Model Airplane Flown - History

Model Airplane Flown - History

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Samuel Pierpoint Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute catapulted a model aircraft on May 6, 1896. The model flew over 3,000 feet and reached an altitude of 100 feet.

June 2011 History Moments

In honor of the beginning of outdoor Nats this week, we are featuring a few patches and pins from former competitions. We hope you enjoy looking at these small mementos from the past.

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1. Pin, 1976 Nats, Dayton, Ohio (50th anniversary of the Nats) (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, #2010.08.12)

2. Patch, 1978 Nats, Lake Charles, Louisiana (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, #2007.13.103)

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3. Patch, 1979 Nats, Lincoln, Nebraska (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, #2008.05.152)

4. Patch, 1981 Nats, Seguin, Texas (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, #2005.02.152)

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5. Patch, 1989 Outdoor Nats, Tri-Cities, Washington - Pasco, Kennewick and Richland (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, #2006.02.131)

6. Patch, 1991 Indoor Nats, Johnson City, Tennessee (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, #2007.13.114)

Week 4- June 23, 2011: Opening AMA's Membership Drive (June 23, 1937)

With the June 23, 1937 issue of Model Aviation (Volume 1, Number 20), the Academy of Model Aeronautics kicked off a “nation-wide drive to enroll all expert model plane builders and flyers in its membership rolls.” Dues remained the same as had been announced in the next Model Aviation (Volume 1, Number 21) with Junior membership for those under 21 at $1.50 and a senior membership at $3.00. The Academy, made up of expert aeromodelers from around the country, was to act as the advisory board on model aircraft to the National Aeronautic Association (NAA.)

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1. Model Aviation (Volume 1, Number 11), cover announcement that “The Academy for Model Aeronautics is expected to soon present its plans for expansion and its program of advancement.” (Source: NMAM Library collection)

2. Model Aviation (Volume 1 number 20), “Academy Membership Drive Opens.” (Source: NMAM Library collection)

Week 3 - June 16, 2011: An Idea for a Model Aircraft Country Club

From A Preliminary Proposal for the First Model Aircraft Country Club in the United States, June 15, 1976, by Frank Anderson:

“This map shows the area under consideration for the first U.S. Model Aircraft Country Club [shaded area] which will provide both Sport and Competition R.C. Modellers either a few precious hours, days or even weeks of relaxation, away from the hassles of the workaday world, in friendly companionship with many others who also enjoy the same avocation.

"M.A.C.C [Model Aeronautics Association of Canada] would provide the Aeromodelling movement with a whole new approach to the Sport/Hobby and most assuredly define our avocation to the Sport/Hobby and most assuredly define our avocation as a proper adult recreation, finally on a par with golf.

“Benefits to both our national associations and our model industry are obvious and the founders of our Country Club would be well repaid in both historical significance as well as financial return.”


1. Scan of Map (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Archives, AMA Collection #0001)

Week 2 - June 9, 2011 - Control Line Aeromodeling

Control Line model aircraft are designed to be flown on a wire or wires in a circular path around the aeromodeler. The wires, connected to a handle, allow the pilot to control the model along the pitch axis.

Development of Control Line model aircraft began with tethered models that were flown around a fixed anchor point. In 1879, Victor Tatin demonstrated a compressed-air-powered aircraft on a specially constructed circular pad in Chalais-Meudon, France. Sixty years later, Oba St. Clair of Yamhill, Oregon took this one step further.

In 1936, St. Clair began constructing a Berliner Joyce Free Flight model from plans featured in the August 1935 issue of Modern Mechanics and Invention magazine. As he was nearing completion, he realized that his model would quickly be damaged or lost in the forests that surrounded his home. He decided the solution was to fly the airplane around in a circle attached to a single line. If there was even the slightest breeze, the model would begin to climb and descend on its own though, so St. Clair decided he needed more control.

During the fall of 1936, St. Clair devised a four-line control system that he called “full-house” and installed it in a new airplane that he built called the Miss Shirley (named after his just-born daughter). With no wire on-hand, St. Claire used fishing line, but this he found did not stretch equally. To allow for equal stretching, he used a large handle with four poles attached, letting him to quickly take up any slack in the lines. The “full-house” allowed him to control the elevator, ailerons, and throttle. On July 4, 1937, he made his first successful flight. Word spread quickly and numerous articles were written, highlighting this new form of model airplane control.

