Two Sunsets & Still Flying

Two Sunsets & Still Flying

Two Sunsets & Still Flying

By Maynard Hill

Photos by the author except as noted

Map photo from

As seen in the January 2004 issue of Model Aviation.

I was born into the Golden Age of Aviation in 1926. By age 4 I understood that Charles Lindbergh had done a miraculous thing, flying alone across the Atlantic Ocean. During the 1930s one-eyed Wiley Post was famous for setting altitude and speed records while wearing a pressure helmet that looked like the top of a hot-water heater. Amelia Earhart flew alone across the north Atlantic, and her smile was seen on many newsreels.

Jimmy Doolittle flew fantastic speeds in seaplane biplanes. Howard Hughes built a super speedster and was hugged and kissed by movie stars after setting a boomer of a record. Smilin’ Jack was a famous comic-strip pilot who saved damsels in distress and brought bad guys to justice by performing astonishing flying feats. All were heroes!

As were many boys of the decade, I had my mind on model airplanes more than girls. The thrill of launching a black-and-yellow tissue-covered rubber-powered model of a Corben Baby Ace was enormous! Red-and-white Rearwin Speedsters and all-yellow Piper Cubs were even better. You learned something new or acquired a skill with each model. Success was not always easy; patience and persistence were among the valuable lessons.

By age 9 I had acquired a fairly serious addiction to balsa wood and glue. The habit stuck all through high school and two-and-a-half years in the Navy. By the time I entered college at Penn State, the habit was so severe that I had trouble bringing it under control, even during final-exam week.

What’s worse was that I was sharing a dormitory room with Warren “Bud” Yenney, whose lust for balsa and glue was almost equal to mine. Glider wings hung on all of the walls, bookcases were places to store fuselages, balsa and building boards stood tall in the corner, and the floor was often sprinkled with balsa shavings. We locked our door on “Cleaning Lady Day” to keep her from ruining our delightful mess.

Bud Yenney had the audacity to pursue almost any idea that came to him. He had heard of a man named Walter Good, who flew a Radio Control (RC) model before World War II. Bud telephoned Walt and asked for a chance to talk to him. In mid-February 1947 I was the passenger in Bud’s unreliable 1937 Ford that was pushing hard in a blinding snowstorm to go through the mountains out of State college to Silver Spring, Maryland.

Walt and his wife Joyce welcomed two semifrozen students to the warmth of their home and hearts. Steaks and apple pie were followed by furious RC talk well past Walt’s normal bedtime. Warm beds were followed by a nearly all-day session Saturday. This was the start of a long and wonderful friendship that has been one of the biggest joys of my mostly joyful life.

During the mid-1950s Walt patiently helped me figure out how to make his single-channel “three-tuber” then build his five-tube dual proportional control system. Walt called the system two-tone plus width, which soon became TTPW. California modelers were deep into“bang-bang” reed control, and they declared that TTPW meant “too tough to piddle with.”

I was what you might call “illiterate” in the field of electronics. Nevertheless, via telephone calls and treks to Walt and Joyce’s house, after two years of asking dumb questions about mysterious selenium diodes, etc., I got the thing working in the spring of 1957.

By the summer of 1959 I was a virtual hotrod with an original-design midwing model called the Pittsburgh Pointer. With it I could fly a pylon course upside-down and do Outside Loops and Cuban 8s that were smooth—free of the jerk-jerk-jerk often seen in reed-controlled models.

Californian Bob Dunham with his Smog Hog and Midwesterner Ed Kasmirski with his Orion had high-speed thumb-twitching skills, so they flew smoothly and accurately enough to win places on the US team to compete in the first Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) RC World Championships in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1960. I came within inches of being the third team member.

Team members were picked on the basis of points scored in regional contests, with the Nationals (Nats) as final input. In the east I was narrowly ahead of Harold (Hal) deBolt all during 1958 and the summer of 1959. At the Nats in Los Alamitos, California, my Pittsburgh Pointer rolled 10 inches outside the lime-lined landing circle and scratched off points that otherwise would have been awarded for a “greasy” landing.

Hal deBolt came in fourth and I came in fifth, so he was the third team member. Walt Good was to be the team manager. I regretted my failure at the time, but several years later I looked at it as a blessing.

In 1960 I left my job at the research laboratories of Westinghouse Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and took a job at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of Johns Hopkins University in Silver Spring, Maryland. I had grown tired of “basic research” that didn’t seem to be going anywhere useful and I liked the word “applied.”

I do not deny that my friendship with Walt Good influenced the decision. We spent many lively lunch hours talking RC, and we had many sessions on the flying field.

In 1962 Walt pulled some strings with the organizers of the forthcoming second World Championships for Aerobatics. I had written the first RC judges’ guide for AMA, and Walt pointed out that I’d make a good chief judge at Kenley Aerodrome, England.

More than 20 years earlier Kenley airfield had housed hundreds of Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots and swarms of Spitfires and Hurricanes at the ready to fight against Luftwaffe bombers during the Battle of Britain. Although that battle was won and past, there was still a military presence; in 1962 the Cold War with the Soviet Union was hot.

