Looking for free plans? Look no further. Go ahead. Go hog wild.
Searching the Internet for free model airplane plans is an obsession that many of us suffer from. Thankfully, others have gone before us and done the hard work of building and organizing large collections.
Sources of Plans
There seem to be two primary sources of free plans. The first and more popular source is old model airplane magazines. These plans are all professionally and beautifully drawn. These are almost all traditional balsa built-up construction designed to be powered by internal combustion engines. Modern engines are much lighter than they used to be, so some adjustments would need to be made in this area. The articles that accompanied the plans are rarely available.
These plans were originally published in national magazines back in the days when scratch-building was a lot more popular than it is today. Chances are very good that they are well-tested designs. It will be time consuming to put one together, but your efforts will be rewarded with a nice looking and flying model.
It is very hard knowing if one of these old designs is truly in the public domain or not. The United States copyright laws are complicated and they have changed many times over the years. I will say more about this in a moment.
The second major source of free plans are a by-product of the modern foamy phenomenon. These are airplane designs that were the result of a labor of love. The authors never expected to make any money from their designs. They often retain the copyright but permit copying by others. In many cases the designs are released into the public domain from the start.
Many of these foam airplane plans are nothing more than the outlines of their major parts such as the wing and fuselage. It is rare to find detailed step by step building instructions. Also, do not assume that it is a well-tested design. Oftentimes authors release first prototypes in the hopes that others will improve upon it.
The 1976 Copyright Act substantially increased the length of protection given to copyright owners. Before then, copyright protection extended for 28 years unless it was renewed during the last or 28th year.
Many companies had sloppy record-keeping and failed to file the renewal applications during the time window that they were given. Publishers of popular magazines, such as Time magazine, have had large portions of their back issue collections fall into the public domain as a result. I would imagine that many model airplane magazine publishers fell into the same trap and failed to renew their copyrights.
Finding out if a magazine publisher renewed the copyright is not easy. There are several incomplete lists online. Note that renewing a copyright has to be done for each individual magazine issue.
Anything published in 1922 or before is in the public domain. That is the easy case, but I do not think there were many model airplane plans published that early.
Magazines published between 1923 and 1949 (inclusive) that had their copyrights renewed are still protected. Magazines published in the United States between 1950 and 1963 (inclusive) had their copyrights expire unless they were renewed. Anything published since 1964 is still protected by copyright.
Clear as mud, right? Here’s a clear message: be careful. If all you are doing is downloading a plan for personal use, it is unlikely that the copyright holder (if any) will go after you. But if you are posting plans online, some investigating into their current legal status would be prudent.
What follows is a list of websites containing freely downloadable plans. In all, they contain many thousands of plans for all sorts of different model airplane types. Of course, the quality is going to vary and sometimes you get what you pay for. But there is also no shortage of gems to be found.
I tried to list the websites in roughly decreasing order by number of plans available. In other words, the larger collections are to be found towards the top of the list. This is a very rough ordering, and it does not take into account the quality of the plans to be found there. In fact, I have found some of the smaller websites to contain some of the highest quality free plans.
Did I miss your favorite free plans website? Let me know, and I will gladly add it.