Getting Started in Free Flight Scale
By Bob Clemens

So you’d like to give free flight scale modeling a try. Good for you! It’s fun, cheap, & its chief requirements are patience & persistence. You can do it indoors or out.

Many modelers reading this may experience a strong sense of déjà vu. Whatever their present area of interest is in the hobby, they may well have at one time or another built and flown free flight scale models. Any of us over the age of 50 or so probably got our start in modeling by building and flying rubber-powered scale models. After all, back in the 1930’s, 40’s, and much of the 50’s that was almost all there was. But unless you’ve checked this niche out lately, much of your earlier experience may have become obsolete.

The basics of free flight scale have remained generally unchanged since before WWII: the “stick and tissue” style of construction is still the technique of choice for most models. We do still use mechanical winders and stretch the rubber motor during winding for maximum turns. Although creating ultralight opaque finishes by airbrushing is gaining in popularity and skill level, the translucent look of colored tissue is still commonly found on scale models.

(Someone once compared radio control & free flight scale models to oil paintings and watercolors. This is an apt description, with each approach having its own validity in terms of the final visual result.)

But there have been many striking improvements since the good old days: Free flight scale models are skillfully designed & built to weigh less than before, with the result that flights of two minutes and more either indoors or in dead air outdoor conditions are attainable under power. Tiny electric motors allow subjects such as flying boats & mulit-engined bombers and transports to become a reality in model form. A greater variety of subject matter than anyone dreamed possible 20-30 years ago can be seen at most FF scale contests.

High wing monoplanes no longer are the prevalent choice. Instead, low wing warplanes and 1930’s racers fly just as well; biplanes are commonplace, triplanes & canards score well, as well. Multi-engine rubber models are fairly common. And all these planforms can be seen representing aircraft from the early pioneer days of aviation through WWI, the Golden Age, WWII, to the present day.

After a near extinction during the 1950’s, more free flight kits than ever are available with more being introduced all the time. Many of these new kits feature laser cut parts, making for accurate and rapid assembly. Plastic props are popular and effective.

I doubt that a more impressive array of scale models can be found anywhere than that seen at the biennial Flying Aces Club Nationals held at an airport just outside of Geneseo, New York, even-numbered years. Better seen than described, check out the photo gallery of FAC models on the D.C. Maxecuters’ web site and catch the fever:

While there, consider subscribing to their find bimonthly newsletter, Max Fax, each issue of which has full-sized plans, excellent photos and modeling new and tips. And this is but one of many excellent web sites devoted to free flight scale.

Free flight scale offers a cornucopia of possibilities: rubber or engine power, large (over three feet) to small (13” peanuts) model size, indoor or outdoor flying, and an almost unlimited array of subject matter.

Indeed, free flight scale is pushing the envelope almost on a day-to-day basis. And it’s fun!

A good place to start is by printing out my Free Flight Resource List. The Free Fluight Resource List can be found back at my column head page (where my photo was). Sadly, most hobby shops don’t stock much these days in terms of free flight necessities. Most of the kits, rubber, tissue, & other supplies needed have to be ordered from an ever-growing group of mail order vendors, many of which are of the cottage industry variety. Bless ‘em all! Without them, free flight modeling would indeed be a tough row to hoe.

The list is a very basic one. There are probably over 200 cottage & mail order vendors our there looking for business. My list is aimed at getting newcomers informed and started and to help “returnees” to free flight rediscover what’s become available since they left. I have recently added a short glossary of frequently-used terms as well as a basic list of some of the many excellent Internet web sites now on line. Most of these show links to still other sites representing clubs, vendors, or run by someone wanting to help share free flight information, tips, plans, and pictures.

Let’s take a look at it and see whose catalogs you might want to order first:

1. F.A.I Model Supply.

John Clapp is responsible for maintaining the supply and quality control of Tan II rubber strip. This rubber is used by just about everyone who flies using gumband power. It is the state of the art rubber strip, and being constantly improved. If you’re planning to fly rubber power, you must have a supply of Tan II. John sells it in five basic widths, all of which are about .045 inch thickness: 1/16”, 3/32”, 1/8”, 3/16”, and ¼”. These are in turn available in 16 ft. packets, as well as ¼, ½, 1, and 10-pound boxes. One of these widths, made to the appropriate length for a particular model, will probably fly just about any scale model The wider the rubber used in a model the more power it puts out. John sells a lot of FF kits too, plus various accessories including winders.

2. Golden Age Reproductions.

They sell an amazing array of plans from the 1930’s & 1940’s. Remember those Comet, Megow, Peerless, Scientific, Tomasco, and Whitman kits? Chances are GAR has their plans. They also sell a series of excellent kits based on these same oldtimers.

3. Indoor Model Supply.

Let’s face it- Most of us face snow, cold, and ice for at least half of every year, making outdoor flying mostly unpleasant if not downright impossible. What’s the answer? INDOOR flying! Any available gym, auditorium, fieldhouse, or other reasonable large indoor space mostly free of ceiling or other obstructions can be used as a flying site. The weather is always great! IMS has models that are designed to be flown in the calm confines of these venues. They have a nice selections of peanut (13” max span) and larger scale kits, plus tissue, rubber, winders, and other necessities.

4. Midwest Products.

Their non-scale kits are pretty basic, but fly well and provide a good first step for learning how to properly trim a rubber-powered model. These models were designed for club and school use, and come in multi-model packs rather than single kits. No matter. Get some packs for your school, Scout troop, model club or fellow modelers and get airborne fast. The “Right Flyer” is highly recommended, and like the other three models from Midwest, it can be flown indoors or out.

