The History of Model Aviation
By Jon Welte
For centuries, children around the world have been fascinated by flying toys. Skyrockets celebrating the New Year high over China; fighter kites slashing through the air over the rooftops of Kabul; a simple French-made whirligig, given by a father to his young sons in Dayton, Ohio. Each served to delight and inspire, carrying young minds aloft and, in the cases of young Wilbur and Orville Wright, launching careers in aeronautical innovation that would change the world.
By the 1920s, most model aircraft fell three major groups: Design prototypes, display models, and flying models. Each has played an important part in the development and promotion of aviation.
Prototypes are structural models constructed to test aeronautical concepts without incurring the expense of constructing a full size model. British aviation pioneer George Cayley constructed models of this nature as early as 1792. American designer Samuel Langley famously demonstrated his proposed Aerodrome with a powered scale model flown in 1896. Wilbur and Orville Wright pursued modeling in a different way; after two frustrating years constructing and testing full sized gliders, the Wrights built models of small airfoil shapes to test in a wind tunnel. The brothers built and “flew” nearly 200 small tin airfoils before settling on a design for their future aircraft.
In some cases, scale prototypes proved suitable for use for exhibition. Langley’s hopes of building a man-sized version of his Aerodrome were dashed in the chilly waters of the Potomac River, but the 1896 model remains on display today. Engineering models, however, were not always attractive to look at and lacked fine details present in the finished product. Models specifically designed for display soon began to appear, and in 1920 the Smithsonian recognized the importance of aircraft models by hiring Paul Garber, a leader of a Washington DC-area model club, to build, collect and display models related to aviation. Garber himself constructed highly detailed models of many 19th century aircraft that had not survived into the new century; relying in most cases on fragmented historical accounts of these aircraft, Garber’s work was a major contribution in the preservation and interpretation of a poorly-known period in aviation history.
Construction of aircraft models for display was not merely a pursuit for serious historians, but also for the general public—particularly young people with an interest in aviation. By the 1920s aircraft model kits were popular and widely available. Most models were built of various types of wood and many required a high degree of skill to construct, yet the results could be beautiful and highly detailed. During World War II the United States Navy and Army Air Force found themselves in need of many thousands of realistic model aircraft for use in aircraft identification training, and through 1943 hundreds of thousands of wooden models were constructed by a nationwide network of high school students devoted to the pastime.
By the end of the war wooden display models had given way to mass produced plastic kits. In the postwar boom, manufacturing technology allowed fabrication of detailed plastic model kits of nearly every type of aircraft imaginable. Even a modeler of modest means and skills could, with a bit of patience, construct a realistic display model.
Despite his considerable skills in the construction of display models, much of Garber’s passion was for models that could fly. In 1870, Frenchman Alphonse Penaud constructed the first flying model aircraft powered by twisted elastic bands; it was a model helicopter designed by Penaud that Milton Wright brought home to give to his youngest sons, Wilbur and Orville. By 1909, modeling clubs held tournaments in which rubber-powered airplanes flew distances of half a mile or more. After Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight of 1927 launched a renewed worldwide interest in flight, building detailed balsa-and-tissue model kits became a popular hobby for many American children.
Garber was active in the promotion and preservation of model aviation throughout this period, even as his responsibilities to the Smithsonian grew. He collaborated with the Playground and Recreation Association of America in the late 1920s to disseminate information on the construction and flight of model aircraft, from simple paper gliders to competition-level rubber powered flyers. The abilities of model aircraft continued to grow, however, much as real aircraft reached ever higher levels of performance.
In the most sophisticated flying models, rubber band power gave way to tiny gasoline powered motors as early as the 1930s. By the late 1940s, control line model airplanes appeared—these remained tethered to a ground-based operator by a pair of long control wires, which forced the model to fly in circles around its pilot. The wires were usually configured to operate the model’s elevator and throttle, making precisely controlled circular flight possible.
Radio control for model aircraft actually appeared before control line aviation, with the first demonstration flight held in 1937. The design was straightforward: one radio channel commanded the aircraft’s rudder, providing directional control. The other controlled the aircraft’s engine. Radio control permitted a gasoline (or electric) powered model airplane the ability to fly freely around a field, unencumbered by control wires and able to fly as long as its fuel tank or battery charge permitted.
Model aviation today continues to change in response to evolving technologies. The most sophisticated radio controlled aircraft can be powered by small jet engines and approach the size and speed of small general aviation airplanes. Flying model helicopters are capable of maneuvers impossible for most of their full-sized brethren, and infrared-controlled miniature helicopters have become popular household toys.
The Hiller Aviation Museum celebrates the large and the small in model aviation as it hosts the World’s Biggest Little Air Show on Saturday, May 2nd. The San Carlos Airport runway will close to make way for a dazzling array of miniature aircraft. Model airplanes, helicopters, rockets and more will take to the skies over San Carlos in a series of demonstrations. Join us for a remarkable foray into the world of flying model aircraft.
Building and Flying Model Aircraft. Paul Garber, 1928.
On Miniature Wings. Thomas Dietz, 1995.