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Return to the Sky

Feature from Richmond Times-Dispatch • By: Joey Ukrop • Photography: Daniel Sangjib

DINWIDDIE — Like a phoenix from the ashes, David Tyndall’s 1938 WACO biplane has returned to the sky after 50 years.

Rather than taking the form of a mythical burning bird, Tyndall’s machine is stout, sturdy and ready to soar.

From the curved cowling surrounding the Wright Whirlwind engine to the teardrop-shaped wheel fairings, the cream and black scalloped EGC-8 Custom Cabin has an unmistakable art-deco look inside and out.

This is no accident. Tyndall, 53, a Louisiana resident who lived in Mechanicsville until 2010, dedicated 18 years to researching and restoring the plane to factory specifications.

“I’m proud of the fact that I finished it,” he said in an interview at the Dinwiddie County Airport. “There were lots of times over 18 years where you get stagnated and tired of continuously working on something.”

Originally purchased from the WACO (rhymes with taco, Tyndall said) Aircraft Co. in Troy, Ohio, by the head of an earth-moving equipment company, the plane’s many owners have included a Mexican governor, a farmer and a handful of executives.

By the time Tyndall came across the plane, it was in a state of disrepair. The WACO was disassembled, missing parts and hadn’t flown since 1962.

Tyndall wasn’t deterred. A commercial pilot by trade, he had already restored a pair of historical airplanes decades before.

During the 1930s, fewer than 30 of these WACO Custom Cabins were built. With a limited number of parts in existence, he was forced to build many of the plane’s components from scratch.

“You can’t just pick up the phone and call the WACO factory and buy parts,” he said. “So you kind of rely on a lot of help to make the airplane live again.”

This required Tyndall to master working with wood for the frame, metal for the cowling and fabric for the fuselage and wings.

“I can murder metal with the best of them,” he said with a laugh. “I can take a nice 4-by-8 sheet of aluminum and turn it into scrap real quick. The learning curve is steep, but it’s a lot of fun. I enjoy it.”

When it was time to assemble the inner structure, Virginia Aviation Museum curator David Hahn devised a plan that would help onlookers learn about antique airplane building techniques.

For close to three years, he invited Tyndall to set up shop behind the Sandston museum’s looking glass so people could watch him shape spruce into wings. “It was fascinating to see it come together on the museum floor,” Hahn said. “It’s a plane from the Golden Age of aviation.”

On March 5, 2012, Tyndall taxied the freshly completed WACO onto the runway near his home in Slaughter, La. Surrounded by clear skies in every direction, the seven-cylinder engine roared to life as the polished propeller blurred. He was ready — and so was his plane.

“Everything worked as advertised,” he said. “The airplane flew hands off and very well. It surprised me, but it was a good surprise.”

His wife, Donna, said although she wasn’t there to watch the plane’s first flight, she was nervous.

After he flew five solo hours, Donna joined him in the WACO’s brown-upholstered cockpit. “It’s a loud airplane, but it flies so nice and so smooth,” she said. “I think it turned out beautifully.”

Since then, they have logged about 85 hours in the EGC-8. In early June, the couple touched down at Dinwiddie County Airport from their longest flight to date — a trip from Louisiana for their nephew Mark Phelps’ graduation from Manchester High School in Chesterfield County.

Whether he is building or flying antique airplanes, Tyndall has always been attracted to the heritage.

“It harkens back to the history of what I do for a living,” Tyndall said. “I’ve been a corporate pilot since I was 26 years old. It’s what I do, and I enjoy the history of aviation.”

Thanks to his WACO, he is able to keep the Golden Age traditions alive for future generations of aviators.

“It’s preserving history for everybody,” he said. “I’m just the caretaker these days.”

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