With our recent review of the new Junior Retro Series Park Flyer from Durafly, I had mentioned it had taken its styling cues from vintage old-timer free flight and early RC models. We had a few emails come in asking for more information. So, I dug up this informative article about the beginnings or RC airplanes written by Frank Gudaitis. We’ve come a long way baby! Check it out.
Text & Images by Frank Gudaitis
The very First example of radio control was demonstrated in New York City in 1898. Its inventor—Nikola Tesla—was a 43-year-old immigrant who was duly awarded U.S. Patent no. 613,809 on November 8, 1898. It was only one of 113 U.S. patents that this prolific genius received during his lifetime. Many electrical engineers and historians regard his basic inventions as the foundation of the 20th century as we know it. In the decades that followed, the military and its suppliers attempted to implement Tesla’s work in various R/C projects—including boats and aircraft—without very much fanfare.
By the middle of the 1930s, miniature airplanes were just beginning to be powered by very small gasoline engines. An R/C contest event was even scheduled for the 1936 model aircraft Nationals in Detroit. It was a little premature; not one entrant showed up! The following year however, must be regarded as the true beginning of R/C.
Several men who were active in amateur radio became interested in the possibility of controlling model planes by radio. Two of these early pioneers were Ross Hull and Clinton DeSoto. Both were officials of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which is the governing body of ham radio operators. Hull was a very gifted radio designer whose achievements include the discovery and eventual explanation of the tropospheric bending of VHF radio waves. Since his youth in Australia, Hull also happened to be an avid modeler. Hull and his associate DeSoto successfully built and flew several large R/C gliders in the first public demonstration of controlled flights. Their sailplanes made more than 100 flights. (See the January and August ’38 issues of Model Airplane News). Tragically, Hull died one year later in 1939 when he accidentally contacted 6,000 volts while he was working on an early television receiver. DeSoto died a decade later.
The 1937 Nationals R/C event attracted six entrants: Walter Good, Elmer Wasman, Chester Lanzo, Leo Weiss, Patrick Sweeney and B. Shiffman. Lanzo won with the lightest (6 pounds) and the simplest model plane, although his flight was a bit erratic and lasted only several minutes. Sweeney and Wasman both had extremely short (5-second) flights when their aircraft took off, climbed steeply, stalled and crashed. Sweeney, however, had the distinction of being the first person to attempt an R/C flight in a national contest. The other three entrants weren’t able to make any flights at all.
BIRTH OF THE REED
One of them—Weiss—was an 18-year-old aeronautical engineering student who had constructed a very large, 14-foot-wingspan RC model. He and an electrical engineering student—Jon Lopus—had devised a very sophisticated, innovative RC system consisting of six tuned reeds that reacted to audio tones. The reed-control system became widely accepted in the 1950s. During the 1937 Nationals, however, Weiss wasn’t able to start his plane’s Ferguson twin-cylinder engine. He went on to successfully operate an avionics manufacturing company.
The 1938 Nationals were once again hosted by the “Motor City.” Although the R/C entry list had grown to 26 entrants, only five fliers showed up on the field. One of the newcomers was DeSoto, who entered a 14-footwingspan, 25-pound, stand-off-scale model of a Piper Cub that was powered by a Forster twin-cylinder engine. Each of the four separate receivers on board used a gas-filled Raytheon RK-62 tube in a super regenerative circuit to activate its own sigma relay. His plane placed second, but it isn’t clear whether or not it actually flew. Oddly enough, these first contests required only that contestants demonstrate their R/C systems in a static position on the ground to win a runner-up award.
Walter Good was the only contestant who attempted a controlled flight in the face of the 20mph winds. Even though it ended in a crack-up, Walt was awarded first place. A truly convincing demonstration of R/C flight by a powered miniature aircraft would have to wait until the following year. Eleven R/C fliers showed up at the 1939 Nationals at the Detroit Wayne County airport. For the first time, a 100-point system was adopted by the judges. Points were given for craftsmanship, actual R/C operation in a static preflight mode on the ground and a variety of flight maneuvers.
That was a rewarding year for Walter and William Good—23-year-old twins from Kalamazoo, MI. Bill was a licensed ham-radio operator with the call letters W81FD. Their aircraft—named K-G—was a slightly modified, high-wing monoplane.
(See the K-G story in the January ’91 issue of Model Airplane News.) This first stable gas model was designed by a former editor of Model Airplane News—Charles Hampson Grant.
Their radio and control mechanisms were the essence of simplicity. At a time when all of their competitor’s planes carried receivers with 3- and 4-tube circuits, the Good brothers’ radio receiver was a one tube affair with a minimum of electrical components. Their homemade relay was so sensitive that it could be activated by a current change of 1/2 milliamp! They also designed and made their 1 -ounce, rubber-band powered escapement mechanism. Before going to the Nationals in 1939, the two brothers had accumulated over 60 controlled flights in southern Michigan. Their diligent efforts paid off with a first-place score of 89 points; the second-place winner scored only 11 points. The Good brothers repeated their first place win in the 1940 Nationals and once more after the end of WW II, in 1947.