It was not long before other modelers began developing and marketing Control Line systems. In 1939, the Stanzel brothers began advertising their Tiger Shark, and in 1940, Jim Walker unveiled his Fireball. In no time, Control Line models became all the rage, replacing Free Flight models on the shelves of local hobby shops.

For additional information on Oba St. Clair, the AMA History Program has a biography of him online: In addition, Charles Mackey has created a website about Oba:

Plans for the Berliner Joyce were reprinted in the February 1977 issue of Model Builder magazine, and plans are available from the Bill Northrop Plans Service.


1. This diagram shows how a Control Line model airplane is flown in the hemisphere around the pilot. The pilot controls the pitch axis of the airplane. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum)

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2. St. Clair kneeling beside his Berliner Joyce, 1936. (Source: AMA History Program, courtesy of Shirley St. Clair)

3. The Berliner Joyce in flight. The windsock, attached to right wing, kept the airplane turning away from the circle keeping the Control Line tight. Source: AMA History Program, courtesy of Shirley St. Clair)

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4. St. Clair holding his “full-house” control system. (Source: AMA History Program, courtesy of Shirley St. Clair)

5. The Miss Shirley, 1937. (Source: AMA History Program, courtesy of Shirley St. Clair)

Week 1 - June 2, 2011 - AMA's Reston, Virginia Headquarters

The AMA Headquarters was in at least eight different locations before it was determined a permanent location was needed. Washington DC prices were increasing and the number of staff needed for the increase in membership deemed a new building to be built. A capital campaign started to help pay for the building – people who gave money received a patch, pin, or a key noting they were AMA Supporters. On June 27, 1982, the ground was broken in Reston, Virginia. In September of 1983, the building opened. The decal on the glass above the doorway stated it was the “National Center for Aeromodeling.”

In 1992, the Executive Council decided to move the Headquarters to Muncie, Indiana, on 1000 acres of land, calling the land the "International Aeromodeling Center" (IAC) and the building the "Frank V. Ehling Complex." In 2001, another building on the IAC site was built to help house the growing staff and give the Museum more room for storage.

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1. & 2. Groundbreaking ceremonies for the AMA Headquarters building in Reston, Virginia, June 27, 1982. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Archives, AMA Collection #0001.)

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3. A view from the air of the Reston headquarters building construction. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Archives, AMA Collection #0001.)

4. The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Reston headquarters building, September 1983. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Archives, AMA Collection #0001.)

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5. The AMA announced its new address to members well in advance with stickers like these. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, AMA Collection, 2007.13.57.)

6. To encourage monetary donations towards building costs, several levels of donation to the fund were set up and donors received various items at each level. This patch indicated that the donor had given at the gold level, or the highest level toward the building fund. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, AMA Collection, 2005.02.101.)
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7. This sticker indicated that the owner had given a basic donation to the building fund. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, AMA Collection, 2006.01.171.)

8. Supporters of the building fund could also receive lapel pins. This particular pin belonged to Frank Zaic. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Collection, donated by Frank Zaic, 1999.46.10.)

Model Airplane Flown - History

Please note the following for the estimated number of flights:
- ATR models are current through 31 December 2014.
- 737 is current through March 2019.
- All other models are current through December 2017.

