If they're having fun then they'll want to go again…
Have we given up trying to save the hobby for the next generation or do we have to adapt to change to ensure its continuation? Are our flying clubs destined to deteriorate into fields of grumpy old men depleting slowly and recounting tales of how it used to be? As the BMFA struggle on with their free flight founded education programme I was asked if there was anything we can do, individually or as a club in R/C land, to encourage new youngsters in, or help keep the ones we already have. Having brought my own son from cradle to highly able 3D R/C pilot with a diverse array of model aircraft, I have encountered many issues along the way. I’m fairly sure there is no single correct answer to the question of how to get kids into aeromodelling, but below are ten things that might just help a little.
1. Promote yourself, your club and your hobby through many aspects of life. Make representations at youth groups, cub scouts or school model clubs. Start and run a model club perhaps in exchange for some indoor flying in the school gym. Take the time to explain how the models work, simple aerodynamics and the basis of control. If you are flying free flight, show how the model is trimmed and the effect that this has. Get the kids to make paper aircraft and perhaps hold a simple flying competition with a prize for the furthest one across the hall. Send them home with a bulk-buy chuck glider and an information sheet about your club for their parents. Maybe invite them to the flying field to watch as a group and then take time to welcome them to the patch and let them have a go if they follow it up. Once the seed is sown who knows what will grow?
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2. Have a club policy over the care and supervision of youngsters. It is a fact of life that some of your members will resent the presence of kids at their field. Some people come to a flying club to avoid their own children, so it might be no surprise that they don’t particularly like yours being around. If these people are in a position of influence within your club, then they perhaps should reconsider their position. If your children are impolite and badly behaved and you make a poor show of supervising them, then they may well have a point. The BMFA can offer advice on CRB checks for instructors if your club policy requires this, but do have a policy. Personally I prefer that a parent is present with their child at all times and I do not encourage my club members to assume the care of a child who is not related to them.
3. It is vital to integrate youngsters who do attend into all aspects of club life in any way possible. Whether this be by rewarding excellence (with a Junior Flier award for instance), encouraging projects or competitions that allow them to compete on an even keel with their peers, or perhaps even having a youth elected to the club as a junior committee member. Even simple tasks such as helping to unload the car, carry a model to the pit area and helping assemble it or fuel it up, are all simple ways to facilitate integration. Demonstrate and supervise if you must, but try not to take over.
4. Don’t fear the drones (or whatever comes next) – they are the future. There is not a child flying today that harbours a desire to build and fly a competition winning, magnet steered, free flight glider or a third-scale WW1 biplane to fly slow circuits with the Dawn Patrol. Our kids are brought up on easy access, throw away material, electronic gadgets and high technology. Opinions are formed in seconds and many things vie for attention. The boys especially want fast and furious action with an instant reset, a challenging high score and an element of combat to rival Call of Duty on their gaming station. If it involves fire, danger and explosions – better still! What comes nearer to that than high speed, First Person View (FPV) quadcopter racing? It may not be your cup of tea, it isn’t mine either, but were you into the same stuff as your Dad? It is a narrow-minded model flying club that bans the use of multi-rotors or restricts them into uselessness. This is a major part of the future of aeromodelling. The technology is rapidly developing and its use should be encouraged. With GPS fitted, they are also remarkably easy to fly with some immediate success always virtually guaranteed.
5. Flight sims are your friend. You yourself might not be one of the computer generation, but your kids certainly are. I personally have never got on with flight simulators but, having watched my own son enjoy them and learn the motor skills and stick inputs required for R/C flight and then ably transition this to almost faultless control of a real model, I have had cause to reconsider my opinion. The similarities with computer games are obvious with the benefit of an instant, glue-less, reset, easy stunts, a variety of aircraft and even a high score!
6. Beware the scolding. Model aeroplanes crash. Radio’s fail, engines stop, bits drop off, covering rips, balsa breaks and foam melts. All can be replaced. This is part of the hobby. You absolutely, positively must not create an environment where the child is afraid to cause damage to a model or knows that they will be held responsible should the worst occur. You have to allow mistakes to happen. You can express disappointment if the damage was avoidable, but beware the scolding. There is no better way to discourage a kid from continuing if you scold them over a simple accident that could just have easily happened to you. Plus, repairing is part of learning and some sense of accomplishment can be gained if a damaged model flies once again.
7. Kids love to help and even better, copy. Let them. My son sat on my modelling bench as soon as he was able to. He has stuck endless pieces of scrap balsawood together, used countless sheets of Depron, bottles of glue and tub after tub of paint, making ‘projects’ that have varied over the years from simple stick planes with no chance of flight to scratch built functional autogyro’s, with a hundred school projects in-between. All crafted in exactly the same manner and with the same techniques used to build and repair model aircraft. The quality time spent with Dad helping to build the next aeroplane in the arsenal, teaches skills and crafts easily transferrable to other aspects of life but, more importantly, provides a foundation of understanding of how models are constructed, how they work and what makes them fly. What you must do is resist the urge to take over!
8. The use of hand tools should be encouraged. Scalpels and pins are sharp of course, but kids never really know how sharp they are until they cut their finger with one. That’s how you found out isn’t it? We are far more protective of our kids that our own parents were of us. This nanny health and safety culture has our backs against the wall. We only had one thing to play with when I was a kid and it was called outside! Schools don’t help. There is a scant amount of craftsmanship opportunity presented to the youth of today. Woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing are now replaced by a catch all ‘Resistant Materials’ syllabus limited in practical experience of any particular aspect. Drilling holes for servo mounts, fitting bolts with Allen keys, mounting props with spanners and sawing things to length are all part of assembling a model for flight. This also represents an investment of time on the part of the kid and some ownership to the final successful operation of the model. Remember that a model built together is a memory that lasts forever.
9. Try to provide the best equipment you can afford. With a few exceptions you really only do get what you pay for in this hobby and while some models may seem like the bargain of the week, that often is about as long as they will last. In order to sustain a youngster’s interest, especially in the early days, success must be virtually guaranteed and models with poor parts which break easily, carry an element of unreliability or can’t be replaced will soon curtail flying for the day. If this is allowed to become the norm (and we all know people who have equipment reliability issues) then you really are batting uphill. Also key is making the model suit the ability of the pilot. There is no point jumping to the world’s best 3D machines if your kid is only ‘A’ certificate capable. Try to temper their own enthusiasm with an understanding that when they can fly this model well, there will be another one to move on to.
10. Give credit where it is due. Don’t be surprised when their ability surpasses yours. This is the natural order of things. While age and wisdom will often overcome youthful enthusiasm, there will come a point when it is quite obvious that you are no longer the best model flier in your family! I find myself clinging on to beliefs that my ability to hook a glider into even the slightest patch of thermal activity surpasses my son’s ability to fly a perfect 3D Alien Wall and Harrier Roll. I have purposely not yet taught him everything I know, in the hope that I can still pull off an occasional victory in our club competitions, but I admit it is getting harder to do so. A little bit of praise goes a long way but don’t be tempted to throw it around like sweets. Likewise, when their ability warrants it, do not be remiss.