Ready for a trip down memory lane? Let us take a look at the flying model hobby from 60 years ago.
A friend lent me 20 Air Trails Pictorial model airplane magazines from 1949 and 1950. All of the issues are in excellent condition, though all are very yellowed and I had to be extremely careful when turning the pages. They were very brittle and broke easily. Yeah, I wonder what they would fetch on EBay!
I’m in my mid-forties, so all of these magazines long predate me. It was a real eye opener paging through them. Much has changed in the hobby since then.
Two types of articles dominated the magazine. The first type was construction articles. There would be half a dozen or more in each issue. They have changed surprisingly little over the years. The plans are printed in the magazine and a relatively long article describes the construction of the model. Pictures of partially completed models are relatively rare. Most of the pictures included in these construction articles are of the completed model.
I would imagine that the scratch-building skills of the average magazine reader at the time were quite a bit better than they are today. There is a surprising lack of specifications given in the construction articles. There is no modern spec box to be found anywhere. Information about flying weight and recommended engine size are very often missing. I found it all very odd.
Full Size Aviation
The other type of very common article is about full size airplanes. Much to my surprise, many of these articles have nothing to do with models. Several ads in the magazine are for studying aeronautical engineering in college. Lots of coverage of airliners, military airplanes, and of supersonic airplanes.
A regular feature of Air Trails was called Model of the Month. At first I assumed it was just another construction article. I was very surprised when I realized much later that these were the model airplane kit reviews!
They bear no resemblance to a modern review. As much space is devoted in the articles to the manufacturer and designer as to the airplane itself. There was little mention of flying characteristics, other than what was quoted from the designer. No information box containing the manufacturer name, address and phone number. Instead of a review of the kit itself, they looked more to me like a history of how the kit came to be.
One of these kit reviews commented on how the manufacturer had prefabricated the kit so much, there was almost nothing for the kit builder left to do. I looked at the included picture of the kit, and all I saw was a pile of die cut balsa pieces. Funny.
Lots of engine manufacturers. Mostly spark ignition, but if you look carefully you can spot some “glo” engines too. I also saw some diesel compression engines, Jetex, CO2, and even pulsejets. A brand name that survives to this day is K&B.
I spotted a couple of Engine of the Month articles. These were very similar in character to the Model of the Month series.
An engine that was getting a lot of attention at the time was the K&B Infant. Glow engines did not require batteries or coils aboard the airplane, so K&B designed the 0.020 displacement glow Infant for smaller models. Just five bucks!
Most engines cost less than fifteen bucks. References are made often to engine classes A, B, C, D, and E. After some digging I concluded that their typical displacements were 0.20, 0.30, 0.35, 0.61, 1.0 cubic inches, respectively. The relatively new half A class was for 0.050 displacement. For a given displacement, a modern glow engine produces about seven times the horsepower of these spark ignition powerplants. Technology has come a long way!
Like today, the advertisements were mostly for airplane kits, engines, and mail order vendors. I saw no model airplane kits on sale for more than ten dollars. The typical price was two to three dollars.
Control line appears to rule the day. I even saw control line boats. Small inexpensive free flight models were very popular.
American Hobby Specialties, a maker of model airplane kits and propellers, announced a name change to Top Flite. The name of the person that appears to be the president of the company? Carl Goldberg.
Kit manufacturers that still survive today also include Guillow’s, Polk’s Hobbies, and Midwest.
Radio control systems were like model jet engines today: expensive and only for the technically sophisticated. Radio systems cost about $40. Instead of servos they used escapements that were powered by a wound up rubber band. These were single channel systems that only controlled the rudder. Forget about proportional control. Oh, and you need to learn Morse code to get a license so you can fly them. I’m not kidding.
The only type of glue that they used was called model cement. I wonder if it was the same stuff we use today to build the static plastic models. Several different brands were advertised in each issue, which made it clear that the cement business was very competitive.
The plastic heat shrink covering revolution was still some years away. I don’t think the word foam appears once in all the magazines I looked at. Batteries were mentioned often, but not to power the airplanes.
It seemed like most of the same products were being advertised across the two years I looked at. There were also fewer different models than today. My conclusion from that is that the model airplane market is now much bigger.
The improvements to technologies in the last sixty years are vast. There’s very little in common today with how the model airplanes used to be built, powered, and controlled. At the same time, looking at the many construction plans, all of the models could be built today and they would fly fine. I now understand better their appeal to the SAM (Society of Antique Modelers) crowd.
I am saddened by how few of the companies advertising in the magazine are still in business. For that matter, the magazine itself is long gone. Despite the many drawbacks of the era, I got very nostalgic while paging through the magazines. They had a great time flying their models.