When Wacos were coming off the production line in Troy, Ohio, did the builders have any idea how long their craftsmanship would endure?
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Could they have imagined that a Waco they assembled in 1940 would still be flying some 83 years later as a new owner’s pride and joy? Could they have guessed that someone would search the world for one of their creations, and pour much love (and money) into bringing it back to life?
Quinn Marden, age 2 going on 3, is tired. He’s excited. “His” blue and white Waco NC29368 is parked on the grass in the shade of a stand of trees at Van Sant Airport (9N1) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He has already had a ride in it—parked atop a stack of pillows and belted plus restrained in the front seat with his grandfather, Wesley Marden Jr., but he’s ready for another trip.
Unfortunately, Quinn will have to wait while his aunts, uncles, and cousins get a ride in “his” airplane. They have come from all over the United States to help celebrate the rebirth of NC29368.
Tom Marden, Quinn’s father and the owner of NC29368, has been planning this day ever since he first began thinking about rebuilding a Waco. His mother and father, his two sisters, two brothers, and other friends and family members have joined him to help celebrate, and surprisingly, the weather is cooperating with Marden’s plans to get in a lot of flying. It’s August, but not sticky or humid; in fact, there’s enough of a crosswind that tailwheel students are staying on the ground, but nothing that a proficient tailwheel pilot in a heavier aircraft can’t handle. Marden feels comfortable taking friends and family members aloft in NC29368. He has logged 500 hours in Stearmans, and 80 in Wacos.
Marden’s father and Quinn’s grandfather Marden Jr., 89, parks himself at one of the picnic tables under the trees at Van Sant. “He’s a better pilot than I am,” he says of Tom, watching his son taxi NC29368 out to the grass runway with 15-year-old grandson Jackson Marden in the front seat, goggles and helmet in place.
Wesley Marden Sr., the man who inspired the restoration project, has long since flown west, but his spirit is evident. A treasure trove of family photos and memorabilia is laid out for visitors to inspect. Here is a photo of a control tower, and a blurry color photo of a training room decorated with silhouettes of aircraft. Here’s a brochure, showing a smiling Wesley Sr. behind a desk at Airways Inc., the company he founded in Waterville, Maine, to offer aircraft sales and repairs, flight instruction, and charter flights.“I’ve flown Wacos and Stearmans and the best quote I ever heard [from another pilot] was, ‘Well, they’re all just different enough to be different.’”
Wesley Sr. moved to Camden, Arkansas, in the 1940s and established a Civilian Pilot Training Corps program at the airport at the behest of the U.S. Army Air Corps. The CPTC trained pilots as a supplement to military training establishments; the pilots learned to fly in Wacos, along with Stearmans and Fairchild PT–19s. Wesley Jr. recalls being lifted into a Link Trainer as pilots swarmed in and out of his father’s flight school. When he was old enough, Wesley Jr. was permitted to help out the family business by taxiing airplanes to the fuel trucks, and he learned to fly at Camden.
Wesley Jr.’s son, Tom Marden, grew up in Camden and learned to fly there as well. He wasn’t allowed to start lessons until his legs had grown long enough to reach the rudder pedals without the help of a phone book or cushions. Now 38, and the owner of a solar energy company, Marden is a devout tailwheel pilot who has owned a Stearman, a Citabria, and a Pitts Special. He and his wife, Michele, and toddler Quinn live close to Van Sant, which is where Marden got his tailwheel endorsement. He belongs to Van Sant’s tight-knit tailwheel community, and he is part of the crew that flies biplane rides on the weekends for some of the many people who come out to the little airport to watch antique aircraft.
Marden grew up hearing stories about his grandfather and seeing photos of those days when the Camden Airport was a hive of activity. Sales brochures, black-and-white photos, and more capture that period when the United States was heading toward war in Europe. One photo shows Wesley Marden Sr. standing next to a newly delivered 1940 Waco UPF–7. The images of his grandfather and the grand airplane sparked a notion. What if Tom Marden could find that Waco—or one like it—and bring a little piece of family history back home?
Tom’s brother Adam Marden, up from Baltimore, Maryland, has just climbed out of the Waco. “That is a sweet ride,” he says before joining his family for sandwiches.
“I am so proud of Tommy,” says Marden’s sister Elizabeth Wheaton. She lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, and flew across the country for the family reunion. “He did an amazing job finding the airplane and researching its history.”
She said it’s the second time they’ve all gotten together this year, “which is not usual for us.”
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Researching N numbers, Marden found a UPF–7 in Belgium like the one shown in the photo with his grandfather. Its trans-Atlantic location would have stopped many would-be restorers in their tracks. But biplane pilots are a friendly group, and the Stearman community is an international one at that. Marden called a Stearman friend in Germany, who agreed to go to the restoration shop in Belgium where the airplane was parked and look it over. NC29368 had been wrecked in Florida, and the Belgian owner had never bothered to reassemble it. Marden purchased the airplane, which was at that point a pile of parts, and had it shipped via container to the United States. He bought a second nonairworthy Waco for additional parts.
Marden sought the help of Mike and Larry Posey for the bulk of the restoration. The Poseys had for years produced meticulous aircraft restorations in Robbinsville, New Jersey, but they have been operating a shop at Van Sant since 2016. With their experience and himself a hands-on participant, Marden thought the restoration would go easily, but he quickly discovered otherwise.
“A Waco has about 5,000 more parts than a Stearman does,” he said.
Every ounce of wood in the airframe needed to be hand-built. Scott Shue of Aircraft by Shue (“Craftsmanship: Where Wacos take Wing,” April 2014 AOPA Pilot) rebuilt the upper wings and center section. The airplane has Rare Aircraft wheels and brakes, and the company also supplied “all kinds of little parts,” including an engine mount. Keystone Instruments refurbished the compass for the panel, and a member of the Condor Squadron found a three-in-one gauge. Mindy Williams at The Flight Box created the custom leather interior.“I had a fuselage, wings, tail—almost a plane and a half—and two engines sitting in a 20-foot container at my home.” —Tom Marden
The engine is a Continental Radial W670-M with 240 horsepower. The airplane came out of the factory with a 220-horsepower engine and was designated a Waco UPF–7. The engine burns between 13 and 15 gallons at cruise, Marden said, and burns a quarter to half a quart of oil per hour.
The paint scheme, Miami blue and Vestal white, is not authentic to the period, but Marden doesn’t mind. This restoration is not about reproducing every detail of that era. It’s more about creating the vision of what could have been. “Airways Inc.” and “Contractor to U.S. Government Civilian Pilot Training Program” are hand-lettered on the fuselage, just as they would have been in 1940.
After nearly three years of labor, NC29368 took its first flight on July 6, 2023.
Asked whether a Waco differs from a Stearman, Marden quoted a fellow taildragger pilot who likes to say, “They’re all just different enough to be different.”
“The Waco is lighter on the controls,” Marden said. “The rigging from the get-go was pretty well spot on. It’s much faster than the Stearman and more of a joy.”
As the afternoon daylight softens, Tom Marden is happy. His goal was to put his father and his son in the Waco for a flight—mission accomplished. Everyone who wanted a ride has received one—goals met.
Reflecting on the time and money spent on the restoration—into six figures when you include the purchase of the two aircraft—Tom Marden quips that he might “add it up at the year anniversary and take that sheet and the bills and light them on fire.” But there’s no buyer’s remorse. You can’t put a price on flying your father and your son above the Pennsylvania countryside in an airplane like the one grandfather flew, your son barely visible in the cockpit, his little arms flung excitedly in the air.