history of model airplanes

Saqqara Model bird


Archytas' Pigeon steam powered

Wright Flyer

P-51 Wind Tunnel Model

The History of Model Airplanes

Assembling model airplanes takes patience and skill. Some model sets are easy to put together, but most are complex, and some modelers even prefer to assemble an airplane by hand with self-acquired parts. The ideas behind model airplanes are simple: Start with some parts and glue and create a miniature version of a modern-day form of transport, a military air vehicle, or a spaceship to rival any sci-fi fan's greatest dream. What might seem odd is the history of model airplanes. Putting together model airplanes actually dates back to ancient civilizations, when modeling kits and glue weren't invented yet.

Ancient History

The first model aircraft found to date was unearthed during an Egyptian excavation in 1898. While excavating the Saqqara burial grounds, archaeologists found a model aircraft that is dated back to around 200 BCE. It's hard to imagine people back then thinking about air travel, but this model airplane measures 6 inches long and has wings and what is considered today to be the fuselage. The Egyptians are already believed to be one of the most advanced ancient civilizations in history, and this model airplane confirms they were engineers beyond the pyramids.

Archytas was an ancient Greek philosopher, statesman, strategist, mathematician, and astronomer. It was the last two skills he possessed -- mathematician and astronomer -- that most likely "propelled" his desire for flight. Archytas built "the pigeon," as he dubbed it, which is recorded to have actually flown approximately 200 meters, or about 219 yards. Archytas' model airplane was appropriately shaped like a bird and fueled by steam.

-- Michigan State University: The Saqqara Bird Ancient Airplane Debate

Renaissance History

Leonardo da Vinci was more than a painter and sculptor. Da Vinci was also an established scientist, mathematician, engineer, and inventor. Da Vinci dreamed of air flight, too, and often scribbled those visions into notebooks. Da Vinci designed one of the earliest blueprints of a helicopter. Called the "Aerial Screw," engineers today marvel at how much this da Vinci incarnation looks like a modern-day helicopter.

-- Leonardo da Vinci Inventions:  Aerial Screw U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission: Early Helicopter Technology

The Wright Brothers

Flight finally came into fruition with Orville and Wilbur Wright. This first flight fueled the passion for model airplanes many have today. Once the Wright brothers took flight, many dreamed of doing the same thing -- only on a smaller scale. Children put together model airplanes in droves, flying them and imagining they were either Orville or Wilbur. The U.S. military used models of the Wright brothers' success to engineer aircraft for battle. Model airplanes were also used in war movies recreating the legend of the Red Baron.

-- Guilford School District: The Wright Brothers Marlington Local Schools:Wright Brothers

Model Airplanes and Military Engineering

As discussed above, military engineers discovered the benefits of using model airplanes when initially designing aircraft for battle. As the United States fought in both World Wars, the need for reconnaissance and air bombers increased. Engineers used models to design advancements to aircraft that included larger planes with multiple propellers and increased speed. The Stealth was born from a model . but you never saw it! Models of the new military airplanes hit toy and hobby stores and were snatched up by airplane enthusiasts looking to "build" the next great military aircraft.

-- The Smithsonian Institute: Military Use of the Airplane,  Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University: Kalusa Miniature Airplane Collection

Today's Model Airplanes

As air flight became a common form of travel in the United States, commercial airliners used model airplanes as a marketing tool. Many major airliners gave toy model airplanes of their jets to children who flew the carriers.

This was a classic play on a very well-known marketing strategy: Get the kids to want something and the parents will buy it. Kids wanted those model airplane toys, so parents flew those carriers. As America entered into the space program, models of NASA aircraft became the next popular craft piece. Who didn't want to add the Apollo rocket ships and space shuttles to their model airplane collection? Models of space stations have also been built and sci-fi enthusiasts have an unlimited selection of models of their favorite space ships from their favorite science fiction series. Whether actual or imagined, space aircraft takes airplane modeling to the next level.

No model airplane collection is complete without a remote-controlled aircraft. This new way of building model airplanes allows users to fly the craft more realistically than just tossing it into the air and hoping the wings catch some drag. Remote-controlled model airplanes come in all shapes and sizes and are even flown in competitions.

-- Dickinson College: Radio Controlled Model Airplanes Types of RC Planes   https://www.trade-a-plane.com/history-of-model-airplanes

Color film of pre-war
Junior National Air Races

click for film

Free Flight of all types including indoor as well as footage from notable competition sights around the country for example, one at the time located in Taft, California.

On camera interviews for descriptions of power modules,
folding props, timers related to controlling sophisticated free flight models....as well as free flight night flying, free flight scale both glow and rubber power....etc.

Produced by AMA Member Jay Gerber