Saturday, March 31st, 2012 11:46 am GMT -6 Saturday, March 31st, 2012 11:46 am GMT -6Saturday, March 31st, 2012 11:46 am GMT -6
Idea - lightbulb in hand

An AMA event where contestants have to design their own airplanes? Am I nuts?




Scratch-Building in 1950

I remember looking at model airplane magazines from 1950 and seeing half a dozen or more construction articles per issue. They were all balsa designs. The concept of using foam as a construction material did not exist.With the exception of small free flight gliders, they were all of traditional rib and spar construction. In other words, they were all time consuming to build.

Foamy Revolution

Foam was already being tentatively used to build parts of model airplanes in the 1970s. The miniaturization of radio equipment and the dramatic improvements to electric power systems have helped turn this trickle into the flood that it is today.

A model airplane that would take most of us a week to put together using balsa can now be put together in a day as a foamy. The effects are far more than just a savings in building time. The foam model airplane revolution has transformed the art of scratch-building. The ease of building has created thousands of new scratch-builders that are not afraid of experimenting with new design ideas.

Harnessing Foamy Power

Could we harness this storm of creativity into a new AMA event class? In other words, does it make sense to have an AMA competition that encourages the creation of original foamy designs?

I have been toying with this idea for a long time. Years. I refuse to believe that it is impossible to make this work.

Are there AMA events that we could look at for inspiration? For that matter, are there any other competitions going on that we could learn from? The answer is yes.

Design, Build, Fly Student Competitions

Today, dozens of teams of college students participate in annual competitions that require the team members to design and scratch-build their own RC model airplane. Normally an experienced RC pilot from the community flies the airplane.

Started about twenty years ago, the popularity of these competitions has exploded. This is despite challenging flight missions and the need to write technical papers that describe in detail how they came up with their designs.

In general these are not foam models. The flight missions demand larger, sturdier models. Traditional balsa and composites dominate the events.

NMPRA Electric Formula One (EF1)

The National Miniature Pylon Racing Association (NMPRA) has a new entry level event called electric formula one (EF1). At the time of this writing the event is in AMA provisional status.

The goal for this new event is to encourage more participation in pylon racing. Typical pylon racers fly at close to 200 mph (325 kph). EF1 racers “only” go at about 100 mph (160 kph).

To me, the rules read like a legal document. They go on and on describing in explicit detail exactly how these pylon racers must be designed and built. Every airframe and motor must be pre-approved by the rules committee. Discouraging scratch-building seems to be an implicit goal.

At first these rules made no sense to me. How can you encourage more participation by piling on more rules? Then it dawned on me. The rules are written in such a way as to strongly encourage the use of almost-ready-to-fly (ARF) model airplanes.

This is very disappointing to me, but I respect their decision. Time will tell whether their strategy will be effective in growing the number of pylon racing pilots.

Slow Survivable Combat (SSC)

The Radio Control Combat Association (RCCA) also came up with a new event class to encourage more participation. They call it Slow Survivable Combat and it was created about ten years ago.

The differences between the EF1 and SSC rules could not be more dramatic. Instead of a ten page document, the SSC rules fit in one page. There are basically only two simple rules that control what goes into the airplanes.

First, contestants must use a Master Airscrew 8×3 propeller and it must turn no faster than 17,500 rpm. Wow. I love this rule. It limits the amount of thrust in a way that is very easy to verify.

Second, the winner must be willing to sell to other contestants his engine/motor for $85. Wow. Genius, again. This is a dead simple way of keeping participation costs down.

Maybe because of the nature of combat, no restrictions are placed on the airplane itself. Any weight, wing area, or materials are allowed.

First Thoughts

I believe in what the AMA was trying to accomplish by creating the Park Pilot program. An electric model airplane that flies at a reasonable speed and weighs less than two pounds (0.9 kg) would also be a perfect fit for a foamy scratch-building event.

I am far from having all the answers. My motivation for writing this article was to encourage feedback from others. Here are a couple of ideas. What do you think?

Idea 1: Blitz Event

How about a blitz event, where contestants have to build their model airplane in one hour? They are given a pile of raw materials and a flat tabletop on which to work. The entry fee would cover the cost of these materials, which should be minimal.

Any non-electric tools would be allowed. CA (“instant”) adhesives, glue guns, and five minute epoxies are very quick to set. An hour is not long enough to get boring for spectators.

Points would be awarded for originality. Points would be lost for not using all the provided materials. To keep things interesting, throw in a couple of oddball building materials. Simple rules to limit the radio and power systems would let contestants supply their own.

After the building phase, have a pause for judging and for the glues to finish drying.

The flying requirement does not need to be very demanding. Maybe just take-off, do a figure eight, and land. The point is just to show that it is a viable design.

No reason why there could not be a beginner’s free flight class. In fact, this class would eliminate the need for having experienced RC pilots. How about high school and college level events?

A team event, where teams of two build the airplanes, might be even more interesting. It would also allow the building of more sophisticated designs. The need for communication between the builders is bound to draw in the spectators even more.

Idea 2: Yearly Event Goal

How about following the pattern from the college student competitions and setting a yearly design goal?

It could be run just like other AMA competitions. Local, regional, and national fly-offs could be scheduled.

It can be tricky to come up with a set of rules that encourage participation but maintain a level playing field. The student competitions have been doing it for a while and have learned from their mistakes. By talking to them, we can avoid most of the same mistakes. The SSC rules are also a great source of inspiration.

Given the educational and scientific nature of such an event, I see no reason why corporate sponsors could not be found.

So what do you think? Am I absolutely bonkers for even suggesting events like these?

AIAA Design, Build, Fly Competition

SAE Aero Design Competition

National Miniature Pylon Racing Association

Radio Control Combat Association

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