The following article is reprinted in part from SOARING, the monthly publication of The Soaring Society of America (SSA) from their April 2009 Issue.
A Passion for Scale Soaring
When I was approached by the editor of SOARING to write an article about radio control sailplane modeling, I was honored to have been given what I considered to be a wonderful opportunity. I jumped at the chance and later in an email conversation with Dr. Gary Fogel, an avid soaring enthusiast and radio control sailplane pilot, I learned the last time SOARING magazine devoted pages to modeling was in 1968 when the subject was explored by Dale Willoughby.
Modeling has changed a lot since then and, as in full scale, composite structures have become the norm in both thermal duration as well as competition F3B, F3J and handlaunch as well as scale models. In fact there has been a proliferation of all-molded glass reinforced plastic (GRP) radio control models. Many of these have been produced in Europe for three decades with Germany and the Czech Republic leading the way in quality molded glass and carbon fiber sailplanes.
In the last several years, EPP (Expanded PolyPropylene) and ElaporTM foam are now being employed to produce nearly indestructible molded models as well. Originating with modelers experimenting with varieties of materials, these “foamies” offer extreme durability while being able to hold scale lines and proportions offering flyers the benefit of less than perfect landings in harsh environments without major damage. This also makes them perfect for training. Manufacturers are able to create expensive tooling to mold these materials producing precision parts that assemble with ease and a fair degree of technical advancement while offsetting high costs of development with large sales volumes. Home builders and garage shop manufacturers may easily band saw and shape one-off models with these materials as well which are now available from many suppliers.
I would contend that beyond molding, the most important change in recent time has been the advent of computer-controlled laser systems in production of wooden parts (laser cutting machines commonly cut balsa wood, plywood, carbon fiber plate, and even some non-ferrous metals and plastic sheeting). The laser has been adopted wholesale by model manufactures, driven by consumers who have come to demand the high quality parts kits they may produce. Providing precisely interlocking notches and tabs as well as shapes not possible or feasible with knife dies, lasers have dramatically improved the quality and number of parts that may effectively kitted, including notched and interlocking trailing edges, leading edges and spars.
What this has meant for modelers is that one may be jigging parts together over plans within minutes of opening the box. Parts release easily from their carrier sheets, and with their self-jigging and interlocking tabs, slots and notches, assemble more quickly and require less clamping. Utilizing the laser to advantage can produce parts with more contact surfaces between parts providing stronger glue bonds, more square, parallel and fair assemblies and surfaces requiring less final preparation for covering - in the end improved structural integrity and quality of models with no increase in difficulty for the builder.
In this sense, the laser and computer-controlled cutting technologies have revolutionized model building to the point that it has created a resurgence of the hobby by those who know how and love to craft their own models from parts. One might say the laser has put the joy back into building. Even scratch-builders are drafting parts for projects with readily available software such as Corel, Illustrator, AutoCad and or TurboCAD and sending them out to commercial cutters to save time in development of finished models or prototypes.
Another result of these technologies and the experimentation of modelers is that sheet foam originally used to make trays for displaying and storing food in grocery stores in now available in different thicknesses and compositions which can be cut and kitted similarly to wood products. There are many small-to-large firms doing just this with elegantly designed parkflyers (a new word coined in the market to describe mostly small and electric powered aircraft) which are robust and easy to build, and may be flown indoors or out, without much fear of damage to property or spectators. These sheet-foam structures may look like wooden models of the past in the construction method they employ with slab and boxed fuselages and flat wings and supported by flying wires or struts to gain rigidity.
Changes in world markets have brought a proliferation of almost-ready-to-fly model aircraft (ARFs), driven by the importing of mass-produced models from China and this has changed the hobby even more. The new low-cost ARFS have allowed model aviation to be enjoyed by anyone with a modest amount of money and no investment to learn the skills of building or time required to construct a model. The mostly balsa and plywood models from China are increasing in quality every year as manufacturers strive to improve the techniques and technologies of their overseas facilities to provide the quality demanded by fliers.
