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Model Airplanes Once Again a Major Sport

April 19, 1985|PAUL HODGE | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Birds do it, bees do it, and even Sen. John Heinz does it. But he does it by remote control.

They all fly.

For the Pennsylvania Republican and his 12-year-old son, Chris, and numerous other congressmen such as Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Sen. Jennings Randolph, (D-W.Va.), dozens of astronauts and about 1 million other Americans, flying model airplanes, especially small, high-tech radio-control planes, is once again a major American sport.

And the hobby now has its own museum near the nation's capital. The Academy of Model Aeronautics' $1-million facility in Reston, Va., is the world's only model airplane museum.

The airy museum and its collection of 350 classic model planes are donations from airplane builders from across the nation.

Power to the Planes

The planes, all flying models with wingspans up to 12 feet, include "free flight" gliders and gossamer-winged "indoor flight" planes, most powered by rubber-band-wound propellers.

The eagles of the airborne collection are the motor-driven, radio-control planes. They compete in national and international competition on wire-control lines, in free-flight races and even in aerial combat--chasing each other, trying to cut crepe paper streamers.

There are scale models of real aircraft, including a prototype model of NASA's shuttle, a one-fourth scale model of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and a meticulously detailed World War II Spitfire.

The Spitfire, which placed 13th in the 1982 world remote-control championships in Reno, even has wheels that retract and a canopy that opens and closes by radio control over a grim-faced, barefoot doll pilot in the cockpit--shoeless because Spitfire cockpits supposedly were too tiny to get a shoe in edgewise, said academy spokesman Douglas Pratt.

Tiny Radio Receivers

So sophisticated are the new planes that their tiny radio receivers, using up to eight or 10 channels, can also start their own engines, taxi to runways, turn on landing lights, fly superbly, drop bombs and even eject pilots. They parachute to earth, pulling chute lines with little plastic arms and landing in a drop zone, all by radio control.

The international model plane championships may appear to be a toy Olympics, but for more than 30 nations, including the Soviet Union and many East European countries, they are serious competitions. For adults, not just for Junior Birdmen. The average age of the 90,000 academy members is 37, though many of the 800,000 unaffiliated U.S. model builders are still youngsters, says Pratt.

Soviet model builders hold virtually all the speed records--well over 200 m.p.h. for jet models--but U.S. model builders hold most distance, altitude and duration records.

Silver Spring, Md., resident Maynard L. Hill, who designs lightweight military aircraft at the Johns Hopkins applied physics lab, has flown a plane to an altitude of 26,919 feet and has flown one for 20 consecutive hours. The major problem is not with the model but how long the model flyer can stay awake.

If the rules would allow pilots to spell each other, a model airplane could be flown nonstop from Washington to London, Hill says.

"There's no question the technology is here" to duplicate in a model plane what Lindbergh did full scale, says the academy's Geoffrey Styles.

The museum has drawn the enthusiastic support of a NASA astronaut who began his aerial career at the age of 8 with a rubber band and a balsa-wood plane.

Astronaut Robert (Hoot) Gibson said he returned to model flying after flying the real thing for the Navy. At the 1980 national model airplane championships in Texas, Gibson placed third in the "sportscale" competition with a nine-pound model of an Air Force F-16 fighter.

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