The Soviet Union sent a team of modelers to the contest. They were a bit standoffish and reluctant to allow their models to be examined. I was shocked by what I saw from my privileged position as judge.

The Soviet modelers could not purchase smooth-cut balsa in a hobby shop, their propellers were hand-carved, some capacitors were homemade from waxed paper and aluminum foil, and at least one control transmitter was an olive-drab box with “RCA” embossed on it because it had been shipped by the United States according to the Lend-Lease Act during the war. Clearly the model-airplane hobby was not part of the “Five Year Plans.”

The contrast with other countries’ models and equipment was astonishing. Tom Brett’s sleek navy-blue-and-gold low-wing Perigee won for the United States, and the British team finished first in the team competition with lots of flashy red, white, and blue. All of these models were colorful beauties. All of the pilots had handheld transmitters. The Soviet team, with their dull black-and-white shoulder-wingers and ground-based recycled transmitters came in last.

A blatant anomaly hit me hard. Soviet competitor Pietrov Velitchkovsky wore a small pin on his CCCP-labeled T-shirt. It honored him as a “Hero of the Soviet Union” for having set seven FAI world records for RC aeromodels!

I came home from Kenley with two conclusions. One, communism was very bad! No balsa wood! Two, if Velitchkovsky could set records with such poor stuff, Americans ought to be able to raise the marks considerably with their far-superior equipment.

Fellow District of Columbia Radio Control club (DCRC) members were roused by my preachings at the September 1962 meeting. We laid plans for an assault on the Velitchkovsky altitude record of 7,100 feet. July 4-5, 1963, the Naval Surface Weapons Lab at Dahlgren, Virginia, provided a radar and two operators to measure the altitude and two pairs of ships’ 40-power binoculars mounted on an old gun mount. In one of the accompanying photos you can see me sitting in the mount staring nearly straight up at a model I called “Skyrocket.”

Walt Good and Howard McEntee broke Velitchkovsky’s record.(Howard was an early-RC icon who wrote a column and articles about the subject which educated many in the 1940s and 1950s.) My model went higher, and a photo shows that my first world record of 13,320 feet almost doubled Velitchkovsky’s.

Circa 1963. Captain W.A. Sellers, commanding officer of Dahlgren Naval Surface Laboratory, congratulates Maynard (L) on his first world record. John Worth, then AMA president, inscribes altitude achieved. Fremont Davis photo.

Circa 1963. Captain W.A. Sellers, commanding officer of Dahlgren Naval Surface Laboratory, congratulates Maynard (L) on his first world record. John Worth, then AMA president, inscribes altitude achieved. Fremont Davis photo.

This was fun! I went on a crusade to break more of the Soviet hero’s records, and by 1968 I held major RC records in duration, speed, distance in a straight line, and distance in a closed circuit. Seaplane and glider altitude marks had also been logged. Velichkovsky was down to zero listings.

Circa 1963. DCRC club organized a world altitude record attempt. The Navy provided 40-power binoculars on a gun mount for manual tracking of the model. Maynard is shown at the controls. Davis photo.

Circa 1963. DCRC club organized a world altitude record attempt. The Navy provided 40-power binoculars on a gun mount for manual tracking of the model. Maynard is shown at the controls. Davis photo.

I kept judging at world Aerobatics championships through the 1960s and finally stopped after Gorizia, Italy, in 1973. In training sessions for judges, I steadily emphasized that they should be objective and write scores strictly on the basis of what the airplane does—not who is flying it or how it looks.

Yet when I analyzed score sheets each time for reporting to the FAI Committee, it was obvious that some judges boosted scores of competitors from their own countries and cut others because of national dislikes. Some judges were impressed by competitors who wore neckties or white pants, and others marked down because they didn’t like airplanes that were painted green. The tightness of the female mechanics’ shorts also brought on occasional errors in judgment. Some of the competitors were angry that the judges weren’t fair, etc.

Herein lies my love for busting records, where you are competing with Mother Nature and the precise rules of gravity and physics. Performance is measured with stopwatches and tape measures. There are no gray areas; either you did it or you failed.

Even though I had left Velitchkovsky in the dust, I continued chasing records because it was fun and educational. By 1991 I had 18 records under my belt. With Old Faithful III and Marvelous Martha (shown), this number was escalated to 23 by 1999. These two models played a significant role in inspiring my dream of flying across the Atlantic Ocean.

Old Faithful III (R) set two duration records, and Marvelous Martha set four distance records between 1992 and 1998, leading to the conclusion that a transatlantic flight might be possible.

Old Faithful III (R) set two duration records, and Marvelous Martha set four distance records between 1992 and 1998, leading to the conclusion that a transatlantic flight might be possible.

Old Faithful flew for 33 hours and 39 minutes October 3-5, 1992. I was the sole pilot because the FAI had a “Hail, Lindbergh!” rule stating that only one pilot was allowed. We beat this rule with technology. Paul Howey made a direction-finding receiver that we put in the wing, then we placed an amateur radio beacon on the ground slightly upwind of me.

