I love model kits – particularly aircraft. The hobby developed in my youth along with a general interest in aviation and has helped me vicariously pursue that interest through the years. Between my medical grounding* from flight school in 1980 and (forgive the pun) the soaring cost for dual instruction in private-pilot training I have logged exactly 0 hours as pilot in command in the last thirty years…so building kits has been my way of ‘staying current’. Unfortunately the cost of kits, tools and other related products has steadily increased and quite often I find myself priced right out of the hobby…
(…but that will be covered in Junior Birdmen part 1)
As a change of pace I have been working on a balsa wood kit of a Curtis F9C-2 Sparrowhawk, a small biplane designed to be carried on the Navy’s airship USS Los Angeles as a parasite fighter. It’s been a while since my last balsa kit so the model has been a challenge as I reacquaint myself with older tools and techniques.
…but mostly it has reinforced the respect and awe with which I hold pioneering aviators from the first years of heavier-than-air flight. Balsa kits use the same techniques with which all pre-World War Ii aircraft were made; Stringers and formers are assembled together around a spar or two and maybe some metal tubing to form the overall shape of the plane, then the assemblage is covered with cloth (or in the case of the kit: paper) then coated with a kind of paint (“dope”) that shrinks, stiffens and seals the covering.
These things are little more than kites and you can’t help but marvel at the people who flew them. We’re spoiled by modern air travel as we zoom around in large constructs of metal, plastics and composites that provide better protection than most residential apartments. An aircraft made with frame-and stringer construction – even a relatively modern plane like a Piper Super Cub – is really just a tent with an engine running at one end.
There was a time when I wanted an actual plane of my own but reality quickly put a stake in that plan’s heart. From there I decided to build a plane of my own design but reality swooped in a second time and I revised my plan to assembling a commercial kit. Unfortunately finances and health issues have caused me to drop my sights even further so here I am with my scale model kits…though I occasionally get a little day-dreamy about that full-sized, homebuilt version
But building this balsa kit…it has been a serious wake-up call. Even though I understand that the design is stronger than it looks I can hardly believe it could hold together under its own weight. Then I think about the “real deal” – the actual airplanes using the same construction techniques and I start to hyperventilate. I don’t know if I could bring myself to careen around the sky with only pieces of spruce covered with painted cloth between my fat fourth-point-of-contact and a thousand feet of empty space.
That anxiety has extended to the kit as well. As I said the model looks so fragile that I have been substituting stronger basswood pieces in place of balsa in some places . As I was doing so the other night three things came to mind:
- Basswood is stronger and bends without breaking better than balsa – but it’s also a bit heavier. Will the center of gravity still work out correctly with the added weight of the basswood or will the plane stall or dive like a rock?
- As I was adding on a basswood stringer the other night it occurred to me that I was behaving like the children of Israel as they steadied the Ark of the Covenant. Distrust in the design and materials may have prompted me to create a problem had if I’d avoided had I showed a bit more faith.
- Would I have made the same mistake building that full-sized flyable kit ?
At that point I remember that because of the arthritic issues I deal with I no longer have the range of movement or strength in my hands to build or fly that coveted commercial homebuilt aircraft kit…and realize that this is probably the one time when my disabilities are an asset and not a liability.
*Vision problems that weren’t detected during the application process but an issue during flight under night and instrument conditions……and unfortunately army regulations severely limit the use of seeing-eye dogs in the cock-pit.
My own kit in progress – I will be ecstatic if I get within 75% of the company kit at the beginning of this post.