Newcomers & Free Flight Modeling

By Glen Simpers

This article originally appeared in the 44th Annual Report of the National Free Flight Society Symposium 2011 and puts forward some new thinking about youth and newcomers and how they might become involved in free flight modeling. Three major themes are discussed:

  • How newcomers can discover this type of flying
  • How the free flight community can partner with others to increase participation
  • The types of models and modeling activities which invite others to participate

We live in a changing world with new technologies. There are ways to leverage these new technologies to build the hobby, make more people aware of the fun of this type of flying, and serve the community through a wholesome learning activity. I see this time as full of opportunities.

As with any worthwhile activity, building the hobby to new heights will take vision, the involvement of many of the fliers, and hard work. The paper ends with a call to action on some specific steps that can be taken in the near-to-mid term. I think that we can do much better if we adopt some strikingly different approaches than what has been tried in the past. This article is not about doing things the same old way, but in radically shaking loose our thinking. Join me in this effort.

The Challenge

I recently acquired a stash of old model magazines from Tom Schmitt, long time scale modeler and model photographer, that date back into the 1940s and 1950s. I was struck by the numerous articles that have been written over the decades about the decrease in the number of free flight modelers and the difficulties in finding adequate flying fields. This is not a new phenomenon and it was clear that writing yet another article would not be enough. We can’t continue doing the same old things and expect a different result. We actually have to take some new steps to build the hobby. We might even have to fly different types of models in different venues to introduce flying to larger portions of the population.

The way that we think about the hobby of free flight modeling and the way that we introduce youth to the hobby limits the number who are involved. Most people don’t know that airplanes can be powered by rubber bands, or even the definition of a thermal. We fly in places where the airplanes are generally never seen by the general public. We fly extremely complex airplanes that take years to master. With these models we fly together in ways that are not very intuitive to an outsider. A kid who has read about free flight models but without a hands-on mentor would have very little chance of successful flights.

Finding the Fliers

There was a time when there were plentiful corner hobby shops. To become involved in the local flying   you could look at notices at the hobby shop or ask the helpful staff. That commercial model has changed.  Hobby shops are rare and the vast majority of specialty hobby supplies are bought over the internet. We need to rethink how people can be exposed to free flight model flying and invited to the locations where we fly.

Flying Visibly

The D.C. Maxecuters, a Washington-area club, have  been flying at least twice a year for the last 14 years in the National Building Museum in downtown  Washington D.C. Thanks to Paul Spreiregen, a noted  architect and member of the club, we acquired permission to fly in this historic building. While the indoor purist could wish for a larger building with fewer drafts, this is a great venue for the general public to discover the flying. The museum with its many building design exhibits draws a steady stream of families and kids.

Most have never seen a peanut scale model and cannot imagine using a rubber motor for power. They are amazed by the slow flight and intrigued to learn more. The club helps the museum with a Delta Dart building project for youth and the planes are flown that day. Among the events flown in the museum are some that would be easy for a newcomer to try. These are indoor ready-to-fly models, the Phantom Flash simple ROG, no-cal models, and a simple helicopter. Such models are fun and serve to lower the threshold of difficulty for a newcomer.

Most free flight flying is not done in such a public forum. Outdoor flyers dream of giant sod farms that   only exist far from the city. The high performance of competitive free flight models demand this type of   space. Because of this isolation the vast majority of people have no idea what you are talking about when you mention free flight models. Some people have had a touch of exposure to heavy childhood models or toys that barely flew. Without seeing what is possible it is difficult to grasp the deeper challenge and excitement of more capable airplanes.

Finding ways to fly in spaces where you may be discovered by the general public exposes them to the joys and challenges of this type of flying. You might not want to fly high performance competitive models on the National Mall in Washington D.C. or in Central Park in N.Y. City. But I would argue that you could arrange to fly more limited model types in these settings. How about clearing out your workshop of those old non-competitive models in a fly-them-until-the-tissue-falls-off exhibition with the sole goal of exposing more people to the hobby? The flier who finds a newcomer and gets them flying a model wins bragging rights. Flying should take place during the grand openings of a new shopping mall, in the conference rooms of grand hotels, and in the green spaces around the local high school.

