AIN Blog: Aviation's balsa roots

 - May 23, 2011, 7:09 AM

I spent most of my childhood summers on my grandfather’s farm, in the misty hollows that nestle in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

In an age when every mistake in one’s life is attributable to a terrible childhood, I have no such excuse. I have only myself to blame. Whatever the road, it was of my choosing. And that is how this story begins, a near-lifetime ago.

It was in the spring of 1953 in Newport News, Virginia. My father came home one day with a balsa glider that required only three steps before flight–insert the wing and horizontal stabilizer in their respective fuselage slots, and the vertical stabilizer in a groove cut in the upper side of the tail.

I was hooked. I took my entire allowance to the local five-and-dime and bought more–one of them a slightly more complicated biplane, and another that came with a propeller and rubber band.

Then I came upon the ultimate. It was a marvel of aeronautical engineering. The wings were inserted into aluminum slots on either side of the fuselage and they would pivot and fold back alongside the fuselage. With the wings folded back, the “pilot” would firmly grip the tips with thumb and finger, insert a long natural-rubber band in a slot in the nose and catapult it into the sky.

Off it would go like a rocket, the passage of air keeping the wings swept back until it slowed at the peak of its climb and a spring mechanism deployed them in their proper configuration for flight.

It was called the Interceptor, made by AJ Aircraft in Oregon. I bought six and, in early June, brought them with me to my grandfather’s farm. The first flight was a resounding success.

From the top of a high hill in the cow pasture, I launched my glider a good 250 feet in the air, and another 500 feet above the valley floor. There, the wings deployed and it caught an air current. Instead of descending, it rose even higher. I don’t recall timing that flight. I do remember that the airplane sailed over the next ridge and disappeared forever.

That set the tone for the rest of the summer. I tried sanding the leading edges and feathering the trailing edges of the wings to encourage more lift. I pushed tacks into the fuselage nose and tail to trim my craft perfectly. I used steam from my grandmother’s teapot to warp the outer trailing edge of one wing so that the airplane would fly in wide circles and not disappear over the ridge, never to be seen again.

By the time the summer ended and my father appeared to take me home, my tiny fleet was gone. Some simply flew to a distant place and never returned. I remember one was stepped on by a cow–a risk one takes flying airplanes in a cow pasture. Another ended its flight in the Tuckasegee River, consumed in the rapids further downstream.

Not until several years later would one of my English teachers read for us Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. That summer long ago on the green hillsides of North Carolina, little realizing it at the time, I had picked a road. Or maybe it picked me.

“And that has made all the difference.”