One Small Step With Model Aviation

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Written by Rachelle Haughn For Neil Armstrong, it all started with model airplanes. As seen in the June 2019 issue of Model Aviation. Neil Armstrong TM used with permission from the Purdue Research Foundation.

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AMA member Neil Armstrong

It began with a trip to a small-town dime store in Ohio when he was roughly 3 years old. He asked his mother for an airplane. According to his biography, when faced with a choice between a 10¢ and a 20¢ airplane, she bought him the latter. How could she say no to her smart, curious, blonde-headed little boy?

That was the beginning of his love of aeromodeling, sparking a passion that would lead to a life that altered the course of history. That was merely one step for a little boy who would one day take one giant leap for mankind.

for neil armstrong, it all started with model airplanes
02. Neil (L) served as an honorary director at the 1964 Navy Nats in Dallas. (#0001 AMA Collection, National Model Aviation Museum Archives.)

The little boy’s name was Neil Alden Armstrong, and his desire to build and fly model airplanes didn’t stop with his first model.

If you haven’t heard (which most AMA members haven’t), Neil grew up to join the AMA, fly in Control Line (CL) Speed contests, and be the first man to step foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. And after the fame of the feat that he accomplished 50 years ago this year somewhat wore off, he seemed to pick right back up where he left off in the hobby.

According to his closest friends and family, Neil had a lifelong love of model airplanes. When he moved to the little town of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in 1941 at age 11, his almost feverish desire to build models really took off.

When asked to estimate how many model airplanes Neil built while in sixth through ninth grades, his brother, Dean Armstrong, said, "Oh gosh, I would say maybe half a dozen that he actually ‘retired.’ We had them hung off the ceiling. If he really liked [a model] he would hang it [from the ceiling with] a string with a tack." Dean, roughly five years younger than Neil, added that his brother built one or two airplanes a month. Neil’s favorites were scale warbirds.

"He had all different types of designs and ideas, but they crashed, and I would go pick them up. I was kind of a go-fetch for him."

Dean said that the family’s home on Sandusky Avenue (which still stands) had a small yard. "We would try taxiing down the driveway and sidewalk to see how [an airplane] would go," he stated. Most of the airplanes were rubber powered and hand launched. "We lived at the very edge of the city. There was a big field there with 20- and 30-foot hills. We would climb up to get extra ceiling" for launching.

June Hoffman, Neil’s middle sibling, remembers her brother building his first model out of balsa and glue while living in St. Marys, Ohio. She said that one day, Neil saw a neighbor boy flying a model airplane and he became intrigued. "It must have stuck to him." Later, after moving to Upper Sandusky, "He built a lot of the time. He sailed some outside. It was fun for all of us."

June remembers Neil and Dean tossing airplanes into the air. "They mostly did it to see how long [they] would fly. They were made of balsa wood and they didn’t survive."

Neil’s designs were often what is considered kit-bashing. He would purchase kits through the mail and combine them with other kits to make a better airplane. Most of the work was done on a card table in the upstairs bedroom that Neil and Dean shared. Other times, they worked in the basement, with Dean fetching pieces, glue, paint, etc. for his brother.

this is a collection of neils model aircraft building tools and parts
03. This is a collection of Neil’s model aircraft building tools and parts that were donated to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

"I was ‘get the glue; get this balsa wood piece.’ I really enjoyed painting, but I wasn’t as good, so he let me paint the fuselage or hold an airplane to let the glue dry.

"He took magazine [airplane designs] and drew off them. Sometimes he got a kit in the mail, but he didn’t want to build it. But he wanted to redesign the airfoil, copy the construction, then make a paper mold and copy it down to balsa. The construction [was] very, very intricate," Dean said.

"[Neil] had model airplane glue all over everything—I think we all three did," June added.

"He loved it. It absolutely founded his quest into aeronautical engineering," Dean said.

One of Neil’s childhood friends, John Blackford, met him while in seventh through ninth grades in Upper Sandusky, and they became close through their involvement in Boy Scouts. "That was a model airplane building time. Before [World War II], we all dabbled in it, but Neil was a professional. We all carved balsa, doped up, tissue paper … ever since I’d known him, he was in love with model aviation."

