Building Hope: Pandemic spurs model building resurgence

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Hobby provides bright light, welcome distraction

If US residents were asked to name one good thing that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the answers could vary. Some might say more quality time with family, less wear-and-tear on their vehicles, or even working from home in their pajamas.

But if you asked a group of AMA members the same question, many would likely say that it provided more time for the hobby. More specifically, it gave some a chance to go back to the roots of aeromodeling—back to the days before ARFs and RTFs, and back to when getting an aircraft ready to fly required plans or kits, some balsa, a little CA glue, covering, and good old-fashioned elbow grease. It took them back to building.

In what was a dark and uncertain time in the US, AMA members found solace, comfort, and normalcy in the hobby that they love. Some scratch-built a warbird for the first time, while others slid a long-forgotten box off of a shelf, brushed off the dust, and removed the contents with excitement. A few AMA members who had never built an airplane discovered that it wasn’t as hard as they expected. Some of these members were willing to share their stories.

In mid-March 2020, authorities in many states across the country implemented mandatory stay-at-home orders in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Stuck at home, AMA members needed to find something to occupy their abundance of free time. During this time, and in the months that followed, building model airplanes became more popular than it had been in years.

Model Aviation columnists and staff can attest to this by the spike in reader submissions. Manufacturers saw orders double then triple. Although some assumed that the upward trend would drop off as soon as the country began to open back up, that wasn’t the case for the most part. For some hobby companies, sales continue to be higher than normal.

"It’s kept us sane and rational during irrational times," Sal Calvagna, Model Aviation’s "RC Giant Scale" columnist, said about the comfort he found in building models.

this bmjr models dakota ff model

01. This BMJR Models Dakota FF model, designed by Joe Wagner, was the company’s most popular seller in 2020. Photo courtesy of Brian Malin.

model aviation columnist pat tritle

02. Model Aviation columnist Pat Tritle has built more than 30 models since the COVID-19 pandemic began, one of which is this 26-inch Gemini Sport rubber FF aircraft designed for smaller flying fields. Pat shared that it is simple and straightforward, easy to build, and consistently flies 40-to 45-second flights. Tritle photo.

Because most of the modeling events that Sal typically attends were canceled in 2020, he had ample time to build. "I’ve been in the basement more—building more than in the past," Sal commented.

AMA member Matt Morley’s workshop is also in his basement. Employed as a full-scale pilot for a private charter company, Matt found himself furloughed after the pandemic first hit the US. With ample free time on his hands, he began working on the kits he had stockpiled in his basement. "It was kind of nice to be able to go down to the basement and build. My first (kit) took 21 days. It was a fun challenge and I love building," Matt said. He even found a way to get his 5-year-old son interested in the hobby by having him help glue airplane parts.

AMA member Ken Fidler worked from home during the pandemic. "Health concerns required my family to cancel our regular vacations, as well as our normal activities, so we all had some extra time on our hands," Ken stated. "I would say I did not go back to building because of the pandemic alone, but rather for several reasons."

Ken got his first taste of aeromodeling at age 11. He built his first RC airplane, a Sig Riser, at roughly age 13. Throughout his teenage years, he built Pattern airplanes, Pylon racers, Giant Scale, hand-launched gliders, and 3D competition aircraft. He took a break from building after his first child was born in 2006.

"Since my 20 years away from building, the hobby has changed a lot," Ken shared. "With my extra time, I started to spend more time reading about the hobby and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I enjoy designing and competing but still do not have the time to dedicate fully to designing and developing a plane or practicing. I came across a Facebook page called Willy Nillies and called and spoke with Doug Hart.

"I really like the kits that Doug provides and it was my answer to getting back into building—easy to assemble, little space required, and I can start and stop when needed. Even though I have not built in 20 years, I still have all my building supplies—figured one day I would have the time … then the pandemic happened."

