#HomeGrownStories – Gretchen Hawk
Gretchen Hawk is a Miami County transplant from Darke County. She is the Executive Director at WACO Air Museum & Aviation Learning Center. In 1929, WACO was the largest commercial builder of aircraft in the world and was located in Troy, Ohio. WACO designed and built 1,000 CG4A Gliders for World War II. Today, WACO planes are still loved for their lightweight construction and aerobatic design. The WACO Museum serves to commemorate the WACO company, employees, and pilots. The museum is involved in STEM education as well as aviation education and history for all ages.
The 20th annual WACO Vintage Fly-In at Historic WACO Airfield and Museum is September 15 – 17.
How she started working at the WACO Air Museum & Aviation Learning Center:
I grew up in Arcanum in Darke County. I went to Miami University and I have been in Miami County pretty much ever since I graduated. I came to WACO in 2011 as an assistant to the Director at the time, Don Willis. He was very instrumental in getting all this going. We’ve named this building the Willis Wing for him.
I started out helping Don. I had taught for many years before that. Now I’m the Executive Director and this job is so much fun! I get to meet all kinds of people from all over the world. It’s important to me to educate local people about the history of our area and the importance of WACO. We’re right here in the backyard of Miami County. WACO was the number one employer in the county in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The CG4A Glider that was used in World War II was our design. WACO made about one thousand of them right here during the war.
On the history of the WACO Aircraft Company:
WACO was the number one manufacturer of airplanes in the 1920s and 1930s. It was located where United Technologies is today. Clayton Brukner was the main founder. He donated land for Brukner Nature Center so that’s how most local people know of him. They started building these airplanes that became very popular. They were well-made, very aerobatic, and people loved them. The wings and the fuselage are covered with cloth. They sprayed the cloth with layers and layers of paint in a process called doping. It made them pretty airtight and fairly weather resistant. It also made them very light airplanes.
They called the first design the Cootie. It was made in 1919. It’s very different from the other airplanes in here, it has a single wing. It was not a good design. It was dangerous so they quickly went from the Cootie to the WACO 4. You can see the difference, there are two wings and a bigger engine. The red one on display is a 1929 design. There’s a huge difference in just ten years! These wings are very different, the new model has a tapered wing, the other wings were straight across. This airplane went to Paris and won the Paris Air Show for Aerobatics in 1934. People loved the WACO 4 because they were very aerobatic and sturdy. They weren’t the cheapest airplanes, but they were a good value.
Back when Dayton had a lot of air races, people used to say that if you saw a lineup of ten airplanes, seven of them are going to be WACOs. This plane carried mail back-and-forth from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. There were cabin models and we have one that is pretty new to us. They wanted to sell that design to the corporate world. There are still a lot of these airplanes flying and being renovated all the time. People really love these old airplanes. It’s the sound of that radio engine, it’s just amazing.
The museum started with the red WACO 4. It was a project that a man near Toledo started but he became ill. Some WACO factory employees and pilots took that on as a project. That got the ball rolling for the WACO Historical Society in 1978. They started out upstairs in a building in Ward 1 of Troy. They couldn’t have planes in the building, it was difficult to even take engines upstairs. When the land here became available, today it’s about 100 acres, they bought it. The red barn came first, it was built in the 1850s. It came from the property next to pilots Bob and Patty Wagner in 1997. They got the first hanger that following spring in 1998. About six years later they raised more money and were able to buy the second hanger. The other hanger was meant for working on airplanes, I don’t think they had a museum in mind or not like what it is now.
About WACO Air Museum & Aviation Learning Center today:
Today we have two hangers full of airplanes and memorabilia. Our focus is the airplane factory and commemorating the factory employees and pilots. We’re open Monday through Friday from 9 am to 1:30 pm. We are open on the weekends 12 pm to 5 pm. We’re also available as a rental venue. We’ve had six weddings and two funerals in our hangars. We have had all kinds of dinner parties, birthday parties, and corporate meetings. Things like that help us pay the bills. We are entirely funded by grants and donations. We don’t get any government or city money. The outside space here is rentable as well. We’ve had dog shows and truck shows. We’re one of the largest park-and-ride locations for the Strawberry Festival.
We offer a lot of activities for kids. We have homeschool programs, preschool programs, and three weeks of summer camp. We have a robotics team and Lego teams. Our Lego event this past March had an attendance of 720 people for the day. That was probably one of our biggest events like that. This year we went to the Miami County Fair and made paper rockets.
We’re all about STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] education. This year 9 out of 22 of our summer campers were girls. That was exciting because, you know, usually girls aren’t as encouraged in STEM areas. The girls were so excited! Some of them were able to attend camp on a scholarship. We have several donated scholarships so kids can come to camp that normally wouldn’t be able to afford it. At the end of the week, they get to ride in an airplane. Oh my gosh! To see their faces, it’s priceless!
We have a volunteer program and I’m always looking for more volunteers. We have 100 acres of grass to mow. I’ve got the guys on the tractor this morning [laughs]. There are always things to do from office work to cleaning to helping out with events. This place wouldn’t run if it weren’t for volunteers. They are crucial to keeping WACO successful.
On the future of WACO Air Museum & Aviation Learning Center:
We keep growing and growing! We have so much going on that we’ve outgrown the space. That’s why you see all the activity outside, the bare ground and equipment. We’re building a learning center. Pat and Tom Robinson came to us with money to build the center. They’ve been sponsors of ours for years. They’ve seen our programs for kids and they said, “Here, we want you to get started with a learning center.” They are wonderful people.
About WACO Airfield Biplane Rides:
We offer airplane rides. I bring a pilot up from Louisville, Kentucky four times a year. We have one more scheduled for this year, he’ll be at our fly-in on September 15-17. Last year at our fly-in a father and son from Texas, Jordan and Doug Jaffe, flew up in their WACO classic. Then they gave it to us! We named the plane Sunny, it’s bright yellow.
Now that we have Sunny, we’re able to offer our own rides. Rides with Sunny can be scheduled at the rider and the pilots’ convenience. I have three pilots that can fly Sunny. Bob Wagner is the main pilot. Bob also does training with Sunny for pilots who want to learn how to fly a Taildragger. As long as the weather is nice we will probably offer rides in Sunny until November.
I tell people that if you haven’t ridden in one that it should be on your bucket list. It’s amazing, it’s windy but is the coolest thing. The flights in the red airplane are usually 12 to 15 minutes. If you ride in Sunny it is more expensive but it’s a half hour ride.
WACO Air Museum & Aviation Learning Center
1865 S County Road 25A Troy, Ohio
Facebook: WACO Historical Society
YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYmKPI0SfTX926pQjIctOfQ
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