RCM&E at 50 – Tatty Treasures

RCM&E at 50 – Tatty Treasures

Alan Wood's venerable Waveguide, a throwback to a typical single-channel model.

It’s a funny thing, but people will often spend hundreds of pounds on a model, yet begrudge £2.50 at a Swapmeet for a sheaf of excellent balsa. Us modellers have funny values; we’ll happily blow a fortune on a fancy new engine, whilst keeping the same old tired NiCad flight pack for years.

Modelling fun certainly doesn’t depend on repeatedly splashing out loadsamoney. In this hobby, sentiment certainly has its place – in fact, many of the old modelling items I own and revere as treasures are worth very little nowadays. However, as you will see, they remain precious because of what they represent.
 

TATTY TREASURES
When it comes to modelling satisfaction, I find that the bunch of tatty old things I treasure in my shed are the most precious objects in one’s little universe – besides Ollie, ‘The Blonde Person’, and my signed photo of The Editor, that is. My modelling treasures are often looked upon askance by other modellers, who give me that pitying, wide-eyed, shaking-of-the-head look. But, I feel sorry for them. They don’t know what they’re missing.

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Every one of these tiny treasures marks a step in my growth as a modeller, every ancient nick-nack a staging post on my long journey through the hobby. I could never feel the same way about an ARTF, although as readers well know, I have a lot of time for them. No… on a cold winter’s night, when its too dark, too wet, and too windy to fly, there are much subtler pleasures to be had rooting about in the cosy shed. Much more fulfilling than anything currently provided by the gogglebox or the internet.

As a student, I starved for a whole term to buy this little beauty, still works well, just like it's owner.

A SOBERING THOUGHT
I suppose my prime treasure is my first ever radio, a single-channel proportional Waltron Mini 2. Like its owner, it’s British, knocking on a bit, but still works. In fact, I’m currently putting together another model to fly it in. I was a student when I spotted it in Mike Lancaster’s model shop, right on the front at Morecambe, and I blew a term’s grant buying it, so at the time it wasn’t that cheap. Mind you, considering a ‘full-house’ (multi-channel) set in ye olden days cost the equivalent of about a grand in modern money, I was very lucky. So it was that I left the free-flight flock and joined the radio age.

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Remember Rexine? No? Well, it was a form of artificial leather… not a barmaid. I love the Mini 2’s grey Rexine covered aluminium case, with its single metal joystick and high-tech trim lever. There’s an important-looking bright red button on top, which is the ‘2’ in its title. This was a second semi-proportional channel, giving three-position throttle control that supposedly blipped between ‘High’, ‘Mid’ and ‘Low’, but more often than not provided ‘High’, ‘Nowt at All’ and… ‘Oh bugger’! Very disturbing on a downwind flyaway.
A thing that strikes you right away about this cute late Sixties technology is how small a box it really is – in fact, you can easily hold it in one hand. The other thing is, the aerial is very long and sturdy, making it much better when it comes to ramping up that feeble signal. However, with said aerial fully extended the balance is superb, like a good fly rod.

The complete Mattel Superstar electric flight unit; motor, two integral gearboxes, NiCds, cushioned prop drive and on/off switch.

DEACs
When I first bought my radio set, it was powered by Ever Ready dry cells. There was no power meter, so you kept count of the hours you flew, and there was no RF meter either. To check you were transmitting before flying, you just stood next to your mum’s telly and switched the Mini 2 on; if the 405 line black-and-white Tommy Cooper Show went all funny, then you knew you were transmitting. 

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These days, dry cells get a lot of undeserved bad press. In fact, their discharge curve is reasonably flat, followed by a pretty steady decline, unlike the sudden ramping down of a flat NiCad. Paradoxically, in the days of hair, love and peace, this was often a model saver. If you were flying and the model was getting slower and slower in the turns, then you knew to land immediately because the cells were going flat, and therefore driving the rudder servo slower and slower. 

During my first serious foray into DIY electronics, I remember sending away for a DEAC cell (the forerunner to our modern NiCads) and soldering it into the Mini 2 before equipping the little transmitter with a massive Bakelite mini-Bulgin charge socket, the sort of British DC connector that could carry the power needs of a Hebridean Island. I connected it to a simple, but massive, mains charger, that hummed like a bad fridge. The result was heaven for a cash-strapped student: no battery replacement costs, just a quick fourteen hour boost the day before. Believe it or not, after thirty years, those venerable cylindrical DEAC’s will still take a charge.

