Flight Circle

Written by Rachelle Haughn Disneyland was once a magical place for a few lucky Control Line pilots As seen in the February 2013 issue of Model Aviation.

The children jump to their feet when the first propeller starts spinning. As the second engine whirs, their pupils enlarge and they no longer hear the music or the squeals of joy that surround them. Then a third engine starts … wait, a third? Yes, that’s right. But how could he fly the third airplane when he only has two hands? The youngsters peer through the holes in the metal fence, curl their fingers around it, and strain to see what the pilot in the blue trousers and white shirt will do next. Then, he puts something in his mouth. Within minutes, the young man is flying Combat with three airplanes. These were magical days. Bart Klapinski remembers days such as these. What others can only view in black-and-white videos and photographs, he has ingrained in the back of his mind. He can still hear the roar of the crowd as his airplanes take flight, feel the breeze created by the lightning-fast tether cars, and smell the gasoline expelled from the model boat engines. He was a pilot at the Disneyland Flight Circle—an attraction that closed more than 45 years ago. Bart is now 70 years old and resides in Tuscon, Arizona. He began working at the Flight Circle in 1961 when he was approximately 18 years old, and stayed until it closed in 1966. “I flew there for quite a while and it was quite an experience,” he said. “I flew for Cox Manufacturing. We flew the Camachi, the Lil’ Stinker, the Curtiss Pusher, Super Cub models for Combat, [and] Cox P-40 Flying Tigers.”
Bart flew this Cox Lil’ Stinker, which he still owns, in the Flight Circle.

Disneyland Park, located in Anaheim, California, opened in July of 1955, and the Flight Circle, located in Tomorrowland, launched that fall. Tomorrowland also included attractions such as Rocket to the Moon, the Aluminum Hall of Fame, the Color Gallery, The World Beneath Us, the Phantom Boats, Astro-Jets, and Autopia. Walt Disney wanted the Flight Circle to be included in his new theme park because he loved hobbies. Although other attractions around the Flight Circle closed throughout the years, Walt was firm in his decision to keep this one going. The Flight Circle resembled a giant compass, and was surrounded by a chain-link fence. Inside the fence, there were tables on which to repair and tweak the models, a shallow pool of water for model boats, painted runways for tether cars and airplanes, a carrier deck, an air-speed timer, and a chair for the announcer. Disneyland Park visitors viewed the show from outside the fence. In the beginning, there were benches for them to sit on, but those were later replaced with chairs. A conceptual drawing of the Flight Circle—which includes the depth of the pool (12 inches), the painted runways for the airplanes and tether cars, and the height of the fence (7 feet, 11 inches)—was donated to the National Model Aviation Museum in 2002 by Anita Storey, wife of Keith Storey, who served as AMA president from 1953 to 1956. The date of the drawing is August 9, 1955, and shows that the Flight Circle would be built near the Court of Honor, an exhibition building, and Rocket to the Moon. Keith became associated with Walt Disney Studios in Burbank in the 1950s. In the beginning, the Flight Circle was staffed by model airplane clubs such as L.A. Model and Hobby Club and the First All Speed Team (FAST) club. The FAST club was founded by Keith. He became a Disneyland employee and performer in 1955. For two years, he flew eight shows a day, seven days a week, and was in charge of hiring the crew, setting the routines, announcing, and flying, according to his AMA biography. A video of Hobbyland, which showed the daily events in the Flight Circle, also was donated to the museum by Anita. In the black-and-white video, Keith, who passed away in 1999, is listed as a character named Gabby.
Bart Klapinski poses with model airplanes and tether cars that he had operated at the Disneyland Flight Circle on its last day of operations. Photo by Lee Heinly, courtesy of www.davelandweb.com.

