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A vast, cavernous world-class museum crammed with antique prop aircraft and vintage automobiles is not something you'd expect to see in the small town of Hood River, Oregon. And I don't use the term world-class museum to describe the WAAAM lightly, either. It's like taking a walk through early aviation history.
I'd planned a brief visit to the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) after exploring the small bustling town of Hood River. Known mainly for windsurfing, Hood River is only a stone's throw from the surging Columbia River, and 60 miles east of Portland.
My tourist brochure lists the WAAAM as one of the town's main tourist attractions, along with an interesting County History Museum and a self-guided tour of the historic district, where you can see beautifully restored buildings dating from 1893.
But my visit to the WAAAM was still almost an afterthought, because I wasn't expecting to see much. After all, what sort of aviation museum could be offered in a town with a population just shy of 7,000? Maybe a couple of derelict old biplanes and some dusty early model cars?
So nothing could prepare me for the sight that greeted me when I walked into the museum-row upon row of historic prop aircraft in mint flying condition, and long lines of gleaming, polished classic vehicles stretching to the back of the huge, 90,000 square feet hall. It's just such an unexpected sight for such an isolated town-and a sight that will bring an aviation history buff to his knees.
The museum is the dream of Founder and President, and Hood River resident, Terry Brandt, who has collected historic vintage prop aircraft through his lifetime like small change. He was in his sixties, with a collection of 42 rare aircraft that he'd accumulated over 50 years, when his wife Lois reminded him that he wouldn't be around forever. It was time to put them under one roof as a museum collection, or sell them by auction and see them scattered to the four winds.
The idea of his collection being separated was clearly more than Terry Brandt could bear. He'd made good money as a real estate developer in Nevada, so he sunk it into the museum buildings located on the Ken Jernstedt Airfield on a flat apron of land ten minute's drive from downtown Hood River.
Terry sits down with me in the museum gift shop, wearing his trademark Tilley hat, to tell me more about the museum. Only half joking, he says, "I spent my grandchildren's college funds to make this museum". Since the museum's opening, its number of aircraft has mushroomed to 60, as people have donated aging planes that have lain around for decades, gathering dust in old barns and hangars. Fortunately, most donations are airworthy.
How did he get such a passion for antique aircraft, I ask. Terry's father, Dick, loved soaring in gliders, and also built crop dusters. Terry learned to fly well before he was shaving, at 12 years, bought a 1938 J-3 Cub at age 19, and never looked back.
The museum is a relative newcomer for aviation buffs. Opening on September 7 2007, it made quite a splash, attracting 8,000 visitors, and 298 aircraft, for the occasion. The Cascade Warbirds have even flown in to Jernstedt Airfield a couple of times.
The WAAAM is a tribute to the early aviators from World War I to World War II, that golden age of flying, when barnstormers and wing walkers did their death defying stunts, and air mail pilots and pioneers like Charles Lindbergh flew anywhere that could be plotted on a map, becoming household names.
Antique aircraft displayed at the WAAAM include models built by several of the best known manufacturer of those times, from Travel Air, Piper, Taylorcraft, Spartan, Buhl, American Eagle, to Waco, and Davis. Its oldest authentic aircraft is a 1917 Curtiss Jenny JN-4D, with serial number one for the D model, and still in flying condition. There are also two fine looking replicas of a 1910 Curtiss Pusher.
The museum boasts some rare and exclusive aircraft, many the last known survivors of their line such as a 1928 American Eagle, and a 1931 Curtiss Wright Travel Air 12-W. The 1937 Aeronca LC is believed to be the last one flying. Other gems displayed at the museum include a 1928 Waco GXE 10, a 1928 Lincoln Page LP-3, a 1929 Arrow Sport Pursuit, a 1929 Davis D-K-1, and a 1929 Curtiss Robin. WAAAM's notable 1930's-era aircraft include a 1930 Pietenpol Sky Scout, a 1931 American Eagle, a 1931 Buhl Pup, a 1931 Aeronca C-3, a 1931 Waco RNF, a 1933 Franklin Sport 90, and several others. There are more rare birds than these, but you get the idea!