The airplane automatically steered toward the beacon, made a loop downwind when it passed the beacon, then repeated this pattern for most of the flight. I was half asleep on a chaise lounge most of the time.

After this success I started joking about building an 11-pound airplane that would fly for 60 hours. I would find someone with a huge 30-knot cruiser yacht (or maybe a Navy destroyer) and gather the big crowd of friends formed setting all of these records, and we would have a big party on the fantail of this ship while the model chased a beacon that was on the mast! What a blast! It was fun to talk about it even though I knew it wouldn’t work in a moderate wind.

Marvelous Martha conjured visions of a different approach. First, we chased it down routes 81 and 95 at airspeeds up to approximately 70 mph, as measured with a Global Positioning System (GPS) in the chase convertible. Second, I built a dynamometer.

Using horsepower numbers I calculated what aerodynamicists call CDnaught, Cdo; that is, the drag coefficient caused by the profile and skin friction, exclusive of drag caused by lift. Martha had a Cdo of 0.019, which is smaller than the famous super-clean WW II P-51 Mustang’s 0.021. The other significant number came from Martha’s last record of 808 miles in closed course, piloted by my son Scott on June 26, 1998.

I was angry with the FAI for refusing to list me as a part of a team for the two earlier Martha records. Rob Rosenthal was named record holder for the distance flight. He’s a nice guy. I like him! But all he did was pilot the airplane part-time for roughly nine hours. I had worked for two years to develop the model! I certainly would have flown it if I weren’t nearly blind!

The technical challenge of perfecting a model is difficult, but flying is easy if you know how. So to outwit the archaic rules of the CIAM (International Aeromodeling Committee), my son Scott, whose first name is Maynard, flew the closed-course distance attempt. I take great delight in looking at the record book and seeing that Maynard S. Hill holds that difficult record. (See “Racing Against Sunset” in the October 1999 Model Aviation on page 58.)

Martha was flying approximately 70 mph for 13 hours and had two hours of fuel left at the end of the day. There is a law of physics of airplanes that the power required increases at the cube of the speed. In the simpleminded way I like to work, this rule says that if we slowed the model to half of 70 mph, or 35, it should be able to fly eight times as long. That’s 15 x 8 = 120 hours at 35 mph, or a distance of 4,200 miles. That’s more than New York to Paris!

But hold it! Some drag caused by lift crawls into this picture because of the slower speed. There are equations in textbooks that tell how to estimate this penalty; when I did the arithmetic, the projections still indicated a distance of approximately 3,700 miles.

From this point I applied my rules of experience. Textbooks assume perfect airfoils and perfect flow, high propeller efficiency, etc. In the real world of small models and low Reynolds numbers in bumpy air, you’ll do well to get half of that textbook number.

So in the end I still saw 1,875 miles as a possibility. This estimated figure is close to the distance from Newfoundland to Ireland. Besides, if things did not meet this target, there is often a nice tailwind blowing across the north Atlantic.

Similar numbers had come from Martha’s 775-mile record in 1995. So in the spring of 1996 I started thinking seriously about a transatlantic aeromodel. It would have to meet all of the requirements for a true model airplane or I wouldn’t try. It would have to weigh less than 11 pounds and use a 10cc-maximum engine.

Rob Rosenthal showed me how we could measure a model’s track and speed with an onboard handheld GPS receiver. The concept would be to launch under normal radio control then switch to autopilot. A miniature onboard GPS receiver would provide position data to steer a programmed route. Landing in Ireland within 500 meters of the predesignated spot would be accomplished under manual RC control by a pilot. Newfoundland to Ireland isn’t New York to Paris, but it is across the Atlantic! So that was it.

I chuckle now about the fact that at that time my knowledge of Canadian geography was blurry, to say the least. Labrador, Newfoundland, Gander, and Goose Bay were cold places somewhere near the Arctic Circle from which thousands of American-built bombers and fighters were ferried to England during WW II. I didn’t even know that Newfoundland was an island accessible only by ferry or airplane.

By September 1998 I was educated that Newfoundland was a faraway island and that it was going to take some money to put this project into serious motion. At Les Hamilton’s and John Chirtea’s urging, the Society for Technical Aeromodel Research (STAR) was formed. A pro tem board of mostly DCRC members began twisting friends’ arms, asking for contributions to the effort in exchange for membership, which promised only an occasional newsletter. We were off and running.

Paul Howey and Ted Rollins designed and built the front end of an autopilot; i.e., gyro, wing leveler, roll stabilizer, and servo controller coupled to a Futaba receiver. Joe Foster came on board in the summer of 1998 and started on the massive job of software for GPS navigation and altitude hold.

During the winter and spring of 1999-2000, we flight-tested in a horse pasture on a farm that Beecher Butts owned. He was 88 years old and a legend in the area. He earned his pilot’s license in 1946, and at 88 he was still flying his ultralight and riding horses. When riding to the hounds, he jumped fences with people one-third his age.

