Flights of Fancy

around and around we go

As a youth I developed an interest in building balsa-wood gliders. I read a book about how to build them, bought the materials, and began construction, all the while thinking that this was probably going to be a big waste of time to get something that might fly for 10 seconds before crashing into the ground.

The sheet of balsa used for the wings had to be selected with care, as the grain patterns in these seemed to rival fingerprints in complexity and uniqueness. The overall shape was traced onto the sheet, then carefully cut out. The fuselage came from thicker stock and didn't require nearly the care and general futzing around as did the wings. The thickness had to taper out to the wingtips, and an "airfoil" shape was sanded with the help of cardboard templates. If someone was looking for a hobby that boasted instant gratification, this was not it.

With all of the parts finally ready to assemble, they were glued together using a glue that is unavailable today, thanks to glue-sniffing dope fiends. Apparently at some point the company that made the glue was pressured into changing the formula so that hordes of teenagers wouldn't succumb to its power, and subsequently the construction of anything that needed to be glued to something else was severely compromised. Fortunately, this occurred some years later, and I was able to build several gliders that survived numerous high speed crashes where little was left other than the glued joints.

The final step was to cover everything with several coats of sanding sealer to fill in the holes, scratches, and surface rugosities, leaving the glider as smooth as glass. A small lump of clay was squished onto the nose to give it the proper balance, and just before launching the rudder was breathed upon and bent to one side or the other, then held in this position for a minute or so to allow the glider to turn in flight. The whole object of this step was to have the launched glider achieve a series of circles, each one higher than the last, and when the rudder eventually returned to its straight position, and the speed had slowed enough through air friction, the glider would then glide lazily to Earth.

This "gliding lazily to Earth" did not come easy, and there was definitely a technique in launching the glider at just the right angle and the right height, but in a short while I was achieving flights that were measured in minutes and not seconds. The icing on the cake, as it were, was to seek out thermals, rising columns of warm air, and launch into one of these at just the right moment. Since actually seeing a rising column of air was impossible, I constructed sort of a thermal windsock by cutting a long narrow strip of Saran Wrap and gluing it to a stick that I would plant in the ground and watch closely. When the plastic strip began to flutter and rise I would launch the glider, and if everything worked out properly I would watch as my creation soared away like a bird.

As my skill increased, the distances I had to run in order to retrieve the glider increased as well, so I seized upon the idea of writing my telephone number in several places on the body and wings in case my plane took a real "flight" and disappeared. This coincided with discovering that thermals could be found on warmer surfaces of the ground, such as parking lots covered in black asphalt. A weekend trip to a nearby school on a hot day gave me my longest flight ever. A perfect launch led to an immediate climb into perfect circles that widened and climbed until I lost sight of it in the sun. At first I felt terrible when I imagined the glider taking a screaming nose dive through someone's windshield on the freeway with my phone number scattered amongst the wreckage but upon taking into account the wind direction that day I figured it would end up landing in the nearby woods instead.

Several weeks later my roommate told me that she got a phone call about a glider that was found in a field some 20 miles away and over a small mountain range, but she didn't get the caller's number, so I couldn't find out any details of the crash. As tempted as I was to begin work on a new glider, I figured that I had dodged a bullet, so to speak, and that was to be the last one I ever built.


Still interested in model building, I graduated to building a rubber band-powered replica of a DC3, one of my favorite airplanes. This required additional skills with which I was sorely lacking patience and working with small objects. The model was constructed out of balsa, like my gliders, but it was almost 2 feet long and used airframe-shaped spars, just like the "real" DC3. Instead of turning out a ready-to-fly glider in a few hours, my first powered plane took almost a week. Once the skeleton was finished, I had to stretch very thin paper over everything, then spray it with some liquid that made it shrink as it dried, giving the body a smooth exterior. The last step was to paint it to look "real", but after spending so long building the plane I figured that I should give it a test flight before I took the time to add the paint.

A long rubber band was threaded through the fuselage and attached to the plastic propeller. I made one final reading of the instructions, noting that 150 turns of the propeller were required to wind the rubber band tightly enough to provide a good flight. I began turning the propeller and counting, thinking that this was easy and I couldn't wait to watch it go on a flight that didn't take it into the next county. After about 50 turns the rubber band seemed to be twisted enough, and I thought about just stopping then and trying a short trial flight. This I did and I was very surprised the plane flew reasonably straight and level, but obviously lacked enough power to really "fly", so I retrieved it and began winding again.

I reached 50 turns again and kept going. At 100 the thin plastic edge of the propeller began to dig into my finger and I made a mental note to wear gloves next time. Finally I reached 150, with my hands trembling and my finger killing me. For some unknown reason I thought to myself that if 150 is good, then 151 turns is better, so I strenuously spun the prop one more time.

What happened next sounds corny but it's true. People say that in times of severe stress things seem to move in slow motion, and after twist number 151, seemingly in slow motion, the entire fuselage of the plane began to wrap itself around my hand, like a snake constricting around its prey. As it imploded the wings were bent upright as the body continued to shorten itself and creep around my hand, getting smaller and smaller until I was holding a ball of paper-covered balsa the size of a tennis ball, with the wings pointing at odd angles and the whole mess resembling some crazed origami bird. Seven days of construction... seven seconds of destruction. Time to find another hobby...