Model of a record setting plane

Well, I built another model airplane. Like the last one, I built this one up from plans rather than a kit.

It is a scale model of a DH.88 Comet. This handsome plane set a whole bunch of long-distance speed records in back in the 1930s. If you’re an aviation history nerd, the Wikipedia article is a good read. This plane was also a fruitful exercise for the de Havilland Aircraft Company to explore and develop various new technologies and building techniques. Of note is de Havilland’s ability to produce fast and capable airplanes made of wood, like the DH.88 and DH.91. That experience and expertise was put to work just a few years later to create the de Havilland Mosquito, one of the most successful and versatile fighter planes of that era.

But besides all of that impressive history and innovation… it just looks cool! Here’s a video of the actual plane flying around at an airshow:

Form and function together. Those sleek aerodynamic lines…almost art deco?. And there’s something badass about those low-slung engines out in front.

I’ve actually wanted to make a model of this plane for a long time. For at least a couple of years. I learned about it from those wikipedia articles up above, and immediately started searching for suitable plans online. Outerzone.co.uk had a couple of plans… but they were for different materials and construction methods than the stick and tissue style that I like (and that I actually know how to do)

But after a little extra searching and sleuthing, I found another site, hippocketaeronautics.com, that had just the right plans!

Cutting out portions of the plans to transfer to the wood

Trying to fit as much onto the balsa wood sheet as I can.

I use acetone to transfer the print-out to the balsa. This shows a fairly good example of the end result. Incidentally, it is also a good example of careless placement: I failed to take note of the wood grain on some of these pieces, with can lead to warping and/or structural weaknesses.

The fuselage is coming together. (some pieces are not glued in yet – just sitting there – hence the protruding tips.) This is also a good view of the plans underneath.

Applying the tissue paper skin. Of note are the adjustable ailerons, rudder, and elevators on this model. You can see a few of them in this picture. The hinges are made from some thread-wrapped wire I found at a art supply store. The thread made it easy to glue the wire down to the wood. I wouldn’t want to move them too much, since the wire would eventually fatigue. But it’s a neat effect!

I used the same wire to make the outline of the cockpit canopy.

At one point, while I was finishing the addition of the engine nacelles, I damaged the wing. Here is a moment from its repair.

Good as new! 

Displayed on the wall. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but its wingspan is about twice as wide as any other plane I’ve built so far.

You can see a fair number of wrinkles, lumps, and seams in the plane. I am by no means a pro at this. But I’m pretty pleased with the overall result. A lot of people ask if I’ll paint my models… Maybe? But maybe not. I really enjoy the construction process, and the materials. Rather than verisimilitude, I like that you can see the paper and wood for what they are. And the translucency really shows off the structure nicely.

 

 

Pontoons

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As I’ve discussed previously, my tastes in cinema and media are pretty broad and hard to pin down. I like a lot of different stuff! What can I say. Anyway, I really like animation. It’s one of my favourite art forms.

And as I’ve also mentioned before, I love airplanes and flight.

Broadly, these two interests overlap in the work of Hayao Miyazaki, But in particular, his film Porco Rosso is one of my favourites.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it is set in the in the Adriatic Sea, sometime between the first and second world war. The film is chock full of seaplanes inspired by historical designs of that era. This film made me fall in love with those planes. There is something simultaneously elegant and ridiculous about seaplanes. They are sleek, yet bulbous. Practical and whimsical.

That era saw an explosion of innovative aircraft designs. Many had unique and oddball shapes like the twin hulled flying wing, Savoia-Marchetti S.55, which apparently was actually a very capable and airworthy aircraft.

After building a couple of simple stick and tissue model kits, I wanted to make something like the planes in Porco Rosso. So I started searching the internet for a kit. Eventually, this search lead me to http://www.outerzone.co.uk/ where I discovered the world of building from plans rather than kits. I ultimately decided to try this plan of a Curtiss Racer for my first attempt.

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I made a lot of mistakes and had a couple false starts (not unlike this blog!), but I also learned a lot.

