My father’s interests cycled between model boats and model airplanes. There were times when the two hobbies overlapped but eventually he would become focused on one or the other. He was heavily into model airplanes during the time from before I was born up until I was about three. That’s when we moved to Pleasantville, and away from the IBM model airplane club in Poughkeepsie. It was in Pleasantville where he started building the classic scale model boats. He continued to build an occasional airplane but the passion was only a shadow of what it was. The evidence of that was obvious to me even as a toddler. There were airplanes and airplane parts stored in various places like something in his life was put on hold. After building and sailing a scale model boat, he would pull an airplane off the wall where it was hanging, make a couple of changes, and take it out flying. A couple of times he would build a completely new airplane.
He flew at a vacant lot in Armonk that was ironically an abandoned airfield. I would tag along with him and watch the airplanes fly without any appreciation of what I was watching or the fun he was having. Not all of the airplanes were radio controlled. Some of them were free flight airplanes that were set to circle around until they ran out of gas. Once in a while, one of those would get stuck in a tree and getting it out would be an adventure. When I was eight, he let me shoot at his airplanes with my slingshot until one day I scored a minor hit. Looking back, I could see where something was missing. I guess a big part of the fun was being in a club and sharing experiences with other flying enthusiasts. After the incident with the WRAM club he stopped building gas powered airplanes altogether and eventually settled into model yacht racing.
During those years he only built a few, small but complex, rubber band powered airplanes. He didn’t fly them. They sat on a shelf for years like something he was going to get to someday. There were two very nice ones I remember specifically. One was built from a kit, and the other one was a duplicate built from scratch from the plans in that kit. They came in handy for me in high school.
In my senior year I took a physics class which required a final project. There was a short list of tasks to choose from, one of which was to create a three-minute animation film. Animation has always been a fun hobby for me so that is what I chose to do. The problem was that I put it off until I had completely forgotten about it. I showed up at school one day in the spring and found out my project was due that day. In a panic, I searched for and found the list of projects to choose from to see if there was anything I could do even halfway either that day or shortly. To my delight, I found that I could build and fly a rubber band model airplane. It couldn’t be one of the cheap and easy kind that were only balsa wood and sticks. It had to be one made with paper covering over a frame. It was all too convenient that I lived in a house full of those.
Luckily I was allowed to drive to school that day so after homeroom, when I had a break between classes, I drove home to get an airplane. As I walked in the front door, my mother yelled, “Who is it?” from upstairs.
“It’s me.” I answered.
“What are you doing home?”
“I forgot my physics project.”
I went down into the basement. I picked one of the nice airplane twins and walked out the door. The worn-out door closing mechanism slammed the door into the airplane and broke the wing. “Son of a Bmmmph” I mumbled as I headed back to the basement. As I put the wounded bird back in the nest I thought to myself, “One down, one to go.” I stepped through the front door again and it swung back at airplane number two. This time I stopped it by jamming my foot into the corner. It hurt quite a bit more than I expected but I saved the airplane. I hopped back to the car and returned to school.
Once there I found out that the class was in the gymnasium flying their airplanes so that’s where I went. There were airplanes all over the place. Some rolled over into a dive and crashed into the floor. Some streaked into the ceiling and then crashed into the floor. Most of them crashed into a wall and then into the floor. One of them collapsed under the strain of the rubber band and turned into a ball with sticks and paper sticking out of it. I watched all this commotion as I wound up the rubber band of my borrowed aircraft. I got rather nervous watching the other planes fly. The plane in my hands had never been flown. I could very easily embarrass myself in front of my classmates. I hoped it would fly at least as well as everybody else’s. When I was done winding I told my teacher I was ready and he told me to go.
My father had shown me how to fly a rubber band powered airplane. I let go of the propeller first and then released the airplane without pushing it. It flew very slowly in a 25-foot wide circle and climbed towards the ceiling. At about that time the room went completely quiet. I could hear the propeller buzz like a hummingbird in the silence as it gracefully circled about five feet below the ceiling. When it ran out of rubber band power it continued to circle as it glided gently downward. It bounced softly on its landing gear and skidded to a stop at my teacher’s feet. He stared down at the Daddybuilt aeronautical masterpiece with a look of stark amazement, smiled, and finally broke the silence with, “That’s an A.”