Fatal crash rates per million flights

Model Rate Flights FLE* Events Airbus A300** 0.61 6.51M 3.99 7 Airbus A300-600** 0.30 6.06M 2.00 2 Airbus A300** (all models) 0.46 12.57M 5.99 10 Airbus A310** 1.35 4.74M 6.39 9 Airbus A318/A319/A320/A321 0.09 119.0 10.58 14 Airbus A330 0.19 10.26M 1.99 2 ATR 42 and ATR 72 0.44 26.8M 11.86 15 Boeing 727** 0.50 76.61M 38.6 51 Boeing 737-100/200** 0.62 58.29M 36.43 50 Boeing 737-300/400/500** 0.15 79.60M 11.99 19 Boeing 737-600/700/800/900 0.07 100.3M 7.19 12 Boeing 737 MAX 7/8/9/10 3.08 0.65M 2.00 2 Boeing 737 (all models) 0.24 238.84M 58.4 83 Boeing 747-100/200/300/SP** 1.02 12.98M 13.23 26 Boeing 747-400** 0.06 8.42M 0.50 2 Boeing 757** 0.22 25.0M 5.41 9 Boeing 767 0.28 20.0M 5.50 6 Boeing 777 0.18 11.11M 2.01 3 Boeing DC9** 0.58 62.59M 36.40 45 Boeing DC10/MD10** 0.64 9.30M 5.91 15 Boeing MD11** 0.37 2.79M 1.02 3 Boeing MD80/MD90** 0.26 46.38M 11.94 18 Bombardier Dash 8 UNK UNK 3.38 5 Canadair CRJ series UNK UNK 3.10 4 BAe146/RJ100** 0.39 11.56M 4.49 6 Concorde*** 11.36 0.09M 1.00 1 Embraer E170/E190 0.03 16.67M 0.44 1 Fokker F28** 1.62 9.53M 15.45 21 Fokker 70/100** 0.18 11.11M 2.01 6 Lockheed L1011** 0.47 5.40M 2.54 5 Saab 340** 0.19 11.2M 2.10 3

** No longer in production
*** No longer in commercial service
**** One aircraft missing for over 30 days

A 25 September 2009 entry on the News described the contents of the following video, which lists popular airliner models with the five lowest fatal plane crash rates. As of 31 December 2017, the order of the airline models with the five lowest non-zero crash rates were:

  1. 0.03 - Embraer 170/190
  2. 0.06 - Boeing 747-400
  3. 0.07 - Boeing 737-600/700/800/900 (737NG)
  4. 0.08 - Airbus A320 (includes A318, A319, A321)
  5. 0.14 - Boeing 737-300/400/500**

Video and Audio Podcast Links (2:57)
Audio: MP3 | Video: iPod/MP4 | WMV | YouTube

Note: These listed fatal event rates are an estimate of historical risk and not an estimate or prediction of future performance. Also, this listing of fatal event rates does not constitute either an endorsement or a lack of an endorsement of any airline or group of airlines.

A Barbershop Confession

Anecdotes also emerged from other Tulsa communities. According to the Commission report, in the early 1950s, a middle-aged white man was overhead in a Tulsa barbershop bragging that he and a friend had flown a plane over Greenwood during the massacre and dropped dynamite. For historian Ellsworth, the account is credible. “Other than the 50 copies or so of Mary Parrish’s book, there was nothing [at that time] published about bombings,” Ellsworth said. “It wasn’t a subject that was out there in print. That’s why I believe that unless this old guy just made this up, which I doubt, his story rings true.”

Other accounts recall men with guns targeting fleeing residents from the low-flying planes. A Mexican immigrant, who lived at the edge of the Greenwood District, later told family members she witnessed two Black boys being followed down the street by a two-seater airplane. According to the Commission report, “the man in [the] rear seat was shooting at the boys. She then ran out and grabbed the boys and took them into the house."

The Good old Days –The Birth of RC

With our recent review of the new Junior Retro Series Park Flyer from Durafly, I had mentioned it had taken its styling cues from vintage old-timer free flight and early RC models. We had a few emails come in asking for more information. So, I dug up this informative article about the beginnings or RC airplanes written by Frank Gudaitis. We’ve come a long way baby! Check it out.

Text & Images by Frank Gudaitis

The very First example of radio control was demonstrated in New York City in 1898. Its inventor—Nikola Tesla—was a 43-year-old immigrant who was duly awarded U.S. Patent no. 613,809 on November 8, 1898. It was only one of 113 U.S. patents that this prolific genius received during his lifetime. Many electrical engineers and historians regard his basic inventions as the foundation of the 20th century as we know it. In the decades that followed, the military and its suppliers attempted to implement Tesla’s work in various R/C projects—including boats and aircraft—without very much fanfare.

By the middle of the 1930s, miniature airplanes were just beginning to be powered by very small gasoline engines. An R/C contest event was even scheduled for the 1936 model aircraft Nationals in Detroit. It was a little premature not one entrant showed up! The following year however, must be regarded as the true beginning of R/C.