If these aren't enough to get you packing your bags for a visit to the WAAAM, consider these unique collections: the largest collection of flying OX-5 aircraft, six in all (including the Curtiss Jenny and one under restoration) and the largest collection on public display on the West coast, of flying three-cylinder radial engine aircraft.
Terry Brandt is insistent that all the aircraft are kept airworthy and flying, something that many other aviation museums regard with horror (lest they be destroyed in an accident). Brandt believes that flying these old timers is the best way to preserve aviation history's heritage. Brandt has fielded enquiries from the Smithsonian about some of his unique planes, and thus far politely declined their overtures, preferring to keep his flock of historic birds together.
All of these antique aircraft had to be restored, of course. The Museum's Director of Restorations is Tom Murphy, 63, an amiable gentleman who clearly loves bringing historic aircraft back to life. Murphy is one of the country's top aircraft restorers-he's actually been rebuilding them since the mid 1960's. He first learned the trade from the mechanics at Linds Airport, Lodi, California, starting when he was 13 years old.
Since then he's restored over 100 aircraft, including 20 at the WAAAM. He pumped gas at the airport in exchange for flying lessons in a J-3 Cub. At 16, Tom soloed in the Cub after 3.5 hours of instruction! "All I could do take-offs, landings, and left turns", he tells me. Tom has his pilot's ratings for gliders, and single engine land and sea aircraft.
Tom Murphy has been working for Terry Brandt since 1979, and has headed the museum's restoration projects since the museum opened. His most enjoyable project was the Curtiss Jenny-something he'd wanted to do since he was 13. "We'd (Murphy and Brandt) been looking for a Jenny all that time", he says.
But what about the WAAAM's World War II aircraft? You won't find Lightnings, Thunderbolts or Mustangs here, but the museum has a large collection of L-Birds under its roof. Although L-Birds were not the sexiest aircraft of World War II, they too have a loyal following because most pilots were initially trained in them.
In fact the L-Birds achieved legendary status among the World War II generation under the Civilian Pilot Training and Wartime Training Service programs. A staggering 75% of the 435,165 men and women who received their pilot's licenses, learned to fly in Piper J-3 Cub Trainers, Piper J-4 Coupes, and Piper J-5 Cub Cruisers, between 1939 and 1944.
The WAAAM's L-Bird Collection:
1940 Piper Cub Trainer J-3C65
1941 Piper HE-1 (J-5)/AE-1 Navy
1942 Piper L-4-A (J-3, O-59) Cub Grasshopper #236750
1942 Aeronca L-3B (O-58) Grasshopper
1942 Stinson L-5 (O-54) Sentinel #76-519
1943 Taylorcraft L-2M (O-57) Grasshopper
1945 Piper L-4J-3 (O-59)
The L-Birds (L for liaison) weren't even armed, although there are records of Piper Cub L-4's (originally designated O-59) being used in an antitank role with bazookas lashed to their wing struts! Some Cub pilots have even claimed they had strafed the enemy on the ground armed with carbines, submachines guns, and grenades. But one fact is certain: while performing their duties over enemy lines as artillery spotter aircraft the L-Birds cost thousands of enemy lives (and must therefore have saved countless thousands of allied lives).
In addition, the L-Birds were extremely inexpensive to manufacture. One Army general calculated that because the L-Bird's artillery spotting was so effective, they saved about 40 rounds of 155mm or 200 rounds of 75mm per bombardment, whose cost exceeded the price of a Pier Cub. And the Cub only took 300 hours to build.
Collectively, these unique Liaison aircraft (Pipers, Aeroncas, and Taylorcraft) were nicknamed "Grasshoppers" at the Tennessee Army maneuvers in 1941, by General Innis P. Swift, after he witnessed a particularly bumpy landing. He said, "They look just like grasshoppers in a corn field." And the name stuck. The L-Birds were also referred to as "spotter planes".