But for those who have not adopted ARFs as a way to enjoy the hobby, the reduction in cost of CNC technologies has brought hundreds of small business operators into the kit manufacturing arena as well. Where kit manufacturing was once dominated by ten or more large corporate or family owned and operated businesses, we now see literally scores of small, highly creative and specialized manufacturers producing a broad range of model aircraft subjects. The author is one of those with a business model based upon the need for high quality and historically accurate scale representations of U.S. sailplanes. This is a niche that was untouched until five years ago when the decision was made to take up modeling once again as a business after a long hiatus from flying.
All of these advances have opened the market to many more consumers, allowing investment in improvements in electronics across a broad spectrum. Now radio manufacturers such as Spektrum, JR Radio and Futaba are offering spread spectrum radios using Digital Spectrum Modulation (DSM) which allows multiple users to fly at the same time and location without regard to frequency. Prior to this technology, the last major change in radios was in the 1980s with the introduction of Pulse Code Modulation (PCM). PCM replaced the old analog signals with digital signals, offering a cleaner, more robust signal to the receiver. The introduction of PCM greatly reduced signal interference, which could lead to servo chatter or unwanted control movements.
With the introduction of products applying spread spectrum to the modeling industry little over a year ago, radio control is now closed to any type of interference. A Globally Unique Identification Code is assigned to each transmitter in manufacture with the receiver being programmed to identify that unique code and bind together, essentially locking out all others in the process within a few seconds of energizing the system.
As this occurs, the signal is spread out over a wide band before being processed by the receiver where it is essentially “reassembled”, further increasing security. This process is so fast that servo movement and model response are instantaneous and direct. What this means is model fliers may fly with a unique frequency along side hundreds of others without interference from those operators. There are no crystals so frequency management at the site is unnecessary. The system utilizes shorter transmitter antennas and receiver antennas are designed so they are completely contained and protected inside the aircraft.
The technology has been available for a long time in communications. only now has making its way to the modeling public. More information on the history, development, commercial licensing and permitting of spread spectrum technologies may be found at https://en.wiki.org/wiki/Spread_spectrum. The concept and original patents for these developments date back to the 1890s when Nickola Tesla recognized the need for secure signal transmission and processing to prevent interference in any way.
Batteries and servos have improved dramatically as well, becoming less expensive and primarily more reliable and powerful. Technology is evolving rapidly as new materials and manufacturing processes continually increase battery output while decreasing weight of storage devices. All systems now incorporate rechargeable batteries and offer choices of primarily LiPoly (lithium polymer) or NiMH (Nickel Hydride) which offer battery performance unparalleled only five years ago.
In turn, a new market has emerged in the manufacturing of smart chargers and, powerful and lightweight electric motors for model aircraft of any size. Smart chargers are able to peak storage and power output while offering prolonged battery life. Electronic speed controllers (ESC) used in the battery-receiver circuits onboard models throttle these compact, lightweight motors and have similarly advanced, offering consumers more reliability and features not available only five years ago being led by U.S. manufacturer Castle Creations in Olathe, Kansas https://www.castlecreations.com.
And there’s more! Specialty devices using GPS (Global Positioning System) now capture and store flight data with the ability to transmit back and display on the ground. Not much larger than a pack of gum, these devices are easily incorporated into airframes as small as two meters in span. These products have the ability to monitor onboard battery condition as well, offering reliability and fail-safe mechanisms for expensive aircraft. Although varios have been available to modelers, technology has advanced as well and now several products are available that will instantly communicate to the pilot whether they are in lift or sink offering bundled features utilizing GPS.
The global application of many federally funded technologies originally employed by communications and military users, has enabled transfer to the marketplace quickly at relatively low investment by entrepreneurs. Many have changed the way we live allowing us to employ technology in new ways in our everyday lives. We have become so astute astute to technology in our homes that it’s natural we have applied these to our love of aviation enabling us to enjoy the hobby in new and exciting ways.