As with any project of this magnitude, testing and evaluation was a grueling year-round activity. Maynard tested engines in extreme weather conditions. Julian Cottrell photos.

As with any project of this magnitude, testing and evaluation was a grueling year-round activity. Maynard tested engines in extreme weather conditions. Julian Cottrell photos.

If the grass got too tall for us, he’d knock out a runway with his farm tractor. The combination of our admiration for Beecher and the need to rise above the technical struggles we were having in these early days (crashes!) led me to suggest naming our transatlantic model “The Spirit of Butts’ Farm.”

In April 2001 we were fairly confident that the few remaining problems could be solved by August, so we bought some cheap (therefore, nonrefundable) airline tickets—still a great expense for our treasury. We asked Andy Gutow to make us some crates in which to transport the models.

All sorts of problems cropped up in May and June 2001. Facing the situation square on, we had to postpone our attempt until August 2002. August is the best, and nearly only, month of suitable north-Atlantic weather.

Making use of those cheap tickets, John Patton, Roy Day, Joe Foster, and I flew up to Newfoundland to look at the terrain and meet Carl Layden: the Atlantic province director for the Model Aeronautic Association of Canada (MAAC). Carl had volunteered to be the Canadian FAI observer for our record attempt. He had told Saint John’s newspaper, The Telegraph, about our expected visit and its purpose, and a pleasant story was published on the day of our arrival.

Bingo! Nelson Sherren, a former RAF Lancaster-bomber pilot, read the article and called Carl to ask us to meet with him because he wanted to help. Nelson is a Newfoundland/Labrador aviation-history buff. He has retrieved parts of busted or sunken WW II failures and owns a spare wing rib of the Vickers Vimy biplane that Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown flew for the first nonstop crossing of the Atlantic in 1919.

In 2001 Nelson was president of the 150th wing of the North Atlantic Royal Canadian Air Force Association. He told us he would arrange for low-cost housing on a military base when we came back in 2002 and that he could also provide a large workspace with telephone service at the association’s clubhouse on the base.

His word was good; these things were available to us in 2002 and 2003. What a blessing! The arrangements were top-notch, especially since we had envisioned ourselves working out of motel rooms. We spread out on eight workbenches in a 30 x 40-foot room with three computers, a drill press, an oscilloscope, and plenty of folding chairs.

During the winter and spring of 1999-2000 I built five airplanes with 6-inch-diameter fuel tanks. When we got around to measuring speeds, I decided that these models were too fat. They flew only roughly 38 mph when pulled by the allowable horsepower and fuel rate.

During the winter of 2000-2001 I built six airplanes with skinnier fuselages, with 3⁄4 of the fuel in the fuselage tank and 1⁄4 of the fuel in a wing tank. The plumbing and fuel-pressure system was complicated. Putting precise amounts of fuel onboard was a nasty challenge. These models flew approximately 43 mph at full weight, but three were crashed during tests in the spring of 2001 and two more were totaled after our 2001 postponement.

During the winter and spring of 2001-2002 I built four more airframes. By this time I had constructed 21 fuselages and 12 wings. Hundreds of hours of engine testing filled in the spots between construction.

July 26, 2002, my wife Gay and I started a six-day journey to Newfoundland in a rented Dodge Caravan. I don’t have a driver’s license because of my degenerated vision, so Gay, who loves to drive, took the wheel while I had a much-needed six-day rest. Preparations had approached a frenzy during the final weeks of testing. We had four all-up models packed in the van along with boxes and bundles of auxiliary stuff.

We made the first record attempt with the serial-number 19 model, identified as TAM (Transatlantic Model) 1 on our Web site ( The launch was at 8 p.m. local time on August 8. The evening launch was made so that the model would arrive in Ireland during daylight hours. Minimum crossing time would be as short as 28-30 hours if there was a brisk tailwind. That would put it on the Irish coast in the dark. The maximum time had to be less than 40 hours. That was the maximum expected fuel duration.

Joe Foster manually flew TAM 1 to roughly 1,000 feet using a Futaba PCM transmitter. When he toggled the landing-gear switch to turn on the autopilot, it started making lazy circles approximately 300 feet in diameter. The wind blew the circling model toward Ireland, but it soon fell into the ocean.

The cause may have been that the model was too far out of trim for the gyro and steering software to grab hold. We tried for a test-and-trim flight early in the afternoon, but high winds led to a rough forced landing. I think a gear was broken when the aileron snagged in tall grass. We’ll never know.

TAM 2 was launched two days later after a check flight. This time all looked good. The model made the half-mile leg to the north that Joe had programmed, to avoid flying over a Cape Spear visitors’ parking lot. We were on a gravel road roughly 1⁄4 mile west of the lot.

After passing the 1⁄2-mile point, TAM 2 took off on a beeline, straight as an arrow, but on a heading toward the Azores islands—not toward Ireland. Telemetry indicated that the engine stopped and the model dropped into the sea 171⁄2 minutes after launch.