Initially the Army generals did not feel that light planes could be of any use, but at the insistence of Piper, Aeronca, and Taylorcraft, they made an impressive showing at the Tennessee maneuvers. It did not take long for the top brass to recognize the value of these rugged and reliable aircraft that were so light on their feet. Their amazing short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities on roads and unprepared areas were the final clincher for the generals to order grasshoppers by the thousands.
The Grasshoppers performed sterling service in wartime liaison and utility roles such as courier operations, photographic and visual reconnaissance, column control, emergency resupply, rescuing Allied personnel from remote areas (sometimes behind enemy lines), and evacuation of wounded soldiers. L-Birds delivered mail, spare parts, and food and ammunition to soldiers near the front line, and were even used for smoke bombing and laying telephone cables.
And on the home front the Grasshoppers played a superb role as submarine hunters for the Civil Air Patrol. They contributed significantly to eliminating the German U-boat threat to the east coast of the United States by flying 87,000 missions in this capacity. L-Birds are credited with spotting 73 submarines and actually sinking two using demolition bombs and depth charges suspended from improvised bomb racks. Many an L-Bird was responsible for spotting waterlogged survivors of U-boat attacks, thus saving their lives. Other home front uses for the L-Birds included towing targets for training antiaircraft gunners, radar operators, and searchlight operators.
One would think that these slow, defenseless aircraft would have suffered serious losses in wartime, but in fact very few Grasshoppers were shot down. Their slow speed, about 75 miles per hour, meant that high powered fighters would overshoot the Grasshoppers, that would then use their phenomenal maneuverability to drop down behind natural cover to hide.
Bullets easily passed through the L-Birds canvas covering, and did little damage. And even if the engine was hit, the Grasshoppers could glide for a long way back to their own lines. But more amusing was how quickly the enemy ground forces learned that shooting at observation aircraft was a good way to have a lot of artillery dumped on them very fast, so they usually left them alone. One German prisoner of war said that the L-4 generated more fear than any other allied aircraft, because artillery would soon follow the sighting of an L-4.
While flying a mission in maneuvers, a grasshopper was attacked by an "enemy" fighter pilot. The pilot dived down, landed in a small clearing and taxied underneath some trees. The fighter, flying too fast to locate the grasshopper, soon left, and the grasshopper pilot took off and resumed his mission. From L-Birds: American Combat Liaison Aircraft of World War II-Terry M.Love
The L-Birds were very much a low-maintenance aircraft-so much so that their pilots did much of the maintenance on their own aircraft with a simple toolkit. There were no electrical systems and they only used fixed wooden propellers. Their engines could be changed out from the tailgate of a truck in about two hours, by two mechanics, under all sorts of adverse conditions including during battle. L-Birds were even towed behind a jeep or dissembled and transported in a truck when the need arose.
Here's some more general information about the L-Bird models, and a little about the WAAAM's specific display aircraft. Space constraints prevent me from detailing the performance characteristics of each L-Bird model, but this information is easily available elsewhere.
The Aeronca L-3 Grasshopper was manufactured as a result of the U.S. Air Force stepped up its flight training program with war looming on the horizon. The Aeronautical Corporation of America (Aeronca) refined its early model, the Tandem Trainer, into the Aeronca Defender, and then further improved to the L-3. This rugged trainer was used in many flight schools.
Built between 1938 and 1942, the Piper J-4 Coupe was simply a two-seater side-by-side, updated version of the Piper J-3. It offered a wider fuselage to accommodate the two seats, and had a more powerful engine. With a stall speed of only 39 miles per hour, the L-4 could almost hover like a helicopter, enhancing its observation capabilities, and when it crashed at such low speeds the pilot usually walked away without serious injury.
