How it all began (Pt.2)

This MacGregor unit is a pulse proportional set which came to be known as Galloping Ghost – the rudder and elevator flapped!

By the mid-1960s, reliable radio gear giving controls comparable to that of ‘full-size’ planes had arrived and was in general use.

This was the period of enormous progress when within a few years the mythical ‘average modeller’ went from lumbering free-flight orientated designs, with a crash due to either pilot error or radio failure every few flights, to sleek fast types capable of the full range of aerobatic manoeuvres which were flown week-in-week-out with very few malfunctions. In these circumstances pilot skill also made rapid progress until the top men reached a standard little different to standards prevailing today. This refers to the then predominating aerobatic field, you understand. Scale had yet to benefit from the sudden leap in R/C capability.


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Pylon racing was in its infancy with a lot of indecision about a suitable contest formula. The first one to emerge was to allow engines up to .2 cubic inches in models with a minimum wing area of four square feet. Avid competitive modellers soon negated the original intention of the rule – to produce slowish, docile models – by turning out razor-winged ‘pencil bombers’ of quite grotesque appearance, but high performance.

Others reasoned that since the ‘four square feet’ was mandatory but nobody said anything about bodies or tails, why not eliminate them and bend the four square feet into a flying triangle. That’s how deltas came to be popular and so successful that they were eventually banned to make way for the American ‘Formula 1’ which specified .4 cubic inch engines and models that must be ‘based on full-size aeroplanes’. This seemed to be the ultimate and produced good-looking models, often scale, based on the ‘Goodyear’ racers, fast (speeds were topping the magic ‘100 per’ by 1968) and quite exciting to fly.

Chris Olssen continued to do well in internation competition using 'bang-bang' well into the proportional era, which started in the mid 1960s.


Brick concept
Proportional control, such as we have in universal use today had been around almost from the beginning. The American ‘Space Control’ was one of the first to be sold in quantity and was based on the ‘brick’ concept, in which the whole airborne bit was in a fixed ‘block’: receiver, servos, and switch, everything except the battery. This was about 1960 and it was soon followed by others, the ‘Sampey 404’ mentioned earlier, true ‘single stick’, and a little later Citizenship made a ‘low budget’ set, not much more expensive than some of the better reed outfits. Some of these early proportional outfits had quaint features like ‘start buttons’ – you had to press this to start the pulsing cycle – and others had a ‘synchronising button’.

If the model went mad, it often meant that the ‘commutation’ had got out of step and pressing the ‘synchronising button’ caused a resumption of normal service – sometimes!
Many of these early sets had what was euphemistically called a ‘fail-safe’ facility in that any break in the flow of normally coded signals caused the controls to revert to neutral with the throttle shut. This was held for a fixed period, usually two seconds, after which the receiver would take another look at the incoming signal and if it liked it, resume normal control. If not, it stayed in fail-safe.

Sounds great but anybody who flies model aeroplanes knows that any break in normal control, whether due to a malfunction or a ‘fail-safe’ situation, nearly always leads to disaster. So ‘fail-safe’ was quietly forgotten and flying became a great deal safer (until just recently, that is, since we seem to have re-invented it under a different name. Whatever you call it, the problems are still there).


Proportional thumbs
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. When, in the mid-sixties, proportional gear began to appear in volume, newcomers assumed that it must be better than the near-universal ‘bang-bang’ reed gear. However, the top modellers had reached such a high level of skill in manually pulsing their bang-bang controls that they were getting ‘proportional’ control anyway. And they couldn’t see the need for gear that, while theoretically better, seemed to give no better results in practice, was a lot more expensive and, most important of all, a giant step backwards in reliability. It was to be some years before the reliability of proportional sets approached that of the better reed sets of the mid-sixties, and even longer before it competed on cost.

At the same time, a lot of articles appeared in the model mags about how to adapt your flying technique to the new control mode. In fact, no such adaptation was necessary. If you could fly reeds, you could fly proportional (the reverse proposition would not apply, of course!) though maybe it would take a little while to realise the full potential of proportional controls. But as far as the flying was concerned, it was very difficult to decide who was flying what. However, the manufacturers decided the issue for us for they all concentrated on electronic proportional control to the exclusion of all the other types – some quaint and unrealistic, but all interesting and some quite good.