The fact that AMA members were building more quickly became apparent to Model Aviation columnist Pat Tritle. "The thing that first brought it to my attention was that there was so much more material coming in for the ‘Small Field Flying’ column," Pat said. Submissions from readers peaked in mid-summer 2020. "Summer is not building season. That’s typically when kit sales slow down," Pat stated. The submissions included photos of kit-built aircraft. Readers also shared images of old models they had restored that had been tucked away after being damaged in a crash or by natural weathering.

joe vermillion often has a model on his workbench

03. Joe Vermillion often has a model on his workbench. In March 2021, he was building this 1/6-scale Nieuport 17. Vermillion photo.

ama member ken fidler is pictured with his delta sport

04. AMA member Ken Fidler is pictured with his Delta Sport 250 and Der Flugel 250 flying wing that he built in late 2020 and early 2021. Fidler photo.

More people building more often meant a spike in demand for model aircraft materials and products.

"We’re shipping orders every single day nonstop," Joe Vermillion, technical support and social media manager for Balsa USA, said in late February 2021. "For us, it’s almost three times the amount of orders" that the company typically receives.

Bill Stevens, owner of Stevens Aeromodel, recalled how busy his company got after the stay-at-home orders were put into place. The first indication that there might be a building surge was when Bill began receiving emails from customers who were wondering if his business was still operating. "I put a note on my website that we were still open, and all of a sudden the floodgates opened. Everything we could get our hands on moved."

"Spring and summer are always slow [for our company], but this past year, we stayed relatively busy," stated Brian Malin, owner of BMJR Models. "Last year was nuts … May, June, July [2020], it really picked up and it stayed busy," he added.

Mark Lanterman, owner of Old School Model Works, also noticed a spike in sales. "At the start of the lockdown, things were kind of dead," he said. "But as people stopped freaking out and got their stimulus money, we actually picked up business. The slow times for us are normally the first and second weeks of March and all of August. But last year, August slowed down but the rest [of the months] didn’t."

When asked what it appeared that most modelers were building in 2020, the answers were different across the board.

"It was not just building materials, it was kits, batteries, and hardware," Bill said. In addition to the electronics needed to fly model airplanes, Bill’s company offers laser-cut kits for aircraft that range in size from small, indoor airplanes to park flyers. "Everything was kind of skewed toward larger aircraft. It could be they wanted a project that would last longer than an evening."

Balsa USA also saw some interesting shifts in sales. As the social media manager, Joe has noticed throughout the years that whatever product he features on social media has higher sales volumes for a time. That was still the case in 2020, with a twist. "We’re selling stuff we haven’t sold for years—airplanes they saw as kids," Joe explained. "Some builders are rusty, so they build smaller aircraft until they get their chops back up."

"It appears that Free Flight (FF) is gaining interest again, which surprises me," Pat commented. "I cut my teeth on it 50 years ago and I just started getting into it again."

Brian, who operates his company with his sister, had her analyze 2020 sales to see what type of kit had the highest sales. BMJR sells Control Line (CL), FF, and RC laser-cut kits. "[It] looks like 70% of the kits we mailed in 2020 were Free Flight," he stated, adding that the most popular kit was the Dakota, designed by Joe Wagner.

One of the more popular kits that Mark offers is the Robinhood 25. That aircraft, in addition to the new ones he introduced in 2020, had steady sales in 2020. "I’m not sure if it’s the [price] or the nostalgia part," he said of the Robinhood 25. "It’s been a good, solid-selling, sport-scale plane."

ama member ken fidler is pictured with his delta sport

05. Matt Morley built this Piper J-3 Cub 60 floatplane in 2020 from a Great Planes kit that he had kept in his basement workshop for 5 years. He crashed it two months later but was able to rebuild it. The aircraft is powered by a Saito FG-14 engine. Morley photo.

matt began building this balsa usa 1 4 scale nieuport 28

06. Four years ago, Matt began building this Balsa USA 1/4-scale Nieuport 28. He finished it in 2020. Morley photo.

When Ken and Matt were asked what they liked to build, their answers differed. "I generally like high-performance designs," Ken stated. "I like speed, precision aerobatic, or freestyle aerobatic designs. But then I also like the simplicity of a glider, for which I fly a Discus Launch Glider and 2-meter bungee-launch glider." He built two kits in late 2020/early 2021: a Delta Sport 250 and a Der Flugel 250 flying wing. He also purchased CAD software and started designing aircraft again.