A lack of scheduling demonstrations and organization by the clubs prompted Disneyland officials to approach Wen-Mac hobbies about operating the attraction. Wen-Mac staffed the Flight Circle, and its products were used in the shows. Unfortunately, Wen-Mac was unreliable. In approximately 1957, L.M. Cox Manufacturing Company took over operations at the Flight Circle—staffing it with the company’s employees and renaming it the Cox Thimble Drome Flight Circle. Thimble Drome was a line of tether cars and Control Line airplanes manufactured by Cox. Bart, who was hired by Cox, said there were shows every day on the half-hour, from the time the park opened until dusk. “We put on, one time, 10 shows a day.” And when the man who created Disneyland, Walt Disney, stopped to watch (as he often did), the shows were roughly 10 minutes longer. After the special shows, Bart had the opportunity to briefly talk with Walt and meet his guests. He said flying for Walt was one of the highlights of his time in the Flight Circle. The shows included flying CL Combat and aerobatics, and operating tether Corvettes and Buicks and model boats. Bart owns a Mercedes Benz tether car prototype similar to one that was operated at the Flight Circle. He also kept a prop-rod car that was operated at Disneyland, but he believes it was stolen while he was moving to Phoenix. “It was a pretty rare car. People loved it,” he said of when it was operated at the theme park. The car was partially powered by a propeller.
Bart owns this Mercedes Benz tether car prototype, which is similar to one he operated in the Flight Circle.

“There was something on a track about all the time,” Bart said of the Flight Circle, adding that his main responsibilities were flying the airplanes and serving as emcee. “At one time, we had eight cars zipping around the circle. That was quite exciting,” he added. The cars were attached to wire, which was connected to a peg. One of the most popular parts of the daily shows was the dogfighting with three CL airplanes. Bart owns three of the original P-40 Flying Tigers that were used at the Flight Circle. “Keith Palmer was the first guy to fly three [P-40s] at once. It took me a year to learn to fly three.” To do dogfighting with three airplanes, Bart held one in each hand, and had a special handle and mouthpiece that he used to control the third airplane with his mouth. He still has that handle.
Bart demonstrates how he flew Combat with three CL airplanes at once while working at the Flight Circle. He controlled one of the airplanes with special mouthpieces—one was made of steel and another was aluminum. Rickii Pyatt photo.

The pilots also gave the audience a chance to get involved in the shows and learn about model airplanes. Bart said that during each performance, a child from the audience had the opportunity to fly a PT-19. He added that the enthusiastic crowds made his job worthwhile. “[During] the shows on Saturday evening after dark, there was [always] a big, lively crowd.” “We had a pretty good team. Things happened pretty quickly. It was hard to go home [after a long day] and build airplanes and practice. It was rewarding when we had a really good show.” Not every show was perfect. Sometimes the pilots had trouble getting engines started. Bart remembers the day someone was flying a Camanche with at 25-foot line and the bellcrank was not working correctly. The airplane got away from the pilot, hit the fence, and wedged in the fence surrounding the circle. “It almost hit a gal in the nose. She had a bunch of packages. It looked like a bunch of popcorn flying,” Bart said with a laugh. After the shows ended, audience members could take a little piece of the Flight Circle home with them. A hobby shop near the Flight Circle sold Cox airplanes similar to those flown in the shows, along with slot cars.
These are some of Bart’s mementos from his days in the Flight Circle. He flew these three Cox P-40 Flying Tigers, with inverted engines, plastic wheels, and Flying Tiger emblems. Pyatt photo.

As the years passed, the crowds became smaller and the Flight Circle was open fewer hours. By late 1965, only Bart and one other person worked at the Flight Circle. The Cox crew learned that Tomorrowland would be redesigned. When the Flight Circle closed, Bart decided he wanted to continue working at “the happiest place on Earth.” “I knew the Flight Circle was going to close. So, I went and applied for a job [at the hobby shop], located south of the Flight Circle,” Bart said. “I was selling a lot of those [Cox] flight trainers,” he added.
Two Flight Circle pilots start a tether car. Photo courtesy of David Eppen via gorillasdontblog.blogspot.com.

