Model Airplanes for the Purist
Some purists prefer driving stick-shifts to automatics. Others like to play LPs on a record player instead of listening to an iPod. And then there are the model airplane purists, who power their aircraft not with electric motors, but with strips of rubber.
George Benson, who will turn 82 in June, is one of these purists, as he is an enthusiast of rubber-powered model airplanes. He remembers growing up in England, when there was a huge interest in the latest civilian and war planes both in Europe and in the United States.
Benson and his father would build and fly the planes into the early years of World War II. Model airplane competitions were intense, and sometimes there were larger, heavier, and noisier gasoline-powered models.
Nowadays, technology and modern materials mean just about everyone can use a remote control with a model airplane that is purchased ready to fly and usually manufactured from molded plastic. Some prefer a challenge, so they fly “free-flight” models that are unpredictable: they go where the wind blows.
But the devotees of rubber-powered model airplanes go so far as to keep their art close to the way Alphonse Penaud invented it, back in 1871. His “Planophore” achieved a flight of 131 feet in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Strips of rubber powered his model airplane, which was a delicate arrangement of balsa wood and tissue paper.
That’s the way Benson and his colleagues like to keep their hobby. They belong to the Marin Aero Club, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they meet regularly to fly their planes. They also show the younger flyers how, when it’s done properly and if all goes well, the planes are “trimmed” to climb steadily, reach level flight, then slowly glide back to earth. But there are endless variables; one of the most common is a rising warm air “thermal,” which can make the plane soar out of sight in minutes.
Benson, who is a long-time resident of Mill Valley, California, says the hobby is incredibly satisfying. There’s pride in the workmanship required to construct the planes, and in the skill to “trim,” or adjust them, to fly well.
“Once flying,” he says, “it is a beautiful sight to see one’s handicraft overhead with the sun streaming through the tissue, revealing the wood framework.”
Benson reveals there’s really only one drawback: “With an exceptionally long flight, one occasionally loses a plane.”
Roberto Soncin Gerometta is an established travel and corporate photographer based in San Francisco.
For more information, see the Marin Aero Club blog.