An aeromodelling autobiography by Charlie Stone of Western Australia, who grew up during the golden age of control line modelling.
I have been interested in aeroplanes for as long as I can remember, and I suspect that an interest in flight is born into people rather than being learned. My leanings in that direction as far as I can remember, first began to manifest themselves when I was a very small boy living in the West Australian wheatbelt area of Wamenusking.
On Monday to Thursday afternoons, I would sit on the floor by the battery radio listening to the afternoon serial. It was provided by courtesy of the manufacturers of Mortein Plus fly spray (with Piperonyl Butoxide), to whom I am appropriately grateful. The ability to remember a sales gimmick nearly 50 years after the advertisement is, I believe, a good illustration of the power of advertising. I used to listen with my ear pressed hard to the coarsely woven speaker cloth, straining to hear the feeble transmissions. First there was the sound of a radial aircraft engine bursting into life, that would transform into stirring music and the announcement that this was `The Air Adventures of Biggles'. This was a radio play adaptation of the classic books by Captain W.E.Johns. In later years I read as many of these as I could get my hands on. I wonder how many other folks can still remember hearing that wonderful introduction. Anyone that is interested in doing so again can find it on a CD called "Heroes of the Airwaves" that is available from the National film and Sound Archive in Canberra. Or you can hear this classic right now as the Biggles MP3 file.
At about 8 years of age, I first began building model aircraft. I worked in my personal cubbyhole under the South Perth house, that also served at different times as a laboratory for my chemistry experiments and a darkroom for photo developing. I toiled over my rubber powered scale models built from balsa sticks. I don't remember how I got my hands on those first kits of parts, but I suppose that my long suffering Dad bought them for me. Most likely as birthday presents. The first that I tried was a "Wirraway" I got the tissue covering on OK and doped, but try as I might, they never showed any sign of wanting to fly. Of course, I didn't know what I was doing, and had no one to help me even if the planes had been light and properly built and balanced, which they probably weren't.
One day Dad came home with a different type of model plane. It was made by Frog and was of all balsa construction with inked on trim and a red plastic propeller. The name FROG is an acronym that stands for "Flies Right Off Ground", and was a trade name of Lines brothers. They were made in England. "British and Best". I wasn't greatly pleased with it's appearance, because it didn't look like a real plane. That scale fixation again. But it was different in another way too. Out in the street in front of the house, I wound up the rubber motor as per the instructions on the box and released it. It flew. Beautifully. It climbed up and up alongside the pine trees over the road, turned, drifted back over the houses in the direction of the next street and was gone forever. I couldn't find it, but I was hooked. You can't adequately describe the feeling of seeing the plane climb away on it's first successful flight. But it was good.
At age 11 years, I started at Kent Street High school where I had the doubtful honour of being one of the two shortest guys in the place the other one being a guy called Daryl Rowe who was to become a friend and modeller too. While there I met several guys like Hans Vos and Graeme McCracken, both were active aeromodellers who flew control line at the famous Causeway site. I pestered them with questions when we should have been studying, and became a control line groupie, riding to the Causeway on weekends to watch them fly. In those days there was lots of activity there. There were usually 2 or 3 circles laid out between the beds of red and yellow Canna Lilies on the grass near the bridge. Those Cannas claimed a few victims too. Quite a few planes crashed into them when a flier roamed too far from the centre of the circle.
Every weekend the circles at the Causeway were carefully roped off for safety reasons. Safety of the models that is, to stop the clumsy feet of the perpetual audience from treading on fragile planes. There were no line pits. Planes would be placed nose to tail around the perimeter of the circle with the lines laid out towards the centre. As a model in flight started to splutter at the end of the tank, a dozen guys would start flicking like mad to be next in the air. The first to get started was next up. He would sprint to the centre to identify his handle from the mass of others (mostly metal, wheel handles), while his pitman picked his way through the lines to the front of the queue. As soon as one plane was down, another was released to take it's place in the air.
