I'm not sure why I started making model airplanes. World War II probably had something to do with it. I didn't really pay much attention to the war-- I was five when the United States entered it and only nine when it ended-- but you couldn't ignore the planes. Cardboard models were printed on the back of cereal boxes. John Wayne led the flying Tigers across the movie screens.
Knowing me, I'm confident the print media exerted a significant influence. Even then, I had already learned the library contained hundreds of books that told you how to do interesting things. The Boy Scouts had a whole library of slim little Merit Badge manuals that taught you the basics of stuff like photography and stamp collecting, in addition to standard scouting subjects like camping and knot tying. Books with titles like Five Hundred Projects Any Boy Can Finish told you how to raise caterpillars and build a glider with an eight foot wing span that you could get inside and fly off hills. In the drugstore, you could leaf through the latest issues of Air Trails and Model Airplane News.
And, of course, model airplanes were one of the things boys did. That was one of the advantages of being a boy. There were all these things you could do-- sports, magic, archery, fishing, butterfly collecting.
I could have built model trains, of course. I always liked it when friends who had layouts took me down to their basements and made the lights flash and the whistles blow. There was even a time when I daydreamed over books that rhapsodized about model boats. But planes were special. Planes could fly.
If it was a rubber powered model, you wound the propeller a hundred or a hundred and fifty times, watching the long loop of flat rubber turn into a series of hard little knots. Then you held the plane from above, bending forward with it just about knee height, with your other hand holding the propeller. You gave it just the slightest little forward movement and let it go. And this thing you had made leaped, whirring, from your hand. And flew.
Flying models were constructed just like real airplanes. The wing of a World War II fighter was a framework of curved metal ribs and long metal spars, covered with fabric or metal. The wing of a model plane was a framework of light weight balsa wood covered with high quality tissue paper.
You built a model plane right on top of the plans included in the kit. You tacked the plan to your work table and tacked wax paper on top of it, so the parts wouldn't stick to the plan when you glued them together. You bent over your work table like a draftsman or a graphic artist. You cut long strips of balsa, a sixteenth of an inch square, to the lengths indicated on the plan. You cut curved parts like wing tips from the thin sheets of balsa they were printed on, using a razor blade or an X-Acto knife that had to be especially sharp, so it wouldn't crush the wood. You laid each component in place and cemented it with beads of glue squeezed from tubes that always bore the name of the same glue company. A structure took shape under your hands.
The simplest models, the beginner's kits, had built up, paper covered wings and tails, but the fuselage was a simple balsa stick, with the other parts attached to it. I can remember making models that had complete built up fuselages, but I liked the stick models best. To me, they looked like interesting, beautiful insects.
I wasn't interested in copying real airplanes. If I had graduated to serious contest flying, I would probably have built indoor flying models. Indoor models were essentially stick models with wings and tail surfaces covered with transparent microfilm. They competed in gymnasiums where their big slow propellers gently pulled them toward the ceiling, where they floated for incredible lengths of time.
One of my stick models had big red wings that were raised several inches above the stick by a tissue covered pylon. I can't remember the name the kit maker printed on the box. To me, it was a praying mantis. Once, in my back yard, it did something I had read about but never seen. It flew into a thermal-- a column of hot air-- near the corner of our house and circled round and round at roof top height, surrounded by the rising air, while I watched in awe as one of my creations did something beautiful.
I tended to be attracted to the creatures that flew on the fringes of the modeling world. By the time I started building planes, the articles in the model magazines were mostly devoted to the joys of making models that were hauled into the air by noisy little gasoline motors. The planes I liked the most, besides stick models, were hand launched gliders and towline gliders-- planes that were as silent and unassertive as the clouds.
Hand launched gliders were usually made of solid balsa. You gave the top of the wings a proper aerodynamic curve by carving and sanding them until they matched the templates you cut from the plans. You threw them straight up, so they could execute a little flip at the maximum possible attitude and descend in big swooping circles. Towline gliders could be towed into the air like kites and then released. They could ride thermals just like hawks and real sailplanes.
