Old School, New School

Old school ribs; New school ribs

The more things change…

Yesterday, I had enough of being stuck in and around the Garrison Lodge and took it upon myself to head into town to get rid of some fluorescent bulbs, old NiCad batteries, hit Menards for some sundries, and finally the storage unit for…something.

(Brief aside: I kind of forgot why I needed to go to the storage unit and ended up looking around at all the various crap still stuck there pending disposal or re-homing and wondering why I had felt the need to be there. I ended up grabbing my Sig Rascal kit (because I plan on going to the Sig fly-in in September and the Rascal seems appropriate) and throwing it in the car. Then I drove away kind of happy but befuddled. However, once clear of south Lafayette and trundling my way Northward for gas, I remembered that I had wanted to grab the universal repair grills for my charcoal grill that had been squirreled away in the unit since our 2018 move. Nuts! I’d blame getting older, but I’ve always kind of been like this.)

Which brings us back to the story

The reason I was headed North involved the aforementioned fluorescent bulbs for disposal. The Batteries Plus store where I have been taking my tubes for disposal as they die and are replaced with LEDs is no longer accepting unboxed bulbs.

The proprietor noted that a facility on North 9th street was accepting unboxed fluorescent bulbs for disposal. So, after hitting Sam’s Club for go-juice, I trundled northward to see if the site was where I remembered it being.

By lucky mistake, I ended up turning onto Schuyler Avenue (pronounced Sky-ler for the non-Lafayette folks out there), which may be attributable to age or to the guiding finger of the almighty, because I certainly did not want to go that way originally. However, since turning around would be a pain, I chose to follow possible divine guidance and catch 9th south of the railway viaduct and then go north.

What this did was set me up perfectly to visit the Lafayette Cloud Jockeys field. This realization led me to long for the sound of models alive in the air.

After wandering back along the cinder extension road to the field and passing by a couple of club members taking their evening leave, I found to my delight that several pilots were still there, thrashing the evening air with their electric planes.

I parked the car and paused for a while under the field shelter, listening to the sounds of props cutting through the light breeze and watching my fellow hobbyists enjoy their moment. However, the population of barn sparrows who had residence in the rafters of the shelter took exception with my presence so near their babies, so I relocated out to a picnic table between the shelter and the flight line.

After a bit, a couple of club members stopped by to chat and introduce themselves. Unfortunately, I did not write down names, but I am sure I will get to know them better as I get more involved with the club. We had a good mini-sandbagging session, discussing the current state of the hobby, technology, and the recently announced end of the Toledo Show.

Which leads me to the subject of this post

Several topics came up as we spoke that made me realize that I have been too far out of touch with the hobby in general and the community of modelers in particular.

First off, the initial gentleman who welcomed me responded to my observation that all the aircraft present were electric by noting that model airplane fuel is becoming more and more expensive – primarily due to the lack of availability of nitromethane which is no longer produced domestically and must now be imported.

That shocked me. I had no idea that one of the primary additives to methanol that enables higher performance non-gas engines had become a problem. Then I thought about how the availability of standard glow engines has truncated over the last decade. For example, the fact that Cox engines are no longer being manufactured is something I never could have imagined in 2000, yet here we are with a single outfit providing a few new motors made from new-0ld stock until that dries up. Smaller motors, the 1/2-A class especially, are all but extinct. The sources for new larger motors is effectively a 2-horse show with O.S. and whatever Chinese manufactory that Horizon buys theirs from.

Electrics are the new normal, now. This is actually fine from my perspective, as I have always like not getting my models oily. That said, the cost/benefit curve for larger models does not exactly favor electrics, so having a glow option for larger models is not a bad thing.

A gentleman who had been piloting a flying wing around the field stopped by the picnic table and joined in. The model was a folded-foamboard job and we talked about performance, structure, motor, prop, and all the other joys and challenges he had faced in making the model a reliable flyer.

As we talked, he kept referring to the “flight test crew” since they were apparently the original designers of this particular wing. Eventually I asked who the flight test crew were, expecting that they were a group within the club.