Bart later worked as the manager of the one-of-a-kind shops at New Orleans Square, which sold hats, Christmas items, perfumes, etc. Today, Bart has few mementos to remind him of his days as a Flight Circle pilot. However, time has not erased his love for CL. He continues to compete in CL and is an AMA Leader Member and CD. He first competed in CL in 1959, and placed third in an Old-Time Stunt contest last year. He competed in the Nats when it was held at different locations across the country. He has been building an airplane every day after he finishes working as a school bus driver, and hopes to begin competing more. —Rachelle Haughn [email protected]


Daveland www.davelandweb.com Cox Models www.coxmodels.com AMA History Program www.modelaircraft.org/museum/history.aspx Bart Klapinski [email protected]

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As a small kid, I can remember watching the flying inside the circle at Disneyland being glued to the fence not wanting to leave. I tell friends that I fly with today, that there used to be model airplane flying at Disneyland and most of them don't believe me! Ah, the memories.....

Just typed you a comment but but think I lost it so I am typing this down again, life was good in the 50's and 60's for me I flew with and know a lot of really good guy in the hobby, WAM is what we belong to and MOM Coad She was great, Would like to talk to you and tell you what I up for OLD Time Stunt. Thanks in advance robert Vanzee 510-773-1424 PS. I hate to type !

Is the black-and-white video of Hobbyland, which showed the daily events in the Flight Circle (that was donated to the museum) available to be seen? I'd love to see it !!!

Hi Richard. Unfortunately, we are unable to make the video accessible to the public. Thanks for your interest!

I remember seeing the flight circle when I was 8 or 9 years old back in the early 60's. Very exciting for a young boy! I remember the 0.020 powered Cox Pitts most- it was so cute! The 3-airplane flight was also exciting.

my first stop at d.land in the 60s was always the flight circle--i flew there when they would ask for newcomers--even though i had flown controlline for years--the also flew a demo with a delta dynajet--quite a chore on 20 ft lines--now 70 flying r.c--never quit.

I was lucky enough to have seen it a couple of times in the 60s. I could never get passed the dizziness of control line.

I really enjoyed this article, thanks for sharing it with us.

Thanks for the article on the Disney Control Line Flight Circle. Our family made a trip from Wisconsin to California in 1965. I was 17 and my brother was 13 at the time. We made a daytrip to Disneyland during our trip. I had been flying control line airplanes, from Cox .049 to Fox .35, for some years before. But I had never seen or heard of anyone flying three airplanes at one time. It was quite a thrill (to me, at least) to see someone doing this. I distinctly remember the emcee saying that the "trick was to keep one eye on each airplane at all times!". Your article brings back great memories from my youth and the fun we had flying control line airplanes. Thanks, Ken

When we first moved to California from Gorogia we went to Disneyland. While we were in tomorrow land I was one of the youngsters picked to fly one of their planes! It got me hooked on control line planes from then till I was an adult. I will never forget that day. I still love going to Disneyland.

When we first moved to California from Gorogia we went to Disneyland. While we were in tomorrow land I was one of the youngsters picked to fly one of their planes! It got me hooked on control line planes from then till I was an adult. I will never forget that day. I still love going to Disneyland.

we owned a hobby shop in Tacoma, Wa. and were large Cox dealers. My parents loaded up the family and went to Long Beach for the AMA Natls I think in 1963. I flew jr stunt, 1/2a free flight, and the Cox sponsored balloon bust contest. I got 3rd in the balloon bust and the next day we went to Disneyland. The guy who was running the contest recognized me and I became the "boy picked from the crowd" I had probably logged 2000 laps on PT19's and ALMOST won a jr stunt trophy at the natls flying a Nobler. I was the youngest entry in the jr field only being 11 at the time....But I still remember my day of fame at the flight circle at Disneyland where I was told to pretend I didnt know how to fly a control line plane....

That's a great story, Robert! Thanks for sharing!

YouTube used to have a video about the COX exhibit Disneyland Flight Circle but when I looked at my bookmarks right now, YouTube removed the video. Darn! It was a great video showing how it all worked and it was in color.

I was given one of these as a Christmas present and still have it in the original box. Does anybody have any idea what it is worth today?

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