We were doing poorly! I had some ideas about why the engine had stopped, but there was no way to check my ideas with the engine on the ocean floor. The heading error was something else; there was a flaw in the software that was undetected during our two years of flight-testing the steering functions. The reason it escaped detection was that we had never turned the model loose to fly long distances. We flew small ovals and short hops up and down a road using a convertible to keep the model in the pilot’s sight.

Any modeler who intentionally programs an autopiloted model to fly out of sight over populated land is reckless and irresponsible. The potential harm done to the hobby would greatly outweigh any inflated ego. We were not irresponsible nor were we reckless. We aimed to fly over the ocean at approximately 1,000 feet of altitude. There would be no swimmers underneath, no airplanes flying that low, and no ships with masts that tall. “Safe” is the word that describes what we were doing.

Weather over the north Atlantic had not been good up to this point, but on August 13, 2002, it was predicted to be bad for the next four to five days. This was partly okay because Joe Foster and Les Hamilton had to recalculate, simulate, and insert new pieces of code from top to bottom; that was 100 pages and 10,000 lines! They were at it for three long days.

I took advantage of this break to retreat to a table in a remote corner of an adjacent room. In spurts I wrote a eulogy which I hoped would be read at a memorial service for Walt Good; he had died a month earlier, and his service was to be in Florida. I yearned to be there, but I was trapped in Newfoundland. Tears of grief dropped on my writing pad. Walt was a good friend and a fun scientist. He surely would have enjoyed participating in this technical miracle we were seeking.

Nelson Sherren had meteorologist friends in Gander and Goose Bay who faxed, on a daily basis, current conditions and 24-hour forecasts of wind and frontal systems over the Atlantic. Roy Day pulled predictions from the US Navy Norfolk Web site. Bob Yount in Maryland sent E-mails with recommendations. The situation was no-go August 15-17.

Paul Howey, who was to be the landing pilot in Ireland, was telling us via E-mail and cell phone that it was raining buckets most of the time. What’s worse, the rain was blown horizontal by winds that, at midnight on one of those days, tore down the tent in which he and his son Rusty were trying to sleep. They retreated to a bed-and-breakfast.

Nelson’s 9 a.m. weather briefing on August 18 informed us that things were far from ideal but not totally negative. We decided to give it a try. Time was running out; cheap tickets home were for August 22. We drove to Cape Spear under clear skies, only to see a dense cloud of fog over the launch site as we rounded the last bend in the road. We stood in that fog until 8 p.m. and saw no hope for clearing.

We returned at roughly 5 p.m. the next day, set up TAM 3, and launched it at 6 p.m. to beat that fog. This time TAM 3 took off on the 62° track it was supposed to follow and flew on course for the next eight hours.

The last report from the satellites used for tracking stated that it had gone 479 miles before dropping out of sight. The most likely cause of failure this time was that the model hit a rainstorm and severe turbulence. We joked that we could talk like military public-relations people who would call this “a successful test that showed the system to be working properly.”

We still had TAM 4 in the shed, but we had run out of time. We packed our goods and started home on August 22, 2002.

Actually, the results of TAM 3 were encouraging. I wanted to keep trying, and, with some reservations about how much time they could give, the team decided to try again in 2003.

I started building slightly modified models almost immediately. I paid the drag penalty of a slightly fatter fuselage to put all of the fuel in a single tank. I shifted the wing position forward to better accommodate a CG (center of gravity) shift as fuel was consumed. I also moved the autopilot to midway between the wing trailing edge and the stabilizer leading edge; this ensured that there was no way rainwater could be sucked in to foul the electronics. We were flight-testing this version two months later and found the drag penalty to be negligible.

I rang in 2003 with three new airframes—numbers 23, 24, and 25—ready for engine testing. In early February I took on a small consulting job with some of my former colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University APL. They had a high-school senior serving as an intern, and they told me that Cyrus Abdollahi would learn more, and be more useful to their UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] project, if he came on board as an intern on our TAM effort.

That was a classic understatement. Cyrus was a knowledgeable model builder, a good RC pilot, and a whiz on computers. We started working together in February, and he spent nearly 25 hours a week helping the blind man! We built three more airplanes and did some good flight-testing for STAR and for APL. It is a delight to work with this young man, and I miss him now that he is in college and able to come by only on Sundays.

During the winter and spring of 2002-2003, I continued to test engines down in my shed. You would think that after 12 years of work and five records I would know everything there is to know about an O.S. .61 FS engine. Not so.

After several months of mysteries, I found a flaw in two of my five homemade rear power takeoffs that are used to drive an alternator that powers the whole system. I have acquired 26 O.S. .61 FSs at flea markets and on the Internet. The flaw wandered from one engine to another as I moved it to test engines. It takes as much as 12 hours of running to see if a change has a significant effect, and if you’re working to get six engines in proper condition, it’s easy to lose track of some the variables.

The culprits were units I had machined back when I had good eyes. Tweed Cottrell made six new ones of superb quality.

By June there were six airframes; some had been through preliminary flight-testing. Autopilot construction had fallen behind, so I was continually transferring the one workable unit from one airframe to another. Les Hamilton and Ron Bozzonetti gave up many hours of their hobby time to come out for flight tests.

