The Saga of Big Bird

A saga is supposed to have a beginning so far back in time that nobody can remember it.  Well, that's certainly true of Big Bird.  I know he was old when he came to me.  I don't know how he got started, or anything about his early life, but I do know how his saga ended.

OK, so you never had any interest in free flight.  It's old fashioned, right?  The kind of thing they did way back in the thirties with rubber band motors and big balsa props before there was reliable RC.  Kid stuff.  Never mind that some significant engineering talent has been invested in free flight air frame and engine design since way back then.  Engines to buzz the model up to nearly out-of-sight altitude before the timer shut off the engine, graceful aerodynamic, super-light sculptures that could sniff out a thermal and float around in it anywhere--all day.  Right.  I had a good friend from long ago--we're both from long ago--who progressed through the evolution of model airplanes as he went through boyhood into manhood until he got to free flight.  Thereafter, for almost all of his adult life, he flew nothing but free flight.  He even bought a motor scooter so he could keep his model in sight as it went its own way.  This is like eating Camembert cheese, I guess, an acquired taste.

Well, suppose someone wanted to give you one of these strange things, a rara avis, to be sure, only not the slickest and latest in technology, but an example from earlier on the evolutionary ladder, a big, awkward-looking thing.  No good lines.  No grace.  Just a big bright, translucent red wing with a fragile, rubber-powered model look, up on a pylon overhanging a nose way too short--and--look at that! A lifting horizontal stab!  And the vertical stab was even on the bottom, ferhevvin's sake!

I confess, there is something about me that resists throwing away model airplane stuff.  My shop looks like a model airplane junkyard. I even rebuilt a couple of those early plastic, pre-fabs with brushed motors and basic RC.  Somebody beat ëem up then brought 'em to me just because then I was the club electric guy.  I got 'em to fly, but not very well, so passed them on to another owner.  But this old free-flight even came with a set of plans, it had a name, Starduster 600, so I couldn't think of it as just another piece of expendable junk.  He hung on my shop wall for about three years, the flat, stick fuselage looking like some battleaxe of old.  Then last year I got the itch to see him in the air.  Wouldn't he make a nice, dependable motor-glider?  With 580 sq. in. of wing the resultant wing loading was only 7.5 oz./sq. ft.  That's a floater!  It was obvious from wear and tear marks that he had flown before with a little .049 glow engine, so, why not?

With some forethought and a lot of wishful thinking I hinged an elevator and rudder on the tails, built a new motor mount for one of those Master Airscrew 05 can motors with a geared twelve-inch folding prop, and hung the RC gear and battery out in the slipstream on his outsides.  Yipes! He looked like a pelican or a pterodactyl!  Not pretty! I considered giving him various lucky big bird names, but eventually settled on just plain "Big Bird."                           

Then one day last year I took Big Bird out to our field.  Lucky for me, clubmate, Eric Lyon, was there with his expert camera to record the first launch and several in-flight shots.  Wow!  What a happy day that was for me!  He flew!  Big Bird flew!  He was graceful and stately in the air--like a king on parade!

A year passed with no more flights--weather, other obligations, etc., etc.  Then this year a family reunion brought Jay, my adult grandson, into the picture.  He loves to fly model airplanes, but like his father, he's nuts about steam locomotives, so he builds steam locomotives.  Strange to relate, that week we had two good days for flying.  Off we went to the field, grandson, father and grandfather with my pre-fab, all foam Bellanca. Jay handled it very well in spite of not having flown for about two years and flying a strange model.  Then, the air being quiet enough, he flew my Flyzone Playmate, again successfully.

The next day I wanted to demonstrate (that's a polite word for "show off") Big Bird, but there was a definite breeze, so I had Jay fly the Bellanca again just for practice.   Good flight.  Then I launched Big Bird for him.  A beautiful climbing turn, good altitude, turning away from the wind. Then--WUP!  Suddenly it performed a strange, unexpected, voluntary maneuver!  It seemed to twist downward and simply fall out of the sky, out of control!  When Jay tried to level it, the left wing broke off with a loud "CRACK!" and fluttered slowly down while the corpus delecti made a straight dive for the cornfield, obeying the law of gravity in a most spectacular manner.

Post mortem.  The fuselage, although built like an electric guitar, was shattered, a total loss, and is on its way to the landfill.  Only the horizontal stab was not damaged.  I was able to salvage the pricey parts and the wing in two big pieces.  First tests indicate the motor and electronics are OK, so it wasn't a total wipe out.  

I took it better than Jay and his father did, but then I've been through this kind of thing before. (If you can't stand the heat . . .) We do have some "before" fotos, but no "after."  What we really needed were some in-flight action shots.  My only regret is that, after having expended one very promising model, we didn't have a video camera to record the exciting parts for posterity.  And that's the saga of big Bird, short and sweet.

Sic transit gloria mundi.


Fotos 1 and 2, Eric Lyon, 3 and 4, Steve Belletire.