The Piper L-4 Cub Grasshopper (O-59, J-3), a direct descendant of the popular Piper Cub of the early 1930's, became a favorite transport of American generals in World War II. Many newsreels and photos exist of Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and George Marshall emerging from L-4 Cubs around European battlefields. Over 1,000 grasshoppers flew over Normandy during the D-Day landings and the following campaign.
A total of 5,600 Piper L-4 Grasshoppers were manufactured for military use in World War II, by far the highest number of light plane models built. At the height of the Piper's L-4's manufacturing cycle in World War II, an L-4 was being cranked off the assembly line every 20 minutes.
Interestingly, 20 Piper J-2 and J-3 (L-4) Cubs were used by the Luftwaffe in similar roles to the Allied L-Birds, after being captured by the Germans when they overran Denmark in 1940. The WAAAM museum's 1942 L-4A Cub was restored by Bill Mc Knee and acquired by Terry Brandt in the early 2000's.
Piper L-4 (J-3) Cub Specifications:
Span: 35 ft. 3 in.
Length: 22 ft. 5 in.
Height: 6 ft. 8 in.
Weight: 1,200 lbs. maximum
Engine: Continental O-170 of 65 hp.
Maximum speed 85 mph.
Cruising speed: 75 mph.
Range: 190 miles
Service Ceiling: 9,300 ft.
The versatile Stinson L-5 Sentinel was a three-seater, serving mainly in an air observation role, and as an aerial ambulance. Between 1942 and 1945, Stinson delivered 3,590 L-5 Sentinels in several variants to the U.S. Army Air Corps, and it became the most widely used Allied utility aircraft of World War II. The L-5C for example, was equipped with a reconnaissance camera.
The L-5 also served with the U.S. Navy (OY-1, OY-2) and in the Royal Air force. It is known that the L-5 could take off and land from tree top platforms constructed above the Burmese jungle, which could not be cleared for even a short airstrip. The WAAAM's 1942 L-5 Stinson was restored by a Mr. Nichols, and acquired by the museum in 2007.
"During the Louisiana Maneuvers, when grasshoppers were low on fuel, they landed on a highway and refueled at a local filling station. A Cub pilot touched down at this lonely looking gas station expecting to see the local neighborhood turn out and welcome him as a novelty, only to have the attendant tell him that two other grasshoppers had been in that morning and that in the last few days more gas had been sold to airplanes than to automobiles". From L-Birds: American Combat Liaison Aircraft of World War II-Terry M. Love (P.5)
The Taylorcraft L-2 (O-57) Grasshopper was basically the Taylorcraft civilian Model D, featuring tandem seats and dual controls, and used mainly in observation and liaison roles. The WAAAM's 1943 Taylorcraft L-2M Grasshopper was restored by Hank Schilling and joined the museum's collection in 2007.
The Piper J-5C Cub Cruiser (HE-1/AE-1) was, like all of the L-Birds described above, originally a civilian aircraft (J-5) that was appropriated for military use. Primarily an aerial ambulance for carrying casualties, the HE-1 (H = Hospital aircraft) had a widened fuselage to accommodate two passengers in the rear seat.
Tom Murphy recovered the 1941 Piper HE-1 displayed in the WAAAM, in the mid 1960's in California, for Mr. Bud Smith. After Terry Brandt acquired it in the mid-1980s, Tom completely restored it to its original military configuration in one month, in 2007. The Naval version designated the AE-1, was usually based at small, remote Naval Auxiliary Air Stations.
But there's far more than L-Birds in the WAAAM's World War II collection. It's eclectic utility and training aircraft collection is also superb.
The museum's 1940 Fairchild UC-86 (UC = Utility Cargo) originally a floatplane was impressed into service by the U.S. government as a utility aircraft for hauling the brass around. The U.S. Army equipped the UC-86 with wheels and used it for about one year, then turned around and sold it to civilians for a tidy profit.
