the 24seven guide While the big guns prepare for the Farnborough Air Show next week, the model aircraft industry is going from strength to strength. Jonathan Sale meets some pilots with their feet firmly on the ground
Their feet are on the ground, their hands are on the controls and their hearts are in the air. The spirit of Biggles and the Wright Brothers lives on; everyone can be an air ace.

"It's been a good year," explains Jim Andrews of the British Model Flying Association (BMFA). "Our recent successes include two silver medals at the World Cup event in Italy, silver at the indoor World Championships in Idaho, silver at the World Scale Model championships and gold in the Large Model championships in France."

In addition, the European Championships held a fortnight ago at Middle Wallop saw the world record of models in the air at the same time: an aerial rush-hour of 311 craft.

Weather permitting, models will be airborne every weekend throughout the autumn. Alternatively, aeromodellers anxious for a gust-free zone will stick to an enclosed space such as the Nottingham University Sports Centre.

"It's blossoming, the indoor business," John Stroud, the editor of Aeromodeller, explains. "They're prepared to go 200 miles." He is referring to the contestants, not their craft, which are constructed for confined spaces.

"There's the Peanut class," he added, "scale models with up to 13-inch wingspans, and the Pistachio class which are only eight inches. They have tiny electric, rubber or carbon dioxide motors." If you catch an indoor flyer bringing out a soda syphon, it's not to dilute a glass of whisky (don't ask a man to drink and fly) but to inject gas into the minuscule tank.

Today's hi-tech models are a far cry from most people's childhood memories of wobbly craft which nosedived into nettles the way Charlie Brown's kite was drawn to trees. "They reach altitudes of thousands of feet," explains Geoff Clarke, a previous editor of Aeromodeller. "There are models that climb faster than a Spitfire."

Some even look like Spitfires; one branch of the hobby specialises in scale models. Some have bomb bays which open to order, providing us with the only opportunity we shall ever have to be on the wrong end of a Junkers 88 attack. "Antique Modellers" make precise copies not of actual aircraft but of model aircraft from the Forties and earlier. The "A-form", a design with two props at the rear, was flying before the Wright Brothers. You can even buy tiny model pilots, "available in all known flying apparel", to sit in them.

But aeromodellers invariably want to be up there with their proteges, not just in spirit but in body. "A vast number of model fliers would like to be pilots," insists Robin Gowler, a fellow of the BMFA. And some even get to realise their dream. The Association's letterhead boasts an air commodore and a squadron leader. And a previous World Champion is a man whose way of relaxing from his job of hurling a Phantom about the skies for the Belgian Air Force, is to build tiny balsa wood aircraft.

Formed in 1922 after a merger of some kitefliers with a band of planemakers, the BMFA provides indemnity of pounds 5m for individual clubs, a sum which should cover the damage caused by most pranging craft and accidental bombing raids.

What is the appeal of aeromodelling, for these pilots manque and not so manque? "A love of aviation," says Gowler, who in his earth-bound life is a sales representative. "Taking a pack of balsa wood and an engine, and manufacturing something you can make fly like a real aircraft."

"It's getting something to fly, to operate in that third dimension," Geoff Clarke agrees . "A model aeroplane going up vertically is a marvellous sight. You have to be an outgoing person," he added, "to launch something up in the air. We are not, for example, the same sort of people as the ones who collect stamps, or fish.

Most competitive of all the model aircraft pursuits is "Combat". The opponents stand together at the centre of the circle whose circumference is made by their nippy models whirling round at the end of the lines. Each operator attempts to slice the paper streamer attached to the other's plane. Near-misses are frequent, but mid-air collisions rare. It is the acceptable face of dog- fighting: every man, woman and child a von Richthofen. Or a Snoopy versus the Red Baron. Chocks away.


