Archive for Thursday, June 15, 2006

Balsa wood airplane kits

June 15, 2006

Aviation in the 1930s was very much in the limelight, and many believed the best way to learn about it was through model airplanes.

Many junior high and high school students learned about airplanes by building models out of balsa wood.

They were real fragile and the kits would come in flat pieces of balsa wood with all the parts stamped on it. These parts had to be cut out carefully with razor blades.

The ribs and struts had to be glued together with "airplane glue" that dried instantly. The ribs and struts formed the fuselage and wings that had to be covered with light-weight tissue paper.

These "dime scale kits" which cost about 10 cents, introduced flying scale models to countless youths. These models were manufactured in huge quantities and were quite reasonable.

I did not have the patience to build them but my brother, Art, had the patience and skill to spend hours cutting out these pieces and putting them together with perfection.

After Lindbergh's 1927 flight, Philadelphia became the model airplane center for the Balsa Age. One of the pioneers in model airplane manufacturing was Fred. W. Megow. He was teaching shop and mechanical drawing at the Thomas Williams Junior High in 1929. A summer opportunity to teach model airplane construction began his career in producing model kits.

He started churning out solid scale and flying model kits in his basement, with the help of several employees. In 1933 he moved his operation to a new location and became a full-time kit designer and manufacturer. By 1935 his building had grown to 50,000 square feet.

Another manufacturer, Jim Walker, also built balsa airplane models.

He introduced an Ohisson.23 engine in 1938 and installed it on his designed model "FIREBALL."

As America entered World War II, many of the model airplane companies were affected. Most of the supplies were needed for the war effort and were rationed. Model kits changed to cardboard, paper, and hardwood veneer to substitute for the balsa wood.

One company that continued to produce models was the American Junior Aircraft Company because it made target drones out of the balsa for machine gun practice for the Navy. They were painted bright orange and were used for target practice.

The skills that my brother used to make these models helped him in his future career as a radar operator on a destroyer escort in the Pacific Ocean and later as a detail draftsman for buildings and bridges.

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