Memoirs of an obsessive aeroplane hater. Part 2

By 'Tubby' Day

My wanderings into Birmingham city centre took me to the Model Aerodrome on the corner of Temple Row and Cherry Street. I used to visit it at least once a week. They produced products including dope and cement under their own 'Drome' label and had only a limited selection of other makes. They also produced a large range of kits, including a range of flying scale models (I was a dedicated scale modeller), all well outside my price range.

All of the Drome adverts gave their address as 144 Stratford Road and I decided that I must make the further trek to see this wonderful emporium. What a disappointment? It was a warehouse and office block with the windows painted over, no display of models and no retail outlet. (Many years later, when I was interested in motorsport, it amused me that the Broadspeed establishment was within a few yards of this site).

However, next door was a stationers (paper shop) which had stock of Drome kits and a wonderful display of built up models - particularly the scale series. I doubt whether any of these models had been flown, but they were beautifully built and superbly painted.

At some point during this period I discovered another model shop in Burlington Passage, alongside the Theatre Royal. This was Kanga Models, staffed by 'two old ladies' (probably in their late twenties) and I learned that one was called Grace. It was many years later that I learned that this was Grace Bowden, wife of Colonel Bowden. It should have been obvious to one as well-read as myself!

They stocked a far greater range of other products and I discovered Joyplane and 'O-My' products. I came to prefer 'O-My' cement in particular. Later, when I moved on to powered models I liked their Marjonas fuel-proofer (spelling seems to be optional).

I also discovered the Skyleada flying scale range. Having built all of the Airyda flying scale models (mainly American lightplanes) at least twice, without any success, these offered further possibilities. They were more expensive at 1/6d (7.5P). This vast increase in price was offputting, but the range did include a Spitfire. It would be interesting to see a plan again, because memory says that the fuselage was rectangular with formers and stringers along the top. I have no memory of just how accurate the wing shape was.

The most important thing was that it flew! Maybe not well, or too far, but it did fly. Yes, my first successful model was a Spitfire. Eat your heart out, all you R/C beginners. I built all of the range but none were ever as good as that Spit. The pictures of models on the box lid included a Curtis Ascender, but I never did see a kit on sale.

Following some research, the pictures above show that there were, in fact, two different ranges, the 'Junior' range and the '16"' range. The former doesn't show a 'Spitfire' and they are all smaller than the 'Spit' which I know was 16" span. Obviously, the 'Spit' came from the '16"' range.

The plot thickens, because I now have a plan of the 'Ascender' which is 16" span, whereas the above ad shows it as 13". Presumably, both ranges had an 'Ascender' - at least in the adverts. The 16" one is very small and I doubt whether a 13" version is even possible using the construction of those days (see below)


As an aside on the Model Aerodrome, it was owned by a lady who had a series of managers to administer the shop. Several of these then went off and opened their own shop. Tom Perry opened 'The Perrys', which at one time actually had two shops in the area. 'Bob's Models' was another example and is, I believe, still in existence, run by Bob's daughter, Julie (known to us as Miss Smodels).

I had always been attracted to the Astral range and managed to obtain a Blenheim kit. This was one of the wartime examples with all of the wood being obeche instead of balsa. The stripwood was actually sheet with the strips part-cut, similar to later KeilKraft kits. It was also increadibly hairy (sandpaper probably lay somewhere in the future). The printed sheets tended to split very easily and a former usually ended up as several pieces glued together. The contruction was intriguing as the whole model was built flat on the plan, with the lower halves of ribs and formers added later.

What still amazes me is that I actually finished the beast. The rubber motors extended through the wing from a central point in the fuselage to the two props, which were three bladers constructed from machined obeche blades glued into a hardwood hub. It was impossible to stop the props from pointing outwards some 20 degrees or so (that's a minimum figure). I can only guess at the weight of the 27 inch span model (amazing how many models of the period were that size), but I would think 10 ounces plus.

It was capable of powered glides, but gentle landings were never a remote possibility and it didn't last very long. The hardwood wheels didn't help.

I wish that I had kept records of all the models that I built in the late forties. Some of them have become the object of myth among the current vintage movement. One example is the Skyleader (or was it 'Skyleada'?) Amphibian. The rubber motor stretched from a nacelle over the wing, back to the tail. When the motor was wound, the shape of the fuselage changed so much that the model was untrimmable. Another example was the same companies Lightning (P-38) which flew well, limited only by the poor rubber of the period. Winding was a problem and needed the two and a half hands that all real modellers are equipped with.