When it came to drawing and drafting model airplane designs, "He was quite good," John added. One particular design of a rubber band-powered model stands out in John’s mind. "Neil drew an airplane and he put no wheels on it. I said, ‘you can’t do that,’ so he explained electric wheel retracts."

John and Neil were in the Wolf Patrol in Boy Scout Troop 25, along with Kotcho Solacoff. The Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, located in West Lafayette, Indiana, has several of the merit badges that Neil earned through Boy Scouts. These include badges for cooking, woodworking, mechanical drawing, and aeronautics. Neil earned the aeronautics merit badge on November 30, 1943, in Upper Sandusky.

"I remember him making [model airplanes] and, one time, an old one that he was done with he set on fire and we threw it out the window," Kotcho, a current AMA member, stated.

Dean laughed while reflecting on a similar incident with his brother. "When he was 13 or 14, he built a plane out of junk parts and when he got it done, he told me to open the window and he lit it on fire. It went about 30 yards into the backyard."

Another funny, model aviation-related memory that Dean has of his brother is when he built a wind tunnel in the family’s basement.

"He would send me to the junkyard to get sheet metal" for the wind tunnel, Dean commented. "I got to ride Neil’s bike," which was a rare occurrence.

When the wind tunnel was finished, "It was absolutely fabulous. It was so powerful, it blew all of the fuses in our house." Dean believes that Neil took that same wind tunnel to a state science fair. The Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, has some undated wind tunnel parts that Neil donated to the museum, but Dean is unsure if they are from that same wind tunnel.

these are some of neils 1-75 scale static models
04. These are some of Neil’s 1:72 scale static models that he donated to Purdue University, his alma mater. Photo by the author; courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.
neil and an unnamed purdue university student work on models
05. Neil and an unnamed Purdue University student work on models. Photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.

"I enjoyed all the years with him and what I did with him in the basement," Dean said.

According to an undated letter that Neil wrote to John Worth, who was a former executive director of AMA, Neil stated that he was an AMA member "for a number of years in the ’40s, but do not have the dates." The letter is part of the National Model Aviation Museum’s archives.

While living in Wapakoneta, Neil began working at a drug store at age 15 to save up money to take fullscale aircraft flying lessons. By age 16, he had earned his student pilot’s license.

Neil maintained relationships with John Blackford and Kotcho throughout his life. John remembered when Neil got his pilot’s license. "He was obviously dedicated to [full-scale] airplanes, but models got him there."

In the fall of 1947, Neil was enrolled at Purdue University with a four-year scholarship through the U.S. Naval Aviation Program. There, he crossed paths again with John Blackford in a freshman engineering class. "It was a very competitive atmosphere in engineering," John stated. "We were in the marching band together. We often met for dinner on Sunday nights."

While at Purdue, Neil also met Bob Wells, who had already been a student there for one year. Through Bob and the Purdue Aeromodel Club, Neil found a way to continue with one of his newer aeromodeling interests: CL Speed (then called U-Control).

"He was part of my gang," Bob stated about Neil. "We were very active in the aeromodel club.

"We were all designing and building our own airplanes. We had members who were doing everything—gliders, Free Flight, micro [film-covered] airplanes." The club members built their airplanes in the basement of the student union and had matching shirts with a flying slide rule on them. The few club members who owned cars used them to transport other members to practices and meets across Indiana and Ohio, Bob added. Bob was a member of the AMA in the 1940s, but can’t remember the exact years.

"He had a very calm personality and was a very easy guy to get to know," Bob said of Neil. "He was just an all-around nice guy that got along with everybody. He was quite confident in his building and competing."

members of the purdue aeromodel club wait to load up their cl speed airplanes for practice
06. Members of the Purdue Aeromodel Club wait to load up their CL Speed airplanes for practice. Neil is leaning against the car. Photo provided by Bob Wells.
neil demonstrates aeromodeling techniques to his fellow squadron pilots aboard the uss essex during the korean war
07. Neil demonstrates aeromodeling techniques to his fellow squadron pilots aboard the USS Essex during the Korean War. Neil served on the USS Essex from 1951 to 1952. Photo provided by Mark Armstrong.