Several men who were active in amateur radio became interested in the possibility of controlling model planes by radio. Two of these early pioneers were Ross Hull and Clinton DeSoto. Both were officials of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which is the governing body of ham radio operators. Hull was a very gifted radio designer whose achievements include the discovery and eventual explanation of the tropospheric bending of VHF radio waves. Since his youth in Australia, Hull also happened to be an avid modeler. Hull and his associate DeSoto successfully built and flew several large R/C gliders in the first public demonstration of controlled flights. Their sailplanes made more than 100 flights. (See the January and August 󈧪 issues of Model Airplane News). Tragically, Hull died one year later in 1939 when he accidentally contacted 6,000 volts while he was working on an early television receiver. DeSoto died a decade later.


The 1937 Nationals R/C event attracted six entrants: Walter Good, Elmer Wasman, Chester Lanzo, Leo Weiss, Patrick Sweeney and B. Shiffman. Lanzo won with the lightest (6 pounds) and the simplest model plane, although his flight was a bit erratic and lasted only several minutes. Sweeney and Wasman both had extremely short (5-second) flights when their aircraft took off, climbed steeply, stalled and crashed. Sweeney, however, had the distinction of being the first person to attempt an R/C flight in a national contest. The other three entrants weren’t able to make any flights at all.


One of them—Weiss—was an 18-year-old aeronautical engineering student who had constructed a very large, 14-foot-wingspan RC model. He and an electrical engineering student—Jon Lopus—had devised a very sophisticated, innovative RC system consisting of six tuned reeds that reacted to audio tones. The reed-control system became widely accepted in the 1950s. During the 1937 Nationals, however, Weiss wasn’t able to start his plane’s Ferguson twin-cylinder engine. He went on to successfully operate an avionics manufacturing company.

The 1938 Nationals were once again hosted by the “Motor City.” Although the R/C entry list had grown to 26 entrants, only five fliers showed up on the field. One of the newcomers was DeSoto, who entered a 14-footwingspan, 25-pound, stand-off-scale model of a Piper Cub that was powered by a Forster twin-cylinder engine. Each of the four separate receivers on board used a gas-filled Raytheon RK-62 tube in a super regenerative circuit to activate its own sigma relay. His plane placed second, but it isn’t clear whether or not it actually flew. Oddly enough, these first contests required only that contestants demonstrate their R/C systems in a static position on the ground to win a runner-up award.

Walter Good was the only contestant who attempted a controlled flight in the face of the 20mph winds. Even though it ended in a crack-up, Walt was awarded first place. A truly convincing demonstration of R/C flight by a powered miniature aircraft would have to wait until the following year. Eleven R/C fliers showed up at the 1939 Nationals at the Detroit Wayne County airport. For the first time, a 100-point system was adopted by the judges. Points were given for craftsmanship, actual R/C operation in a static preflight mode on the ground and a variety of flight maneuvers.


That was a rewarding year for Walter and William Good—23-year-old twins from Kalamazoo, MI. Bill was a licensed ham-radio operator with the call letters W81FD. Their aircraft—named K-G—was a slightly modified, high-wing monoplane.

(See the K-G story in the January 󈨟 issue of Model Airplane News.) This first stable gas model was designed by a former editor of Model Airplane News—Charles Hampson Grant.

Their radio and control mechanisms were the essence of simplicity. At a time when all of their competitor’s planes carried receivers with 3- and 4-tube circuits, the Good brothers’ radio receiver was a one tube affair with a minimum of electrical components. Their homemade relay was so sensitive that it could be activated by a current change of 1/2 milliamp! They also designed and made their 1 -ounce, rubber-band powered escapement mechanism. Before going to the Nationals in 1939, the two brothers had accumulated over 60 controlled flights in southern Michigan. Their diligent efforts paid off with a first-place score of 89 points the second-place winner scored only 11 points. The Good brothers repeated their first place win in the 1940 Nationals and once more after the end of WW II, in 1947.

Their historic R/C model airplane, which they affectionately named the “Guff,” was presented to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in May, 1960, where it can be seen today. Both brothers continued their education and subsequently earned doctorates in physics. After pursuing careers in electronics research and teaching, they retired, but they’re still very active in electronics. Walt lives in Florida, and Bill resides in upstate New York. They communicate constantly with each other using their ham radios.