Skyleada Amphibian
The Skyleader Amphibian

Skyleada/Skyrova (British Model Aircraft) had a large output at the time and one of their better machines seems to have been completely forgotten. This was an Auster (model unspecified). Like the two machines above, this was the magic 27 inch span. With some good rubber it would have been a superb flyer.

I liked Austers and built the Astral kit (balsa this time), which was advertised as 36 inch span, but was actually nearer 40. The construction seemed to be derived from a smaller model, with only a handful of ribs in each wing panel. My problem with this one was that I simply couldn't afford enough rubber to get a good flight. I seem to remember a large spindle moulded prop which should have worked well.

While all of this was going on, my father had returned to civilian life. At best, he barely tolerated my modelling ('cutting up' as he called it). Despite this, he rebuilt an old bicycle and taught me to ride it and made sure that I had a radio of my own. For both of these, I am eternally grateful.

I used to listen to the live broadcasts every Saturday night from Hammersmith Palais by Lou Prager and his orchestra. They had a contest, 'Write a Song for a Thousand Pounds', which was won by 'Cruising Down the River'. This was in 1947. Thus began a lifelong love of big bands. (Slogan of vintage free flight flyer, 'Big bands are coming back').

Also in 1947, there was a paper shortage and one result was that the March issue of Aeromodeller did not appear. This was made up by the production of a double March/April issue. There were many interesting plans in this, including 'Fillon's Champion', a very elegant glider with elliptical dihedral, the 'Arnhem Glider', a very basic design, and a double page 1/72 scale plan of the Vickers 'Viking' airliner. I was very taken with this and even attempted a flying model to that scale, with the props being driven by pulleys and bands from the rubber motor in the fuselage. It even had a manually retracting U/C!

I had half of the model almost complete and the other still uncovered, like an exhibition model. Whether it would actually have been finished or flown was settled when my mother, on one of her clearing up sessions, packed everything into a large trunk, with the model on top and closed the lid. I never forgave her.

I had developed a voracious appetite for reading and read just about everything I could lay my hands on. I devoured all the W E Johns (Biggles) stories, all of Conan-Doyle, H G Wells and so on. This led to my discovery of science fiction and another lifelong addiction.

However, Aeromodeller had become my bible and I was very taken with the F B Thomas series on control-line. This I had to try, but I needed a motor. Unfortunately, finances simply did not allow for this. Matters were made worse by the fact that adverts had given me a distinct liking for the Amco 87, but this was quite expensive. Sad to say, I have never owned one and have rarely even seen one to this day.

Amco 87

There was an answer, or so I thought, using an 'Electrotor'. This was a small electric motor built within a circular magnet. I had bought one of these earlier for a boat. The money would have been better spent on saving for a real motor because it was no hazard to the weakest rice pudding. The good bit was that it would fit inside the cowl of a Drome Lysander.

The model was built using curved tubes under the wing with the thread lines going through these to the elevator horn. Current was carried to the motor by separate copper wires. Sad to say, even with the battery connected directly to the motor, it wouldn't even move along the ground. However, on 6 - 8 feet lines, I was able to whip it around and thus taught myself to fly control-line. I also made myself thoroughly ill! Dizzyness has rarely been a problem since. I was still the dedicated scale modeller and still on difficult subjects.

The joke came later when I saw an article in Aeromodeller on electric C/L using the electrotor. According to the article (March 1949), it had actually been done. I still don't believe it. Does anyone believe my claim that I invented electric C/L?

Electric C/L model
Taken from Vic Smeed's 'Fifty Years of Aeromodeller'
Electric C/L handle

This all prompted the resolution to save up for an ED Bee. This was to take the best part of a year, but I was able to start on a model. Once again, Skyleada came to the rescue. They produced another 27 inch span Auster kit for control-line. It became quite popular in my area as a trainer, being cheaper than the Phantom which had a reputation for being weak, difficult to fly and even more difficult to land in one piece. Apart from Gerry Buck's 'Phamco' (powered by an Amco 3.5), I never saw a Phantom until some time in the 1970's.

While waiting for the necessary finance, the Auster was ballasted up and also flown by whipping it around on short lines. When I finally made a powered flight, it was a total anticlimax.

Most of the saving process was accomplished by walking to school and doing without lunch. All of which gave me an acute awareness of the price of things at that time. This was helped to some extent by the fact that prices were stable, unlike today.

Some examples from above:
1/3d (6P)
Airyda scale kits
1/3d (6P)
Skyleader small scale kits
1/6d (7.5P)
Drome scale kits
3/6d (17.5P)
Skyleader Auster C/L
8/9d (44P)
KK Phantom
18/6d (92.5P)
ED Bee
2 9s 6d (2.48)
Amco 87
3 12s 6d (3.63)

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