On a cold winter's night there's nothing better than a few old modelling mags to warm the cockles.

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FLY BABY
As a young dude, I flew my single-channel plane with that simple set-up for many years on various meadows, school fields, coal tips, sea-shores, industrial estates, hill-tops, and river banks. It was a bit like granny’s ‘antique’ broom – three new fuselages and two new wings – but was still the same model. You tended to fly mostly on low power (when the dodgy red button would let you select it), to keep the ballooning little model low enough to see. With no elevator, you had to get really good at noting the pitch of the engine, although the Enya .09 was so small and quiet that you didn’t bother anybody. More often than not, nobody knew you were there.

After this, I completed my studies and returned to Liverpool for a job. Here, I’d spend my breaks at work looking forlornly out the window, doping the wind, and yearning to go flying. Weekend weather forecasts were listened to with religious reverence (still are). On Saturday mornings I’d visit Stan Catchpole’s model shop in Bold Street, and chat to the beaming Mike Broadvent; I seem to remember these trips involved a lot of longing, but very little buying.

Saturday nights were fun and still a blur, but I was always careful to wind up my tin alarm clock for Sunday morning. I’d get out early in my battered little car, and drive across the West Lancashire plain – I’d knock on a farmer’s door, and politely ask if I could fly on their land. To their everlasting credit, despite my hung-over appearance, they never turned me down. Often, they suggested a better field than the one I had in mind. In those days, we had to have a licence to fly, and dodging the ‘busbies’ (wireless telecom men) was a great sport. I’d fly all morning, often in the snow, eat my butties, and then drive home in time for a nice long, traditionally late Liverpool Sunday lunch. 

Male jewellery from the 1970s – a Nisshin Photo Tachometer. The aerial device houses a photo sensor.

Older, fatter, and a lot better off, I now own quite a few radios which I’ve acquired over the years, including (very recent) a very posh one indeed. But guess what? The little Rexine-covered beauty still means everything to me.

ELECTRIFYING FLYING
One Christmas, I was passing a toy shop and saw something rather appealing. Since I was only twenty, I went in and bought it: a Mattel Superstar powered free-flight model, with polystyrene wings. Clearly, ARTF models aren’t new, since this was 30 years ago – and, the Superstar remains a very cleverly engineered aeroplane. 

You charge the on-board cells with a special lead from a lantern battery and, since the lead deliberately penetrates the on / off switch, it will only plug in if the model is switched off… ingenious! But there’s more: The electric motor was combined with two gearboxes and the two flight cells, to form a complete clip-in nose unit. The removable metal propeller shaft was mounted on a nifty rubber cone, which provided superb shock absorption.

Okay, so far so good, but here’s where the Superstar took things to a new height. You’ll note that I said it had two gearboxes – well, one was the propeller drive, but the other, running through a speed-reducing worm drive, drove a disc, upon which a series of differing plastic cam discs could be clipped. Their purpose was to drive the rudder via a wire torque rod, whose inboard end ran against the cam. As the flight motor revved, the reduction drive turned the cam disc very slowly, with the torque rod engaging it, and thus following its highs and lows. A full turn of the geared-down cam might take a couple of minutes in flight, and at different nodes on the cam, the rudder was driven to select left, right or neutral in a linear series of commands defined by the slowly turning disc.
This was extremely clever engineering, for in the air, the model would perform manoeuvres in tune with the cam you had chosen. You were given four cams, which performed four different aerial routines. It was so accurate, that in no wind, I could fly the model entirely safely within a single football pitch.

Plain bearing Enya .09 R/Cs were built tough.

Flights only lasted a few minutes, but were mesmerising to watch.
On CAM 1 it would fly upwind, turn left, and then fly downwind; there would then be an audible click of the torque rod falling into a depression in the cam, followed by the corresponding manoeuvre, as she finally turned back into wind and landed. All with no radio, if you please. With CAM 4 she would fly squares in the sky ahead of you, turn downwind, lose height, then turn quickly into wind and land again on minimal power… Magic! 

