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.
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
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
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
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.