Tropical Biplanes - OK, that just sounds like fun.
We have been vacationing in Kauai for a number of years, and on our last visit I had noticed a beautiful red biplane cruising along the coastal beaches. I did some research, and found out that Kevin Britt had purchased a new-build WACO (pronounced like 'taco') in 2002, and had shipped it to Kauai for tourist flights, starting the flight touring service called 'Tropical Biplanes', now a part of Air Ventures Hawaii.
I initially assumed the WACO was rebuilt or restored from the 1930's. Between 1919 and 1947, the WACO Aircraft Company of Troy, Ohio built almost twice as many aircraft as any other manufacturer, with more WACO's registered than the aircraft of any other company. The pride of WACO's efforts, and their last open-cockpit model for the barnstorming pilots of the 1930's, was the WACO YMF. The new WACO Aircraft Corporation began producing new-build biplanes in the mid-1980's, starting with the YMF Classic in 1986 and continuing with the YMF-5C and -5D Super. Kevin's WACO is a YMF-F5C metal and fabric design, with 4 ailerons for better roll control. The front cockpit is huge, providing passenger space for two full-sized adults. Kevin's pilot-in-command aft cockpit has a standard instrument set, while the front cockpit is very sparse, equipped only with the basics - a throttle control, rudder pedals and a removable stick. I contacted Kevin via e-mail before heading to Kauai, and inquired about the possibility of a flight in the WACO, and a potential formation flight for Ma and Theresa, who were vacationing with me. The Tropical Biplanes team also has a Cessna 182 at their disposal for 2-3 passengers, and Kevin agreed to the potential formation flight.
Arriving on Kauai on Saturday, we had good weather forecast for the early part of the week, so we planned a Tuesday flight opportunity. While driving up to Lihue airport from the south end of the island on Tuesday morning, the weather started deteriorating to be the worst of the trip, so we called and rescheduled for later in the week. Luckily, Friday dawned into a glorious, sunny day, the best of the week.
As we drove up to the Commuter aircraft terminal at Lihue, the striking red WACO was parked right in front of the small terminal building, with the Cessna 182 parked next to it. After introductions and discussion of formation photo plans, Kevin gave me a walk around and short history of his WACO. Entering the front seat of the WACO is facilitated with a small door on the left side of the fuselage that opens to the lower wing area, but care must be taken to ensure you don't bang your head on the upper wing as you enter. Once seated, especially with only one front seat passenger, the primary impression is one of width - the front cockpit is huge! As I mentioned earlier, the only flight instrumentation is in the rear cockpit, so the front seat pilot is definitely flying 'by the seat of the pants', so Kevin described pitch references I could use for level flight once we got airborne. Tropical Biplanes provides passengers with leather helmets surrounding voice-activated mics and headsets, which allowed for good communication even in the naturally breezy open cockpit.
Kevin quickly cranked the Jacobs R755B engine, which gave off a nice, throaty purr as we waited for the Cessna 182 with Ma and Theresa, piloted by ex-Seattle pilot Nick DuBay, to crank. Once we were both started, we taxied in the glorious sunshine to runway 3 at Lihue, completed our engine run-ups, and were cleared for separate takeoffs with immediate right turnouts to the southeast. Immediate was definitely the process, since we rolled only a short distance in the 18-knot headwind before Kevin lifted the tail, started a smooth climb, the briskly rolled into a right turn out of traffic.
Kevin handed over control to me, with directions to continue the climb along the coast, and then set up in a left circling turn to allow the Cessna to catch up with us and rejoin. With the 4-aileron configuration, the WACO has excellent roll response, and the aircraft trim provided light pitch forces as well. The visibility was superb from the open cockpit, providing great views of the turquoise waters below, just off the coast of the Ha'upu mountain range south of Lihue. We picked up the 182 heading southbound, and easily joined up in close formation on their left side as we approached the Poipu Beach area for photos. I got a great photo of the 182 right over Poipu Beach and our Marriott Waiohai resort, while Theresa snapped great views of our red WACO against the blue Pacific waters. We crossed over to the Cessna's right side for a few more photos, and then Kevin and I turned inland for Waimea Canyon as the girls continued south along the coast by Waimea and the Kauai Coffee plantations.
Kevin asked me to start climbing as we crossed the beach, and with a slight increase in power we easily cruised up to 4500 feet for stunning views of the Waimea Canyon and the steep vertical faces carved by the water from the 'wettest location on the planet', at the top of Mt. Waialeale, in cloud even on this glorious sunny day. We started to pick up some light to moderate turbulence from the strong trade winds blowing across the mountain peaks, with the WACO bouncing a bit in the chop, but handling the turbulence well. Continuing west, I crossed back over the water just north of the radar domes at the north end of the Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility.
The colors of the waters below were stunning in their variations of light and dark blues, turquoise and light greens, with clear views of the coral below. I turned north along the Na Pali coast, with the girls passing ahead of us as they also cruised up the Na Pali. The green foliage, red rocks, bright yellow sands and blue waters of the area provided a kaleidoscope of rugged color, enhanced by the wide open cockpit view. Minor turbulence was barely noticeable, given the visual panorama all around.
Now past the Na Pali coast, I started heading east, as we crossed over Tunnels Beach. The expansive coral formation was quite visible from our vantage point, and I was able to pinpoint the coral area where Theresa and I had snorkeled with a turtle and a reef shark just days before. I continued east over Princeville, then followed Kevin's directions as we penetrated south down the valley into the crater wall of the shield volcano remnants of Mount Waialeale and Kawaikini, with very impressive vertical rock faces and waterfalls.
As I descended back toward the Lihue airport, Kevin again provided directions to a local landmark, and took over the flying as I took photos over Wailua Falls. We cruised to our pattern entry point over the local K-Mart, and entered left base for a short pattern and landing on runway 3, where Kevin greased on the WACO for a great ending to an excellent flight. Ma and Theresa also had a blast on their sightseeing tour, but were glad to be on the ground after hitting some stronger turbulence while cruising over the south part of the island. Kevin and Nick, thanks for the sightseeing, stick time and formation opportunity with Tropical Biplanes and Fly Kauai! Now I just need to figure out how to bring a second biplane to Kauai for formation biplane tours...!