S-turn taxiing was universal to tail draggers, not the least specific to radial engines or biplanes never mind Waco biplanes (and I'm virtually certain Bach wrote bout it). P-factor is more universal even than taildraggers; it happens with all large propellers when you pull angle of attack; the only difference is that with a taildragger it's immediately after raising the tail (but gone when you have the airplane level); with every propeller it's as soon as you rotate for liftoff. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Feb 11 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ The question is: "What would a pilot look for"? Of course for things that happen with all tail draggers. $\endgroup$ Feb 11 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ Well, yes and no. In 1935, every pilot would find tail-dragger "quirks" the everyday normal, because tricycle gear was very rare (even the US Navy ran taildraggers until the jet era started), so why would they even mention it? $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Feb 11 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ "Nothing by Chance" featured a Parks biplane; not sure whether Bach ever wrote about a Waco that he owned. A Waco that a friend of his owned did make an appearance in "Nothing by Chance", as I recall. $\endgroup$ Feb 12 at 0:50
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enter image description here

quarter view

Flight of NC12438 after Restoration

You're just in the process of stepping through that big door into the soft, mohair interior when you're struck by how bright the cabin is. Most cabin bipes, actually all cabin bipes, have a closed-in feeling. Their cabins may be huge. But a little dark. The QDC, however is like an upholstered greenhouse. The windshield works its faceted way up past the main spar to a nearly all glass roof. There is only a short area that is not glass, before the rear windows begin. The overall effect is incredibly cheerful. However, the solarium effect and heat stroke potential is obvious. A pilot could fry his brains in nothing flat.

Then you notice, or rather have pointed out by Alan, the tiny hook which is still welded to the carry through-over the pilots' heads. He reaches back and pulls a translucent, white window blind forward and fastens it to the hook. It looks for all the world like a garden variety, spring-loaded, roll-type window shade that completely blocks the skylight while letting a great deal of diffused light through. The neat part about the blind is that it is accurate to the airplane. 1930's pilots apparently perspired too.

Sitting in the co-pilots seat you have to look hard to find signs of the 1990s in the airplane. In fact, the only obvious one is a manifold pressure gauge attached to tubing under the panel. Other than that, it is totally 1932. You have to look down on the left cockpit side, behind Alan's left leg where there is a small one inch slot in the upholstery. If you snuggle over and look down, you can see the face of a radio and transponder mounted vertically behind the upholstery panel looking up at you. It is far from convenient to use, but it is practically invisible.

As the Continental 220 hp, R-670 (the original Continental was replaced in 1946 because it was such an early version) cranks over and that sound so identified with radials coming to life rumbles back through the codkpit, you suddenly realize the engine is only a few feet in front of you. If it weren't for the windshield, you could literally lean forward and touch the cylinders. This is when the F-2 lineage is noticeable, since that's the way it is in the front pit of that earlier airplane.

enter image description here

With the windows cranked down, elbows on the sills we worked our way past admiring stares to the runway. During taxi Alan scoots up the seat so his butt is half way up the back which allows him to see over the nose.

Since the wheel is of the throw-over variety and there were no brakes on the right side, obviously I was going to have to get a passenger's-eye view of the takeoff and landing. That's okay. I don't think I was up for making my first QDC takeoff/landing in front of several hundred thousand people anyway.

At full throttle, the engine sounded as if it was barely turning over as we began rolling leisurely down the runway. We rolled several airplane lengths, Alan picked up the tail, then another half dozen lengths later, the airplane floated off the runway. I want to repeat that... it floated off the runway. It didn't takeoff. Or rotate. Or do anything else we associate with modern airplanes. The wings developed so much lift, so early, they simply overcame gravity by themselves and we floated off the runway in a level attitude. The takeoff felt like the airplane looks. Very unique and enjoyable.

As soon as we were off the end of the runway, Alan pulled the pin and swing the big, round wheel over into my lap. Even as my hand curled around the polished wood, I began searching for traffic anywhere I could look, which included staring through the openings between the cylinders because they had no baffles and were right in my face at that climb angle.

The airplane was going up at over 800 fpm so it wasn't long before we leveled out and made our way across Lake Winnebago in search of clean airspace.

enter image description here

Even as we climbed I was conscious of the airplane's lighter-than-you-would-expect feel. Everything about the airplane feels, well, it just feels light. Just the way it felt on takeoff. The ailerons aren't light by modern standards but, when put against its peer group, the pressures are quite reasonable and the roll response is too. It's not a Pitts or even a Bonanza, but it is surprisingly quick. Again, the F-2 is felt.

The airplane needs rudder. Not huge amounts of it, but you can't drive around with your feet on the floor without being aware of your rearend trying to move back and forth on the seat. As with most WACO's, the rudder pedal ratio is short, so you don't actually move a pedal so much as pressure it. Also, keeping it coordinated noticeably increases the roll rate.