On July 18, a virgin model (number 26) with a virgin autopilot failed while being manually flown. In the rush, my shake-and-bake routine was apparently inadequate to avoid an infant mortality; the model went down in some woods on the edge of a wheat field approximately a minute after launch. Dedicated STAR member Andy Gutow flew over the woods in a Cessna with Ron Bozzonetti as a second pair of eyes. Nothing was seen; 26, with alternator, gyro, good engine, and autopilot, was gone. Period!

On July 29, Gay and I set out toward Saint John’s in a Chevy Astro minivan loaded with five TAM models: numbers 23, 24, 25, 27, and 28. First, Gay first drove out to Lexington, Kentucky, to trade our Subaru for the van that our son-in-law Larry Snipes owned—a trade that saved $3,000 of STAR’s funds. The cost underrun was a huge help to the budget.

We arrived in Saint John’s on Sunday, August 3, and were cheerily greeted by friend and benefactor Nelson Sherren. The rest of the crew—Joe Foster, Les Hamilton, and Cyrus Abdollahi—flew in the next day.

I honed the engine on number 24 for two days, and we went out for trim tests Friday afternoon, August 8. The first launch—now referenced as TAM 4—went up into a fogless sky over Cape Spear at 8 that evening. There was a gentle wind from the west and the dirt road sloped down to the west, so this 77-year-old geezer had no trouble heaving it into the air.

People told me that the climbout and smooth straight-line departure into the sky still-painted by the setting sun were beautiful things to see. I have to take their word for it because it is gone from my eyes if it is more than 200 feet away.

Satellite data flowed into our operations room via E-mail messages for the next eight hours. TAM 4 was on course, the engine was fine, the speed was right, and the altitude was correct at 1,000 feet. Then after 430 miles, a bit short of the place where we lost TAM 3 the year before, there was nothing. No further report.

The cause could not be determined because the model went down during a period when all satellites were absent from the north Atlantic. There was no rain, winds were modest, and storms were hundreds of miles to the south. It was a mystery.

Joe Foster postulated carburetor ice because TAM 4 disappeared at roughly the same time that TAM 3 did. My hundreds of hours of bench tests during cold and hot, humid weather didn’t support that idea. Somebody suggested that the Bermuda Triangle has a cousin up in Greenland. Cyrus, in his quiet, humorous manner, said that maybe the Icelandic Navy’s gunboats needed target practice. We had no clue.

The weather reports Saturday morning, August 9, were favorable. Tailwinds of 10-15 mph in the middle of the flight would help, but there would be crosswinds for a couple hundred miles after launch and the last couple hundred miles near Ireland. Conditions were expected to deteriorate two days hence, so we decided to try for another launch that night. The hustle to uncrate number 25, undo the safety packing, and stuff it with autopilot and engine put a bit of a strain on a crew that hadn’t slept much the night before.

It was 11:30 a.m. before I could start running fuel tests. Ordinarily I have to run and measure for three or four hours to make sure the needle and filters are okay. For the next two hours fuel flows swung from crazy highs to saggy lows. I use a fussy medical filter in the fuel line that likes to stay wet. Apparently this one had dried out in spite of isolation clamps during the seven-day trip. I knew the routine; I had to put in a new filter and start over. But by that time it was 2:30 p.m., and we had to go off on a trim flight.

From 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. I measured fuel again, but I was far from sure that it was okay. Soon we would have to start the fueling and weighing process. Carl Layden, the Canadian observer, was waiting in the shop with Contest Director (CD) Les Hamilton to attest to the weigh-in’s accuracy. Expletives flashed through my brain before I finally said, “Throw this flukey thing and hope!”

TAM 5’s launch in Newfoundland. The launch needed to be into a west wind, but slopes or launch clearings facing that direction were scarce. This location was a gravel lane 1,000 yards west of the tip of Cape Spear. Photo by Loretta Foster.

TAM 5’s launch in Newfoundland. The launch needed to be into a west wind, but slopes or launch clearings facing that direction were scarce. This location was a gravel lane 1,000 yards west of the tip of Cape Spear. Photo by Loretta Foster.

Cyrus Abdollahi (in black jacket) and Maynard watch as Joe Foster steers TAM 5 during climbout on August 9, 2003. TAM 5 was programmed to avoid parking lot in background for safety’s sake. Foster photo.

Cyrus Abdollahi (in black jacket) and Maynard watch as Joe Foster steers TAM 5 during climbout on August 9, 2003. TAM 5 was programmed to avoid parking lot in background for safety’s sake. Foster photo.

We did just that at 7:45 p.m. local time. The launch was easy because of a mild west wind. Joe’s climbout was quick and smooth. TAM 5 did a graceful turn toward the northern waypoint then beelined out of sight on the 62° heading to Ireland.

All was well at 11 p.m. Data indicated engine rpm okay, altitude okay, speed approximately 43 mph, no tailwind. There was nothing I could do but hope, so I packed off to bed. Les, Joe, and Cyrus stayed on post to sift the incoming data.