However, exposure is not enough. The club has to be prepared to nurture an interest with a local place to invite newcomers to come fly without long drives and a huge investment in time or money. Smaller venues where the flying of suitable models takes place are where the basic contacts can be grown into stronger interest. People who are exposed to the hobby will want to try flying.

Leverage the Internet

The internet has been effectively harnessed by very small groups of hobbyist involved in esoteric and obscure activities. Just how many people build giant Japanese kites in the U.S? Thanks to the internet   teams of fliers of these towering 60 foot creations descended from all over the East Coast on Washington D.C. in order to fly in front of the U.S. Capital. The challenge for our purposes is that we are trying to expose the activities of a small group to the public at large. This means that we need web sites that contain information of use and interest to people who are not part of the inside group. Videos have become an interesting way to excite outsiders and we should capture on video some of our most exciting, or even embarrassing moments.

 The National Free Flight Society website has a number of such interesting videos. Add to your club website information that can be used by an outsider to get to know you better, such as basic information on the nature of free flight modeling, the types of aircraft flown, and contacts for those who want to know more. The NFFS website contains much information that is useful to a newcomer including descriptions of free flight, a beginner’s corner with simple plans, and contacts. Having a visible website that has up-to-date contact information and directions to the local flying venues enables people who have a passing interest to find and become connected to the local fliers. Lists of modelers who are willing to mentor newcomers help to make this connection easy.

Media Exposure

The news media can be one avenue for exposure. Understanding what types of activities garner the attention of the local paper and providing a steady stream of copy and photos in a format that makes it easy for the media to use is one way to compete for their fickle attention. Merely inviting the press to a big contest is not likely to gather much attention. The press may not understand the rules of the event, cannot convey to their audience who is winning, and are likely to be bewildered by the array of types of models and the modes of flying. Crafting an event specifically to gather attention might be needed. Flying for a charity cause, flying in unusual places, flying in unusual numbers or other more creative approaches might be needed.

Grand Challenges

One way to attract public attention is through the ‘grand challenge’. These are projects that go above and beyond in a fashion that is readily understandable by the public and media. Years ago these were done by the radio control fraternity when Maynard Hill broke altitude records for model airplanes or more recently when a model airplane crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

The event is conceived specifically to attract attention and make more people think that they want to be involved in projects like this. Free Flight examples that come readily to mind are a record for the longest rubber band powered indoor flight unbounded by contest rules or size constraints. It always has amazed me that an indoor model could be flown for more than an hour and such long flights would also capture the public’s imagination. Other ideas might be for a flight of the world’s largest rubber model; or the breaking of speed records for rubber powered model. Perhaps we can use the technology that is used to track migratory birds and go for a record of the longest distance flight and/or time aloft by a free flight model even if assisted by a thermal. I’ve often wondered whether models fly tens of miles or hundreds of miles after they are lost out of sight. Such a grand challenge would be most effective if spectators can understand what is being done, are amazed by the results, and it can be captured on an internet video.

Sponsors for such grand challenges might be found similar to the Henry Kremer/Royal Aeronautical Society prize for human powered flight, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grand challenges for driverless vehicles, or the X Prize Foundation competition for first private flights to the moon.

Partnering with Others

Partnership opportunities exist in at least three different areas to build the hobby: Partnering with government/industry, educators/youth organizations, and hobby manufacturers. All involved could benefit from cooperative activities.

Corporate and Government Sponsors

Government and industry leaders are interested in increasing the number of youth with an interest in science and technology. They are acutely aware of the interrelationships between technical prowess and economic growth. The study by the National Academies “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” points to a disturbing trend in science, mathematics, and engineering by measuring how the United States  is doing in these areas. The study also outlines what actions should be taken in Kindergarten through 12th grade education. The project was led by Norman Augustine, retired Chairman and CEO of Lockheed   Martin Corp. and the other panel members come from a broad spectrum of industries. This concern is not limited to the U.S. and many other industrial nations have similar concerns. These groups would like to inspire future generations to go into technical fields of science and engineering.