"I had 12 kits before the pandemic. I ended up building three full kits this last year," Matt said. One was a floatplane kit that had sat in his basement for five years. He also created a YouTube channel and an Instagram account to share building ideas.

The number of photos posted to AMA’s I Fly AMA Facebook page in 2020 indicated that the upswing in building was occurring across the country. In addition to Sal and Pat receiving more reader submissions, the number of photos sent to Model Aviation for "Focal Point" increased. Typically, the magazine receives five to eight submissions per month. Jennifer Alderman, Model Aviation’s associate editor, shared the following figures about "Focal Point" submissions:

  • March 30-April 29, 2020: 23 submissions
  • May 2020: 14 submissions
  • June 2020: 11 submissions
  • July 2020: 18 submissions

One might wonder who was building these aircraft. It appeared to be a mixture of first-time builders, new aeromodelers, and former builders who returned to the craft.

Joe said that since the pandemic hit the US, he has been receiving 15 to 20 calls per day on his customer support line. "I get calls every day from a lot of people who are starting [in the hobby], [some] getting back into the hobby, [and others] who are doing their first builds." He added that he answers several text messages and emails per day from builders who need help.

"Builders were looking for Ambroid glue, silkspan, and all of the old stuff that is no longer available," Brian stated, adding that he believed these builders were returning to their workbenches after a long absence. "They just kind of wanted to go back to their childhoods for a while. It was exciting to provide [products] to them. It was encouraging," he commented.

"It [was] just a matter of people having the time to sit down and slow down a bit. I think it boils down to people just having the time to do it," Joe commented. "[Before the pandemic], the day-to-day [activities] got in the way."

Model Aviation’s "RC Scale" columnist, Stan Alexander, enjoys driving his RV to events and camping at national parks across the country. In 2020, those gatherings were canceled, and national parks were shuttered because of the coronavirus. "I’ve built four airplanes in the last year and finished them," Stan shared. He usually finishes one or two airplanes per year.

"Building helped me refocus and escape these unusual times for a few hours—my ‘me’ time," Ken stated. "Our household is very busy with teleworking and e-learning, so when all is quiet, a few minutes working on a plane or a few minutes thinking about how to assemble a part, can recharge the mind. [Now] I only build and fly during the weeks when my kids are not home. When they are home, my wife and I focus our time on family activities."

"It’s been motivating to just be busy," Matt said about his time building models. "When you’re busy, you’re not thinking about other things. All my stresses and worries go away because I’m so focused on it. It’s kind of like an escape from reality. I’d like to see more people get into the hobby," Matt added.

"I feel bad for the people who don’t have a hobby because there’s not much else to do during a pandemic," Sal added.

Joe said that seeing the model building surge has been encouraging. "It’s great to see people embracing the uniqueness of building their own stuff. I think it’s great for the hobby."

sal calvagna repaired his 1 4 scale polikarpov i 16 this past winter

07. After a crash that caused heavy damage, Sal Calvagna repaired his 1/4-scale Polikarpov I-16 this past winter. Calvagna photo.

stan alexander completed this old school model works mambo kit in early 2021

08. Stan Alexander completed this Old School Model Works Mambo kit in early 2021. He modified it to make it look like a Shoestring racer from the 1950s and 1960s. Alexander photo.


Matt Morley

Balsa USA

(800) 225-7287

BMJR Models

(321) 537-1159

Stevens Aeromodel

(719) 387-4187

Old School Model Works

(513) 755-7494

Willie Nillies Hobbies & Crafts

(309) 648-0449

Pat’s Custom Models

(505) 296-4711

pandemic spurs model building resurgence

By Rachelle Haughn rachelleh@modelaircraft.orgs

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I also built a 1/4 scale Globe Swift during the pandemic. It was based on an article written by Don Belford back in 2020 in the Park Pilot. I wish I could have contributed to the above article. I have pictures of the entire build process.

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