The Earliest Days ......

The creation of model aircraft surprisingly extends back to ancient times, this brief history will touch on some of the more memorable models, their design and their significance in model aircraft history.

A model aircraft may be either a flying or non-flying versions of existing or imagined flying craft. Models may be full-size but most models are scaled down to toy or display size. The unifying characteristic of aircraft models is that they are aerodynamically designed.

The oldest model aircraft was created approximately 200 BCE, it was found during the 1898 excavation of the Saqquara tomb in Egypt. The six inch object with a shaped fuselage and curved wings was catalogued and placed in the basement of a Cairo museum. The archeologists didn’t recognize the significance of the object. However, as a scientist working in the museum during the 1960s, Dr. Khalil Messiha recognized the aerodynamic nature of the artifact initiating an ongoing debate about origins of model aircraft building.

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Egyptians weren’t the only ancient society to have dreamers creating ways for humans to fly. We all know the Greek story of Icarus but the story of Greek statesman & inventor Archytas is just as exciting for model builders because we know he built a self-propelled flying machine which he called “the pigeon”. The aerodynamic design is amazingly similar to the fixed-winged aircraft we have today.

The next significant model builder was the Renaissance inventor Leonardo Da Vinci. He pondered the possibilities of flight and documented his thoughts and his model in his notebooks. The Arial-screw, as he called it, looks much like a 20th century helicopter.

After Orville and Wilbur Wright got their plane off the ground, model aircraft building became a popular hobby. Children and would-be adventurers alike spent time building small and to-scale versions of the Wright flyer. Gliders and whirlybirds were not only fun but also learning tools for future scientists who would bring flight first to the military and then to the masses.

The Wright Brothers proved their design worked in 1903, by 1914 there were flying aces and air battles. Military men created spectacular mid-air battles which were recreated with models on school yards and in the movies. Model aircraft builders not only documented the history of the Red Baron and other flying aces with replicas of the flying contraptions but they also documented the rudimentary developments in aircraft design.

Design enhancements from WWI to WWII are mind-boggling. The progress in aeronautics from the single seated double and triple winged planes to the variety of aircraft including heavy bombers, light bombers and other planes such as reconnaissance or transport planes is amazing and documented with models. Changes in wing design and engine thrust allowed for the advent of multiple propellers, increase weight and speed. Model designs pre-manufacture allowed the engineers to experiment with ratios and dynamics. Design models encouraged investment in the scientific experimentation at the beginning of projects and were used as marketing or as public information props after the successful launch of the air force fleet.

After the war, commercial air flight was the next logical avenue for air design. Model builders imagined and built longer and wider airplanes which the corporate air lines loved and used to promote air travel to the general public. What was a wonder in 1903 quickly became routine travel just fifty years later. Airline companies vying for attention introduced toy model designs with their logos to increase brand recognition. Pan Am , United and other flight companies gave models to young passengers as souvenirs. The model collector redefined the market designating differences between toy models and static models.

Stealth bomber model designs were available in the 1970s while the Lockheed designers were still working out the details. The futuristic radar-dodging design was in full production as a model while the actual bomber development was being vehemently denied by the Pentagon into the 1990s.

Model aircraft expanded to include spacecraft along with the development of the NASA program. Model builders were dreaming right along side engineers when the Russian’s launch Sputnik. The Apollo program had official model kits which were approved for classroom use as well as the individual builder versions available at local hobby shops.

Resurging interest in the space program also created interest in building model replicas of Discovery and the Hubble Telescope. The continued interest in model building directly represents the interest in flight. Many model builders today not only want their static display models but also models that fly.

Remote control models are the next best thing to becoming a licensed pilot. The models are aerodynamically designed to recreate the aircraft to scale. Recreating the flight of a favourite aircraft, famous air battle or space ship launch is not beyond possibility.

Model building has already pushed the bounds of engineering by challenging scientific assumptions. Star Trek’s Enterprise and other science fiction spacecraft may be the design models of future generations. Just as we look back to the Egyptian artifact and wonder if they meant it to fly or just represent flight, future generations may wonder if our model designers really knew those ships could travel the galaxy.

Today, model building can create a representation of all of human history. They can focus on specific historical periods of flight showing the diversity of ingenuity. Producing either display models or small replicas for actual flight, model builders have a unique understanding of aerodynamics as well as the history of invention. Model builders really have changed the world.