One of the 2011 Aviation Week’s Laureate Awards was given to Mr. Richard Stephens, a Senior Vice President of Boeing, for his work in raising awareness among youth of the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics3. Professional organizations, such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), have technical committees that focus on education and frequently sponsor college-level competitions that involve aviation themes. With this kind of national interest among major aerospace corporations/organizations, an opportunity exists to build a strategic partnership between the hobby community and national interests.

Free flight model airplanes have a lot to offer in teaching the principles of vehicle design, science, and math in an environment in which experimentation is   easy and fun. Creativity in design is rewarded by better flights. This presents opportunities for partnership with organizations with similar goals. We can combine the goals of corporate sponsors with the needs of the free flight community by getting youth interested in the sciences by flying in facilities operated by these organizations. We would need to develop a structure of activities involving youth, and offer our management of the project, our expertise in how models are designed and fly, and our enthusiasm. Such a partnership worked in the past when the U.S. Navy sponsored the AMA Nationals. We would need to build any new partnership from scratch and remain ever mindful of the needs of our partners as we move forward.

Such a partnership need not be confined to traditional corporations or government organizations. Red Bull, maker of energy drinks, sponsors aircraft racing, Flugtag festivals that involve short human-powered flight/jumps into the harbor, and the record attempts for the highest parachute jump. Does anyone else remember the Bud Light competition for the longest flight of a paper airplane where the winner won a Cessna light plane? Well I didn’t win the airplane but I fondly remember throwing my airplane over my house for a flight of one hundred and forty feet. Maybe such a company would be open to an international event/ spectacle involving youth and free flight aviation. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has a goal of introducing newcomers into flying full-scale aircraft. There are opportunities to align some of the approaches of the EAA Young Eagles program with the goals of the modeling community to introduce more people to modeling. The recent partnering of the Academy of Model Aeronautics with the EAA is a step in the right direction.

So who among the modeling community owns a business suit, knows someone in the government/business world, and has a carefully considered proposal for a meaningful partnership? Well, I own a suit, but need some help on developing a plan.

Education and Youth Organizations

In my neighborhood there are new ball and soccer fields that the county built for the use of the many teams of organized sports. These teams did not spring from the ground fully-formed. Lots of hard work by many different people went into building from small beginnings the various youth activities of Scouting, Little League, Football teams, etc. We would not expect similar results focused on model flying without similar vision, commitment, and the involvement of many more people. Each started with a vision of a meaningful activity for youth that taught them a variety of life skills.

I think that we can break into a new paradigm of youth involvement if we consider ways to introduce modeling to more people, partner with others who are trying to develop wholesome youth activities, and partner with manufacturers to both grow their market and provide the introductory models needed for beginners. I can envision flying clubs in every schoolyard, soccer field, or ball diamond with league play that encourages participation of thousands of youth. The numbers of people involved in an activity are crucial for access to flying venues.

Free flight modeling offers many of the challenges, mental discipline, and learning that make for a valuable youth activity. This is recognized because model building is one of the activities used in scouting, Odyssey of the Mind, and Science Olympiad activities.  I can envision a greater teamwork between those who are developing wholesome youth activities and the modeling community.

In a similar way educators are working hard to create interesting ways to teach their students the many facets of science, mathematics, and technology. We would do well to partner with them in this effort. Local control line flier Scott Richlen, showed how small rubber model projects could be used to satisfy some of the Virginia State science and mathematics teaching objectives. In doing this he put the modeling activity into the framework that teachers need to build appropriate science/math lesson plans. The teachers reason that this will inject some fun into their lessons and the modelers gain an opportunity to increase awareness of the fun of modeling. This is exactly the type of win-win situations that we would like to create.

Joseph Franco, one of our local educational engineers working with 13-19 year old high school students, indicates that to compete with video games and the “cool” factor the youth need a local place to fly casually in groups. Teenagers typically do not feel very comfortable being around what they classify as “old” people so this flying area would need to be local and safe like the neighborhood skateboard parks. This provides a place to hang out and fly.

