If puzzled by present options for your decedents’ Christmas morning surprises, might I suggest a flying model. Regardless of their age, it may instill a lasting interest in aviation and teach them how to figure things out as they mature, if you’re there to guide them with focused questions.
The example given here are from my childhood and my continued hands-on model flying with my sons, and now, with my grandsons. (I’d include daughters and granddaughters if the Spanglers had any.) The key is to be hands on, and for the recipient of aviation’s gift to figure things out for themselves and, later, to repair the consequences of their learning experiences.
It starts with the ubiquitous balsa glider, often available free at aviation trade shows as marketing giveaways. The joy of finally configuring it for a long, steady glide is ageless, but the lessons can start when you’re halfway to 10. Every flight is a learning experience. When a flight comes to an unhappy end, ask the pilot why that might be. What pieces of the glider are missing, broken, or misaligned?
Questions are the key to building interest, curiosity, and problem-solving skills. If that glider moves through the air, what do you think the fins on its tail end do? Why is the slot for the wing longer than the wing’s chord. What do you think happens if you move the wing forward or back? Let’s try it and find out.
When these glider pilots reach their first decade, it’s time to add some power. Half-A, or .O49, is a good place to start. Stifle your personal remote control (R/C) technological wants and desires and go control line (CL). The important lesson here is that pilots can see their connection to the airplane they control. They can see the lines that run from the handle in their fist to the bell crank and pushrod that controls the model’s elevator.
Nothing better teaches the importance of preflight inspections, awareness to the injuries a spinning prop can cause, and the need for finessed control inputs than the blade’s slap on leather-clad fingers and having to repair crash damage before the next flight. This is another advantage of starting with a small balsa airplane. They are inexpensive, easy to repair, and require a patch of grass with an obstacle free radius of 40 feet, give or take.
As you guide the pilot’s initial construction, keep asking questions about the purpose of ribs, plywood doublers, how the wing’s shape creates lift and how too much weight (glue is heavier than it looks, especially when overused) affects it. And these teaching questions continue with post-crash repair. Rather than focusing on the crash itself, focus on repairing the damage by asking why the airplane broke there and what repairs might improve the weak spot’s strength without degrading its aerodynamic efficiency. As a bonus, the builder also learns how to work with tools that they might otherwise never touch.
Young pilots can transition to larger airplanes during their middle school years, and flying them can be a family activity that will surely lead to stories that cement the familial bond. Take, for example, the inaugural flight of a model that I’d spent the winter building from scratch using plans. Feeling cocky because it was performing so well, I attempted a loop. I needed about 6 more inches to successfully recover from the maneuver. Their flights of the other airplanes we’d brought to the school yard went much better, but we still wonder today where that one wheel went because we never did find it, even after an hour of hands-and-knees searching over an ever expanding area.
The chances that you’ll find a control line model at your local hobby shop (if you even have one) are slim. My go-to sources are Sig Manufacturing, which covers the spectrum of model aviation in its many forms, control line to R/C and gas to electric power. Brodak is a company dedicated to control line flying, and offers everything a newcomer might need, including sources of how-to information. I’m a fan of their kits because they include full-scale plans that not only help you build the kit, you can use them to build a replacement from scratch, which is what I’m doing this winter, preparing for next year’s visit by two generations of my descendants. –Scott Spangler, Editor
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