Known as the yellow peril because of the characteristic naval trainer orange-yellow paintwork, the1940 N3N Seaplane was used by the U.S. Navy for primary pilot training for World War II. These two-seaters (instructor and student) were kept in service until 1961 as a familiarization platform for the Naval Academy. The coast guard used N3Ns for running errands and proficiency flights. The WAAAM's N3N was restored by Bob Vranken in Vacaville, California, and acquired by Terry Brandt in the mid to late 80's. The float equipment was purchased from Reggie Tufts, a retired air force mechanic in Sacramento, California.
The odd looking and finicky to fly Ryan PT-22 Recruit offered a challenge to the cadet pilots, because of her demanding ground handling characteristics. Military flight training consisted of three levels; primary, basic, and advanced. In 1940 the Air Corps ordered a number of civilian trainers, designating them as Ryan PT-16s. Satisfied with the PT-16, and faced with a rapidly expanding U.S. Air Force, the Air Corps ordered large numbers of improved versions in 1941, including the PT-22. In all, 1,023 PT-22s were delivered for use as primary trainers.
The WAAAM's 1941 Ryan PT-22 Recruit (#213) primary trainer almost looks like she rolled off the production line yesterday with her shiny aluminum fuselage and yellow painted wings. Acquired by Terry Brandt in the early 80's, from Reggie Tufts she was partially restored when purchased. Tom Murphy, Peter Kinter, and Reggie Tufts completed this restoration in one year, in Yuba City, California. The PT-22 was flown to Hood River in 1982 and lived there ever since.
In 1942 the U.S. Army Air Force adopted the Cessna T-50 as its light personnel transport, designating it the C-78 (later UC-78). It acquired the nicknames the "Bobcat", the "Bamboo Bomber", and the "Double Breasted Cub". Records show that 5,399 model T-50s were built between 1939 and 1944.
Wally Olsen of Vancouver, Washington originally owned the museum's 1944 Cessna T-50 Bobcat. He operated Evergreen Flying Service for many years. The museum eventually acquired the Bobcat in 2008 from Cliff Schrock, whereupon Tom Murphy worked his magic in 3 weeks, repainting it with an original Military paint job.
With the outbreak of World War II hostilities in 1941, the U.S. military found itself with one solitary glider trainer. With the early German glider born success in taking the Belgian Fort Eben Emael, there was suddenly a demand for glider training for U.S. military forces to supplement paratrooper forces.
Alert Army officers quickly realized that their Waco gliders looked like large Piper Cub aircraft, and asked the L-Bird manufacturers to come up with some gliders of their own based on the L-Bird design. Taylorcraft removed the engine of its L-2 airplane to make a third seat in the nose, and produced 250 training gliders called the TG-6A.
The WAAAM's newly restored 1942 Taylorcraft TG-6 Training Glider came from behind an old Crop Duster hangar, where it had been slowly disintegrating for more than 30 years. It was just a pile of parts when Tom Murphy started the restoration, which took 9 months, and hundreds of hours of WAAAM Volunteer help. Tom worked from original drawings to fabricate and exact the detail that went into the glider. The TG-6 was test flown on September 2009 by Ben Davidson, towed by Judy Newman, WAAAM's new full time Director.
WAAAM Museum also boasts a healthy amount of aviation and military memorabilia ranging from World War II weapons, helmets, aircraft engines, propellers, cockpit instruments, military vehicles, and a sizeable research and restoration library. And of course if you also happen to be a classic automobile enthusiasts, you might just find yourself in Nirvana as you stroll past a 1914 Model T Ford, a 1917 Stanley Steam Car, a 1929 Packard Model 640 Super 8 Phaeton, a 1931 Pierce Arrow Model 41, a 1936 Cord Westchester Sedan, a 1957 Studebaker Golden HAW 289 Paxton, and a number of Jeeps from the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War eras.
Whatever your reason for visiting the WAAAM, you'll find yourself instantly transported back to the golden era of aviation history, surrounded by eager museum experts who are only too pleased to tell you about the aircraft and cars. It's a memorable experience that you won't forget soon.