Remote-Control Model Planes Combine art and Engineering in Miniature Versions of The Real Thing
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97
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Some of the competitors arrived the Monday prior to the official start of the weekend's flying just to practice. Dave Pinegar, who was flying teammate Mariano Alfafara's Clipped Wing Cub, was one of these dedicated souls. Sure, the lure of a warm Florida spring might tempt anyone from, say, still thawing Michigan in late April, but Pinegar was here to prepare.
The extra effort was apparent during his first official flight. While many of his competitors were still not completely oriented to flying from an unfamiliar field, by the first round it was just another routine flight for Pinegar; routine except for the judges seated behind him and the thousands of spectators watching from the stands. The Cub taxied out to the secondary runway; being a replica of a "lightplane," he could take advantage of using a short takeoff run into the wind. As he effortlessly joined the others in the flight pattern, the extra days of preparation became apparent. The builder, Alfafara, stood by his side calling to the judges what maneuver to expect next. Pinegar, chomping furiously on a wad of gum, performed his flight plan: a loop, a slow barrel roll, a stall turn and three turn spins, while all the time expertly compensating for the gusts blowing across the aircraft's flight path.
He set the Cub down on the left wheel, left wing tip down to compensate for the crosswind, as a yellow-nosed SNJ-5 "heavy metal" warbird entered by the Bolivian team of Ed Gutierrez and Pedro Serco rocketed by on its high-speed pass, underscoring the difference in speed of the various aircraft. As Alfafara congratulates him on his performance, Pinegar characteristically shrugs his shoulders; it may be a hobby, but everyone wants to do well.
More importantly, they want it to look real. "I think the best part of Top Gun," says Pinegar, "is making it look as realistic as possible and having a little ol' guy that flew back in WWII come up to you with a big smile on his face, with almost tears in his eyes, because it's the way he saw it happen."
Of course, complex details also abound here. One of the most technologically advanced and functionally accurate designs is Nick Ziroli Jr.'s Avenger, which is modeled after a torpedo bomber from the Second World War. As the Avenger taxies to the runway, the wings still folded against the side of the fuselage, the outboard panels begin the slow contortions needed to unfold and ready the bird for flight. Like other carrier-based aircraft, the original Avenger kept its wings folded for storage in the ship's confined hanger decks. At this level of competition, distinctions that exist on the plane being duplicated are expected to be on the model, and so Ziroli duplicated them.
The intricate mechanics needed to operate a detail like folding wings, not to mention the fail-safe locking mechanism to make them stay put in flight, had eluded modelers for years. Some tried it in the past, but Ziroli perfected it. As he turns onto the runway, the Avenger's wings are fully extended and locked into position. After a brief check of the controls, the throttle is applied slowly until it reaches full speed. The 4.2-cubic-inch engine accelerates the 50-pound model quickly to flying speed, first lifting the tail, then pulling the model convincingly into the air. As the wheels disappear into the airframe and the flaps are raised, the Avenger joins up with a similar-sized, twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber flown by Greg Hahn.
As the two pilots perform their selected maneuvers for the judges, the crowd enjoys two spectacular examples of the scale modeler's art, 1997 style. Following its mandatory slow flyby--with wheels, flaps and carrier arrestor hook deployed--the Avenger pulls up and prepares for its simulated torpedo run. As the diving model approaches the field from the north, it releases the mock torpedo. It lands directly in front of Ziroli and, with the help of the wind, it rolls practically back to his feet, accompanied by the applause of the large crowd. Bull's-eye.
There's certainly little comparison between today's R/C aircraft and the pioneering efforts in the hobby that began more than 50 years ago. While today's electronic equipment is replete with computerization and miniaturization, modelers in the early years had to be inventive (and persistent) to perform even the most basic radio control functions. One of the earliest efforts by R/C pioneers used radio control equipment with a rotary telephone dialer to send the signals to the onboard control systems. Because of the unavoidable crudeness of these early systems--flights were often described as controlled crashes--aircraft designs that could be expected to meet with any flying success were limited. Most were modified "free flight" designs, which were designed to literally fly free, without the benefit of any control other than the carefully designed trim. These inherently stable aircraft, while providing a relatively reliable platform for early R/C experiments, bore little or no resemblance to full-size aircraft even from that era. Making a workable model of a Second World War four-engine bomber that actually flew was pretty much out of the question.
As radio-control systems technology advanced through the 1950s and 1960s, the sport continued to grow and attract new modelers. Despite the improvements at the time, the equipment still lacked the smooth, reliable control necessary to guide complex or fast-moving aircraft, not to mention the fact that the airborne hardware was bulky and heavy. It was not until the introduction of "proportional" systems in the early 1970s that truly ambitious projects became feasible. These new R/C systems offered the pilot controls in which the output of the airborne servo motors (which are connected to the flying surfaces and engine controls) is "proportional" to the input on the control stick of the transmitter that the pilot holds. This type of control, which is still the basis of today's complex R/C systems, gave the modeler on the ground the same smooth, accurate movements that the pilot of the full-scale version would have.
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