We were showing a solid 115 mph at cruise and I asked Alan if that was right. He said that was the exact number he uses for flight planning, which is amazingly fast considering. Considering, I could look out at the bottom of the wing panels and see things like polished brass fuel lines hanging right out in the wind on their way to the engine. It's big. It's blunt. It's aerodynamically dirty. It's also fairly fast. Its looks are deceiving.

Power-back and wheel hugged to my chest I could see why the airplane was so successful in the old-time bush environment. I never did get the stall to break and the airspeed was hanging under 40 mph while we sagged down hill at something around 500 fpm. With even a hint of power we could stagger along at 45-50 mph all day long and feel perfectly comfortable.

Back in the pattern that slow speed friendliness was again obvious. I flipped the wheel back over to Alan and he came down final at 60 mph to land on the taxiway (18 Left). As we flared and slowed for a wheel landing, it was as if we were coming to a halt before we even touched down on the mains. Then, as the wind went out of the tail I was again reminded of the F-2 as the tail started down. And down. Then down still more until we were again sitting on the ground at the incredibly steep three-point angle of those early airplanes. Because the angle is at, or close, to the actual stall angle of the airplane, a design practice long since abandoned, if something like the QDC is three-pointed, it slows down even more before touchdown.

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A video takeoff and landing

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Now I have a bit of time, so I give it a try. I am not familiar with your chosen type of airplane but I think a few things should be obvious.

The scene is in April, and the low that day is near zero degree Celsius. So there is dew on the ground (and the plane, if it wasn't hangarized for the night) and the moist air will make the fabric of the covering a bit less taut. Not that you see dimples - just the "pong" sound that you would expect from a dry fabric covering when knocking on it will be a bit dull in those conditions.

Next, the engine. The Waco QDC used a Continental A-70 which is a radial engine. When the engine is started after some time, oil will have collected in the lower cylinders. Some people will start the engine immediately, resulting in a huge puff of smoke from the exhaust. The careful pilot will crank the engine a few times with the ignition off so the oil can be pushed out first.

We've had a similar question a while back, so I hope you don't mind when I borrow some of the answer from there.

Now we have the passengers and baggage loaded and the engine running. The pilot should wait until engine temperature is high enough to run the engine at full load. He will watch the oil temperature gauge until it shows the required temperature. The next step would be the magneto check.

During taxi, the pilot needs to kick the rudder pedals alternately right and left in order to see straight ahead. This results in a funny snaking course but is standard with taildraggers like your Waco. With the nose high up in the air, forward visibility is very poor. Also, the pilot will want to pull the control horn (stick? - please, if someone has that detail, help out!) all the way towards him to deflect the elevator trailing edge up. This is done to avoid a headstand (see the link before for an example) and to have a firm downforce on the tail.

The Waco VKS-7 had control horns (see here), so I assume the same for the QDC.

When the plane has reached the starting point for its take-off roll, the pilot will orient the aircraft into the wind (airfields back then were mostly round grassy patches, so the take-off direction could be freely selected in order to take off directly into the wind) and slowly advance the throttle (if done too fast, again the nose might tip over) and again keep the control horn pulled to keep the tail down. At a fairly leisurely speed the tail will produce enough lift (being in the slipstream of the propeller) and raising the tail will reduce the drag from the wings, so the pilot will relax the back pressure on the horn. At the same time when the tail comes up, the nose of the plane will yaw a bit to the left from gyroscopic forces - the spinning propeller has enough momentum to force the plane maybe 10° off course if not countered by a firm kick on the right rudder pedal. A good pilot will anticipate this and will kick the rudder at the same time when the back pressure on the controls is relaxed.

Liftoff is rather unspectacular and happens when the aircraft is fast enough. However, if elevator trim is set the wrong way, the aircraft will stay on the ground for too long (too much nose-down trim) or lift off too early at a too slow speed (too much nose-up trim). Trim means that a spring in the elevator linkage is set such that it pulls the elevator to a certain deflection angle. This is helpful for adjusting control forces according to the desired flight speed and center of gravity location, but if it is set the wrong way on takeoff, the pilot might be surprised by unusual stick forces.

Enroute there is not much to say, except that rudder trim (yes, Wacos had a small trim tab in the rudder) needs to be adjusted to engine power. The propeller does not only produce thrust, but also a side force and some torque which tries to roll the airplane left wing down. Read here for more. Another consideration is fuel-air mixture: When the airplane climbs, the mixture must be adjusted to a leaner setting. This is done both by sound and cylinder head rsp. exhaust temperature. If the pilot forgets to set the mixture back to richer during descent, the engine will run too lean, resulting in a rough sound and maybe even a drop in power output. The engine will not stop, however, because the airstream keeps the prop spinning.

Landing is the opposite of take-off: The pilot might first want to circle the field to check conditions, watch for smoke or a windsock to choose landing direction and then, with the engine set to idle, glide into the field, pulling the control horn a bit to soften the touchdown. During rollout he will avoid to use the brakes, again pulling on the stick when slow enough to avoid tipping over. Taxi is done again with that snaking pattern.

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