Dean remembers seeing his brother compete with the Purdue Aeromodel Club at a contest in Dayton, Ohio. "He had a McCoy engine and he was very good."

Aeromodeling technology was constantly changing while Neil and Bob were members of the club, Bob commented. "The club did a lot of research on how to improve the performance of the models—engines, propellers, aerodynamics, etc." When Bob first joined the club in 1946, spark plug ignitions were used to start the models, then that changed to glow plugs, and finally they settled on electric-powered engine starters, which were near the propeller. "We had a lot of banged up fingers. Sometimes we made dollies for the airplanes to ride on to take off when launching. After that, we hand launched [them]," Bob recalled.

According to his letter to John Worth, Neil flew in model aircraft competitions from 1946 to 1950 and was a member of the U.S. Navy team at the 1949 AMA Nats.

In the fall of 1948, Neil learned that he had been called up early to serve in the Navy. He left for Navy flight training in February 1949 and returned to finish his degree at Purdue in September 1952 at the age of 22. Bob graduated in 1950.

Shortly after graduating from Purdue University in 1955, Neil took a job working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA; known today as NASA) and his first assignment was at the NACA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland.

In the early 1960s, Neil was part of the X-15 flight test program, which was designed to carry a human beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and return him to the ground. While working in the flight test program, Neil was able to squeeze in some time to enjoy the hobby that he loved.

In the letter to John Worth, Neil also wrote, "I was an honorary control director at the 1964 Nationals at Dallas and also 3 or 4 years earlier at Glenview while I was in the X-15 program."

Throughout his life, Neil also kept ties with his fellow Purdue Aeromodel Club members. Bob shared that Neil remained friends with him and others, and he remembers some of them meeting up in Palmdale, California, when Neil was part of the X-15 program.

AMA’s National Model Aviation Museum has photos of Neil at the 1964 Nats in Dallas.

In 1962, Neil was chosen for NASA’s astronaut program, and in 1966 he served as the command pilot for the Gemini 8 mission. Gemini 8 launched on March 16, 1966, and Neil performed the first docking of two vehicles in space.

A few years later, Neil had an unexpected encounter with his good friend from college, Bob, who happened to work at TRW in the space technology lab. Bob and his coworkers developed the descent engine for the lunar landing module that would be used in the upcoming Apollo 11 mission.

"Neil came to the plant for a briefing. He and Buzz [Aldrin] walked in." Bob remembers that his coworkers were surprised when he shook hands with Neil and asked him how he was doing. Bob believes that astronaut Michael Collins was also there.

neil bought his youngest son, mark, a cox pt-19 as a birthday present
08. Neil bought his youngest son, Mark, a Cox PT-19 as a birthday present. This photo was taken in 1974 or 1975. Photo by Janet Armstrong, courtesy of Mark Armstrong.
neil (back row, far r) poses with his fellow wolf patrol boy scout troop members
09. Neil (back row, far R) poses with his fellow Wolf Patrol Boy Scout troop members. Kotcho Solacoff is kneeling in front of him. The photo, taken in Upper Sandusky OH, is on top of newspaper clippings about Neil walking on the moon in the Apollo 11 mission.

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. As it launched, Kotcho, John Blackford, and their wives watched from a special VIP area in Cocoa Beach, Florida, that was dotted with celebrities, former presidents, and kings.

"All of us were amazed at the launch—the vibration, the pounding in our chests. It was really an amazing, empowering thing," John Blackford remembered. "It was almost impossible to imagine that this guy I knew" could be landing on the moon.

Four days later, Bob was in NASA’s mission control room as Neil and Buzz attempted to land on the moon. "Oh boy, that was very exciting and [tense] because I knew he was about to run out of propellant. They had to slow the engine when landing. They had two minutes of fuel left because of delays. Then he had 18 seconds left. NASA was a few seconds away from sending them back into orbit." Luckily, Neil and Buzz safely landed on the moon and Neil took his famous first steps.

"[We were] two kids from an aeromodelers club. One put the engine together and the other landed it on the moon!" Bob said.

Back at home in Ohio, Kotcho remembers being glued to his television in Upper Sandusky so that he wouldn’t miss the moment that his friend walked on the moon.