That night at dinner my mother broke the silence by asking if my project went okay.
“It went okay.” I answered.
“What was it for?” she followed up.
“What did you have to do?”
“Ummm, I had to build a rubber band powered airplane and fly it.”
Without looking up from his plate my father asked, “What grade did I get?”
“You got an A dad!”
He looked up and smiled.
“Honestly” my mother sighed. “That’s not right.”
My father exchanged gazes with her and said, “I’m sure he could build an airplane. Actually building one would be just a formality.”
“So, how did it fly?” he asked me.
I told him the whole story with the emphasis on how the room was paralyzed with awe. It drowned out any point my mother was trying to make.
After I graduated high school my father discovered and joined a club that was building and flying rubber band airplanes in the gymnasium during the winter. This led to him continuing the hobby with small electric airplanes in the spring. Gradually he worked his way back into flying gas powered airplanes and he joined a club that was new and not the same one as before. When he had a disagreement with boat folks in Long Island, he was back to flying model airplanes full time. This continued when he retired and moved to Florida.
In Florida he joined a model airplane club called the Spaceport RCers. He was an extremely active participant. He gave flying lessons to people who were new to the hobby, he shared in the duties of mowing the flying field, and he was the editor of the club’s monthly newsletter. He mailed copies of the newsletter to me; and yes, I did read them.
Every visit to see my parents included trips to the airplane field to watch. One time I was with him when another pilot asked him if the plane he was flying could possibly be the same airplane he crashed the previous week.
“It is.” he answered.
“Really? I thought it was trashed.”
“You can fix anything as long as you have all the pieces. They all just go back together.”
“How did you crash it?”
“I was doing a flat tailspin and I couldn’t pull out of it.”
“What’s a flat tailspin?”
“It goes something like this…”
It was at that point I watched the plane go into a flat tailspin that he couldn’t pull out of (again). It crashed into the woods. He pulled a machete out of the tool box and said, “Let’s go.”
He went in one direction in the woods and I went in another. After a couple of minutes my father got annoyed and yelled at me.
“The plane crashed over here!” he growled.
“Then what in the blazes are you doing all the way over there?”
“It’s just the two of us back here, you have a machete in your hand, and there are no witnesses.”
He laughed. “Good thinking. Stay over there.”
We found the slightly broken airplane in a tree, retrieved it and called it a day.
I don’t have much technical information about the airplanes he built. There were way too many to keep track of. He would build one, fly it for a couple of months, and then he would put it away and build another. When he collected too many planes, he would sell what he thought was worth selling and throw the rest out. Most of them were yellow Piper Cubs. They all looked the same to me but they were all different to him. Once in a while he would build a piper cub that wasn’t yellow.
One of his planes was built so that he could carry his friend Jack’s glider into the sky and let it go. He also used that airplane to drop empty beer and soda cans like a bomber. The same plane was modified to carry a camera in an attempt to locate a fellow pilot’s lost airplane. The task turned out to be a lot harder than expected but after going through three rolls of film, enough information was gathered to determine the location of the lost plane.
He built a couple of stunt planes but nothing spectacular. He built a World War II spotter plane that looked like a Piper Cub only it was green with D-Day invasion stripes. My favorite airplanes were the World War I biplanes he rarely built.
Eventually model boating worked its way back into his life but he never gave up flying until he had to for health reasons. Of all of his hobbies, the sailboat out on the dock, the scale model boats, the model yacht racing and the airplanes, it was the airplanes and his position as editor of the newsletter that he gave up last. He wasn’t getting around very well the last time I went with him to the flying field. He had built a small table so that he could sit while he got his planes ready to fly. This way he wouldn’t have to hunch over. I still have that table. I helped him set it up and I helped him get off the ground when he was ready. I can’t remember what plane he flew. I spent most of the time watching him fly.
Guess which one is his.