The biggest plane I ever made was a towline glider with a three foot wingspan and a built up, streamlined fuselage. Looking back, I now realize it must have been quite an achievement for an eleven year old boy. It might not have been a record breaker like the models described in Model Airplane News but nobody I knew personally ever made anything like it. To the boy himself, however, it was a failure. To fly it, I had to make an expedition to a large park. Every time I made the trip, carrying this awkward object on the bus, something broke while I was putting the model through its hand launched test glides. I could have repaired the damage in minutes if I had brought my glue. But I always forgot my glue.
The planes I probably flew the most were the simple hand launched gliders you could buy for a dime and assemble by sliding the wings and the tail surfaces into slots in the body. Other boys slammed baseballs into catcher's mitts and dreamed of winning important games. I hurled gliders at the sky so I could watch them descend through the sunlight and shade of a tree-lined street in Connecticut.
Even in that rather rudimentary aspect of model airplaning, my tastes tended to be idiosyncratic. My favorite dime store glider was a biplane. The complex shape of biplanes appealed to me in the same way the complex, spider-legged shape of the lunar module would satisfy my aesthetic biases twenty-two years later. My monoplane gliders swooped and soared like graceful birds. My biplanes skimmed across yards and sidewalks with the interesting stateliness of a galleon or a royal barge.
Interestingly, I never had any desire to fly myself. My impulses were the impulses of the artist and the engineer. I liked making things and I liked watching them fly.
I couldn't even get interested in control line models. Control line planes were gasoline powered models that flew in circles, at the end of wires. The model builder stood in the center of the circle, holding a handle attached to the wires, and made the plane do landings, take offs, loops, and other maneuvers.
Control line models were an important part of the model airplane scene. The model magazines always devoted a big percentage of their pages to them and I usually skipped right past those sections. If I had advanced to gasoline powered models, I would have built free-flight planes.
Free-flight planes were more sophisticated versions of my rubber powered models. The contest planes even resembled my stick models. They had slim, tube-like fuselages and their big wings were raised above the tube on high, graceful pylons. They were really powered sailplanes, created for competitions in which the winner was the plane that stayed airborne the longest. Their motors took them up, and after that they rode the air currents, sometimes for hours.
I never questioned my preference at the time, but now I think I understand it. The tethered plane satisfied the appetite for control. With a free-flight model, the moment of glory was the moment when this thing you had brought into the world hung alone in the sky, hundreds of feet beyond your reach, doing something only it could do.
One of the science fiction writers I read as a teenager was named James Blish. The visions he scattered across the pages of the science fiction magazines included a popular series of stories in which the cities of Earth acquired domes and anti-gravity motors and became giant spaceships that roamed the galaxy.
Jim wrote a lot of other things beside the Cities in Flight series and one of them generated an anecdote that has become a permanent component of my personal life support system. It is an incident that sums up, I think, part of the connection between the boy who sat at his work table building model airplanes and the slightly older boy who sits at his desk putting words on a computer screen.
One of Jim's short stories was based on some real research in some aspect of psychology such as the chemistry of memory. Years ago, at a science fiction convention in Philadelphia, he came up to me with his face glowing with excitement. He had just been approached by a young woman who had come to the convention because she had seen an advertisement that announced he would be there. She had read his story when she had been a girl and she had been so fascinated by the ideas in it that she had looked up the research the story had been based on and acquired a permanent interest in psychology. She had come to the convention because she had wanted him to know she had just received her Ph.D. in psychology. She had even brought him something to autograph-- a copy of the original scientific paper that described the research he had used in his story.
I had no trouble understanding why Jim looked so ecstatic. I've always been glad he told me about that encounter. It's the kind of memory I pull out of my organic data banks whenever I wonder why any sane person should spend his life tapping out sentences on a keyboard. It isn't the most important reason writers write, but it's important enough. I probably wouldn't want to read very many words by any writer who didn't light up when something like that happened. He had sent copies of his story sailing through the world like paper airplanes and one of them had landed in the mind of a young girl. And she had flown.
Copyright (c) 1991 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use only. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Philadelphia Welcomat.
(The biplane glider mentioned in this essay can still be purchased from the Paul Guillow Company website, along with a number of other gliders and rubber powered models.)
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