There are all kinds of summer camps where people get an intensive experience. You can go to adventure camps, rock climbing camps, camps to learn how to play the guitar, and even learn how to build from raw wood a new guitar. Well, how about modeling camps where newcomers can get a more intensive introduction to modeling. Does anyone out there have a large flying site, the desire to teach others the intricacies of free flight models, and an entrepreneurial spirit? It might be fun to be a counselor at a place like this.

Models and Events that Welcome Newcomers

The modeling that I see at venues such as the Flying Aces Nationals at Geneseo is practiced at a very high level of skill. Masterful models are flown very skillfully by modelers who have worked for years to develop their building and flying abilities. How then do we welcome a new modeler into this venture?

I think that it is useful to first consider how two similar hobbies (Plastic Models and Model Rockets) came into being and grew into major activities. As described in the following section, they both worked to lower the barriers of skill required to enter and succeed in the hobby. As more people participated in each the hobby then grew and changed in complexity and character.

Lessons from the Plastic Models and the Model Rocket Communities

There are a number of hobbies that did not exist until people with vision and energy brought them into existence. Consider the hobbies of building solid scale models and building flying model rockets.

There was a time when building a solid scale aircraft model required you to carve them out of a block of wood just, like a sculptor would. Very few people could master the many skills required to represent thin aerodynamic surfaces and reasonably paint the many colors that we find in actual aircraft. However, people of vision invented an entire industry around the possibilities of injection molded models and now it is possible to find plastic scale models in many stores. These models can be assembled by children without much supervision. While a child’s first models do not reach the high standards of international competition, they provided enough satisfaction to lead to a second better model. The lesson that is important for our discussion is to examine what really changed between solid carved models and plastic models. The invention of the plastic models dramatically lowered the investment in time and energy required by a novice to achieve a satisfactory result. Can we successfully invent the types of free flight models that can easily be constructed by an untrained novice, and flown with success?

Similarly, the development of the model rocket hobby has a number of useful lessons that might help the free flight community. The advent of easy to fly modular model rockets in the late 1950’s took the hobby from a dangerous activity by a few people on the fringes   of towns to one by many science-minded youth and adults in the local park. The key element was the manufacture of rocket motor engines. Modular design of rocket model bodies and fins allowed easy construction and creative designs. While the performance of   the prepackaged rocket motors could not match the performance of custom ingredients, this step dramatically decreased the skill level for entry into the hobby. This was done with:

  • Standardized pre-manufactured rocket motors
  • Modular design of rockets using interchangeable components
  •  A supportive modeling press
  • Clear instructional materials that allowed even someone far from other rocketeers to get successful flights
  • Technical reports on the science of rockets
  • Broad distribution and advertising networks that ensures that even with the dearth of the local hobby shops you can find model rockets in many general and department stores
  • Packets of materials and kits for teachers

Transferring these lessons to the aircraft world might focus on some of the same elements.

Model Design for Success and Experimentation

Models for newcomers need to lead to early success by the inexperienced. Not everyone will have ready access to experienced modelers with their specialized knowledge. The skill level for getting started should be lowered by having some of the hard parts done by the manufacturer. In my mind one of the most difficult elements is the propulsion system. The models should stimulate interest and be flexible to allow ready experimentation. The necessary flight adjustments must be easily explained and easily made. Finally, the naming of the model should impart some excitement– no Sky Beginner – or Junior Birdman. Who would want to build anything with such diminutive names?  I think that Zaic was on the right track with the name “Flash - X-18”.

The model needs to fly well enough to provide satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Why is it that I can buy model airplanes at the local toy story and discount store that have zero chance of flying? I’m not talking about world-record flight capability but at least a model that has a chance of gliding better than a clump of dirt. Many toys are being sold that have not been well designed for success.

For me the act of building the model was a strong element for my continuing interest in the hobby. A range of construction complexity in different models should allow the newcomer to start anywhere in the spectrum from ready-to-fly models, to “snap-together” models, to a range of more complex designs. People might come to the hobby with a variety of past experiences and expectations and the available models should accommodate those differences. Participating in the construction imparts a sense of the mechanics of the airplane that is needed for the inevitable repair.

