Saturday, January 15, 2011

David Builds an Airplane

It was the late 1960s and I was one of the kids playing around Vreeland's farmhouse down the street. I remember traipsing through the workshop in the house's basement and looking up at the ceiling where there was nothing but model airplanes. Flying model airplanes, the kind made of balsa and tissue paper stretched perfectly smooth over an intricate wooden skeleton. There were more of them on the workbench, surrounded by newspaper sized construction diagrams, half completed pieces, and small sharp tools. The planes glowed with perfection, smooth curves from spider webs of balsa covered with brightly colored skins. By the time we'd passed through the basement door and back outside, I'd caught the model airplane bug.

My grandfather took my brothers and I to a department store after Christmas sale and I plunked down a few dollars for a Comet flying balsa model airplane kit. I was probably 8 years old. The kit contained long narrow sheets of balsa printed with the outlines of dozens of spars and formers, each one pockmarked with even smaller notches to carry the airplane's ribbing. To assemble the model, each part had to be cut from the sheet precisely, each tiny notch opened up without inducing a crack in the paper thin sheet of balsa. My X-acto knife and 8 year old skills were no match for the Comet.

Over the next couple of years I made a few more attempts with different kits, making sure to select ones that featured "die cut parts". I got better at the process of cutting, assembling, and finally covering the models although perfection was always a long way off. The last model was a large yellow biplane which I hoped to use as credit towards a Boy Scout merit badge. Doing so required bringing the plane to the merit badge counseler, so I carefully placed it on the back seat of our little Volkwswagen Beetle. Leaving the door open, I left to gather the rest of my things. Our large German Shepherd dog, sensing an opporunity for a nice drive with head out the rear seat window, leapt on the back seat and smashed the airplane. I was cured of the model airplane bug.

Christmas 2010. My son Matthew lets on that he's picked a flying cardboard airplane book for his older brother David. This wasn't a spec gift, David had more or less picked it out. I doubled down and bought David a Guillows "Javelin" balsa model for about $12. The airplane appeared to be pretty simple structurally and, if the artwork on the box was any indication, the design had evolved very little in the past 50 years. I made sure that the kit featured die cut parts.

David also recieved a Mountain Bike this year and if it hadn't rained nearly every day while he was home from UCSD for the holiday break, I don't think that the model airplane box would have even been opened. It turns out that a long series of rainy days is perfect weather for assembling a model airplane and David applied himself to the task. Very carefully, methodically, and with close attention paid to the instructions.

As he went through the process, from pinning and gluing the simplest parts, to constructing the wing and covering everything with tissue paper and dope, I couldn't help but notice that the boy was avoiding some of the old man's boyhood mistakes. It turns out that following -all- of the detailed the directions, constructing parts in the order that you're instructed, taking care to understand the planned result of each step before blundering into its application, all of these habits lead to a much better outcome. It also helps to check intermediate results carefully against the plans, and immediately make corrections before moving on. I can't claim to have passed along any of these lessons, but it's very nice to see them put to good use.

The model occupied a card table for over a week. Tools: an X-acto knife, a tube of glue, a little sand paper, and foul smelling "dope" for sticking the tissue paper to the wooden frame.

Here are all of the parts, just prior to be covered with tissue paper. Everything has been sanded smooth, particularly the trailing edges of the wings, which require more work than anything else.

The plans called for gluing wire to the leading edge of the struts that the wheels will be mounted to.

The wheels are attached to their struts with a bent pin that's been glued to the back of the strut. The implication is that the plane will take off and land on its wheels. This seems very unlikely.

David with the completed airplane skeleton and with the finished plane. The final construction step required the rubber band that's attached to the propeller to be carefully fished through the inside of the plane with a coat hanger, and then slipped over a tiny dowel rod that passes through a specially reinforced portion of the fuselage. This procedure was at least as difficult as endoscopic surgery and the first time, working together, we got the rubber band on backwards. My inclination was to punt, by David persevered and after another grueling session with the coat hanger, managed to attach the rubber band correctly.

Two views of the finished plane. Stephen and I made the first photo with a five second exposure in a dark room and a single hand held flash to illuminate the plane. Although the tissue is translucent, the flash really helps to show the plane's internal structure. Applying the tissue is possibly the most difficult part of the entire build and it comes at the end, when you're likely to be weary. Carefully stretching the material over the featherweight frame, knowing that just a tiny slip will put a thumb sized hole through a week's work, reminds one how fragile the entire airplane is. And how unlikely it would be to survive one crash landing.

David really (really) wants to launch the Javelin, even if its maiden voyage will be its only flight. Thankfully it was raining when he left for the winter quarter and so the plane will have a few months to glow perfection until he returns from school.