Saturday, June 6, 2009

The U/C Airplane Follies

My profile, as well as some of my previous posts, tell you that I'm an aviation enthusiast. I love flying, and I love airplanes. I prefer airplanes to helicopters. Admittedly, helicopters seem much more versatile than airplanes, but there's a certain aesthetic beauty to an airplane, its clean, streamlined contours and the way that its wings are outstretched to embrace the sky. Helicopters, by comparison, tend to look like bulbous, squat, ungainly beasts; noisy, flying egg-beaters. If Don Quixote had ever seen one, he would surely have jousted it full-tilt.

Sadly, I'm not a pilot but I compensate for this by filling every empty nook and cranny of my life with airplanes. I surround myself with airplane pictures and airplane calendars. My computer's desktop wallpaper and screen saver often feature photographs of airplanes. I spend a fair bit of time flying Microsoft's Flight Simulator on my home PC. I've taken a couple of introductory flights in small Cessnas over my home town and, for the past few years, I've gone soaring in gliders at least once each summer. In both cases, I've taken the controls for brief periods. In the winter, I wear a small bush plane pin on the lapel of my jacket. I also collect toy airplanes, and airplane models and miniatures. Some of those toys and miniatures have flown.

When I was about 13 years old, my dad bought me a U/C Cox P-40 Warhawk. U/C is an acronym for "U-Control", meaning a miniature flying airplane that's tethered to the flyer by a pair of strings. On the flyer's end, the strings are attached to opposite ends of a small control handle that the flyer holds in his hand. On the airplane's end, the strings are attached to opposite ends of a moving lever, called a bellcrank. By pivoting the wrist of the hand holding the control handle with the strings attached, the flyer moves the bellcrank which, in turn, moves the airplane's elevators up and down, causing the airplane to either climb or descend. There is no lateral control since the airplane, being tethered to the flyer, simply flies around him in a wide circle.

Seems simple enough, right? If all you have to worry about is climbing and descending, how hard can it be? Well, let's just say, if you saw me trying to fly this thing, or any U/C airplane, for that matter, you'd probably agree that it's a good thing I'm only a wannabe pilot.

I recall the first time that I attempted to fly the P-40. Dad and I went to a nearby schoolyard. It was summer, and school was out, so there was plenty of space, or so it seemed. The first lesson I learned that day about U/C flying is that it's a very good idea to pace out a complete circle around the spot at which the flyer intends to stand and ensure that there are no obstacles or obstructions inside that circle.

Dad took the airplane and walked away from me with it until the control lines became taut. He then fueled up the little .049 "Super Bee" gas engine that powered the craft, attached a battery to power the glow-plug, wound back the propeller on its starter spring and let it snap back. After a couple of false starts, the little motor sprang to life. I extended the arm holding the control handle in anticipation, and gave dad the "thumbs-up". He released the airplane, and it trundled away from him, quickly gaining speed. The tail lifted from the ground and then, just as she was getting light on her wheels, they (the wheels) caught the edge of a lawn that had rudely planted itself right in my flight path.

Well, okay, thinking back on it, I'm pretty sure that the lawn was in the flight path before we ever started the engine. This is why it's so important to check for obstructions inside the flight circle. It's not enough to have a clear, flat space for the airplane to taxi along at its starting position. That clear, flat space has to continue all the way around the circumference of the flight path. In my case, it did not.

Do you know what happens when a fast-moving airplane hits an immovable obstruction with its wheel struts? Pretty much the same thing that happens when a fast-moving person hits an immovable obstruction with his shins. The wheels (or shins) stop dead, but the body that either is attached to wants to keep going. Damn you Isaac Newton! My P-40 nosed unceremoniously into the dirt, and one of the wheel struts snapped. The little propeller managed to mow a three-inch diameter of the school's lawn before sputtering to a halt. Thus was my maiden U/C flight pre-emptively aborted.

I can't suppress a rueful smile when I think about how the scene would have looked to any of our neighbors that might have glanced out their windows at the time. First, they'd have seen dad and me, proudly strutting toward the schoolyard, carrying a shiny replica of a P-40 Warhawk and then, about 15 minutes later, they'd have seen the two of us, walking the other way, somewhat more slowly, me cradling my broken aircraft and wearing a decidedly dejected frown.