In scale modeling and of interest to modelers of aircraft, several companies now produce accessories and specialty products to customize and personalize our models. These include very high quality graphics including decals and trim produced by Callie Graphics in Edgewood, NM and life-like customizable full-body pilot figures created by Premier Pilots in San Diego, CA.
Spurred on by her father Stan at Hobbies ‘N Stuff in Albuquerque, Callie Johnson (https://www.callie-graphics.com) produces a variety of standard and custom decals in vinyl which are easily applied to models of any kind. Digital technologies again have streamlined and simplified the process whereby anyone with access to a digital camera or computer with scanner and illustration software may either produce or provide information allowing the duplication of full-scale markings and insignia which may be replicated cost-effectively in small lots. Utilizing CNC film cutters, this same technique is used by sign shops throughout the world who may even employ adhesive films or frisket products producing masks that are easy to apply, offer crisp sharp edges and work with aerosol paints to offering excellent results for professionals and hobbyists alike.
While flying radio control Schweizer 1-26s at Torrey Pines, Ren DiLeo (https://www.premierpilots.net) recognized the need for highly detailed, lightweight pilots at quarter scale to fill the void inside the cockpit and canopy of his sailplane and those of his friends. The pilot figures he has developed are literally works of art, incorporating design and engineering which allow articulated limbs and adjustable shoulder widths and including a white baseball cap, sunglasses, clothing in a choice of three colors, four-point harness and parachute bag, radio headset, and wristwatch. Pilots may be posed with their flexible limbs, and customized to fit a variety of scales from 1:4.5 through 1:3.5 and Ren also offers an English driving hat, flight suit, leather jacket, helmet and goggles!
In the press, magazines dedicated to the hobby regularly feature articles on soaring and scale subjects including RC Sport Flyer published by Wil Byers in Richland WA (https://www.rc-sf.com) and Aufwind published by Philipp Gardemin in Germany (https://www.aufwind-magazin.de) and Traplet Publications in the UK through Quiet and Electric Flight International offers excellent coverage of scale soaring and a variety of excellent sailplane plans designed by Chris Williams. All of these gentlemen are avid soaring enthusiasts sharing a passion for soaring as does Dr. Gary Fogel who provided an excellent photo essay published in RC Sport Flyer of the recent Schweizer model fly-in. Attended by Ren DiLeo, Mark Foster, Walt Gorecki, Carl Gwartney, Ken Kaye, Paul Krieger, Mike Lance, Angelo Orona, Sal Paluso and Don Scharf, it was sponsored by the Torrey Pines Scale Soaring Society (TPSSS). Another sought after publication is Radio Control Soaring Digest, a digital online magazine produced by Bill and Bunny Kuhlman in Oregon at https://www.rcsoaringdigest.com or through the Yahoo user group of the same name. They are now in their 26th year providing reader-submitted features in a variety of topics with outstanding photography.
Clubs and associations like TPSSS, may offer builders and flyers access to improved flying sites with controlled airspace, insurance against liability, or simply directions to or listings of public areas from which to fly. Larger non profit organizations may even sponsor chapter organizations or clubs, contests and awards and the opportunity for camaraderie among members. Here in the United States, the non-profit Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has been providing such services promoting the hobby and encouraging its members in its monthly publication Model Aviation for nearly 75 years. The organization is a leader in supporting legislation that protects and develops the hobby through lobbying and offers a rich history of modeling excellence on display at their headquarters in Muncie, Indiana. (https://www.modelaircraft.org). The Model Aviation Association of Canada provides the same funtions and services to modelers across our northern border at https://www.maac.ca.