Designs that dwell in the past using old methods of construction might need to be replaced with new materials using shapes that look towards the future. If the newcomers have success with these first models they might then be interested in the deeper aspects of more serious and competition models.

As we consider the types of models that will entice the next generation of modelers, consider that the type of aircraft most frequently seen by today’s youth are jet aircraft. Aircraft with propellers seem old fashion. Youth imagine designing the aircraft of tomorrow. Delta Darts are fun and teach certain skills but are limiting.

One difficult aspect to the models is putting together propulsion elements that are matched with appropriate sized airframes. The difficulty in starting in the hobby would be decreased with manufactured integrated propulsion components. Electric components are more familiar to most of the population than rubber motors, which require stretch winding and rubber stooges. Newcomers and youth can easily master plugging in a charger. Integrating a motor for a specific sized model with prop, battery, motor and a simple charger puts together the necessary components. A design that allows rapidly changing the operating time of the motor opens the possibility of flying in limited schoolyard-sized spaces. Model propulsion based on a ducted fan taps into our imagination of future flight. For traditionalists, a propeller on an electric motor allows easy access to our rich heritage of historic aircraft.

Rubber power is a bit more difficult for a newcomer to learn as they are dealing with unfamiliar techniques and need to buy specialized winders, stooges, and rubber. However, much of our competition is centered around rubber powered propeller-driven aircraft. To lower the difficulty for entry we can do well to tackle the challenge of building a tight-fitting quality nose block and front end. It would be desirable if a newcomer could buy an integrated unit that combines a non-climbing hook, adjustable nose block, free-wheeling propeller, and a mounting ring for the aircraft. Units should be sized for the popular 20-24" and 13-16" aircraft wingspan sizes. While a purist could do better with their custom fronts and specialized propellers, such a unit helps a newcomer to get off the sidelines and onto the flight line.

Models designed for newcomers could be built with modern materials to optimize lightweight and resiliency. While much competition is centered around the traditional materials of balsa and tissue, such designs take some years to master and often require some experienced guidance. It would be difficult for an isolated modeler to read the instructions and be able to get successful flights. A newcomer that catches the excitement with ready-to-fly or simply assembled models that can be flown in a schoolyard can grow into more complex designs and competition flying. Much modern manufacturing is based on foam and plastic materials. Model designs intended for mass distribution probably need to be designed around these materials.

Distribution Systems

Many modelers decry the difficulty in finding a local hobby shop that has all the bits and pieces that you might need. The commercial world has fundamentally changed and we can’t go back. The advent of internet commerce means that the very best components are assessable to even the most remote corner of the country. This is a new and exciting development. Growing up in a rural community I could only dream of the accessibility to world-class components that are now only a credit card away.

There is an explosion of radio controlled flying toys in toy stores and local discount stores. We need to ask why the comparable free flight models barely fly. One missing link might be the involvement of modelers in the development of these free flight models. I am convinced that if a superior model was developed that such a model would be successful. However, a second element is how to work such superior models into the distribution networks that supply the local discount stores and toy stores. We may need to better understand how toys are made, marketed, and distributed globally and break out of a garage factory mentality.

Goals of Integrated Rubber Motor Front-end:

  1. Do the hard parts for the modeler
  2. Move beyond simple prop hangers
  3. Ready to use
  4. Lowers the skill required to try rubber powered models

Design Includes:

  • Modern propeller that better matches current flying approaches – correct pitch and lightweight
  • Sized for common model sizes – perhaps 16" and 24" wingspan models
  • Standardized mount and matching mounting ring  for front of the model
  • Preformed non-climbing prop hook
  • Free-wheeling features that work smoothly
  • Thrust adjustment mechanism
  • Quality fit between prop hook, bearing, prop, and unit

Events for Newcomers

We need to consider ways for newcomers and youth to participate in local flying and competition. There has been a parade of never ending competitions events that were geared for newcomers. A-6, Pennyplane, EZB, P-30, Embryo, and Phantom Flash all have elements to make it easy for a newcomer to build these models. However, it would be hard to imagine a new modeler crowding out the experts in these events at a competition. While each of these is a fun event, even for an expert, we need to think of the future of the hobby and find a way for the newcomer to get a taste of success. Even the requirement that a newcomer needs to join an organization in order to compete adds an impediment to initial participation.