No story on the early days of R/C would be complete without recognizing the work of Joseph Raspante. Unlike most of the early pioneers of R/C, who were basically model airplane builders teamed up with ham-radio specialists, Joe Raspante was a superb designer and builder of early gas models as well as a competent electronic technician. His R/C system was unique in that he used a telephone dial to select various control functions. He placed second in the 1939 R/C Nationals and third in the 1940 event. Raspante was generous, and he shared his knowledge with young builders in years that followed. Walter Good remembers that when thieves stole his brother’s R/C transmitter from their hotel the day before the 1940 Nationals, Raspante offered the use of his own transmitter. This gesture was especially meaningful, because the Good brothers had defeated him in the 1939 Nationals. Raspante finally won the first place he yearned for at the 1946 NY Daily Mirror contest at Grumman airfield. It was my privilege to see him fly there. With the advent of the transistor and the integrated microcircuits, today’s R/C builder hardly has any of the frustrations of the early pioneers.

In retrospect, however, we see that most of the pioneer’s dedicated efforts were largely foiled by overly complex electrical designs. But without their perseverance, I doubt that R/C flight would have progressed as quickly to where it is today.

Aircraft History

Twice size Avenger sail-plane modified for radio-control designed by J A Gorham in the early 1950s and introduced as a kit in 1952 by Contest Kits. This example performs extremely well when ridge soaring.

The twice size Avenger soaring at South Harting, Hampshire in 2003.

Original Magazine Advert January 1952

This advertisement appeared in January 1952 Aeromodeller and the kit was offered by East Anglian Model Supplies of Ipswich. This model was the original dimensions.

Photograph showing the large span of the Thermalist.

The Thermalist was introduced by designer R Minney in December 1948 for the international sail plane contest at Eaton Bray. It gained first place against the international opposition. The model is of all balsa construction and the example shown in the colour photograph was constructed by Graham Knight of the Raynes Park Club in 1999. The wingspan is a large 137 inches.

History of Control Line Models

Most history books attribute Jim Walker as the farther of Control Line Flying. However, according Charles Mackey's research, Oba St. Clair has documented and flown his four-line system as early as 1937. His system of controlling the model airplane was shown to Jim Walker in the later part of the 1930's. In the early 40's, Jim Walker developed and patented the basic two-wire control system to control a model airplane. He eventually perfected his idea and and established the innovative American-Junior Aircraft Co. which produced the A-J Fireball, which was the first C/L model, complete with control handle and flying lines. The later produced Firebaby, was the first Control Line RTF "Ready to Fly" model.

He would demonstrate his incredible flying ability by flying 3 models at a time, two of them in each hand and one on his head using a special beanie with a control handle attached to the top. With the development of the glow engine, the hobby of "Control Line" or "U-Control" was born. The 50's was know as the "Golden Age" of modeling. Innovative model designs such as the "Nobler" along with improve engine performance allowed the model to do aerobatic maneuvers. Speed records were broken as technology improved.

Control-line fliers are generally more competition-oriented than their R/C (Radio Control) counterparts. There many aspect on C/L (Control Line) flying. The four types of competition are: Speed, Racing, Precision Aerobatics and Combat. With eash type, there are many different classes base on model design, engine displacement and skill level of the competitor.

The Speed competition is based on building and flying an airplane as fast as it can possibly go, given the limitations of fuel, engine displacement and model design and line specifications. The designs are usually small, streamlined, with long, thin wings. Several classes are flown, based on engine displacement. Everything from the standard two-stroke engine to pulse-jets. The models are timed for a certain number of laps to determine their speed. Speeds can reach an awesome 200 mph!!


Racing events involve the flying of two or more airplanes together in the same circle. The idea, of course, is to complete a given number of laps before ones' opponents do so. Racing events usuall involves a minimum number of pit stops, where the planes are landed, refueled, restarted and relaunched by a second team member. Racing type competition takes many forms. Some require that a given amount of fuel is carried, and some require a mandatory number of fueling stops. The international event, F2C is known as called "Team Racing". In F2C, 2.5 cc size engine are used. Other type of racing, know popular in the US is called "Sport Racing". This type of racing using as standard inexpensive "Fox 35 Stunt" engine. Many clubs have adopted a form of the event to attract beginning into the world of Racing. The most popular version of the racing was founded in the Pacific Northwest are, so the name "Northwest Sport Race" was coined. Other racing events such as "Flying Clown Race", uses model of the same design.