After the day that changed history, Neil and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts went on a whirlwind tour. Sometimes, Neil’s wife, Janet, and his sons, Rick and Mark, accompanied him. All four were part of a homecoming parade in Wapakoneta. Kotcho has video of the parade that included the other Apollo 11 astronauts, and Dean, June, and Neil’s parents. The town hopes to recreate the parade this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

Eventually, the limelight began to fade. Neil resigned from NASA in 1971 and took a job teaching at the University of Cincinnati, where he worked until 1979. He and his family settled into a farmhouse near Lebanon, Ohio.

That change of venue prompted the media to question why he moved back to Ohio. "Certainly, one of the major misconceptions about him was that he was a recluse. In terms of how he lived his life, he was nothing of the kind," Rick stated about his father. "What he didn’t do was feel any need to keep the media informed of his activities, and I believe this was the main reason he was given the ‘recluse’ label."

The farm near Lebanon gave Neil a break from the public eye. His youngest son, Mark, shared a photo of him and his father taken in 1974 or 1975 in a pasture behind the family’s farmhouse, when Neil bought his son a Cox PT-19 CL airplane for his birthday.

Mark and his brother, Rick, have been inundated with interview requests this year. Mark did not share his memories of flying with his father and Rick doesn’t remember his dad flying model airplanes.

Later in life, Neil visited the Armstrong family farm, located roughly 7 miles from Wapakoneta, where June lived. She remembers him being involved with model airplanes at that time of his life. "Neil built airplanes at the farm."

bob wells (l, back to camera) and neil (r, back to camera) talk while at the trw lab
10. Bob Wells (L, back to camera) and Neil (R, back to camera) talk while at the TRW lab. Before the Apollo 11 launch, Neil and his fellow mission astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, toured the lab and got to see the Lunar Module Descent Engine that would later land Buzz and Neil on the moon. Also pictured in back (L-R) are TRW employee John Munding, an unidentified Northrop-Grumman employee, Buzz Aldrin, an unidentified man, and Pete Staudhammer, an engineer who helped design the Lunar Module Descent Engine. (Photo provided by Bob Wells.)

In 1996, Neil and some of the club members met up again at AMA Headquarters, in Muncie, Indiana, for the Celebration of Eagles event. According to a video of the event and reports from some of its attendees, Neil toured the National Model Aviation Museum and spoke with a few of the pilots on the flightline about their aircraft.

He later mentioned that trip to Muncie in a letter he wrote to the Cloudbusters Model Airplane Club in Michigan, dated April 17, 1997. In the letter, he thanked the club for awarding him its Lifetime Achievement Award. Neil was inducted into the AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997.

Neil passed away on August 25, 2012, following heart surgery.

Some of the friends and family that he left behind agree that model airplanes played a huge role in his career.

When asked about how big of a role aeromodeling played in Neil’s endeavors, Dean said, "Enormous, enormous. It first steered him toward aeronautical engineering. Here’s the heartbeat.

"It absolutely forged his quest into aeronautical engineering. He considered himself more [an aeronautical engineer] than an astronaut."

Rick agreed. "I have no doubt that his love of model airplanes directly contributed to his aviation career. He was continually trying to get the models to fly farther and higher.

"He originally wanted to pursue a career as an aircraft designer," Rick continued. "At some point he figured that maybe if he became a pilot, he could do a better job of designing—which is basically what he ended up doing as a test pilot for NASA."

Perhaps Neil said it best in the letter he wrote to John Worth, "My model building and flying activities significantly contributed to my interest in aeronautics and was a primary force in directing my education toward aeronautical engineering."

for neil armstrong, it all started with model airplanes
01. An undated photo of Neil Armstrong holding a CL biplane taken at a tennis court. Photo courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections. NASA photo. Courtesy of NASA.


AMA History Project

Purdue University Archives and Special Collections Flight and Space Exploration, Purdue University Libraries

Armstrong Air & Space Museum

(419) 738-8811

National Model Aviation Museum

(800) 435-9262, ext. 500

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

James R. Hansen, author

AMA Neil Armstrong page

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