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The final result is a little squiggly and uneven, and I’m not sure it will ever fly. Some of that is a result of the hand-drawn quality of the plans, and some of that is due to my lack of experience. Nevertheless, I am pleased with the result. It’s elegant and goofy, just like I wanted!

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Coming up next: I will be returning to my childhood roots when I built a plastic model. Fittingly, it is a model of a fictional plane from Porco Rosso! My friend Will gave it to me after he visited the Studio Ghibli museum in Japan. I can’t wait.

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Stick and Tissue Battle of Britain, Part I

Here is the completed model airplane from the kit given to me by a kind stranger when I was little. I finally built it a few years ago. As you can see, I still need to give it a propeller and wheels. But a visit to John’s Hobbies will rectify that. You’ll also notice that I have not painted it. I haven’t painted any of my models actually. Maybe I will give it a shot someday. But I also like being able to see the underlying structure clearly.

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Model Airplane Childhood

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Like a stereotypical nerdy kid, I liked to build model airplanes when I was young. They were the plastic kind that you glue together. My dad has always loved airplanes and flight, but I don’t think it took very much persuasion for me to become drawn to them as well.

The attraction is many layered. Flight itself has a magical quality. Then you have the attraction of machines and technology. The functionality of planes is attractive. But planes can also have a beautiful gracefulness.

Finally, there is something about the act model building that goes beyond simply picking up a readymade model or toy with the exact same shape. The process of gradually putting it together allows your imagination to really inhabit the plane (or boat, or car, or spaceship, or whatever you like to build). You get to know all of its ins and outs as you see its shape come together.

A related father-son practice from my childhood was going to air shows of remote controlled planes out by the local community college. There was a big field there were hobbyists would gather to fly their planes around. Sometimes they would also have gatherings of “free flight” models. These just cruise along with no remote control. They’re often powered by a rubber band and made out of very light materials – just tissue paper and thin sticks of balsa wood.

My dad built one of these rubber band powered stick and tissue planes when I was little. I don’t recall if it was a scale model of a historical plane, but it resembled something like a Piper Cub. Around this time, while we were attending one of those miniature air shows, a kind old man gave me a stick and tissue kit. It was a scale model of a Bf 109 – a fighter plane from WWII.

However, I was still focused on the plastic models at the time. I wasn’t sure I had the skills, dexterity, and patience required for stick and tissue models. And so the kit sat on the shelf. Several years went by. I gradually got out of the habit of building models altogether. Eventually I was finished with high school and off to Canada for university. By that time, both my dad and I had assumed that the kit had been parted out for use on other projects.

Then one December, while I was visiting home for the season, I found the box and pulled it off the shelf. It was all still there! So, naturally, I decided to give it a shot and start building

And boy, am I glad that I did. I had just stumbled into what has became a delightful new/old hobby. It rekindled my childhood enjoyment of building model airplanes. But I also found the process of building from wood and paper quite rewarding.

With stick and tissue, you are starting from raw materials. Forming the pieces yourself extends the the period where your imagination explores the shape of the plane. As it all comes together, I get a real sense of ownership and accomplishment.

Beyond the immediate experience of building a stick and tissue model, there is something interesting about the technology itself, its relationship to history, and its reproducibility.

If there was an old plastic model that is no longer in production, you are pretty much out of luck. Unless you find someone selling an unbuilt specimen on ebay, you will not be able to build that model. Once there are no more unbuilt kits left, that is it.*

But stick and tissue is different. There are kits available of course, but you can also work from plans on paper. This means that you can find plans from the 1930s or earlier and still build the model. All you have to do is supply balsa. Sites like http://www.outerzone.co.uk/ have collected thousands of scans of classic plans and made them available for free.

I’ve only made three stick and tissue planes so far. But this is definitely a hobby I will return to from time to time. I’ll post some photos of the models I’ve built so far, and the next time I start one, I will try to document the process from the beginning more thoroughly.
*Perhaps 3D printing will change this. But then again, you will still need a digital version of the original.