Precision Aerobatics

Precision Aerobatics, or "Stunt" is the premier event in the world on Control Line. It involves flying of a set of acrobatic maneuvers, such as squares, hourglass and four-leaf clover. The models are large compared to Speed, Racing or Combat models, and are often beautifully finished with hundreds of hour of work. George Aldritch, who design the famous "Nobler" stunt model, developed the modern pattern still flown today. The unique design of the Nobler incorporate the use of flaps which work in conjuction with the elevator. This provided a substantial increase in maneuverability for the time. Flapped stunt ship are common in most designs today. Pilot spent many hours perfecting their pattern. Each maneuver is judge from 10 to 40 points. A addition 25 point is awarded for completing the pattern. Also, a maximum of 20 point is given for the appearance of the model.

Recently new events have been added to stunt, such as "Old-Time", "Classic" and "P40". "Old-Time" and "Classic" are nostalgic event which celebrate model designed in a centain period. "Old-Time" model is and before 1953 and "Classic" model is from 1953 to 1967.

The "P40" or "Profile 40" event are model designed with flat or "Profile" type fuselage. The engine displacement can not go over .40 cu inches. Thus the name "Profile 40". The "Profile" model are usually what most beginner start with because they are a lot easiler to build, simplier to repair and are able with with stand crashes versus the built-up counterpart.


The "Combat" event is the simulation of air-to-air combat or "Dog Fighting". These models are very minimal, simply a wing and an elevator. They are constructed to be tough and very maneuverable. Two pilots fly in the same circle, towing a crepe paper streamers. Points are awarded for cuts on the opponent's streamer. In addition, points are awarded for "airtime". As with other events, several classes are flown.


The Carrier event is designed to mimic actual naval carrier-based operations. These model area fown from a simulated aircraft carrier deck and must simulate naval carrier flight with includes several things: high speed slow flight and precision arrested landing. Scoring is based on the accumulate of these flights plus additional point for scale-like apperance. Like other event there are many classes of Carrier from Class II, Profile, Profile 15, etc. Each class has limits on engine displacement and design type.

V11.27.2 Copyright © 2011 Aeromaniac Design Inc.

2. Otto Lilienthal

Otto Lilienthal performing one of his gliding experiments. (Credit: Public Domain)

“To invent an airplane is nothing,” Otto Lilienthal once said. “To build one is something. But to fly is everything.” It was a motto the German aviator lived by. Between 1891 and 1896, he constructed 16 different glider designs and made some 2,000 successful flights, most of them from an artificial hill outside Berlin. Lilienthal’s craft were typically crude monoplanes that resembled hang gliders, but he was also a tireless experimenter who compiled reams of data on bird flight, aerodynamics and airfoil design. 

His well-documented flights—some of which saw him soar as far as 800 feet—helped legitimize the quest for aviation during a time when many still considered it a fool’s errand. Photos of the “Glider King” circulated around the globe, inspiring a whole generation of aviators. “No one equaled him in power to draw new recruits to the cause,” Wilbur Wright once said. Unfortunately, Lilienthal didn’t live to see the full impact of his work. During a flight on August 9, 1896, he stalled his glider and plummeted 50 feet to the ground, fracturing his spine. The fearless aviator died the following day, supposedly after uttering the now-legendary words, “Sacrifices must be made.”

The Rise and Fall of the Plane “Anyone Could Fly”

In October 1945, the future of travel sat in a glistening showroom in a Manhattan Macy’s. Alongside the department store staples of household appliances, gentlemen's socks and ladies’ girdles was a small, all-metal, two-seater airplane. This was the Ercoupe, “the airplane that anyone could fly.”