I was never able to fly the P-40 again after that. Although the engine still ran and the airplane itself was still more or less airworthy (despite a nasty crack along the nose and canopy), the broken wheel strut turned out to be an impassable barrier to flight. It proved impossible to glue that spindly piece of plastic back together with enough structural integrity to support the airplane through a successful takeoff, much less a jarring landing.

Having destroyed a relatively cheap toy that was made from rugged plastic and ready to fly the moment it came out of its box, I did what seemed the only sensible thing, which was to purchase a considerably more costly flying model airplane kit made from fragile, brittle balsa wood, which would take many hours of painstakingly careful assembly before I could even attempt to crash- er, that is, fly it.

Mind you, this wasn't until years later when I was in high school (it took me that long to get over the trauma). This time, it was a German JU87 Stuka dive bomber kit designed by the Paul K. Guillow company. Coincidentally, it could be configured as a U/C model and could be powered by the same Cox .049 Super Bee engine that had powered my old P-40 and, even more coincidentally, I still had it (the motor), although the P-40 itself was long gone by then. I hadn't considered, at the time, that mounting the power plant which had belonged to my ill-fated first flyable aircraft on this new model might be inviting disaster. Perhaps the motor was cursed! Perhaps it was still possessed by the ghost of the old P-40 (a natural enemy of the JU87 to begin with, being an American airplane) and was just waiting for its chance to visit the kind of destruction that its previous host had suffered on some new and unsuspecting airframe. In hindsight, that certainly appears to be the case.

The Stuka was built alongside my best friend, Mart, who had himself purchased a model of a de Havilland Mosquito, also from the Guillow's company. Mart was, if possible, even more foolhardy than I, having chosen a two-place aircraft. Do you know what it's like trying to start two .049 Super Bee engines anything like simultaneously? These engines tend to behave like finicky lawnmower engines. Whether or not they decide to start, when turned, depends on a number of variables including the ambient air temperature, the alignment of the planets and how nicely you talk to them. One engine would start and the other would fail. Then, after several more unsuccessful attempts, the second engine would finally fire, just as the first engine sputtered out, having exhausted its minuscule fuel supply. It was an exercise in frustration, to say the least.

Mart and I spent months assembling our respective models, carefully cutting the frames and formers, painstakingly running the stringers along the wings and fuselage, connecting the bellcrank and control rods to the elevators and, finally, covering the finished skeletal structures with a delicate tissue paper skin that was then painted and strengthened with a layer of fuel-proof "dope". I wasn't content to simply build my model as per the instructions, either. Oh no! I had to add a number of my own, personal "enhancements", such as building small, box-like compartments with forward-facing grilles under each wing. My idea was to fill these compartments with talcum powder. When the airplane picked up speed, the air flowing through the grilles would blow the talcum powder out the back, simulating a stream of white "smoke" trailing behind the airplane. This gives you some idea of my overconfidence in my own abilities at the time.

For the finishing touch, I added a custom bit of paint work to my finished model. Remembering how certain pilots during the war liked to name their mounts, I painted the name "ZERSTÖRER" (German for "DESTROYER") along the nose of my aircraft.

Given all the painstaking work that we had put into our models, Mart and I didn't rush to fly them. We waited patiently for the perfect day; sunny, dry, calm and windless. When that day finally came, we again made our way to a local schoolyard; not the same one where my P-40 had made its ill-fated maiden flight, mind you. No, this time, we went to a school closer to my old neighborhood, in an older section of town, densely populated by mostly Portuguese immigrants.

Although it was again summertime and the school was again closed, Mart and I couldn't evade the notice of a number local Portuguese teenagers as we made our way to the schoolyard. When they saw the two of us, carrying our airplanes, glow fuel, batteries and crying towels (just in case), they became naturally curious and followed us. As we prepared for our flights in the schoolyard, the somewhat rowdy Portuguese kids (whom Mart later affectionately referred to as the "Julios") watched with interest from the sidelines as they shouted taunts and encouraged us with their sincere hopes that we might entertain them with some truly impressive scenes of destruction.