This Sunday's events

Helicopter Fly for Fun Day at Agricultural Showground, Epworth, North Lincs; model choppers revving up. Charity Splash-In, Mill Dam, Arnprior, nr Stirling, Central Scotland; model seaplanes. Scale Fly-In, Two Tree Island, Leigh on Sea, Essex; replicas of full-sized aircraft, performing at Southend flyers' club field.

7 & 8 September

Festival of Model Flight at Old Warden nr Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. Many types of planes including, on Sunday, ROpen CombatS in which control line models chase each other; winner is the pilot who snips off his competitor's three-metre streamer. Admission pounds 5 (child pounds 2.50). Also at Old Warden is Shuttleworth Collection of full-size craft such as the Spitfire.

14 & 15 September

Three Counties Large Model Flying Display at Much Marcle, nr Ledbury, Hereford & Worcester. Models, including a Catalina flying boat with 21- ft wingspan, are up to one-third of full size. Also Red Baron-style WWI radio-controlled dogfights. pounds 3 (child pounds 2).

Sunday 15 September

Flying Aces at Ferry Meadows, Nene Park, Peterborough, Cambs: small scale models. Indoor scale models at University Sports Centre, Nottingham; excellent for spectators, as models can't get further away than the roof and it doesn't rain. pounds 2

21& 22 September

Autumn Meet at Middle Wallop, nr Andover, Hants. Vintage free flight models. Middle Wallop has museum of military aviation and Europe's largest grass airfield. pounds 4.

28 & 29 September

Club weekend at Middle Wallop (see above). Many contests, including ,models powered by spark ignition engines manufactured before WWII. pounds 4.

29 December to 4 Jan

Model Show at Olympia, London SW5. Large display of small boats and cars as well as planes; many (indoor, naturally) flying events.


Monthly magazine with a soaraway circulation of 7,500 worldwide. Runs from build-it-yourself for beginners to who's winning which world championships.

British Model Flying Association

Chackfield House, 31 St Andrews Road, Leicester LE2 8RE (0116 2440028). Taking off in 1922, it is the controlling body of the sport with 28,000 members. It is concerned with allocation of frequencies for radio-controlled models and negotiates with the Civil Aviation Authority. Offers insurance cover of pounds 5 million. L-flyers are warned not to spend pounds 800 on a scale model, radio-controlled Lancaster bomber without joining the BMFA first and talking to local veterans. Annual membership, pounds 19 (pounds 12 for under-18s).

All enquiries about the following specialist societies should be sent c/o the BMFA:

British Association of Radio Controlled Soarers

Secretary, Graham James. Covers all forms of gliders. Some are launched by running with a towline, others with a long line pulled in by a winch; most spectacular launch is when glider is towed up by a powered model, just like the real thing.

British Electric Flight Association

Sec Bob Smith. Large models, up to one-quarter of full size, powered until battery runs out. Some have solar cells on wings.

British Miniature Pylon Racers Association

Sec Kevin Norgan. Four models race at 100 mph over a triangular course.

British Radio Controlled Helicopter Association. Sec Les Norman. For pilots of powered choppers.

British Waterplane Association

Sec G.N. Harrison. For seaplanes, which land and take off on floats, and flying boats, which hit the water with their hull.

Control Line Aerobatics Pilots Association

Sec John Lynch. Model whizzes in circles round the flyer, who controls it with steel wires attached to its wings. Should be flown in cage like a tennis court in case wires break.

Great Britain R/C Aerobatic Association

Sec Stuart Mellor. Loop-the-loop etc under radio control. These are not scale models of full-size planes.

International Miniature Aerobatic Club

Sec Ian Tedds. These are modelsof real aerobatic machines and are expected to carry out similar manoeuvres.

Society of Antique Modellers

Sec Les Duffy. It's the designs that are antique, not necessarily the folk who build them. These are not scale models of full-size planes but copies of pre-1950 models.

Vintage Team Race Special Interest Group

Sec W.G. Graham. Control line race in which three pilots standing together in centre race their diesel-powered models around on 50ft lines.