Built by the Engineering and Researching Corporation (ERCO), the Ercoupe was billed as “America’s first certified spin-proof plane.” It was safe: Ads called it the “world’s safest plane” and compared its handling to that of the family car. Others vouched for its affordability, emphasizing that it cost less than $3,000 (about $39,000 today). It was also a media sensation: LIFE Magazine called it “nearly foolproof” and the Saturday Evening Post asked readers to not look at it “as another airplane, but as a new means of personal transportation.”

It was the “plane of tomorrow, today.” But by 1952, the Ercoupe was basically out of production. Seven decades later, the question remains — what happened?

The answer can be found at Maryland’s College Park Airport, a facility recognized as the “world’s oldest continuously operating airport.” Located only ten miles from downtown Washington D.C, it's where Wilbur Wright first taught military officers Lt. Frank Lahm and Lt. Frederic Humphreys how to fly an airplane. The College Park Aviation Museum, which overlooks the airport’s runway and house the ERCO company's archives, features a new exhibit highlighting the glitz and glamour of the forgotten aircraft. 

The story of the Ercoupe begins with aviation pioneer Henry A. Berliner, who founded ERCO in 1930. Perhaps best known for developing a practical helicopter with his father, Berliner envisioned a future filled with accessible air travel. In 1936, he hired engineer Fred Weick, who shared his lofty ambition to develop an easy-to-fly, consumer-friendly aircraft. Later, Weick’s daughter would say that her father’s goal was to build “the Model T of the sky.”

With that in mind, the Ercoupe was born. The first production model was completed in 1938 (an early model can be found in Smithsonian’s collections), and it was unlike anything ever crafted before. It steered like a car due to the nose wheel being connected to the control wheel. It featured triangle landing gear, an innovation still used today. Most noticeably, though, the Ercoupe was rudderless, meaning the plane was flown entirely through the control wheel. When the Civil Aeronautics Administration decreed that the plane was “characteristically incapable of spinning” in 1940, it was clear that the Ercoupe had earned its famous moniker: “the plane that flies itself.”

The Ercoupe was poised to be a flying sensation, says Andrea Tracey, director of the College Park Aviation Museum. “Even though aviation was only about 30 years old at the time,” she says, “anyone could have and learn how to fly” the Ercoupe. Its accessibility was the secret of its early success, she notes: “You could order it from Macy’s and J.C. Penney, just like you could have ordered a house through Sears Roebuck.”

For a while, the plane even seemed to be impervious to world events. Though ERCO only manufactured 112 airplanes before the looming war effort halted production, it started selling the plane as soon as World War II ended. By the end of 1945, the airplane was in department stores across the country – from Denver to Baltimore, from San Antonio to Allentown. Celebrities like Dick Powell and Jane Russell bought and endorsed the airplane. The Secretary of the Interior Henry Wallace flew an Ercoupe solo. Magazine and newspaper features were written highlighting the safety, accessibility and affordability of the Ercoupe.

ERCO’s marketing blitz worked: During the first year, the company took over 6,000 orders. To keep up with demand, Berliner increased production, firmly believing the boom was here to last. By mid-1946, the ERCO factory in Riverdale was producing 34 airplanes a day.

The Ercoupe’s journey from boom to bust happened seemingly overnight. First, production outpaced demand. A brief economic downturn in 1946 spooked would-be purchasers. And professional pilots voiced their suspicion of the plane, pointing out that while the plane was safe in the hands of an experienced operator, descents and speed drops could prove to be fatal for the average consumer.

In the end, only 5,140 Ercoupes were produced. Just two years after taking America by storm, Berliner sold the rights to his plane. Seven years after it was introduced, production of the plane ceased for good.

Today, only about 2,000 Ercoupes still exist (only about 1,000 are registered to fly with the FAA). Chris Schuldt flies his Ercoupe three or four times week, usually making short trips from his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He says the plane still gets fellow pilots talking. “You can never land anywhere where someone doesn't come up and ask you about the airplane,” says Schuldt. “They are a real conversation piece.”

Schuldt, who has had his pilot’s license since 1996, says the Ercoupe is relatively simple to learn. But, like pilots of yore, his enthusiasm comes with a caveat. 󈭊 percent of the time you can teach someone how to fly this plane much more easily and simply than many other airplanes,” he says. “The only problem is that last ten percent: It’s the ten percent that will kill you.”

