Waco making classic wings and experiences

September 10, 2011
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Peter Bowers compares the specialty aerospace products his firm manufactures to Harley Davidsons with wings: Both are top-of-the-line custom creations and both provide unique open-air experiences. The difference is that his product is designed to leave the ground.

Bowers is owner and president of the Waco Classic Aircraft Corp., which makes biplanes at its plant in Battle Creek but captures sales from across the U.S. and from overseas. Bowers bought the company a little more than four years ago, more than 20 years after the firm first produced a biplane in 1984. Since he has owned it, Waco Classic has added a second biplane, the Great Lakes 2T-1A, to its production line that already includes the popular YMF-5 aircraft.

Bowers, who lives in Kalamazoo and is an aviator himself, bought Waco Classic because he was looking for a small but fun business to own and run, and he heard that the firm, which moved from Lansing to Battle Creek in 1996, was for sale.

“The owner lived in New York and was sort of an absentee owner. He was interested in getting out, and I was interested in buying a business like this, so we came to a deal. That’s the two-second description, but it was much more convoluted than that,” he said with a laugh.

Little did Bowers know when he bought Waco Classic in June 2007 that the nation’s economy would stall a few months later and then go into a nearly complete nosedive soon after.

“Of course, my timing couldn’t have been worse. The economy tanked six months after I bought the business. But that being said, we did a pretty good job of weathering that storm and right now we’re looking at a pretty strong backlog going out through about midway 2012,” he said.

Bowers said sales of the YMF-5 have been strong, relative to the company’s size. “We think we’re going to do six airplanes this year. It’s going to be kind of tight toward the end of the year to get one out, and we have three sold for next year already. So, for us, that’s big,” he said. “A company like Cessna will do six airplanes in a week, but I can guarantee you that we’re having a lot more fun than they are.”

Part of the fun they’re having is building the new Great Lakes 2T-1A. Bowers said they’re in the process of recertifying the biplane and producing the very first one, which will have a serial number of zero.

“Then the intent is to start customer deliveries in late spring or early summer of next year,” he said. Bowers said its takes roughly five months and 6,000 man hours to build one of the firm’s planes.

Waco Classic employs 26 at its plant and the firm is hiring.

“We’re probably one of the few aerospace companies that’s actually hiring, and a lot of that is to start to get staffed-up to build the new Great Lakes airplane. We’ve sold 10 of those already and the Great Lakes production is booked out until 2013.”

Bowers said customers who have bought the YMF-5, which is considered a premium aircraft in its field, are typically accomplished pilots who are looking for what is likely the most unique experience they can find in the aviation realm.

“We certainly don’t follow the standard mold of most airplanes today. We’re sort of a Harley Davidson with wings, as far as the experience goes,” he said.

“Our customers are mostly American, but about a third of our sales are made overseas. We have airplanes going to Germany and the U.K. We also have one going to Canada,” he added. “A lot of our U.S. customers are in Florida and California. California has got the highest concentration of airplanes, and Florida is second.”

The Waco Classic YMF-5 is powered by a Jacobs R-755 B2M seven-cylinder radial engine that offers 275 horsepower at 2,200 revolutions per minute. The propeller is a two-blade, fixed-pitch wood model. The plane has a two-person bench seat in front of the cockpit. The standard YMF-5 sells for $339,500, while one with more features goes for $398,500.

The Great Lakes 2T-1A offers 180 horsepower from its Lycoming engine. Its target markets are pilots and flight schools that are looking for an easy handling, highly aerobatic aircraft. It’s similar to the YMF-5 in design and construction, but is smaller and features simpler avionics and systems. Prices are expected to range from $219,000 to $239,000, depending on the type of engine, when it makes its debut next year.

Bowers is considering making a few changes to the company. One possibility is a name change. He is thinking about dropping “Waco” from the name and simply calling the firm the Classic Aircraft Corp. Another possible change is adding a second location for sales and service purposes. Bowers said he is seriously looking at a site in Lakeland, Fla., and may make that move next year. But he plans to keep the manufacturing facility in Battle Creek.

Bowers said the weather is a big challenge for Waco Classic, the state’s only manufacturer of FAA-certified, general-aviation planes. The company sells open-cockpit aircraft, and much like riding motorcycles in the winter, there aren’t a lot of pilots in these parts that take their biplanes for a spin during those months. Cold and snow are key reasons he is thinking of moving sales and service to Florida. But winter can be a hassle for another business reason.

“Later this winter, we need to do a whole bunch of certification test flights, and I guarantee you, nobody is looking forward to that,” he said. “Oddly enough, some of our test flights are for sound study, and we can’t do those when the ground is frozen, so we have to fly to Florida anyway.”

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