Model Aviation in America, 100 Years Ago


Written by National Model Aviation Museum staff History Preserved Column
As seen in the October 2017 issue of Model Aviation.

It had only been approximately 10 years since the first two American modeling clubs were founded: the Junior Aero Club of the United States (later "of America"), founded by Miss. E. Lillian Todd (circa 1907), and the New York Model Aero Club (circa 1910). By 1917, aeromodeling was becoming quite a popular pastime in the US. There were roughly 25 clubs across the country that year.


Miss. E. Lillian Todd in 1906

Of all of the aircraft flown, the twin pusher model airplane was king. World records that year included three made by Phillip Breckenridge (Illinois Model Aero Club): 2,200 feet for hand-launch tractor distance; 227.4 seconds for rise-off-ground (ROG) tractor duration; and 2,685 feet for ROG tractor distance. Ward Pease also set a record of 3,364 feet for ROG distance for twin pusher-type models.

One of the publications that produced model aviation columns at the time was Aerial Age Weekly. The column was called "Model News" and it was edited by George A. Cavanagh (and sometimes Harry Schultz). George was the model editor of Aerial Age Weekly and Harry was the president of the Aero Science Club of America.

"Model News" featured information about new aircraft being created or exhibited, notes on aeromodeling in general, and reports about club activities.

An amusing entry in the January 29, 1917, issue reported that the Nebraska Model Aero Club had arranged for the first model flying contest in Lincoln, Nebraska. The governor, governor-elect, and mayor were invited to judge the competition. "Among the twenty-four machines expected will be all classes of gliders and of planes whose motive power consists of rubberbands. One exhibition machine will be shown, constructed of aluminum throughout, with a gas engine to furnish the propulsion," was stated in the column.

The column continued, "Col. John G. Maher, one of those interested in the contest, is enthusiastic about aeroplane flying as a sport for boys. ‘It develops the mechanical ingenuity to the highest degree and is a clean and invigorating sport, which ought to be encouraged.’"

George also wrote a book in 1916 titled Model Aeroplanes and their Motors—A Practical Guide for Beginners with drawings by Harry. (It was republished in 1917 with a slight title change, Model Aeroplanes and their Engines—A Practical Guide for Beginners.)

Pic 1-Model Aeroplanes, Cavanagh, LIB2010.01.3372, cover


The cover of Model Aeroplanes and Their Engines—A Practical Book for Beginners, George A. Cavanaugh, 1917. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Lee Renaud Memorial Library.)

The Aero Club of America had formed the first National Model Aeroplane Competition (a predecessor to the modern Nats) during the previous year. As the US entered World War I, building and competing decreased because many modelers went to war. In 1917 and the following year, the National Model Airplane Competition was called off.
 Pic 2-Model Aeroplanes, Cavanagh, LIB2010.01.3372, inside

Inside pages of Model Aeroplanes and Their Engines—A Practical Book for Beginners, George A. Cavanaugh, 1917. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Lee Renaud Memorial Library.)

The popularity of model airplane flying picked up again after the end of the war. It took a few more years, however, to get participation numbers back up. If you have any papers, photographs, or items pertaining to the early years of modeling, please don’t hesitate to contact the National Model Aviation Museum. We would love to hear about them.
Pic 3-Ideal catalog, 1917, 0252

Ideal directions, How to Build an “Ideal” Bleriot Cross Channel Type XI Monoplane, Ideal Aeroplane & Supply Co., cover, 1917. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Archives, #0252.)


Here are 16 of the known early modeling clubs operating in 1917:

  • Aero Club of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)
  • Aero Science Club of America (New York)
  • Bay Ridge Model Club (New York)
  • Buffalo Aero Science Club (New York)
  • Concord Model Aero Club (Massachusetts)
  • Denver Model Aero Club (Colorado)
  • Illinois Model Aero Club
  • Long Island Model Aero Club (New York)
  • Milwaukee Model Aero Club (Wisconsin)
  • Model Aero Club of Oxford (Pennsylvania)
  • Nebraska Model Aero Club
  • Pacific Northwest Model Aero Club (Seattle)
  • Plattsburg Model Aero Club (New York)
  • Springfield Model Aero Club (Massachusetts)
  • Texas Model Aero Club
  • Youngstown Model Aero Club (Ohio)

A few modelers who participated in model aviation in 1917 included:

  • Mel Anderson: Built his first model in 1917; designed/produced the Super Cyclone engine; owned Mel Anderson Manufacturing Company; AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame member (1981).
  • Joe Dale: Built and flew models with Cecil Peoli and Percy Pierce; received his ham radio license in 1917; worked on radio control for Berkeley Models.
  • Charles Hampson Grant: Studied at Princeton University (1913-1918) in civil engineering, where he became a flight student (1917); AMA Fellow (1964); AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame (1969); National Free Flight Society (NFFS) Hall of Fame (1979); Society of Antique Modelers (SAM) Hall of Fame (1990); Kits and Plans Antiquitous Hall of Fame (1996); served on AMA’s first council (1936).
  • Arthur Heinrich: Helped form the New York Model Aero Club; co-owned the family business, Heinrich Aeroplane Company, of Baldwin, New York.
  • Percy Pierce: Served in the military during WW I; heavy participant in modeling before and after the war; owned his own model airplane company.

Pic 4-Percy Pierce Scrapbook, 0012


An article in the Evening Bulletin, September 13, 1917, about Percy Pierce at aviation school, Percy Pierce’s scrapbook, pg. 111. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Archives, #0012.)


AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame inductees born in 1917 included:

  • Vic Cunnyngham Sr. (1995): Held nine national records; served as Nats event director for many years; AMA District X vice president (1969-1970); NFFS Hall of Fame (1987); SAM Hall of Fame (1991); Blacksheep Squadron Spirit Award (1994).
  • William "Bill" L. Effinger (1986): Started Berkeley Models (1933); NFFS Hall of Fame (1981); Kits and Plans Antiquitous Hall of Fame (1996).
  • Ed Lorenz (1980): Designed transmitters, receivers, parts, and kits for companies such as Berkeley Models, Ace R/C, Polk’s, and American Hobbies; AMA Distinguished Service Award (1973); Vintage RC Society (VRCS) Hall of Fame (1974); Howard McEntee Award (1974); Chair of the FCC Frequency Committee (1963-1973).
  • John Pond (1987): Owned John Pond Plans Service; AMA District X vice president (1964-1968); NFFS Hall of Fame (1983); SAM Hall of Fame (1989); Kits and Plans Antiquitous Hall of Fame (2000).
  • Henry Struck (1976): Grand champion at the Chicago Nats (1941); model designs published in Air Trails, Model Airplane News, Flying Aces, and the Zaic Yearbooks; NFFS Hall of Fame (1978); AMA Distinguished Service Award (1985); SAM Hall of Fame (1990); AMA Fellow (1998).

Pic 5-Percy Pierce Scrapbook, 0012 page 116


A page from Percy Pierce’s scrapbook, including a photo of him from his military service in 1917, pg. 116. (Source: National Model Aviation Museum Archives, #0012.)


Some of the model aircraft supply companies and distributors that were in business in 1917 (not an all-inclusive list): A.A.C. Model Aircrafters, Brooklyn Aeroplane Supply Co., Ideal Aeroplane & Supply Co., Lawrence Airplane Model & Supply Co., The Model Supply House, The White Aeroplane Co., and Wading River Mfg. Co.

—National Model Aviation Museum staff



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