Herb Calvin: Flying high with model airplanes

Written by David Green.

By JEFF PICKELL 

Retired Fayette appliance store owner Herb Calvin has survived more plane crashes than any of us probably care to imagine. Of course, an aviator’s risk of getting injured in a crash drops dramatically when he’s not actually in, or even near, the plane he’s piloting.

herbcalvin That’s one advantage of flying model airplanes. You also don’t need to rent hangers to store them.

Herb has a love for model airplanes that stems from a lifelong fascination with aviation.

“It’s in my blood,” he says.

His father earned his wings flying during World War II, and he and Herb made frequent skyward sojourns.

“The first time my dad took me up I knew. I loved it,” says Herb. “I knew I wanted to be a pilot.”

He built and flew his first model plane at 13, when he was too young to get behind the controls of a passenger plane. At 16 he started flying lessons, but after just four months  heart damage from a bout with rheumatic fever brought his piloting days to an end.

“With my condition they didn’t want me up there piloting.” says Herb. “I always knew how to fly, though. My dad taught me.”

To this day, Herb uses his childhood experience in the cockpit when constructing and piloting his models.

Model aircraft are built under the same principles as regular aircraft, but to a much smaller scale. Super light woods like balsa and bass are used to construct a frame, then sheets of paper-thin heat-curing plastic are ironed on to seal the fuselage airtight.

 Today, companies offer expensive custom-built ready-to-fly models, but Herb prefers to buy a kit and build from scratch. For him, it’s an enlightening way to spend the winter.

“People buy the ready-to-flies for eight hundred or a thousand dollars, and when they crash them, they pick up the pieces and don’t know what they’re looking at. They have no idea how to fix them,” says Herb.

He saves the instructions and layouts for each of his models, so that, when it’s necessary, he can make repairs. His favorite model, a trainer plane he calls Old Blue, has been in more crashes than Herb can remember, but it’s always returned to the skies.

“After all it’s been through, it really has no business flying,” says Herb. “Poor Gonzalez would probably be dead of a heart attack by now if he were alive.”

Gonzalez is the name Herb gave to the pilot figurine in Old Blue’s cockpit.

Crashes are usually the result of “pilot error,” a term Herb says people more commonly refer to as “stupidity.” He’s filled up barrels and barrels with crashed planes.

One of the more ridiculous mishaps occurred during a session with Morenci resident Marlin “Hutch” Hutchison  at the old Morenci airfield.

“I was having trouble with a plane, and Hutch thought clunk in the fuel tank had strayed, so he took the plane and was shaking it to get it loose.”

The only thing Marlin successfully in shook loose was the battery, which fell from the plane mid-flight the next time Herb took it up.

“I set the remote down and watched it fall.”

But Herb never lets a crash deter him.

“I love planes. I just love them. Ask anyone. If we go out to go flying and it’s raining or windy, boy do I get upset.”

He still flies two or three times a week, and doesn’t look to let up any time soon.

“People don’t understand what a blessing these planes are,” says Herb. “With my heart condition I can’t go out and do what others can. I can’t golf or play tennis.”

“I fixed TV’s all my life. I can’t stand to look at them. I have absolutely no use for computers. I come down here in the workshop, turn on the Adrian hillbilly station, and I can feel my nerves uncoil.”

  - Aug. 10, 2005

Three types of controls 

When people first started flying model planes by radio, controllers were much too expensive for Herb. Using his experience with electronics, he was able to buy the separate parts and assemble a controller on his own. Radio control is only one of three ways to fly a model airplane.

• Free flight planes follow preprogrammed flight paths. In the period between their take off and landing, they require no interaction with the pilot. Free flight plane models were around long before the Wright brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk.

• Control line planes are attached to the pilot by a series of wires. The pilot stands in the middle of the plane’s flight radius and maneuvers it by flexing the appropriate wires.

Round-the-pole flying, a variant of control line flight,  employs a mediator between the pilot and the plane. The plane is attached to a pole that pivots as the plane circles. Some of the most complex round-the-pole designs actually have control panels mounted on them.

• Radio controlled flight takes full advantage of a model plane’s aerodynamic capabilities. Radio signals broadcasted by the pilot’s controller correspond with various systems on the plane, such as the throttle and the rudder. The more channels a pilot broadcasts on, the more flight variables he or she can control.

Radio signals are typically sent out at 27, 72 or 75 megahertz. Pilots have to be careful, though–tuning in to an occupied frequency usually causes the plane to crash.

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