Model Airplane

by Peter Goddard from Burlington, ON
Sep 6, 11

There were 4 brothers in my family, and sprouting from my Dad’s interest, we all grew up building balsawood models and trying to fly them. My early efforts, as I remember them, were mostly glue and fingerprints. Rough, and heavy, and warped, they never really “soared” to any extent, and they didn’t last very long. My brothers and I had fun building them, and playing with them, but I remember quite clearly the moment when a lifelong fascination with flight really took hold of me. 

Naturally my Dad was reluctant to make a large financial investment in a continuous supply of fragile models for 4 boys, but on one rare trek to the hobby shop while I was puzzling over which tiny balsa and tissue model I would savage this time, my Dad’s attention was absorbed by a kit on the higher shelves. “What do you think of this?” he asked. I wasn’t too impressed actually. It was a simple profile delta catapult-launch glider. A kind of scaled-up version of the 5 cent glider from the candy store. I didn’t really want it because it looked simplistic. I thought I was a little more advanced than this. 

But my Dad thought I should try it. He pointed out that the model required a lot of work: the parts were printed, not die cut. It would require a lot of patience and sanding to make the wings into airfoils. More importantly, it could be fitted with a Jetex rocket engine. He made me a deal: If I did a good job with the glider, and got it flying really well, we would get the Jetex engine and fly it under power. 

Talk about a kid consumed. I literally thought of nothing else. I remember that summer, carving the fuselage exactly to specifications, sanding the wings to perfection and aligning all the surfaces with precision. Laser beams couldn’t carve a straighter line than an 8-year-old’s hand and eyes, given the proper motivation. I studied the setup and trimming instructions meticulously, and carried out flight-testing in scientifically planned stages, finally culminating in a glorious 17-second maiden voyage.

True to the deal, my Dad and I picked up the Jetex engine. There was no requirement to study the instructions. Somehow, in the pre-internet years, my 8-year-old brain had managed to research the entire science of rocket propulsion and had accumulated an intimate knowledge of the engineering and safe operation of all models in the Jetex line. After some simple heat proofing modifications I attached the engine and my newly rocket-powered glider was ready for testing.

For those who are not familiar with the Jetex engine, allow me a moment to explain the basics. Typically it is a small tin cylinder with a hole in one end for thrust gases to escape. You insert fuel tablets that look like compressed clay, coil a wick against the fuel pellets and lead it out through the exhaust pinhole. The idea is to figure the length of fuse hanging out to equal the delay time required to: a/ light the fuse, b/ catapult launch the aircraft and c/ for the aircraft to reach the apex of rubber powered flight. If everything goes right, your rocket thrust engages at just the right time and up you go.

Jetex fuel comes in a package with fuel tablets, special screens, and gaskets for 6 flights, and precisely enough of the incredibly fragile igniter wick for 2 flights. The problem is further compounded by the fact the igniter only works once every 18 tries, and the flame is readily extinguished upon reaching the exhaust hole. The first day, I think I actually had about 18 or 20 failure to ignite, two ground burns (launched, landed, then ignited) and one burn where I held onto the plane until it was burning, then chucked it just as it was running down. Dad and I got to the hobby store just as they were closing, to get more wick. 

The next morning I was ready and anxious to try again, so waiting for full daylight was not a big priority. I remember the dew in the grass. I guess the sky was probably a beautiful colour, and lazy morning clouds were glowing slightly in the rising light, surrounded by the quiet that occasions the start of a perfect summer day. All I was concerned about was whether the dew would get that darned wick wet and cause me problems. 

I had prepared the night before, winding a precision coil of ignitor fuse on a lightly sanded fuel pellet, installing the cover carefully so the fuse was perfectly sized and placed. The frustration and haste of the day before replaced with quiet certainty, my muscle-memory was prepared for the much-practised routine. Dad had loaned me his Zippo, which proved more reliable than the paper matches I had struggled with in the breeze. I prepared myself and… light the fuse, wait for a steady burn, stand, string the catapult on the hook, stretch, wait…wait. A hot spark landed on my forearm, I held my breath waiting for the wick to sputter through the little exhaust hole. When it reached the hole there was about 4 seconds till it would ignite, about 6 seconds to begin burning. Wait...

You know it right away when it happens. Flight I mean. A clever engineer once won a paper airplane distance competition by wrapping a rock with paper and throwing it. But it was a loophole in the rules, not flight. This was really something new to me. 

The little dart flew beautifully, arcing up straight and true in the still air like it had done so many times before, but this time a little magic began. Just as the flight began to level out the little jet engine sputtered and puffed, and finally a thin stream appeared and the plane began to rise again, coaxing lift from the meagre thrust of the jet, it soared to three times the height it had ever gone. I began to wonder if it would get away! 

I began my leggy pursuit, stumbling along as I struggled to keep my bird in view. Looking back momentarily I saw my Dad watching from the steps by our old house.