S.M.A.L.L. Fly-In

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Written by Fitz Walker
Smaller airplanes provide big fun
As seen in the February 2021 issue of Model Aviation.

For more than 30 years, modelers from across the country have met annually to celebrate a special aspect of model flying. Starting in 1988, modelers Randy Randolph, Steve Staples, and Joe Wagner decided to create a unique fly-in specifically for small models. They originally specified models with 0.25 cu. in. displacement or smaller engines (slightly larger engines are allowed for Control Line [CL] models). Although not an official class of models, these "rules" have evolved to allow electric models of similar power as well.

The event alternated between Dallas and various places in Arkansas for a few years before finally settling in the Little Rock, Arkansas, area where it is now hosted by the Arkansas Sky Tigers RC club. This is the venue that I attended in October 2020. Normally, the event is held in June, but the effects of COVID-19 caused it to be rescheduled for late October, which the organizers whimsically called the Fall S.M.A.L.L.

X-30 RC-assist rocket
02. David Schaefer’s X-30 RC-assist rocket blasts off in a flawless launch.

This did not keep many away. Attendance was a healthy 46 pilots, with roughly a half dozen camping at the field, and many, many small aircraft were there. Most people bring a carload of things to fly because the models are naturally easily transportable. It is not unusual to see someone bringing a dozen airplanes.

The flying field in Mayflower, Arkansas, is a huge piece of real estate with a nearly 400-foot, shorttrimmed, grass runway and wide-open approaches. The site easily accommodated simultaneous RC, CL, and Free Flight (FF) models without getting in each other’s way.

Officially a four-day event, S.M.A.L.L. draws attendees from across the US. Modelers came from California, Illinois, North Carolina, Texas, and more. Some drove multiple days to get to the event and stayed the full week. I drove nearly 8 hours from my home in Texas to attend, making it the fourth time I’ve done so.

S.M.A.L.L. is an acronym for Small Airplane Lovers League. It has become more than a simple fly-in—it is more like an extravaganza. The sheer variety of model types that show up can be overwhelming—FF, RC-assist rockets, CL, rare and bizarre models with equally rare and bizarre engines, and some might even say rare and bizarre pilots. It’s an event where ARFs are in the distinct minority and many of the models own are decades old. The buzzing of tiny Cox engines can be heard nearly constantly, and it is a nirvana for those who appreciate all things that fly.

doug and becky
03. Doug and Becky, from Willy Nillies, showcased numerous small-scale glow- and electric-powered model kits.
tony accurso
04. Tony Accurso, from California, watches as Steve Staples fine-tunes his PAW .06 dieselpowered Taube.
tony prepares
05. Tony prepares his 1980s-era Cox Skylane for flight.

On the subject of Cox engines, this event is also a mecca for 1/2A-powered models. More than 100 1/2A class models were in attendance. The official count was 106 glow-powered models with less than 0.15 cu. in. displacement engines. I saw more Cox engine-powered models at this event than I have seen in a lifetime of flying models. The once-famous company might be gone, but its spirit lives on at S.M.A.L.L.

Flying started at daybreak when the calm weather is usually conducive for FF and small models. If you ever wanted to see how those Cox FF helicopters worked, this was the time to do so.

The last two days of this year’s event included some less-than-ideal weather when a cold front moved in, but otherwise the weather was nearly perfect. No matter what the weather conditions were, there was no shortage of flying.

Another aspect of the meet was the sheer variety of models that showed up. If you attend, you can expect to see quite a few unusual designs and seldom- seen models—often ones that are not flown much. There was never a dull moment. Whether it was a Cox .010-powered Pylon racer tearing up the sky or a rubber-powered FF model gently circling above its builder, there was always some sort of activity in all corners of the field.

willy nillies
06. Willy Nillies solved a center-of-gravity issue with small electric motors by creating 3D-printed replicas of classic Cox engines.
tony flies
07. Tony flies a scratch-built B-36 pusher as a memorial to its builder, John Morgan.

There was no competition of any sort—just an enjoyment of each other’s creations. That is one of the great draws of this event. It is a relaxed weekend of flying low-cost, low-stress aircraft, where half of the fun is watching others fly—or attempt to fly—some truly remarkable aircraft. This is the one event where I wipe the dust off of my glow-powered models that are normally relegated to the corners of my workshop and free up their semifrozen engines to burn fuel all weekend.

I got my start in model aviation flying 1/2A models, and for a weekend, I get to relive my youth. Although the event is definitely electric friendly, glow-powered models have begun outnumbering the electric ones by a large margin.

The CL ring, long a staple of the event, remained fairly active, with a variety of models from Scale, to CL Aerobatics (Stunt), to even an oddball subject. Present this year was Vintage Performance Model Airplanes, a company that specializes in CL model kits. Stan Fronabarger, the company’s owner, told me that business was good and it supports a large line of CL model kits.

ff helicopters
08. FF helicopters, such as this Cox .020-powered Bell model, are common at S.M.A.L.L.
johnathan holt
09. Johnathan Holt’s Lazy Bee features flashing and sequencing interior lights.
tom blakeney proudly
10. Tom Blakeney proudly displays his Little Red Twin. It is a FF design by Keith Laumer that was converted to RC.

The company showed a neat prototype Stunt model that was a nice, stand-off scale rendition of an Albatross D.III World War I biplane. Test pilot Kim Stricker did a great job of putting the model through its paces and gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up after the fight.

One of the great aspects of this event is the camaraderie of the participants. There is always someone willing to lend a hand with a troublesome engine, supply parts for a field repair, or lend an arm for a hand launch. In fact, I was in quite demand for my hand-launching prowess. At one point, I had trouble getting my Norvel.061 engine running consistently and traced it down to a faulty glow head. Before I could even ask, several people offered to give me a replacement glow head. Talk about generosity.

A new vendor, Willy Nillies, had a large assortment of scaled-down versions of many well-known classic models—all adaptable for glow or electric power and weighing less than 250 grams. The company also offers what some might consider blasphemy—3D-printed electric motor mounts that look like Cox engines. I had no such opinion and I took one of these clever items home with me.

Another aspect of this event is the rare gems you come across. The first time I ever saw a diesel engine run was at S.M.A.L.L. I was even able to take a turn flying it!

Throughout the weekend, I saw some truly wonderful models, including FF designs converted to RC, numerous models that have been out of production for decades, one-off designs of storied origins, and rare models that would be the envy of collectors.

carroll lamb prepares
11. Carroll Lamb prepares to launch his father’s Wedell-Williams Model 44 micro RC aircraft.
kim stricker
12. Kim Stricker puts Vintage Performance Model Airplane’s new CL Stunt biplane through its paces.

At the end of the S.M.A.L.L. event, after numerous raffle items had found homes, longtime attendee Tom Blakeney presented the club with a custom-made memorial plaque containing names of the event founders and past attendees of note who have died. These people might be gone, but they are not forgotten. It was a fitting tribute to those who helped make this event one of the most unique in the nation.

cox powered models
01. More than 100 Cox-powered models are assembled for a photo.


Arkansas Sky Tigers RC Club


Vintage Performance Model Airplanes

(501) 470-5530


Willy Nillie’s Hobbies & Crafts

(309) 648-0449



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