Regional and national clubs or associations operate and maintain excellent websites which include scale plans for download, calendars of flying events held annually or seasonally within their region, and how-to articles or group builds with instruction and assistance from master modelers. Most provide links to local clubs and flying sites in each country, province or geographic area. By doing so, they provide an excellent resource for both their regular members and those who wish to take up the hobby. Among those are https://www.soaringissa.org, www.scalesoaring.co.uk, and https://www.scalesoaringaustralia.com, https://www. More of these associations may easily be found by searching keywords “rc scale soaring” at GoogleTM.
My own family story is of being a son of an aeronautical engineer and NASA Flight Research Center (FRC) employee James A. Martin who happened to work along with Paul Bikle at Edwards AFB. My oldest brother is married to the daughter of Jim Moeller-Moeller crewed with Bikle on his altitude record attempts and towed him on the day in 1961 when two world records were set in the Schweizer 1-23E at 46,267 feet in the Sierra Lee Wave not very far from Edwards. I was only six years old at the time and have no recollection of this, but know that Bikle was a pioneer in aviation research with a passion for soaring and often published here. This same aircraft, the only E model manufactured, was constructed for Paul MacCready to compete in the 1954 World Gliding Championships in Madrid, where he flew to a fourth place finish.
Despite technological advances, I tend more to low tech wooden and welded steel sailplanes and employ the KISS method (keep it simple stupid) and enjoy these vintage subjects with no gadgetry. I like the nostalgia of early and simple aircraft designs, the pleasure of working from my own drawings to exact scale, and the challenge of searching and specking out in lift. I quess I am a 1-26 with three instruments in a world of ASW 27s with fully instrumented cockpits.
My first sailplane was a scale model of the ASW-15 which served me well in the high desert thermals and slopes surrounding the Antelope Valley in northern LA County California. I moved on to building all wood sailplanes, designing and constructing lost foam fiberglass models with sheeted foam wings and ulitmately moved away from the hobby in later years. After having been away for too long, I wanted to get back to scale soaring and had a desire to build a Schweizer 1-26E at about two to two-and-half meters but was unable to find any new kits available. I did find a 1-26B at three meters in a partial kit format (no hardware or sheet, spar or longeron and stringer stock provided) but when I consulted with the owner of the company about this kit, I was told that I probably lacked the skills to build it. Not to be discouraged, I decided to purchase an old Sterling kit from an eBayTM seller and set about to build it.
Before I had even finished the 1-26 kit, I found one of the other revolutionary changes in the modeling world.... or the world for that matter -- social networking -- the internet. I soon discovered there were likely thousands of vintage sailplane enthusiasts in the modeling world, many of whom would welcome the opportunity to build U.S. vintage sailplanes from laser kits and many of whom soon became customers. Not only that, networking with outher enthusiasts on websites such as https://www.rcgroups.com and https://www.rcuniverse.com and https://www.wattflyer.com has enabled thousands of us to research products including kits and electronics, get first hand information about them and watch others build them in their workshops or do likewise and share our accomplishments with web surfers all around the globe.
And so, another business was born. And over the last five years, I've learned too that the demographic of sailplane enthusiasts is largely upper middle class men; many former military pilots; many own their own business or are business professionals; and all of them are fascinated with the history of soaring in the U.S. and with sailplanes. Its seems that a fair percentage have flown sailplanes and many have shared stories of their first flights and solos in Schwiezer SGS 2-22s. 2-33s and SGS 1-26s. Stories I welcome and love to listen to.
For little other reason than my own fascination with sailplanes and the Schwiezer Aircraft Corporation, I had decided to document and draft highly scale replicas of many their product line, beginning with the SGP 1-1 and finishing with the 1-36. With its venerable history as the oldest family-operated aircraft company in the world up until its sale to Sikorsky two years ago, it seemed almost unbelievable that no one was manufacturing and modeling these historic aircraft. Now many people are -- and just now, five years later I am finally completing my Sterling 1-26D from the original 70s kit. Maybe I’ll find time to fly it soon and one day see if one of our models can set a new altitude record for unpowered unmanned aircraft.