There was good news when I entered the TAM shop at 8:30 Sunday morning. The Spirit was still flying and was roughly 560 miles out. However, there were some ominous aspects of the data.

The engine was supposed to be regulated and smooth at 3,900 rpm, but readings ranging from 4,100 to 3,100 were coming in. Altitude was also a bit unsteady, varying from 280 to 320 meters (plus or minus 70 feet). Data points came in roughly once a minute for periods of up to 12 minutes.

We couldn’t plot any meaningful graphs, but it was obvious that the model was porpoising from a shallow climb to a speedy dip in the flight paths. We had seen this behavior in Maryland flight tests; I was fairly certain that the engine was lean, making insufficient power to pull the model into its usual smooth cruise condition. If the porpoising stayed mild, the penalty in speed was not severe.

The Spirit trotted along all day Sunday. Over the midocean it picked up a 5-10 mph tailwind and was cruising at 50-55 mph. This tailwind was supposed to be 10-15 mph, but Mother Nature doesn’t always do what man predicts. I went to bed at roughly 10 p.m., fearful that the cool of night would increase the viscosity of the fuel, taking the engine from lean to dead.

Sure enough, when I returned to the shop at 4 a.m., Les and Cyrus said they had had no satellite data for three hours. Les and I agreed that we should call the Irish officials—Joe Dible and John Molloy—and tell them to turn around. They were on a six-hour trip from Dublin. 

While we were dialing our landing pilot Dave Brown, who was at a bed-and-breakfast near Mannin Beach, Cyrus turned away from the data computer he’d been monitoring and announced, “We have a satellite!” Cyrus had been a heartwarming example of unusual patience and youthful optimism from the start. The old geezers had given up, but not Cyrus.

We quickly called the Ireland crew. None of them had turned around. (Later we learned that a couple of satellites had not dumped their data and had to go around the earth one more time before reporting to the system.)

Not only was the Spirit still flying, but it was flying better. It was 5 a.m. Monday morning in Newfoundland, but the Spirit was far enough east to be in warming sunshine. It had flown over the Gulf Stream during the night. Perhaps warmer air voided the viscosity problem. It was obviously happy to be rid of a lot of fuel weight. The elevator had gone from nearly full up-trim to a little below neutral. The engine rpm was a comforting, steady 3,900.

At 9 a.m. Newfoundland time (12:30 Ireland time), or 371⁄4 hours into the flight, the model was approximately 70 miles from the Irish coast. Its speed was down to 43 mph. Its heading was right on target at 95°true heading. We had a real fingernail-chewing cliffhanger on our hands. The engine was supposed to go roughly 37 hours if I had set the needle at the intended reliable, slightly rich setting. I do not chew my nails, but I, and everyone else waiting in the Newfoundland shop, was very tense.

My thoughts drifted to a 1999 cross-country attempt to fly from Leesburg, Virginia, to Savannah, Georgia—a distance of roughly 540 miles. We had flown for 71⁄2 hours. We had passed Ron Clem’s distance record of 507 miles when a Niagara Falls-type thunderstorm swamped the model, drenched the crew, and put two to three inches of water in the footwells of my 1972 Ford LTD convertible.

At that point I realized that the engine might stop a couple miles offshore. I mused at my well-worn slogan “You can’t win ’em all!” and hoped I wouldn’t have to use it this time. My fears didn’t materialize into disaster; the model came into sight at Mannin Beach at roughly 2 p.m. Ireland time on Monday afternoon.

Dave Brown, a member of six US World Championships teams in the 1980s, confidently toggled the landing-gear switch to gain manual control of the airplane. He banged the rudder stick hard right to kill the engine. Dave’s wife Sally was cell-phoning the happiness. Dave glided the Spirit into a dead-stick landing approximately 35 feet from the designated spot. At 2:08 p.m. Ireland time, Sally’s report—“It’s on the ground!”—raised a whooping cheer in the Newfoundland shop. I buried my head on Gay’s shoulder and wept unashamedly for joy.

Special recognition and thanks are due Les Hamilton. He worked hard at the important jobs of chief United States official and AMA CD, and he contributed hundreds of hours to helping with flight tests, telemetry, and data analysis. Les also served as the secretary of STAR and has put many hours into communications to the members.

Joe Foster made a major contribution by designing the electronics and writing all of  the software codes for the navigation portion of the autopilot. His work on the codes was massive and technically brilliant. He was also the pilot during many arduous hours of flight-testing the autopilot and airplane performance.

Dave Brown’s time is normally consumed by the position of AMA president. He is a skilled RC pilot, and I am grateful that he responded to my request for him to go to Ireland to land the model.

Cyrus Abdollahi, the third member of the TAM crew in Saint John’s, is a 2003 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. Cyrus helped build and test some of the five models we took to Newfoundland. His patient and enthusiastic study of hundreds of incoming E-mails in Newfoundland at all hours of the day and night was a valuable help in achieving the record.

