They're models, not toys!
August 6, 2009 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Building and flying free flight model airplanes is a pastime so obscure it doesn't even register on the geek heirarchy. But in the period between Lindberg's flight across the Atlantic until the start of the Second World War, thousands of boys (and some girls) around the world succumbed to the allure of rubber, lube, and dope.

Free flight was eclipsed in popularity by control-line models and later radio control, but a hard core of enthusiasts are still at work making wonderful flying things. It's now pretty much a pastime for old men, many of whom have returned to the hobby after retirement. It's likely that some of the kids in the newsreels linked above are still making models. Like many obscure enthusiasms, it has found a home on the web. Here are some highlights for your browsing pleasure:

A gallery of rather small photos, and another.

An extensive British site dedicated to free flight scale models, including lots of rocket-powered models.

A gallery of antique gas-powered model planes.

Twin pushers and other free flight oddities (previously on Metafilter).

Unbelievably delicate and graceful indoor duration models. Actual flight starts at about 1:52.

More Indoor Planes, including an ornithopter. Some of these planes are actually radio controled - Free flight designs and techniques are often well-suited for small radio control models.

"The sport of kings" - 2005, Middle Wallop.

An introduction (with music, alas) to the modern Wakefield class of
high-tech rubber powered planes.

A jewel-like V-12 CO2 Engine (more music, Steppenwolf this time).

The Long Flight, a short 1968 amateur film about model aviation. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. The story offers a clue why the sport/hobby isn't more popular. There's a long sequence where the young protagonist painstakingly builds his model, only to have it crash and break on it's maiden flight. For most kids this would end their fling with model planes. Luckily, this is a movie and 1939 Wakefield Champion Dick Korda is on hand to initiate him into the mysteries of the model plane.

The Plan Page has free plans and construction articles for classic models scanned from old model magazines.

Finally, a bit about a personal favorite, Bob Copeland's streamlined Wakefield from 1939. Pictured here and in this forum thread.
posted by gamera (13 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My dad does this. He's had this hobby for years. He also builds planes for people who want to fly them but don't have the time or the patience to construct them themselves.

It's quite awesome to watch the process of building wings from balsa wood, painstakingly step by step....some of his models are scale copies of historical aircraft...

And I have many memories of a childhood spent at an airfield watching him fly both control line and free flight models.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:44 PM on August 6, 2009

Never mind WWII, this geek and his friends were doing this WELL into the late 1970s. We succumbed to the lure of control-line in about 1980.
posted by unSane at 7:44 PM on August 6, 2009

...actually, I misspoke, he flys radio control.

But it's still cool.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:45 PM on August 6, 2009

Remember the TV show "Junkyard Wars"? (aka "Scrapheap Challenge"?)

They did one season in the US, and one of the challenges was to create a glider. One team created what amounted to a hang glider, and it didn't work very well.

The other team (from Miama IIRC) created a biplane. Two full cross-braced wings with double-surfaces, and several degrees of camber, and a tail behind -- and it flew beautifully. I couldn't believe they could create something like that in just 10 hours, but they did.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:04 PM on August 6, 2009

I read a book of semi-fiction about this when I was about 12. It was about building them and doing duration competitions inside gyms. Seem like I recall that there was a class of pontoon planes even. I was fascinated and thought it sounded fascinating. Good thing I never got into it though, because I would have never finished a single plane and probably would have become a dope fiend.
posted by spock at 8:41 PM on August 6, 2009

They are still going on. The 2009 World Championships just ended in Croatia.
posted by sierray at 9:03 PM on August 6, 2009

At a model air show in the 80s, I saw a fully working radio-control model of an F4 Phantom, including the jet engine. The problem was that it flew so fast it couldn't be controlled--it flew out of range of the controller too quickly--so it was limited to taxiing around the runway to demonstrate that it actually used jet power.
posted by fatbird at 9:29 PM on August 6, 2009

Wow. When the guy in the indoor endurance video first lets go of his plane, I couldn't believe it. It was like magic. Go watch that video if you skipped it! (But don't skip past the first two minutes!)
posted by samw at 12:26 AM on August 7, 2009

seconding the indoor endurance videos, ultra-low speed propellers, gossamer wings, old men.
posted by geos at 5:58 AM on August 7, 2009

junkyard wars video
posted by garlic at 6:05 AM on August 7, 2009

Metafiter: succumbing to the allure of rubber, lube, and dope.
posted by happyroach at 7:32 AM on August 7, 2009

Some of those are really beautiful, with the slowly turning propellers letting them just amble through the air. The ornithopters are amazing too, although I hate seeing them land; I can't help seeing them as injured birds struggling to get back up off the ground.

I've been meaning to get one of these ornithopter kits for ages. Although maybe not, because I've just found that Instructables has instructions for an elastic band powered ornithopter. Make magazine also has instructions to build an ornithopter without a kit, but I think you need to buy the magazine as well as watch the video.

Another entry on the mountain of awesome projects that I may never get around to.
posted by metaBugs at 7:32 AM on August 7, 2009

There's a long sequence where the young protagonist painstakingly builds his model, only to have it crash and break on it's maiden flight.
When I was in grad school, the Zen of building impossibly complex, impossibly fragile balsawood airplanes kept me sane. I'd spend weeks cutting the tiny parts, pinning them together on a board while the glue dried, coating them with tissue paper which I then brushed oh-so-carefully with dope, knowing that the whole thing could be wrecked on the maiden flight, really, like a sand mandala almost. I still have a couple of planes hanging on the wall, one a beautiful biplane that never flew. Thanks for the post, gamera.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:22 AM on August 7, 2009

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