I went first. Having learned my lesson from the P-40 debacle, I ensured this time that my airplane had full clearance and that there were no obstructions anywhere along its flight path. Having satisfied myself of this, I once again took the control lines while Mart fueled the plane and started the engine. He released it. The aircraft rolled along, picking up speed. The tail lifted from the ground and, this time, it TOOK TO THE AIR... a little too suddenly.

Perhaps it was over anxiousness on my part, still smarting from the memory of my P-40's demise, to get those wheels off the ground. Perhaps it was simple impatience to see the fruits of my labors airborne. Whatever the reason, I had tugged on the "up" line a little too eagerly, and my Stuka leaped into the sky in a steep climb.

Alarmed by this sudden rapid gain in altitude, I over-compensated and jerked on the "down" line, immediately putting the Stuka into a steep dive toward the schoolyard's asphalt. This immediately elicited a cacophony of excited whoops and cheers from the Julios, who prepared themselves for a splendid crash.

Horrified, I jerked the "up" line, again overcompensating, causing my Stuka to pull out of its dive scant inches from terra firma and again begin a steep climb, accompanied by a sullen chorus of "Awwww's" from the Julios, which sounded not unlike the disappointed exclamation that one hears from crowds of spectators watching a professional golf tournament after the golf pro narrowly misses sinking a long putt.

Overcompensating once again, I put the Stuka back into a dive, which changed the Julios dejected "Awww's" back into hoots and cheers. It went on like that for several more minutes with my Stuka executing an undulating series of parabolas worthy of NASA's infamous "Vomit Comet", accompanied by alternating cheers and "Awww's" from the Julios.

Then, at the apex of its last steep climb, my Stuka did something completely unexpected. It winged over and came directly at me! As this maneuver brought it inside the radius of its flight path, my control lines went slack and I lost all control of the aircraft. At that point, I did what seemed the only sensible thing. I dropped the control handle and, covering my head with my hands, I ran for my very life as the Julios exploded into a gleeful chorus of cheers.

Since I had my back to the Stuka, I did not see it when it smacked into the asphalt at the very spot that I had only recently occupied. I only heard the sickening crunch of splintering balsa wood a split second before the motor was, again, ominously silenced.

The body of my P-40 had only suffered a single crack after its jarring introduction to the ground. My fragile balsa-and-tissue Stuka was not so forgiving. The entire nose section was completely shattered, with serious damage to the wings and other sections of the aircraft. As I gathered up the debris in an attempt to salvage whatever parts that might be useful in my future attempt to rebuild the airplane's shattered nose, I came across a small scrap of doped tissue paper, with a few fragments of balsa stringers still stuck to its back, on which was inscribed a single, poignant, word ... "ZERSTÖRER". I understood, at that moment, how The Third Reich must have felt in 1945.

(Click to enlarge)


Martin said...

I'm reading a book called "Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart." Yes, I know ... what can I say? Eclectic taste in books, I guess. Anyway, I'm at this point in the book where Stewart is a struggling actor just making ends meet, and his room-mate is another struggling actor by the name of Henry Fonda. They have just both started some good gigs, and so they "were feeling justifiably good about their careers. So much so that they took on a hobby - building model airplanes. Like two young eager boys, they would rush back to the Madison Square Hotel each night after their respective performances and relax by fitting together fragile pieces of balsa wood." A little later on, Fonda moves to California and Stewart is not long in following. "When Jim arrived in Pasadena on June 8, 1935, Fonda was at the station. According to Jimmy, "Where's the airplane?" was all that Henry wanted to know."

Andy, you be Fonda and I'll be Stewart. "Well, gosh Andy, sorry you - you - you lost your Stuka, but that was the coolest thing I - I - I ever saw!"

Bill said...

"Helicopters, by comparison, tend to look like bulbous, squat, ungainly beasts; noisy, flying egg-beaters. If Don Quixote had ever seen one, he would surely have jousted it full-tilt."


At a forum on aerodynamics, I heard John Roncz characterize the helicopter as "a cloud of vibration and metal fatigue suspended on a layer of noise."