5. Peck-Polymers.

One of the most comprehensive catalogs you can get. It’s loaded with kits, plans, and supplies, including many scale models. Peck’s long-lasting line of peanut kits contains some excellent models for first-timers. These include the Lacey M-10 and Nesmith Cougar, both of which feature easy construction and excellent flying characteristics.

6. Hannan’s Hangar.

Bill Hannan doesn’t sell kits, wood, or tissue. What he does sell are a bunch of books and videos devoted to various facets of free flight scale building and flying. These can be most helpful resources for even experienced stick-and-tissue modelers. He has an excellent web site and you can order directly from it. By all means, check it out.

So where to start? A good suggestion for anyone starting from scratch or who want to refresh their free flight memories is to first buy the book, “Rubber Powered Model Airplanes” by Don Ross. Don shares his experience with a lot of good information, including plans for a series of models you can built from scratch. The book is available on line from Hannan’s Hangar and can also be ordered from just about any book store. Don just recently published a sequel, “Flying Models,” which more experienced modelers should consider. Bill Hannan sells the William Harding video, “Basics of Rubber Power,” which is a fine visual resource for first timers.

So what model do we choose to begin? To some extent, this depends on your personal level of experience dealing with free flight models. If you’ve never built or flown a free flight model, you should consider starting with something simpler (but no less fun) than a scale model, such as the Midwest “Right Flyer.” Robust and good-flying, it will act as a good trainer as you learn the basics of free flight technique. The old saw, “Learn to walk before you run” applies here. The Ross book provides information on building, trimming, and flying beginner models you can build from scratch.

When making your decision as to what model to build, ask yourself: Have you worked with small stick-and-tissue models before? Are you comfortable working with small balsa parts, using 1/16 square or smaller stripwood, using tiny dabs of glue, and covering the finished framework with Japanese tissue for a wrinkle-free look? Do you know how to properly choose a rubber motor and wind it for optimum flight performance? If not, perhaps a simpler, non-scale model would be a better first project. Models in this category include:

- The Shoebox ROG or Right Flyer from Midwest Products. Both can be flown indoors or out.

- The Peck ROG, Sky Bunny, One Night 16, Prairie Bird, or Bostonian Pup from Peck-Polymers.

- The Salem 6 or Slow Poke indoor models from Indoor Model Supply. These are primarily intended for indoor flying, but could be flown outdoors under dead calm conditions.

These models are fine trainers that will help you learn how to work with relatively delicate structures using basic stick-and-tissue construction and covering techniques. Equally important is the mastery of choosing the correct rubber motor size and length for a particular model as well as learning correct winding technique. These little ships make excellent flying laboratories for this purpose, to say nothing of enabling you to learn how to trim a simple rubber job for optimum flights. The Pup and One Night 16 from Peck have built-up fuselages, while the others use easy-to-handle solid balsa motor sticks in lieu of hollow structure. All of these models are capable of long, satisfying flights. Flown outdoors, they could easily be claimed by a passing thermal.

If you’re a bit more experienced and want to jump right into scale model building and flying, I suggest you look over the Dumas and Herr lines of laser-cut kits. While these tend to have somewhat more structure built in than is really needed and their wood can be on the heavy side, they will fly reasonably well. Both companies offer a wide choice of subjects ranging in span from about 17 inches to 30 inches. Another good choice, but one that will require you to cut individual parts from printed sheetwood, are the kits offered by Golden Age Reproductions.

Avoid the ubiquitous, slickly-packaged models from Guillow. However enticing these may seem, don’t be seduced! These kits are complex to build. More importantly, they typically use heavy, hard balsa and are utterly over-engineered from a structural standpoint. If you do persevere and finish one, it will most likely be a lead sled that will not fly for longer than a few seconds. Experienced modelers who choose to build from these kits will do a wholesale substitution of their light wood for that in the kit as well as making many other modifications, mostly aimed at losing weight. And weight is the deadly enemy of free flight scale models.

Find out if there is free flight activity or a free flight club in your area. Fellow modelers are a great source of help and inspiration and are ready and willing to share their expertise with you. Attend a free flight contest, either indoors or out, where scale is on the events list. You’ll be amazed, and learn a lot as well. Check the contest listings in Model Aviation magazine for meets near you.

Let’s finish up with a short list of things you’ll need to get started in free flight scale, rubber power:

1. Mail order catalogs.

Unless your local hobby shop is exceptional, catalogs will be your best source for kits, plans, rubber, wood, tissue, winders, and other necessities.

2. A suitable first model to get you started.

If you’re a rank beginners, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start simple, and work up to that P-51 Mustang you’ve always wanted to build for rubber power. Simple models fly well, are easily built and repaired, and will help you learn the basics of free flight. If you’re already up to the task, there are a bunch of good P-51 and other kits and plans out there waiting for you. If you have access to an indoor site, this may affect your choice.

3. A supply of rubber strip.

You’ll want Tan II, either directly from FAI Model Supply or from one of the many other vendors that also offer it.

4. Rubber lubricant.

Don’t use a rubber motor dry. It will not take enough turns for long flights and will break easily when tightly wound. Formula 2001, Son of a Gun, and Armor All make good lubricants and are readily available. Dedicated rubber lube is also sold by FAI and other vendors on my list. Put some in the palm of your hand and rub it into your motor.

4. A good rubber winder.

You’ll get what you pay for, so get the best one you can. I recommend one of the English made 16:1 winders sold by Indoor Model Supply, FAI, and some others. Rubber winders are a must for quick, convenient winding to maximum turns.

5. Help and advice.

This is very important. It can come from books, videos, web sites, or other modelers. Any or all of these can be invaluable resources. Take advantage of them. Free flight scale is not difficult, but it has many many humbling nuances that have to be mastered. This takes time and help. Don’t hesitate about seeking the assistance you’ll need...right here on Scale Aero.

If I can be of help, please contact me at:

Happy flying!

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