It turns out that this is actually a group of folks with a Youtube channel and an on-line shop: flitetest.com

They do all sorts of absurb, clownish challenges as well as more serious builds and monetize the Youtube model with their work. After visiting their site and seeing their logo, I realized that my Night Radian was actually tied to Flite Test for marketing.

This put me in mind immediately of Pat Mattes back in Fort Wayne and his never ending pursuit of fast-building aeronautical weirdness on the cheap.

What was really interesting was how the members of the Cloud Jockeys had taken on some issues with the original Flite Test design and started leveraging current additive manufacturing techniques to get to where they wanted to go. The wing owner had already come up with a 3D printed structure that he intended to try to improve the stiffness of the wings.

After wrapping things up at the field, I wandered off to Olive Garden and tried to digest what I had heard and learned. It escaped me while I was there, so I headed home.

I had one other goal yesterday: I was, come hell or high water, going to cut my Miss Priss ribs on the laser.

An attempt on this had been made previously after a serious effort to align, clean, and check the laser machine. There had been success but, due to a combination of forgetting to set the focal length height and a CAD error, I ended up with ribs that were not cleanly cut and were too small to boot.

The CAD error corrected and my height adjustment error realized, I was primed for success.

Then I shorted out the laser tube wire to the chassis, “fixed” it, shorted out to the chassis again, then “REALLY FIXED” it (i.e. cut wire back to clean, solder joint, double-wrap in tape, then secure to the glass laser tube itself because if you can ground through GLASS then there’s bugger all that will stop you in my shop).

Finally – FINALLY – the program ran with a working laser. When I picture up the balsa carrier after the run, the ribs stayed right on the platen head where I wanted them.


I made minor adjustments to the speed of the engraving pass and the power of the cutting pass and re-ran it for another 4 ribs.


At this point, it is tempting to wander into the tech details of what I want to improve on the laser and how for kit use you want the parts to stay in the carrier by including tabs and such.

However, at this time, what is germane to the discussion is the fact that I went home and fired up (almost literally) a laser machine, which sits right next to a 10-year old CNC router, to cut parts for a 50 year old airplane design cadged from an online website dedicated to keeping those designs available, both as history and as potential projects. All this after discussing design details of another plane while looking at additive printed concept parts for that plane which were locally made. The plane itself was conceived by a group of RC nuts who have a Youtube channel that is now a major influence in the hobby, even as the old guard of influence, the Toledo Show, finally succumbed to the rocks along the shore of change.

Now, do not fret. This is not going to be some maudlin “everything is changing and I’m so sad” kind of post.

I do have worries, as do many of us in the hobby. Chief among these is how, thanks to the pestiferous commercial Drone lobby and clueless morons who think flying drones in front of any full size aircraft is funny and exciting, the FAA is now doing its best to kill RC modeling with the same soul and wallet choking Totalitarian bureaucratic efficiency that they have used to effectively drive private non-commercial aviation into near extinction.

That aside, this post isn’t about fearing change. It is about how change is both inevitable and good. Sure, some things we are used to are lost, but there is always New Cheese.

Okay, example one: Tower croaked and a bunch of Great Planes kits that are core to a certain population of modelers went away forever. Setting aside the fact that planes come and go like the latest New Dork fashion trends and that Tower was not exactly a paragon of keeping older kits available outside of certain major sellers, this is an indicator of change, not a tolling of the apocalyptic bell for RC modeling.

Building is not really dead. It has changed in priority.

RTF models are pre-eminent and not just a fall back when your hanger is empty due to flying season casualties.

Electric models are now the norm, not the exception. Lots of modelers do not really understand all of the intricacies of them, but that’s okay. A lot of modelers don’t even know how a servo really works, either. The thing is, the infrastructure has changed to the point that you don’t have to be an expert to fly electric anymore.

Manufacturing has changed. It used to be that some rather significant tooling was required to make kits. Airtronics used industrial sanding machinery to make their sailplane ribs. Die-crushing requires a not common piece of industrial press equipment as well as a die maker to create and maintain. Vacuum forming on a production scale is an entirely different exercise than on a home-made rig in your garage.