I still have some of the aircraft left (!), but more often I take out – and admire – the funky motor / gearbox unit and its elegant engineering. I still remember the electric excitement (and anxiety) of launching my brand new Superstar into the sky, and waiting with bated breath for that first fateful click, followed by that first successful left turn. It may look like junk to some, but I wouldn’t swap it for a gold clock.

NIGHT IN WHITE NISHIN
Also in the seventies, whilst still an impressionable young chap, I went to the Woodvale show and saw a sexy, black, complicated looking – a Nishin photo-tachometer, being used to synchronise a twin. For reasons that are very difficult to elaborate now, I was utterly impressed with this device, and just had to have one. Now remember, at that time, I probably only owned one engine bigger than an .09, and that was a monster fifteen. Still, I lusted after this neat piece of advanced high technology. I bought it for cash, there and then, went home and stroked it, then put it next to my bed so that it would be the first thing I saw when I awoke. 

At the flying field, I took to hanging about the pits, offering to measure RPM’s just so that I could extend the nifty photo sensor and take important-looking readings on that fussy white meter scale. “Yeah, mate, you’re over-propped…”
In the course of the last thirty years, I reckon I’ve used the photo-tachometer eight or ten times in earnest… but that doesn’t matter. At the time, it was male jewellery for modellers, just like ZAP 9’s are now. 

Nowadays, when I’m rooting in the shed and stumble across it by accident, I always pick it up, close my eyes, and remember how different us young aeromodellers were to those trendy 1970s men who would pose in gold chains and medallions. Instead, we would pose with little black electronic thingies at the field. I can hark back to Woodvale, I can hear T-Rex, and I feel like a Euro-millionaire. 

The footnote to this tale of youthful abandon is that I recently saw one at a swapmeet, boxed, in perfect nick, for a measly ten quid. Most of the punters had no idea what it might be, much less its potent, totemic value. They totally ignored it, and it didn’t sell. Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do…

OLD MAGS AND PLANS
At the outset, I must state that the Blonde Person and I never argue about model aircraft, money, the children, holidays, Ollie, cars, DIY, or which TV channel to watch. However, we do have opposing views on the value of my old magazines. It is only a tiny aberration, so I forgive her. How could she be expected to understand the sheer value and cultural significance of my cherished reading matter? To my mind, a modeller without a magazine is like a Super Sixty without dihedral, a glider guider without his trannie tray, or a politician without a guilty secret. Many a wild winter’s gale is relieved thanks to a comfortable night by the fireside, re-reading old modelling magazines. Those old guys certainly could write well, though personally, I still begin with the adverts. I often wish I could write off with my postal order now for one of those old balsa kits, and I torture myself about the classics I couldn’t afford then, whereas now I could buy two or three.

MERRIE OL’ ENGLAND
At a swapmeet, if you’re not in the market for a particular gizmo or airframe, old magazines are almost always a subsidiary best buy – after all, they include old plans, which are a constant source of inspiration. I am not quite aged enough to remember magazines like ‘Model Aircraft’ being on the news-stands; my monthly line up then was Radio Modeller, Aeromodeller, and RCM&E. Thirty years ago, RCM&E was still the brand leader, and its pages were noticeably bigger than the competition. However, as a voracious reader, I always yearned for ‘one modelling magazine per week’, which these days is what we’ve got in spades. 

Anyhow, recently, I’ve been piecing together a small collection of old model aircraft mags. They are full of an innocent England that has largely disappeared, where smart modellers with slicked-back hair and fly-away stripy ties start their models wearing their best tweed suits and Oxford brogues. Patchy raincoats were de rigueur. These mags had reviews of classic kits, plus the incomparable Peter Chinn’s engine reports, easily the best motor analyst of his generation. 

Nowadays, materially, we’ve moved on, and we’re all better off. There’s a much bigger ‘flow’ with modern modelling: more innovations on a broader front, more affordable types of radio, engine, and model, and definitely many more ARTFs. This is all superb, and no one in their right mind would want to go backwards (except perhaps Buckleists and SAMites). However, it is still good to see where we came from, and to note what abides in aeromodelling, and what falls by the wayside. Bits of cherished old modelling kit, even if they are just kept for sentimental reasons, should never be overlooked as a source of deep pleasure.

  • Tatty Treasures was originally published in 2003. 

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