Originally appeared in R/C Report magazine in March 1997
By Robert Osorio, The Flying Penguin
I just went to see one of those really big scale contests. Talk about showmanship! There's nothing like seeing true professionals at work. The flying, the modeling, the irate contestant stomping his plane into the ground in frustration. A Scale contest is really an incredible event - a spectacle that rivals female mud wrestling for entertainment value. First there's usually a day or two of test flights. This is usually open to the public, but they outta charge for this three ring circus. This is when most accidents happened. Planes in crates for too long, mishandled by clumsy baggage handlers that make the gorilla from the old Samsonite commercials look gentle by comparison. It all ads up to a rollicking good time of dodge the missile.
Then the contest actually begins with static judging (YAWN!). Hokay, so it's nice to see all the pretty planes, it eventually just gets me really depressed to see the kind of work these people can do. Let's get real - over there's a scale F-16 with all 75,000 rivets exactingly reproduced, along with the scale dent caused by a scale Champaign bottle, because this is supposed to be a model of the 1,000th F-16 built (like I'm gonna call the factory and check the numbers?). Working windshield wipers, operational disc brakes, and simulated afterburner flames. Sheesh, somebody's got far too much free time on their hands.
Another is an incredibly scale looking Skyraider in Navy colors, complete with a scale radial engine, articulated pilot, and for all I know, it drops scale napalm too (sure would make those contests a little more interesting on windy days - minus 40 points for setting the judges on fire).
Then there's this guy, god love'm, who built this beautiful scale model of a Cessna Ag plane. He brings along an access panel from the full-scale plane, no less, as proof of finish documentation. I mean, these guys just aren't human. No one can do that sort of work and be from this planet.
Me, I'm still at the stage where my fiberglass finishes look like they have a severe case of acne, and I just paint the entire canopy black to hide all the CA fingerprints. Scale landing gear, to me, are wheels that stay on the plane. I love camouflage finishes - they hide a multitude of errors. Take the crappiest looking finish and slap some olive drab and dark green nail polish on it, and it looks great - at anything over fifty yards, anyway.
You know, they've made a big deal lately about the "Builder of the Model Rule". You know, some of these guys (tsk... tsk...) have been getting someone else to build their planes for them and entering them in scale contests as if they were the builder. Well heck, why not? I mean, sure, it might not seem fair, but think about it for a minute - nature has ways of culling the herd. First, this poor slob shells out God only knows how much for a genuine authentic self-built replica (the plane itself doesn't cost that much, it's paying off the builder to keep his mouth shut that gets expensive - after a couple of wins, the blackmail possibilities get interesting). He has to memorize a slew of statistics about equipment that's installed in it he's never seen. He has to make up and memorize lots of cute construction anecdotes to share with the other pilots at the contest:
"Hey Harry, didn't you tell me last month that it was your son that threw up on the wings while you were glassing'em?"
"Er, um, must have been that other F-15 I built.... yeah... sure, that's the ticket..."
Finally, he has to campaign across the country, competing at a variety of scale meets at a distinct disadvantage to the others (and I'm not just talking about the big hole in his wallet). You see, the poor guy has NO IDEA how that plane is put together. Scale planes are finicky creatures, and all that wear and tear means he'll have to do on the spot repairs. Chances are good he'll make some modification or repair job that'll guarantee that the plane augers into the ground the next time it goes up. He might have no idea there's actually a foam wing buried under there, for instance. Meanwhile gasoline has been leaking into the wing joiner for the last two weeks and..... ever wonder why there's at least one plane at every scale contest that just seems to disintegrate in mid air? Like at this meet I went to. There's this huge DC-3 that takes off, does a slow lazy left bank, and then suddenly bursts into a cloud of Styrofoam as the wings just seem to explode like it got blasted by one of the aliens ships from the movie "Independence Day". Man, it snowed Styrofoam for an hour! Weak wing joiner the announcer said - baloney - that thing self destructed! Pure and simple ignorance of construction, I'll bet.
I'm going to be honest here folks, and I think you should be too; the only reason I go to scale contests is to see the crashes - and I sure wasn't disappointed at this one either. C'mon, tell the truth, it's the same reason we all watch stock car racing on television. You don't think I actually give a hoot who wins, do you? Spectacular crashes, replayed in slow motion from seventeen different camera angles - oh yeah! They've got the blimp camera, the tower cameras, the ground level cameras, the fender camera, the rear bumper camera, the pit camera (to catch those guys who forget what the brake is for), the gopher hole camera, the bird flying like heck to get out of the way camera - hell there's even a camera in the passenger compartment so you can watch the guy getting squashed, live (er, so to speak) on national TV! There's just something mesmerizing about seeing a burning car catapulted into the air, leaving a wake of debris behind it - all in slow motion, from a bird's eye view. Ain't this country grand?
Scale contests are almost as exciting - we just need some of those funky camera views and a huge video screen smack dab in the middle of the field (it'd make a dandy obstacle to fly around too!). Then we need to get the pilots to put video cameras in the cockpits so we can watch the engine fly through the radio on impact - in slow motion. It'd be great! There could be an all up, last crashed event....
This contest was great. As I recall, one of the first crashes was a model that went through the roof of some poor slob's house. Wow! That must be one heck of a wake-up call!
