In September 1949 I started a 2 year period at Handsworth Technical School. I have no memory of an 11 plus exam as such (I was now nearly 13), but I do remember the class at senior school being asked if anyone wanted to go to Grammar School. "Who wants to join those snobs?", I thought. A week or so later, we were asked if anyone wanted to go to Technical School. Now that sounded good, so I volunteered. I later learned that I was top of the entrance exam.
My parents were not at all happy about this and the additional expense it would involve. Their resistance to my modelling became stronger. I had always been overweight and was also shortsighted, which meant that I needed to wear thick glasses. The inevitable result of this was that I was bullied at school. My fathers response to this was, "Hit them back. If you don't, I'll hit you!". All of this combined to make me an even more dedicated modeller.
The good thing about the new school was that it introduced me to a number of fellow modellers of the same age, or older. One result was that I was persuaded to join the West Birmingham Model Aero Club. This utilised a system that was quite common at the time whereby premises for a club could be obtained by running a nightschool class in some specialised subject. In this case, of course, the subject was 'Aeromodelling'.
The 'teacher' was Stan Whitbread, who was a travelling representative for the AA Hales model company. He received a few shillings per term for running the 'class' and had a free hand. It was Stan who christened me 'Tubby'.
Another member was Dave Wright, also a schoolmate, who was later to become manager of the Jim Davis empire.
In this heady atmosphere, I finally assembled the necessary finance to buy that ED Bee just before Christmas. Never one to seek help from others, it took me some 8 weeks to actually get the beast started. It took perhaps another 2 weeks to find out how to adjust it so that it ran strongly, rather than misfiring and pouring out unburned fuel. At this point I stuck my hand in the prop!
The lucky part was that I was running the motor on an 8x4 'Truflex' and the result of the bite was a severe gumming. The motor was running flat out and my entire hand was completely numb for the best part of an hour, despite soaking in hot water. Apart from bruising, the only damage was several blood blisters. I wish I could say that I learned a lesson from this, but I have the scars to prove that I didn't.
With the Bee installed in the Auster, I went to the local park and found another youngster to let go of it for me. The resulting flight was totally uneventful. Nonetheless, I was over the moon for weeks afterwards!
In summer evenings we were able to fly control-line models in the playground of the school where the club met. The school buildings extended around three sides and we later discovered that it was possible to fly all year round by the light from the windows.
The second model that I built for the Bee was a Vic Smeed 'Coquette'. I was very much afraid of losing this and tended to launch it with very little fuel in the tank which gave short and hazardous flights. On one occasion I was persuaded to try a full tank. This resulted in my chasing the model around most of Sutton Park in a state of panic before the model finally landed a few yards from the launch point. For the next few years I was 99% a control-line flyer.
I eventually built no less than five of those Skyleada Austers. At one stage I had two and went back to my old practice of whipping them around on short lines so that I could practice flying one in each hand. One of the later examples had an inverted engine and flaps operated by a third line. This particular model was flown on a 6x8 Truflex and could be persuaded to adopt a nose-high attitude so that the prop stalled and the model sank to the ground, where it would accelerate up to flying speed and take off again.
I wanted to perform aerobatics, so I built a Skystreak 26 for the long-suffering Bee. I went on to produce five of these too, plus a sixth many years later. I learned an awful lot from this design, including the complete stunt schedule. In standard form, it was marginally aerobatic and the trick was to mount the engine as far back as possible, to keep the CG position back. It had a removable wing with the controls in the wing, which meant that it was possible for the fuselage to go off on it's own! I tried building a lightweight version in one piece. This was not a success because it was nose heavy.
In those days, stunt control-line flying was in it's infancy and the tendency was to produce models with short moment arms and large elevators with lots of movement. In truth, the resulting models were probably capable of just about anything except level flight. The general discussion attending any new model was, "Will it, won't it?" It's hard to believe today, but that first loop took a lot of courage. Sustained inverted flight was something very new and marked you out as a real expert.
The West Birmingham club had another flying patch in a rather boggy field. This did have the attraction that it was much more forgiving than that tarmac playground. Unfortunately, there was only room for one circle, with the result that you reeled out your lines, started the engine and flew - regardless. Imagine as many as 7 models in the air together on lines ranging from 30 to 60 feet in length and you have some idea of the chaos, and fun.
I found a kindred spirit at school (where are you today, Neil?) who also had a Bee and similar aspirations. We used to fly on Saturday afternoons in a field next to Great Barr station. With the nostalgia these days for steam railways it amazes me that no-one remembers grass fires. We frequently had to put them out before we could fly. Has anyone ever seen a model railway with a simulated grass fire?
We designed a mini Kandoo type model for the Bee which was easy to repair. With the aid of this and the various Skystreaks I mastered the full schedule and returned to the West Birmingham bog to show off.
My first visit to a control-line rally was sometime in the summer of 1950 at Halesowen. This was a real revelation. Not only did I see the Hewitt brothers, Brian and Allan, but also Gerry Buck and a man called Brian Price, who I regarded as better than any of them. This was also the first time that I heard a glowplug motor run. The sound of an unsilenced Frog 500 being leaned out to that wonderful tearing canvas noise is something that has never left me.
Gerry Buck had an Amco 3.5 powered Phantom (christened 'Phamco'), without undercarriage, which was capable of close to the magic 100mph. Speed flying has always had a great fascination to me, although I have done very little myself. In those days, all sorts of model were flown in speed events and I remember Alan Hewitt managing almost 90 mph with his Ambassador stunt model.
One other memory of Alan was of his, now aging, Ambassador shedding its outboard wing at the Walsall meeting in 1952 or 53. He completed the schedule without it. Memory says that he still placed second.
In September 1951 I started work as an apprentice draughtsman at the princely sum of 26 shillings per week. This increase in wealth allowed me to purchase a brand new bike on the never-never (Hire Purchase to younger readers). It obviously led to an increase in modelling activity and adding other motors to the collection.
I had already produced a scaled down (3/4) version of the Ambassador for the Bee. The acquisition of a Frog 150 allowed me to produce a 7/8 scale version of which I built two. This process continued with the production of a 5/8 version for an Albon Dart and then a full size with an Elfin 249. No, it didn't stop there, because I obtained a second Elfin and built a one and one quarter size twin engined version.
It was almost impossible to keep the combination of two Elfins bolted firmly in place and it shed a motor on more than one occasion. Contrary to theory, it flew perfectly well with the inboard motor missing. Maybe the increase in effective wing weight helped.
Having flown combat with the Bees as early as 1952, the publication of the Kombat Kapers in Aeromodeller in January 1954 provided the spur to take up this new form of flying in earnest. One problem was that the model was stronger than an Elfin 249 crankcase! However, this was welded up by Gig Eifflander and continued for many years.
Kombat Kapers by Robin Gibbard. The first published C/L combat design.
Click on the drawing for a larger image.
At this point, I had the spectre of national service hanging over me. I was in a deferred industry (drop forging), but this merely meant the postponement of what I saw as inevitable. It seemed to me that my modelling would grind to a stop in the services (the truth is probably the exact opposite) and I found it hard to make any plans for the future. One result of this was an increase in my interest in music and I took up the saxophone and clarinet.
None of that is relevant here, but it was not until the completion of my apprenticeship and the discovery that the forces were no longer interested in people who were less than A1, that my modelling enthusiasm returned with new vigour.