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Rural Missouri Magazine

Low and Slow
Carthage-area 'GymDandy' model builders fly
rubber band and electric powered airplanes indoors

by Bob McEowen

Ken Spencer of Webb City takes his turn flying a radio-controlled airplane around the gymnasium while other members of the GymDandy Flyers watch. Participants generally fly just one airplane at a time since the larger, electric-powered planes could easily destroy slower, lighter rubber band-powered models.

You could walk faster than the plane flies as it rises higher and higher toward the ceiling. A rubber band-powered propeller moves just enough air to keep the tiny craft creeping forward in a delicate flight that only barely defies gravity.

In a moment the plane stops, its flight interrupted by a rafter high above the gym floor at Carthage High School. Everyone laughs while a telescoping fiberglass pole is produced to retrieve the tiny aircraft.

"Anytime you have rafters you're going to end up hanging up once in a while. It's just part of it," says Jerry Combs, a model airplane builder from Wyandotte, Okla., who joins a group of dedicated indoor flying enthusiasts from southwest Missouri for the twice-monthly meeting of the GymDandy Flyers.

The group, also known as the Small Model Airplane Lovers League of the Four States, gathers on first and third Mondays to fly not only rubber band-powered craft but also radio-controlled model airplanes propelled by tiny electric motors. These are evenings of friendship and conversation more so than friendly competition.

Jerry Combs of Wyandotte, Okla., releases a rubber band-powered airplane after retrieving it from the rafters of the Carthage High School gymnasium. Two Mondays each month Combs joins other model airplane enthusiasts from Missouri and Oklahoma for an informal indoor flying gathering at the gym.

"We've always had a good humor about this — hitting the walls, shattering — everybody laughs and has a good time. Or we applaud when somebody finally gets it going," says Bob Selman, an electrical engineer who first organized the gatherings. "It's a good, friendly group. People will sit here the whole night helping somebody get their airplane ready to fly."

A former Air Force pilot, 54-year-old Selman says he has flown model airplanes since he was 6. Until recently, his hobby involved gasoline-powered model airplanes flown outdoors. About four years ago Selman decided he wanted to try his hand at indoor flying — a relatively obscure segment of the model airplane hobby that dates to the 1930s with so-called "free flight" planes and was just then taking off with the latest miniaturized, lightweight electric motors and radio controllers.

Selman, a New-Mac Electric Cooperative member, lined up use of the Carthage gym and began looking for people to join him in his pursuit.

"I ended up forcing some people to come in," Selman says. "I twisted arms of a lot of people at work. I said, 'This is good for your kids. Let's all go out and play with model airplanes.'"

Judging by the group gathered at the gym during a flying session in November, the "kids" today are mostly of the grown variety. A half dozen men take turns launching model airplanes, most guided by radio controllers. The predominance of sophisticated electronics reflects how far the informal club has progressed in a few short years.

"We started out with just rubber bands and gliders. We went out and bought the 50 cent wind-up stuff. They were pretty funky airplanes. They didn't do much," Selman says. "But the next time we were out we already had some of these little electric powereds. We had two or three of those going and it just started building."

Propulsion can be as simple as the rubber band which powers this $4 toy plane. Other airplanes cost several hundred dollars and include electric motors and radio controls.

It wasn't long before Combs, a retire bicycle mechanic from California, discovered the group. Combs started flying model airplanes when he was 5 and has set national records for time aloft. While he occasionally flies the radio-controlled model airplanes favored by other club members, Combs prefers the ultra-lightweight rubber band-powered planes like the "mini-stick" he's flying on this night.

"This is my first love because it is such a challenge," Combs says. "It's a challenge to do as good as you can possibly do and hopefully beat your buddy."

The object of these planes is keeping them flying as long as possible. "The record is 64 minutes. The best I've done is 45 minutes," says Combs who still participates in national and international competitions.

Literally built from a balsa wood stick, Comb's tiny plane has gossamer wings which span just 7 inches and are covered with a clear Mylar film, 3 microns thick. The plane, which weighs barely more than a single sheet of paper, is powered by a special rubber band that costs $39 a pound and is available from just one source world wide. Combs winds the rubber band with a crank that includes a revolution counter resembling a handheld calculator. Only when the needle on a home-built torque meter indicates the correct tension does he place the band on the plane and release it to fly.

Bob Selman watches a plane respond to the commands of his radio controller.

While Combs goes to elaborate lengths to keep his diminutive flyers in the air, other GymDandy Flyers enjoy their hobby on a much simpler level. Many of the planes flown in the Carthage gym are no more sophisticated than the wind-up Delta Dart planes that sell for just a few dollars in toy stores and hobby shops.

"It's an affordable hobby," says Ken Spencer, a model airplane builder from Webb City. "For $5 you can be up and going."

Others, though, are not satisfied unless they can control the plane. Selman says he's watched with enthusiasm as indoor radio-controlled airplanes burst on the European hobby scene about five years ago and rapidly have become smaller and lighter. "I'm an engineer so I love the electronics involved in the little airplanes," says Selman, who designs and sells model airplane electronics as a sideline to his job at a Webb City industrial scale manufacturer.

"My goal is flying in my living room some day — just being able to sit down in my chair and fly around in front of me. It's a long ways from that yet," he says.

"I already have them that I fly in my living room," counters Combs. "We've even been known to glue a fly to the front instead of a propeller and have a fly-powered airplane. You probably shouldn't do it but it will work."

While Combs and Selman represent two extremes of the indoor flying hobby, they come together in the Carthage gym where the "heavies" get along just fine with the lightweight crowd. Both are attracted to the same advantages that indoor flying offers.

"We've never been rained out and we don't have to worry about wind," says Spencer, who also has a pilot's license. As yet another model gently nosedives into a wall he adds "and there's a lot of things you can do with a toy that are frowned on with a real airplane."

For more information about the GymDandy Flyers call Bob Selman at (417) 358-9521, e-mail bselman@joplin.com or look for their Website at www.janics.com/~bselman.

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