It Is Stiil Great Fun Flying Wooden Aeroplanes

By: Susan Sportman


I am sure almost all of you played with balsa wood gliders at some time in your youth, just as I did. Whether it was a toy that your mum or dad bought you for “being good” … a party favour … or something you spent your allowance on in order to have some fun with friends on sunny, summer’s day.

We just opened the packages … slid the wings and tails into the slots … and we were ready to go flying. Few of us even bothered to read the assembly instructions. We all knew what aeroplanes looked like. Assembly was simple and easy … almost intuitive.

Some of the gliders, we merely tossed into the air. Some we shot skyward with rubber band catapults. Others had rubber-band “motors” that we wound furiously and released to fly off under their own power.

Many youngsters loved to fly toy aeroplanes, but … like me … lacked the building skills necessary to assemble those marvellously complicated balsa wood stick & tissue kits. So these “ready-to-fly” (RTF) balsa wood toys provided an easy way for us to enter the realm of flight.

We soon discovered that we could alter the way the gliders flew by moving the wings forward and back … or by adding weight to the nose … or by changing the shape of the wings and tail with a piece of sandpaper … or even by winding more and more knots into the rubber-band motors.

Unknowingly, we were actually learning about the basics of flight in almost the same way Wilber & Orville Wright did ... experimentation. (As the legend goes, it was the gift of a rubber-band powered helicopter toy that first piqued the Wright’s interest in flying.)

Many, many times, our best flights ended with the aeroplanes landing on a neighbour’s rooftop, or in a tree or disappearing totally from sight. But a quick trip to the store could easily replenish our “air force”. They seemed to be available everywhere, with lots of company choices. There were company names like America Junior Classics, North Pacific, Guillow, Comet, Testors, Champion and Top Flite. And many others I can’t remember.

Ready-to-Fly Balsa Wood Toys:

Fond memories indeed. And for me, the start of what turned out to be a 35 year career in aviation.

Although hand-made airoplane-like (or bird-like) flying toys appeared in the 1800’s, it’s unclear exactly when company-made RTF toy aeroplanes first became available. Some model aeroplane kits reportedly appeared as early as 1910. 1911 issues of “Aircraft” magazine (about “real” aeroplanes) had numerous ads from several manufacturers for model aeroplanes in kit and RTF form. Most of these were expensive to buy. In a time when $20-25 per week was a really good, working-class salary, the Ideal Model Aeroplane Co. (which became the Ideal Toy Co.) advertised aeroplane kits for $4-6. RTF versions sold for as much as $20. Most of the Ideal RTF aeroplanes were “factory built” examples of their kit aircraft.

From 1914-20, Ideal offered wood and fibre board RTF gliders for 45 cents. Though not inexpensive by any means, these can probably be considered some of the fore-runners of our “toy” aeroplanes

In the 1920’s and 30’s, balsa wood became more readily available and the number of simple RTF toy gliders increased. Certainly the Charles Lindbergh phenomenon also boosted sales of toy and model aeroplanes of all types. However, most were still only available from hobby shops, finer toy stores or through mail order. Many of the companies that would become household names in the toy and model aeroplane world … American Junior aircraft, the Paul K Guillow Co., the Cleveland Model & Supply Co., the Testor Corporation and Comet Model Aeroplane & Supply Co. … all had their beginnings in this period.

During World War 2, balsa wood was considered to be a “strategic material”, so toy aeroplane production was reduced dramatically. However, AJ aircraft founder Jim Walker cleverly developed a launching platform for his folding wing balsa gliders. This provided the Army with a quick and effective system for gunnery practice. As a result, AJ aircraft received significant supplies of balsa and over 120,000 Walker gliders met their doom for the war effort.

After the war, balsa once again became plentiful. As the post-war economy … and family “production” … boomed, dozens of companies now competed in the toy aeroplane market. The number and variety of toy aeroplanes was truly dazzling. New and important entrants into the RTF glider market included North Pacific Products, Pactra Chemical Co. and Top Flite.

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I have been making Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles for a long time and it's still the best thing when you see thier faces light up after giving them a wooden toy to play with.

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