I suppose I was about 8 years old when I had my first experience as a pilot – perhaps a bit younger but old enough to know that Santa was no longer the most productive focus of my lobbying efforts. Years later I remember Dad telling someone how I had rather strongly made my wishes known on that particular Christmas that a gas-powered airplane was the most important thing in life for me at that time.
Of course, this was before Lithium-based batteries had made electric motors practical for powering model planes and cars, and it was a very long time before anyone had dreamed of remotely controlling a model plane, with an RF radio link and a few servo motors.
The state of the art in the late 1940s was the tiny glow-plug engine, and instead of being radio controlled, it relied on kite string and a manual “stick”. Imagine two strings, 100 feet long connected to the ailerons of the plane and a hand-held piece of wood on the other end. Once the engine was running it took two people to get the thing in the air and a skilled pilot to keep it there for very long.
My new plane was powered by one such glow-plug internal combustion engine (not gasoline – but rather methanol with some other stuff mixed in). That type of engine had been recently invented, which made car and airplane models of this sort possible. It was a bit like a Diesel, in that it had no spark plug, coil, condenser, distributor, or any of that other timing stuff. It was also similar to a 2-stroke gas engine of the time, the difference being that it had a glow-plug instead of a spark plug. The filament of the glow-plug was able to maintain enough heat from the prior combustion cycle to ignite the fuel for the next, presumably having been invented accidentally by a guy noticing that his overheated conventional engine kept running after he had turned off the spark. A battery was used to heat the glow plug for starting but once the engine got going, it continued at full RPM until it ran out of fuel or something brought it to a halt, in my case the halt came very abruptly.
On Christmas morning, after the presents were opened and breakfast was finished, we headed out on the Lake, which of course had already been frozen over for weeks by that time. The ice had a thin layer of snow on top but not enough to impede this historic flight, which was to last no more than 3 or 4 seconds. I think it was Dad – or maybe Todd – who started the engine and held the plane by the tail until the launch signal came from me. I was in the pilot’s seat, holding the “stick” that was to control the would-be take-off and landing.
The story I told many times after the incident was that the kite string got wet and stretched from lying in the snow, thereby preventing me from properly controlling the flight. The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing and the result was a take-off, followed by a vertical loop of 50 feet or so, and culminating in a nose-dive directly into a foot-thick layer of solid ice. The plane was solid red and made almost entirely of plastic so there were no pieces large enough to salvage. Remarkably, however, the engine survived the impact and I kept it for years after the incident. I would run it occasionally, secured in the bench vice in Dad’s workshop in the basement of our house at the Lake.
That was my first experience as a post-Christmas morning pilot but it might not be my last. My brother Todd sent me a very fine RF-controlled, quad electric motor, battery-powered drone that even has a WiFi-enabled 1080p camera mounted in the front. The thing uses the normal 2.4 GHz, 802.11 wireless for control and image data download, which in theory means that it can be controlled, using a WiFi-enabled smartphone, of which I happen to have several.
I am not sure if I am smart enough to take advantage of all that it offers, but I am quite sure that I will not take it out on a frozen lake for a test flight. This will be my second “virgin” fight as first-officer and I have no more idea how it will turn out, any more than I did on that first morning, 70 years ago.
There will be at least one more chapter to this story after I work up the courage to try it.