I finally got a control line outfit. A plank winged Sabre trainer and an OS Max II .15 engine to power it. I didn't want a diesel as I thought that they had far too many controls to adjust, and as it turned out, the OS was a good choice. I still have it. My first outing with it was midweek at the Causeway, probably in the school holidays as no one else was around, and with my brother Bob along as a helper. I got it started and flew it high, low and fast without any help. Everything but straight and level. I didn't break the thing, but became awfully giddy and banged it on the deck a few times, finally breaking off the fin. I was on my way to becoming an aeromodeller.
When I started work at my very first job as an office boy in 1959, I was introduced to the guy that had just vacated my new job for a promotion to junior clerk. This was Geoff Barnes who was to become one of my best friends. He had been a year ahead of me at high school and lived only a few streets from me in South Perth. He was also (as I found out later) an aeromodeller. We hung out together and flew and talked model aeroplanes increasingly as time passed. We were regularly flying Saturdays and Sundays at the popular Causeway flying site, and growing interested in competition events. Before any of us had cars, we would gather at my place and walk to the Causeway with all the planes and gear packed in my pram. The pram was a wooden box mounted on an old pram chassis, with the pram handle attached. I had painted it yellow and sign written it with my association number WA 43 and other trim in red and white. It was a convenient way to transport our stuff the couple of miles that we had to travel, and we weren't too proud to be seen pushing it. It became quite famous in that role, but it ended it's days in very different employment about 10 years later when John Bowles and myself fitted it with a 100cc McCulloch Kart engine for a novelty racing event. How many folks do you know that have rolling over a pram and trailer combination in their resume?
There were a number of interesting hobby shops to visit for window shopping purposes. Most of them were hidden away deep down dingy arcades, or up several twisting flights of narrow wooden stairs in the lower cost accomodation. Just finding them was part of the fun, and when you got there, all manner of unexpected treasures to look at, and a sort of universal aroma of balsa wood and dopes seeping from their bottles. I mostly frequented the establishment run by Henry G Timms, which had the best range of stuff for planes and was in a more open shop than most of the others. Quite a number of well known aeromodellers served as shop assistants there from time to time.
First Free Flight win:
Model planes were flown in a number of different locations. Control line at the Causeway, Rosalie Park, Guildford Airport, Hamilton Square (now gone under the freeway complex in Leederville) and various other parks about the place. Freeflight and a small amount of Radio Control were at the White Lakes or Lake Pinjar. Transport at first was by bike, or lifts in cars owned by older and richer associates, but it wasn"t too long before we acquired our first cars. My first F/F competition success was at the State championships held at Cunderdin airfield in 1961. The aeromodellers took over the airfield for the weekend, living alongside the gliding club members in the old wartime buildings that were still in use for accomodation by the fliers of full size planes. The gliding club continued to operate quite safely despite the collection of miniature planes that were in action over the weekend.
There I won Power Scramble for the first time; and very pleased with myself I was too. I won that class for the next two years as well, thereby earning the right to claim the perpetual trophy permanently. The third win was the hardest by far. I was in the process of recovering from a bout of Hepatitis when the Scramble event was run. I was far from well, but determined to have a go as I really wanted that trophy for keeps. I told Mum, (who thought that I should have been taking it easy in bed) that I would go down to watch the Free Flight. "The fresh air would do me good." I drove down to the White Lakes and entered the event, which was conducted over the glaring white salt flats in breezy conditions and midday heat. As you had to retrieve your own planes at that time, it involved a lot of running to collect my "Cardinal" which had the main characteristic of wanting to fly straight downwind. By the end of the competition, I was knackered and the inside of the car parked in the sun was like a furnace. So I lay exhausted on the ground in the 18 inch wide strip of shadow next to my car with the taste of blood in my mouth, feeling very,very sick and hoping that I hadn"t done myself any permanent injury. I still have that trophy and it is one of my treasures; made the sweeter I suppose, by the fact that I really earned it.
One day I was at Hamilton Square with Daryl Rowe to watch a scheduled team race. I can't recall how we got there. At that time, there was such strong competition that only the current experts were allowed to enter. Newcomers were not encouraged at all as there were always more entries than were wanted by the current establishment. One of the other spectators was a Dutch kid that I had previously been introduced to at the Causeway by my school pal Hans Vos. They had lived at the same Hostel after arriving in Australia. This was Hans Bertina who had built a team racer, but as a newcomer, had never been allowed to compete, despite his enthusiasm.