An early Skyleader advert.


In the sixties, we already had some pretty potent engines. Schnuerle porting was already with us, giving a big improvement in power, idle and throttle response. Tuned pipes were beginning to appear, though R/C modellers didn’t seem to think they needed them. It wasn’t until the late seventies that the most radical event of the engine sphere came along in the shape of the four-stroke. There had been one or two attempts to market four-strokes in the thirties and late forties but these had been commercial failures and modellers didn’t want to know. In those days, we didn’t worry about noise too much. We used to fly McCoy 60’s, Super Cyclones and even Dynajet’s in public parks and nobody seemed to mind very much, though the noise was shattering.

By the mid-seventies, however, we were all becoming much more noise-sensitive. Silencers – a grossly inaccurate title – had been accepted for some years but even with these appendages, some of them quite effective, the more powerful engines were still presenting noise problems. Problems that the early four-strokes eliminated. Not only were they, even with plain exhaust pipes, much quieter than any ‘silenced’ two stroke, the pitch of the noise was much less irritating, and, as some genius once said: “If everybody was using four-strokes, the noise problem would disappear.”

Full circle
Concurrent with the rise of the four strokes has been the emergence of a vast interest in vintage models. Back in the early sixties, some of us who had collections of old engines – often spark ignition – decided it might be fun to reproduce nostalgic scenes of the late thirties by flying genuine vintage models with genuine vintage engines. And so it was, but we had forgotten about all the perils of free-flight, the lost models, the models stuck in trees and telegraph wires and so on.

The writer, for one, decided that, with models that had taken a lot of building generally to a much higher standard of workmanship than the originals, that these risks were unacceptable. But with simple R/C suitably tucked out of sight, these models could still be operated in an ‘appropriate’ manner, yet kept out of trouble with a bit of radio guidance – no more – when necessary. However, this concept didn't seem to appeal to the then (mid sixties) small, but growing vintage fraternity, who seemed to think that there was something slightly obscene about it. They continued to lose models and get them stuck in trees, etc. This in spite of the fact that R/C, as shown in an earlier article, goes right back to the beginning of aeromodelling.

When the writer organised the first ever ‘Radio Assisted Vintage’ meeting at Topcliffe in 1968, support was disappointing. It was ten years before the surge in RAV finally got underway. And then, in the opinion of some, in a direction that was slightly off-course, as far as the original objectives were concerned, i.e. authentic vintage designs with appropriate vintage engines, the R/C out of sight – there's plenty of room for concealment in most of these types – and the latter used only to guide the model out of trouble, as necessary.

In the 1980s, R/C vintage attracted a lot of interest and it's still going strong today.

Four-strokes was commonplace by this time and while these engines were ideal from a purely practical point of view, they were hardly appropriate. And the same applied to the style of flying, using ‘rudder-ele-throt’, which was more in line with current sport flying.

This seemed a pity because some of us had demonstrated that it was possible to reproduce the original free-flight patterns, together with appropriate noises (and smells!) with R/C on rudder only. Indeed, on calm days it was sometimes possible to complete whole flights with no radio ‘interference’ at all.

All that be as it may, R/C Vintage in the Eighties attracted possibly more modellers than any other category with the exception of scale. Back in the days when reeds were universal, there were one or two convincing scale models but these were very few and far between. Average modellers’ aerodynamic knowledge was often a bit sketchy in those days and many otherwise promising models were crashed due to aberrations in this direction. In fact, most development in scale took place in the 70’s and 80’s. And what a development it has been. The standard now is so high that many otherwise keen modellers take the view that: “If it takes that sort of standard – with the vast expenditure in time and money involved – to be competitive, I pass!”

There is no doubt that scale is the ultimate in model flying. In fact, the sort of flying now possible is what some of the old-timers dreamed about – sixty five years ago!

  • First published RCM&E 1987.

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