My wife Gay was the fourth member of the Newfoundland TAM crew. In addition to being a comforting confidant and counselor, she drove our son-in-law’s van more than 80 hours to transport the models and the legally blind builder of the model to Newfoundland and back.

Paul Howey designed and built the ARGOS transmitters, which were necessary for achieving our goals. He and Ted Rollins designed and wrote the software codes for the stability- and servo-control section of the autopilot. With his son Russell, Paul generated the artwork for the circuit boards and assembled the electronics and harnesses of the autopilots used in 2002. In the 2002 attempts, he also recruited the amateur radio enthusiasts. Although Paul could not go to Ireland for the 2003 attempt, the project has been fortunate that his ham friends came anyway.

The TAM team included a number of other people here in Washington DC and in Ireland. Ron Bozzonetti and Roy Day helped as pilots during four years of testing. Roy served as CD in 2002. Julian “Tweed” Cottrell helped with engine testing, machining, and autopilot assembly. Art Kresse machined some parts for the engines and made technical drawings of the model. Charlie Calvert helped with the design and fabrication of fuel pumps and flexible alternator couplings.

Bob Yount gathered weather data for months in advance of the attempts and provided advice while we were in Newfoundland. Bill Savage has been a steady help as the editor and producer of 14 newsletters in the past three years. John Patton, who has served many times as CD for earlier records, could not go to Newfoundland. However, he has served faithfully as the treasurer of STAR.

Laytonsville Landscaping owner Doug Lechlider allowed us to use his sod farms for the last two years of testing. This kindness reduced the number of broken propellers and fuselages that we were experiencing on the rougher terrain at Butts’ Farm.

In spite of the overly friendly horses and the hazardous mounds they left behind, the use of Beecher Butts’ pasture was valuable to our early flight tests. Beecher’s vitality and enthusiastic spirit inspired optimism to counter my advanced age and its handicaps.

In Canada, Nelson Sherren arranged for our housing and an operations center. Carl Layden, Craig Trickett, and John Shortall of the Saint John’s Aeromodelers Club were eager to fill gaps and solve problems that cropped up.

Nelson Sherren (R) serves on the board of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander, Newfoundland. In appreciation of his help, Maynard donated TAM 23 to the museum.

Nelson Sherren (R) serves on the board of the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander, Newfoundland. In appreciation of his help, Maynard donated TAM 23 to the museum.

In Ireland, Joe Dible, John Molloy, and Noel Barrett deserve special thanks for making long journeys from Dublin and Cork to be present as official observers. From the landing crew in Ireland, radio amateur Ronan Coyne set up the Web site that TAM used. Ronan also played a key role in setting up the downlink telemetry. Other Irish crewmembers were Enda Broderick, David Glynn, Aengus Cullinane, and Tom Frawley. Sally Brown’s joyful enthusiasm crossed the ocean on her cell phone during the landing. Her communication was a vital contribution.

I am grateful for all of the help that came from these wonderful friends.

Fifth Time is a Charm

Each of the Transatlantic Models, or TAMs, was launched from Cape Spear, Newfoundland, with Joe Foster piloting the takeoff and ascent. More than one year and five TAMs later, the team completed the transatlantic task. The information below compares each TAM’s launch, flight, and failure data.

The Airplane

Details and secrets about The Spirit of Butts’ Farm models will be published in other articles, but following is a summary.

Official records claimed: Distance, 1881.6 miles; duration, 38 hours, 52 minutes, 19 seconds

Dimensions: Shown on three-view Structure: Mostly balsa, translucent Red MonoKote covering

Dry weight: 6 pounds

Fueled weight: 1⁄4 ounce less than the 11 pounds (5 kilograms) allowable. Fuel used: Coleman stove fuel with 16 ounces of Indopol L-50 lubricant per gallon. There were 1-1⁄2 ounces of fuel left in the tank; therefore, the fuel rate was 2.02 ounces/hour (a bit more than a shot of whiskey). Engine: 10cc O.S. .61 FS four-stroke (no longer manufactured)

Propeller: 14 x 12 wood Zinger with trailing edge sanded to razor sharpness before polishing and painting with epoxy

A C&H Electronics CDI spark-ignition system fired successfully approximately 8-1⁄2 million times. An Aveox brushless motor core was used as an alternator to provide power for all of the electrical components. The custom-designed autopilot, its harness, its piezoelectric gyro, its pressure sensor, and a GPS receiver weighed 8 ounces.

One of the vital “secrets,” which I’ve published before, is that the carburetor was from a “PET” O.S. .10 two-stroke engine that has a tiny throat of .153 inch. The carburetor was mounted inside the fuselage and connected to the engine inlet with a 4-1⁄2-inch length of 1⁄4-inch-inside-diameter Tygon tubing. Fuel droplets were fully vaporized during passage down the tube.

There were three filters in the fuel line; the last one held back anything bigger than one micron in size. The needle’s annular orifice was less than .001 inch wide. A fleck of pollen could easily stop the engine. This might have been what scuttled TAM 4.

There were hundreds of other things that might have gone wrong. My team and I are proud and pleased that with TAM 5, everything went right!

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