"Honey what's that noise in the attic?"
"I'll just go see.......... WHOA! Babe, quick, call the TV news, I think I just found Buddy Holly's plane! ...And it looks like Jimmy Hoffa was inside one of the roof's two-by-fours! Cool!"
Then there was a gorgeous bi-plane that bought the farm. Total radio failure I think - it just plowed into the ground after takeoff. There was another DC-3 that lost an engine after takeoff and spiraled into the ground. Finally, for the grand finale, there was a World War II bird that lost control and hit the power lines on the way down. There's this loud "BBBBBZZZZZZZAAAAAAPPPPPP!" and the building lost power right after that - awesome!
In all seriousness, it's an unfortunate fact of life that model planes (and full-scale ones) crash (Lord knows I've learned that myself the hard way). Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is all too common an occurrence at high-profile scale meets. Personally, I couldn't deal with the heartbreak of spending thousands of dollars (you don't think I'd build it myself, do you?) on a magnificent scale beauty, just to watch it auger in at a scale meet for some stupid reason or another. Contest pilots are under tremendous pressure to compete - they're under more stress than Baghdad air-traffic controllers were during the Gulf War. Engines don't perform consistently when you travel around the country - the carb usually has to be adjusted to compensate for local environmental conditions (in the case of South Florida, 2000 percent humidity and temperatures that rival that of the surface of the sun - hey guys, we may get to fly all year long, but we have skin cancer and heat stroke to contend with here). Gear gets rattled during shipment, there's usually never enough time for test flights, and scale aircraft just don't have the best flying characteristics in the world.
At a scale meet there's usually time limits for starting an engine and taxiing out for takeoff, so many times a pilot has to decide whether to go with a balky engine or get disqualified for the round. It's tough. Personally, I don't need to sweat that much (I sweat enough when Nunzio's boys come around looking to collect on my gambling debts). Some people thrive on pressure, me I get plenty of pressure at work thank you - I thrive on Margaritas served by scantily clad women. I have a tremendous amount of respect for competition pilots of any sort though, and I sure enjoy watching them at work, but count me out on participating.
The whole competition thing bothers me a bit. Why must we constantly pit ourselves against our peers? Whether it be the stupidity of drag racing at a traffic light, on up to the moronic display of poor showmanship prevalent in organized sports. Speaking of organized sports, is there anybody reading this who really thinks that anyone deserves a seven figure salary for playing professional sports? I mean c'mon, no one's worth that much money. Maybe the president... now there's a tough job, and I don't think he even rates more than six figures.
Anyway, what is this childish urge men feel compelled to satisfy? I shouldn't just say men, because I know a fair number of competitive women as well. Scale modelers have to have the most detailed aircraft, ducted fan pilots have to have the fastest missile (I can't get into the jet thing, I love aerobatics too much). Pylon racers have to be the quickest on the turns, and heli pilots have to be.... hmmm, let's see. When I watch those guys, they're usually trying to out do each other in inverted lawn mowing contests.
Oh well, I suppose as long as the human animal exists, there will be contests: talent contests, beauty contests, racing contests, warfare (lethal contests), bake-offs, roller derby (now there is something to said for women's roller derby, though...) and scale contests. As for me, I want nothing to do with contests. Nothing at all. Contests are for idiots.
Well, gotta go. Now where did I put that Publisher's Clearing House contest form.... it's around here somewhere. Could be my luck day.....
#10 - Took my red and white ugly stick up for a spin, then I realized the other four guys were also flying red and white ugly sticks...
# 9 - Sometimes the brain just doesn't get the messages to the body in the right order, you know? "Let's see: first start the engine, then flip the propeller...OUCH!"
# 8 - Had a friend of mine come out to the field to watch me fly. Swear to God, he walks up to me very quietly while I'm flying somebody's skittish hangar queen with a serious trim problem, and he goes BOO! Geez, almost dropped a load in my pants!
# 7 - Somebody taxiing in the pits - God, now that's spooky! You know, I like to use one of the two tables right by the runway. So I just love it when somebody taxies right by my parked planes at twenty miles an hour, just to show off. Said idiot can usually fly a plane inverted six inches off the runway and thinks he can do anything. Well, let me tell ya, your plane eats my leg or one of my planes and you'll be doing a low inverted pass over the runway without the benefit of a plane, sucker!
# 6 - Good looking women wearing damn little. It's amazing how planes fall outta the sky when a babe wearing a G-string shows up.
# 5 - Guy came up to me and said "Hey look, my transmitter's antenna broke, so I made my own outta coat hanger wire - neat huh?".
# 4 - Stepping on a fire ant mound, during a lighting storm, with fog rolling in while flying a Combat Models F-15 with a bad trim problem.
# 3 - A guy with a 1/4 scale DC-3 put together with Elmer's glue.
# 2 - Same guy rebuilds the crashed DC-3 using rubber cement.
# 1 - I crashed a plane into the middle of the lake the other day - no wind at all so I decided to swim out and get it. On the way back, tugging this big, heavy, sinking object, I began to have second thoughts about this venture. I was getting pretty damn tired, I was all alone, and it was starting to thunder. Then I remembered that Florida has more poisonous snakes than any other state in the country - and most of them swim. I seem to have gotten my second wind pretty quickly after that....