This day however, there was an unexpected shortage of entries, so he could have flown if only he had brought his plane. He asked if Daryl or myself would fly for him if he got his plane, and I said that I would. We went to his home in Tuart Hill, with me mounted on the pillion of his DKW motor bike to pick up the necessary bits, and returned with me clinging on to the model and accessories. We flew there at Hamilton Square as a team and this arrangement was to continue.
The rules were rather different from those in use now. I still have a copy of the 1956 rule book in my possession and it is a much thinner publication than the current one. In flight, passing could be over or under other planes, I still think that is a good idea. I have seen a few instances even recently when I believe that this would have been safer than the pass over only rule which can force dangerously sudden moves that cause collisions. Whipping was forbidden, but applied surreptitiously to increase the speed of the planes as no one except possibly Len Armour managed to whip the planes back to the pitman"s hand.
The rules also called for a centre post or pylon, which when I first flew was a 44 gallon (200 litre) steel drum. All the pilots had to run around the perimeter of the drum, there was obviously no cutting across the centre of the circle or pivotting on the spot possible. We also flew 4 planes in the circle at a time, so it was very hectic in the centre at sometimes. When the engine cut during the race, the pilot would land it where it wanted to go and the pitman would run to it to refuel and restart the engine. There were no segments in the circle and most of us were not aware of the whipping techniques to get the plane back in the hand of the pitman. On one occasion at the start of a race, one of the entries did a mighty wingover from take off, crashing on the other side of the circle while the other 3 of us were in the air racing. The resulting line tangle was a disaster. I was bound at ankle height with C/L wire around my ankles and around the drum that finally stopped me from moving. I was clinging to the rim of the drum to stop myself from falling over. The wires cut through one of my socks and cut deeply into my leg. Len Armour, who had been flying Noel Mitchell's racer, took the handle from me and as our plane was the last in the air, flew it until he too was tied up and then flew it through huge loops until the fuel ran out. The drum was rather a nuisance at times.
For the next few years I flew as pilot for Hans in FAI and "B" class team racing and later for Geoff Barnes in `C' class. As with all things, practice makes you better, if not perfect, and we got the racers more than just competitive. We standardised on ETA engines as they were very competitive in England, using the .15 Diesel for FAI and the potent Mk 6C for `B' class. `B' class team racing was always my favourite. Although by today"s standards the times were nothing special, they were the best in Western Australia by a good margin (about 117 MPH was the best we ever did). You really knew that you had something quick (and heavy) on the end of the lines and the sound of an ETA .29 at full song was like music to our (now deaf) ears.
We caused a stir by turning up at the State Speed Championships in 1963 using a team racer rather than a purpose built Speed model. This wasn"t expected, as team racers are by design, geared as much to economy as to speed, and being larger in dimensions are not expected to excel in outright speed competition. The State record for B class at the time was only around the 100 MPH mark. We had to put up with a lot of comments in sarcastic tones, like: "We've heard about these 100 MPH team racers, but we've never seen one." And so on. After a few other folks had done their best to get speed models going, taking ages as one does with finicky speed motors, and getting fingers thoroughly bitten in the process, we had our turn. I went to the handle by the pylon, and after checking the controls, gave Hans the nod that I was ready. One flick and the ETA .29 burst into life. A bit of fine tuning and we were away to an easy win and a State record in `B' speed at 110.39 MPH on our first flight. That quietened them down a bit, and we sat around and looked smug for the rest of the afternoon. Now they had seen one.
By this time we were going well enough to be almost invincible in the local team racing events. This brought some bad feeling with it and the subject was even raised at Association level. Some public spirited soul said that we were killing the event and tried to ban the Stone/Bertina team from competition. I never really understood why anyone would want to do that. When Hans and myself were being regularly beaten by the invincible Noel Mitchell, it had only served as a spur to goad us on to greater efforts. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and no such unfair action was taken.