Their historic R/C model airplane, which they affectionately named the “Guff,” was presented to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in May, 1960, where it can be seen today. Both brothers continued their education and subsequently earned doctorates in physics. After pursuing careers in electronics research and teaching, they retired, but they’re still very active in electronics. Walt lives in Florida, and Bill resides in upstate New York. They communicate constantly with each other using their ham radios.
No story on the early days of R/C would be complete without recognizing the work of Joseph Raspante. Unlike most of the early pioneers of R/C, who were basically model airplane builders teamed up with ham-radio specialists, Joe Raspante was a superb designer and builder of early gas models as well as a competent electronic technician. His R/C system was unique in that he used a telephone dial to select various control functions. He placed second in the 1939 R/C Nationals and third in the 1940 event. Raspante was generous, and he shared his knowledge with young builders in years that followed. Walter Good remembers that when thieves stole his brother’s R/C transmitter from their hotel the day before the 1940 Nationals, Raspante offered the use of his own transmitter. This gesture was especially meaningful, because the Good brothers had defeated him in the 1939 Nationals. Raspante finally won the first place he yearned for at the 1946 NY Daily Mirror contest at Grumman airfield. It was my privilege to see him fly there. With the advent of the transistor and the integrated microcircuits, today’s R/C builder hardly has any of the frustrations of the early pioneers.
In retrospect, however, we see that most of the pioneer’s dedicated efforts were largely foiled by overly complex electrical designs. But without their perseverance, I doubt that R/C flight would have progressed as quickly to where it is today.
this was an interesting article. I didn’t know RC was so old. What an amazing mind this fellow had. Loved the info.
I had the distinct pleasure of being around Walt Good for a few years prior to his passing. He was a wonderful and kind man. We all miss him!
What an excellent article about the beginnings of R/C.
We all owe a lot to the pioneers who first created remote control of aircraft.
Who back in the 1930’s would have thought that in 2011 even the Air Force would be flying radio controlled airplanes. A.K.A. UAV’s or unmanned aerial vehicles.
Think about it !
Excellent article. Very interesting to see the early progression of RC. Tesla’s the man!
-This article lead me to try & learn more about mr Tesla…WoW . Altough i´m a tech (electronics) by trade i didn´t even think of finding interesting bits like this…Another bit concers Norma Jeanne (Marylin) also connected to RC planes
The future is sure bright for unmanned aircraft. Higher capability to pull Gs, lighter with no pressurization and life support systems, exploding technology in electric propulsion, ability to loiter for days. My understanding is the government is looking at regulations for a crowded UAV airspace, with a limit of 18 pounds for RC. I hope regulations do not become restrictive to this hobby.
Fascinating! Who developed the current coding/decoding system which makes our systems so flexible?
I participated the 1957 King Orange International at MastersField, Miami, Florida. Walt Good was there with his Guff and everyone was fastinated with this model. Walt was ready to answer anyone’s many quiestions and to pose for photos with his Guff, Waht a gentleman he was, these are memories that last and last, thanks to Walt Good!!!
A most interesting and worthwhile account. THanks
Thank you for the great article! You answered every question I had on my mind about the start of rc aeromodeling.
At 72, I am a young whippersnapper, had no idea spectrum was used so early. When I started it was rudder, motor and elevator. Had a Kraft three channel that cost a arm and a leg…but boy it was great to see home built plane fly. Very nice article, thanks.
Mr. Grant, I am 73, and my most R/C fun was a Phil Kraft designed low wing escapment rudder and kick-up elevator “Gimlet”. Flew like a dream. Rubber bands abd dead stick landings – what a blast !!!
Excellent R/C history from across the pond.
Hope to link to it.
What was the first rc plane kit sold to the public?
Actor and WWI vet Reginald Denny first developed his radio-controlled airplanes in 1933. He designed various models, including the Jimmie Allen model kits and his gas-powered Dennyplane, which were sold from his hobby shop in Hollywood CA and through Montgomery Ward. In 1935, Reg took his model planes to another height when he invented the Radioplane for military use during WWII, and into the future as “drones.” Northrop Aircraft Company, now Northrop Grumman Corporation, bought the Radioplane Company in 1952 and they have respectfully honored Denny as founder of their Unmanned Systems. I’ve written a book about my legendary grandpa, “The Prince of Drones,” which will be released later this year. Will keep everyone updated and possibly contribute an article to the magazine!
who knows about Bob Yates from High point N.C. that was using servos for controlled flights in the 1960/1970
40 years ago, We had one of Joe Rasponte’s airplanes at the Cradle of Aviation museum, Uniondale NY.
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