Maybe it was the danger. Maybe Americans just weren’t ready to buy a plane along with refrigerators, underwear and the “miraculous” ballpoint pen. Ultimately, the Ercoupe wasn’t the plane for everyone — but it still represents a soaring vision of what travel could have been.

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

Radio control has a history of just over 100 years. Here is a timeline of some of the important highlights.

Another great contributor to this timeline would be John H. Hammond who is often considered the father of radio control. He held over 400 patents in various aspects of RC including multi-channel rc and secret radio communications.

My thanks to the good folks over at the They have a lot of great radio control stuff. Check them out!

Alphonse Penaud launches the Planophere 131 feet in the air, powered by a wound up rubber band and inspires many people to believe that powered flight has potential.

Nikola Tesla designs and builds the first pair of radio controlled boats, demonstrating the vessels to a shocked crowd at Madison Square Garden. Tesla refers to his boats as "teleautomatons."

The world&rsquos first RC apparatus is born. The Telekino is presented by Leonardo Torres Quevedo at the Paris Academy of Science. During this, he demonstrates the ability to remotely control a robot via electromagnetic waves causing it to execute various commands.

During WWI Archibald Low, the &ldquofather of radio guidance systems&rdquo, creates an aerial drone plane for the Royal Flying Corps, which is radio controlled and intended as a guided bomb.

The model aeroplane flies for its first time in this important era of RC development. We can thank the military for their contribution in remote control technology during WWII.

Walter Good, along with his brother William, is credited with constructing and operating the first fully-functional RC airplane. With the help of his plane, "Big Guff," Walter gives RC enthusiasts a reason to take to the skies. This historic plane is now on display at the Smithsonian.

Gas powered tether cars, a.k.a Spindizzies, are model cars powered by a miniature gas engine. This classic car became popular in the early '40s, but can only be started up to run in circles around the tether pole.

Remote control models gain popularity during the 1950&rsquos, but are limited by battery capacities and must be recharged frequently until the invention of the transistor.

The beginning of RC hobby car racing and production of car &ldquokits&rdquo. Pioneers make 1/8th scale pan cars and even 19 cubic inch 2-stroke model plane engines.

Dr. Dieter Schluter, an engineer from West Germany builds the first fully controllable RC model helicopter and is credited as the father of RC helicopter flight.

Companies begin introducing off-road RC vehicles. However, the Tamiya Rough Rider revolutionizes racing due to its die-cast suspension and big rubber tires for off-road areas. The RC buggy was born.

1:10 scale electric cars and trucks gain in popularity and performance causing prices for motors, batteries and tires to soar. To make things more affordable, parking lot races of the 80's were reinstated.

RC makes a whirring debut as Andy&rsquos fun-loving remote controlled car in Disney/Pixar&rsquos first CGI feature film - Toy Story.

The world's largest RC airplane contest (literally) is held in Florida. Aptly named Top Gun, a total of 125 participants compete over a period of five days.

After 6 years of successful Mars exploration, NASA announces on March 24th the RC instructed exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have vastly exceeded their driving distance goal of just 600 meters.

On July 1, DARPA announces a $33 million dollar contract for Northrop Grumman to demonstrate autonomous aerial refueling using two UAV NASA Global Hawks.

DARPA plans to fund their next phases of research by remotely controlling brain activity using ultrasound. These remote signals affect areas of the brain that regulate alertness and cognition in hopes that it will improve alertness and alleviate stress, anxiety and pain in soldiers.

Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies debuts "H-CELL 2.0", the world's one and only hydrogen fuel cell hybrid power-train for high performance hobby grade model RC vehicles.

The Master Scratch Builders: Their Aircraft Models & Techniques (Schiffer Military History)

This book examines aircraft models by twenty outstanding practitioners from around the world, and provides detailed coverage of their often widely varying techniques. Each includes color photos of the featured model, plus numerous detail construction illustrations. Other chapters explain advanced finishing technique, vacuforming, model subject research, and tools/supplies/materials required for this arcane craft. While emphasis is upon aircraft from the two World Wars, the 1920s and 1930s are also represented by military, commercial, civil and racing aircraft. This is not only a book of surpassing visual excitement for the aviation/modelling enthusiast, but an invaluable technique resource.

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