The recent Pro-Am Limited Pennyplane that paired an experienced modeler with a newcomer at the   Johnson City indoor contest shows a creative initiative to pass on the knowledge and excitement. Grouping competition by age faces the challenge of so few young modelers competing, particularly at a local contest. Perhaps having separate competitions for those who have previously won the event and newcomers would encourage new competitors. Frequent small local competitions where experienced modelers help newcomers would go a long way to spread the excitement.

Events that can successfully fit onto the flying space around a typical high school would allow crowds of local kids to experience the fun of free flight without the challenges associated with long distance travel  to another state. In the same way that the Science Olympiad “Right Flyer” event was conceived around the longest flight possible in a typical gym, other events can be built around flights in the gym, football field, or infield to the track. Parents are familiar with driving kids to the local soccer field and would be willing to  drive similar distances for model flying.

Differing competition events for different years might be needed to excite a sense of exploration and stimulate creativity. This is critical to encouraging a sense of adventure among the youth and better aligns us with sponsor interests in encouraging design creativity. The changes of the Science Olympiad program to capacitor driven electric models and helicopters for high school students matches this approach. This does not mean creating an ever-expanding list of events but a changing yearly challenge. AIAA uses a changing yearly challenge for their college aircraft Design/Build/Fly competitions. The AIAA challenges have different goals and design restrictions each year to stimulate the student teams to be creative but have enough similarities to allow the development of core skills.

The Design/Build/Fly for the 2010/2011 school year involve an electric RC aircraft that fits into an airline carry-on bag, can be assembled in five minutes, and  judged for it’s speed and ability to carry golf balls.  With sponsorship by the AIAA Foundation, Cessna Aircraft, and Raytheon modest cash prizes are awarded to winning teams and the facilities of the sponsors are used to host the flying. Such a yearly challenge would not replace the role played by the serious international FAI events and top-level FAC or AMA competitions but provide an avenue for connecting to a different type of competitor, particularly newcomers.

Almost all of our FAC, AMA, FAI competition revolves around individual performance. Science Olympiad and the AIAA challenge use the concept of teams. They recognize that different team members bring different strengths to the activity and encourage each other throughout the process. The youth are familiar with team play in sport activities and might be willing to join a team that is entering a modeling competition than in competing alone. Thought should be given to team events. This may be an effective way to transfer some of the expertise and excitement from expert competitors to newcomers and the youth.

A Call for Action

Well enough talk. Now what are we going to do about it? Here are my initial thoughts on near-term action to start us moving.

Hand a model to a newcomer and get them flying. All of us have old models that we no longer fly or that we never quite finished. Placing them into the hands of a new modeler will give the newcomer a sense of what it is all about and gets them coming back. One of the major strengths of the modeling community is the willingness to share information and materials. I’ve seen the D.C. Maxecuter modelers Don Srull, Allan Schanzle, and Bert Phillips each give models away to newcomers. What is your widow going to do with all those unbuilt kits, half-built models, and crashed but repairable models once you are gone? Drive the lawn mower over them or have a bonfire?

Each club should look for public events that can be used to familiarize people with the joys and challenges of modeling. The DC Maxecuters is sponsored three booths at the USA Science and Engineering Festival that was held in April 2012 in Washington D.C. in partnership with the Flying Aces Club, the National Free Flight Society, and the Academy of Model Aeronautics. In October 2010 over 500,000 people attended the first of these festivals. Such an opportunity is too good to pass up to help people understand what modeling is all about.

Individuals or small groups should fly locally and where they are visible. Some of your flying should occur near to population centers where newcomers can easily join in the fun. Each of our clubs’ websites should be updated with locations and dates of local flying, lists of contacts, and lists of people who are willing to act as mentors for newcomers.

As a modeling community we should put our heads together to consider ideas for grand challenges, corporate sponsors, ways to partner with others, and types of flying and models that welcome others.