That has changed in certain key areas.

For example, laser cutting of work parts is now the norm. Die cutting can be used on some ply parts, but now there’s even CNC routers for making cuts in heavier materials. There’s also CNC foam cutting, if you fancy that sort of thing, and the entry for all of these technologies is not that far up the monetary scale.

If you are an industrial concern where cost is everything when it comes to emptying modeler wallets, there’s an entire city in China dedicated to ripping off designs and custom building volume model airplanes for the entire globe for pennies on the slave-labor dollar.

(Do not trust China. China is asshole.)

Things. Have. Changed.

Things have changed significantly since 2011 and even more so that 1998. I saw a post in RC Groups where someone talked about not building an EPP plane “using the old school strapping tape” approach.

Whoops. Guess I need to take a look at how the Push-E Cat is covered. I was already going to undo a lot of that kind of reinforcement anyway, but that statement seems to be a canary saying that using any such approach is seriously retrograde.

Change needs to happen. What you used to do may not even be feasible anymore due to changes in supply.

I think one of the more telling things is how expensive what kits are available now have become. Kits I remember being in the $30 or $40 range, like the Balsa USA Swizzle Stik are now over $100. That’s absolutely nuts! Fancier kits are even more.

How that came to be has to do with the dynamics of scarcity in a changing market. See, when a market changes, products aligned with the original market that are in pipelines to meet that market demand, tend to end up with supply surplus for a time. This has a real-life example that immediately comes to mind where Tower was DUMPING Sailaire kits for over a year at cut rate prices.

What then happens is that the manufacturer either ceases production entirely or cuts way, way back to align with the new demand. Thus, if the product has a durable shelf life, which balsa kits can have, you end up with a downward line of availability which drives an upward line of price. Since it is likely that, if a manufacturer seeks to keep a kit in production, they will shift to more flexible manufacture methods that require less expensive tooling, smaller shop footprint, and more production flexibility, the cost per component in the kit will rise.

Add to that the necessity to justify keeping a kit available by providing sufficient profit margin (lights have to be kept on, air conditioners running, staff paid, after all) and you get really expensive kits.

Two outcomes from this: 1) More people just buy Chinese RTFs because, frankly, they’re now way cheaper or 2) People start to say, “Hey, if I have plans, maybe I can build one of these myself” if they really want a particular model.

More likely, people start to say, “I really used to like model “X”, but it’s kind of dated now and I want to do YZ in addition to the old school stuff. I wonder what’s out there?” And then they sniff around the web and find free plans for something they like or a garage-operation plane kit that’s close enough, or whatever.

The key is that things have changed. They’re always changing. But, oddly, a lot of the old school still remains enmeshed and ingrained in the new.

That’s what the picture at the top of the post signifies. If you check it out, you can see my new ribs from last night lined up closest to the front. In the back, there are ribs made the old-school way: I cut out templates, glued them to the top piece of balsa with 3M-77, then made a stack of blanks using double-sided tape, after which I used a band saw and a sander to shape to the template line.

New school laser ribs with old school template ribs. Two paths to the same point using alternate, equally valid approaches.

That’s where modeling is now and, frankly, has always been. The new keeps happening but it does not completely invalidate the old. It builds upon it.

There’s always a way back to flying glow motor models. It just becomes more cumbersome because the nominal center of the source of supply has shifted to electric. You can still build and fly from a kit. It’s just more expensive. You can still build from plans. That’s actually easier now that you can download almost anything from classic times as well as new designs that are being freely offered. Even then, you can still go the traditional route of building printed plans and starting there.

And now there’s quads. And Hexapods. And FPV. And so much more that keeps adding and adding to the different directions you can take your interests.

So, even though there’s a lot of old-school that’s fallen out of favor, the new school hasn’t completely eclipsed the value that’s still there. I think that the true reality is that we are always blending New School and Old School, trying to leverage past experience with new ideas and opportunities.

That gives me hope for the future of the hobby. It really does.

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