Judging by the photo above you might think this blog entry is about land speed racing. You'd be wrong, it's about pretty much the opposite thing: slow, air competition.
If ever there was a time when I didn't need the ultra low gearing of the Yamaha TW200 it was two weeks ago. South of Phoenix, down outside of Eloy, AZ and about 25 miles from where I live was the site of a vintage model airplane contest. I'm sure nearly everyone reading 40on2 is also a radio control model airplane enthusiast and a large percentage of you are very into pre-1942 balsawood designs with now flown radio control assist. No? Really?? Ok, I'm not surprised. It's a pretty esoteric interest unlike old Bultacos which are enjoyed by tens of millions of people besides me.
I've wandered in and out of that hobby for my entire life, only motorcycles have been a consistent presence since I was 15 years old or so. Fact is though, I was so into model airplanes in the 1970s that I was even a partner in a hobby shop for a few years. There were still motorcycles, of course, but the model airplanes and in particular radio controlled model airplanes were my livelihood and my hobby. Radio control model airplane flying is pretty much the only "world" where I'm as comfortable as I am in the motorcycle world.
Although I've not actively built and flown model airplanes for several years now my interest has remained and I have a large stash of model kits and parts put away for those idyllic retirement days I knew would always come. Retirement, such as it is for me, will commence on February 27, 2009. It won't be idyllic but it won't involve working in 110° Arizona sunshine or toiling away in an 8x8 cubicle anymore. To me that's nearly idyllic. More about the whole retirement schitck later.
In keeping one eye on my life long interest in flying model airplanes I discovered that down south of me, outside of Eloy, AZ, a model airplane contest takes place every year. The last time I visited to see what was going on was 2005. This year I went again for the 59th annual edition of the Southwestern Regional Model Airplane Championships. Naturally my little Yamaha was part of the deal because the event takes place on a huge, flat, fallow cotton farm with certain events nearly a mile apart. The land has been fallow for so many years now it looks more like a dry lake bed than farm land or typical Arizona desert. Getting back and forth and chasing around makes this a natural place for an old dirt bike. In fact if you go out to one of these contests you'll find a hodge podge of old dirt bikes now pressed into work chasing errant airplanes. The Honda Trail 110 below is still serving it's owner faithfully long after other bikes of it's vintage have been turned into rebar and beer cans.
One of the things people often find surprising is the size of the planes. While many people when they were young built small 10 cent hand launch gliders or even a larger twelve or fourteen inch wingspan glider, model airplanes even in ye olden times were big, some were very big.
Every who loves gasoline power devices loves a nice well tuned engine. The little Cox .049 engine you might remember as a kid is still around although no longer produced. The planes in the pictures typically use something much larger and rather than a glow plug use a total loss ignition system and spark plug just like your grandpa did with his model airplanes back in the '30s and '40s and even into the '50s. A few planes now are electric powered; times change and not everyone wants to mess with a fiddly, 60 year old ignition engine with a prop big enough to lop off a finger when it the thing kicks back. Electric stuff is ok, just not as cool. It is sort of like the difference between an old BSA single cylinder engine and a modern, water cooled YZF 4-stroke racing single.
You'll note in the photos that the modelers tend to be antiques themselves. The planes represent and era of boyhood in America that is long gone and a lot of modelers are too stubborn or too smart to let it go completely. The style and the construction of the planes is painstaking, detailed, and requires a lot of patience. This makes the model completely at odds with the modern pre-fab model stuff coming out of China that seems to be preferred by most so-called hobby shops today. Yes, I'm a model airplane curmudgeon even more than I'm a motorcycle curmudgeon. Building and flying antique model airplanes is part nostalgia for a past some of us were fortunate enough to enjoy and it's also about preserving a bit of history, of preserving classic designs that would otherwise be all but forgotten. To that extent it's very much like vintage bike racing or restoration.
The part that is hard for young folks to realize now is that there was a time in America when building model airplanes was the equivalent in popularity of playing with an Xbox or whatever today. Boys by the millions built model airplanes. One model airplane company was cranking out as many as ten million balsa kits per year. The other thing boys did while building model airplanes was learn about craftsmanship, structure, aerodynamics, and patience, something no Xbox or Wii 1st person shooter game is teaching anyone now. Young people and America are poorer for it too.
The Yamaha trundled me around nicely all weekend and impressed everyone with it's fat tires if not it's top speed. The Ruckus served us well too. It was even pressed into service when a model went off on it's own for an extended flight.
More pictures from the event here.