Up, up and away: Through pandemic, model airplane builders/pilots doubled down

By , Daily Memphian Updated: January 03, 2021 5:59 PM CT | Published: October 02, 2020 10:56 AM CT

They are grown men. More than grown men, really, because many of them can share pictures of their grandchildren.

But they have the heartbeats of wide-eyed boys, the boys they were when they built and flew their first model airplanes in the 1950s and 1960s.

They speak of these planes, especially their dear “Ringmaster,” which is being honored with a 13th annual Worldwide Fly-A-Thon this weekend, with undying affection. And on Saturday, more than a dozen of these builders/pilots will gather at Audubon Park.

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Lester Goldsmith, 68, whose father first took him to Audubon Park in the 1950s to see these magnificent, if miniature, flying machines, can’t help missing those long-ago days.

“No such thing as computers,” he said, “and we hadn’t landed on the moon. A model airplane with a running engine was a fascination.”

Said 75-year-old Allen Worley: “When I got into it in the 50s, I was 12 years old and my dad bought me a little airplane at the hardware store. From then on, I never lost the desire to build and fly them.”

And so, boys will still be boys. Lester Goldsmith and Allen Worley kept at it. They weren’t alone.

Jim Lynch, 77, and retired for 12 years now, would finish his career in sales as an executive vice president. But he has been a member of AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) since 1954 when he just a kid.

Al Robinson, 68, is a retired FedEx pilot. Grew up in an aviation family – both parents were pilots – and served as an aircraft mechanic in the Marines before flying for FedEx.

“I loved flying,” Robinson said. “That was my happy place.”

But he always loved building and flying the models, too.

And the Ringmaster has taken all of them back to that simpler time.

“It’s an old design we all flew when we were kids,” Robinson said.

So, they started pointing toward the 2020 Ringmaster Fly-A-Thon. And then the COVID-19 pandemic shut society down.

Their hobby, however, proved to be pandemic-proof.

“The pandemic hit,” Robinson said, “and everybody went on a building frenzy.”

Where it all began

That Audubon Park will be the local site for the Ringmaster Fly-A-Thon is not happenstance.

In the 1950s and 1960s, that was Memphis’ model airplane Mecca. At age 14 in 1966, Goldsmith met Worley, who was then about 20 and, in young Lester’s eyes, everything he wanted to be.

“He could really do it,” Goldsmith said. “His models were more exotic than mine. And he could really fly them.”

Worley agreed to take Goldsmith to a contest.

“Didn’t have seatbelts in those days and so he was sitting in the backseat in the middle,” Worley recalled. “For 100 miles both ways, he did nothing but ask questions about airplanes. I’ve never seen anybody talk so much.”

They didn’t know it then, but Audubon Park was in its last years as their airfield. By the 1970s, Goldsmith says, the park was overrun with “hippies.”

The Ringmaster, he remembers, was “easy to build, easy to fly. Low-priced, always fun.”

And fun is the goal Saturday when they the return to Audubon Park. Last year, according to ringmasterflyathon.com, the annual event featured 6,121 flights by 581 pilots in 14 nations.

“Each year it’s grown. The first year, it was like a couple hundred flights,” Goldsmith said, adding that this is the first time any of them have participated. “Of course, it’s all on the honor system. Nobody knows what anybody else is doing.

“The Ringmaster Fly-A-Thon’s not a competition. It’s just a worldwide celebration of the model and the time.”

In their own time

What better time for a unified celebration than 2020 amid a pandemic?

Saturday’s event at Audubon Park likely will get going in the late morning and likely wind down by mid-to-late-afternoon. It’s rather informal, which is a bit ironic given the meticulous nature of the hobby.

The Ringmaster model has a wingspan of 42 inches, Goldsmith says, is fueled by methanol in a .35 cubic engine, and the plane weighs all of 35 ounces. A pilot cranks the engine to get the plane airborne and that’s when the real fun starts for spectators.

These are not radio-controlled planes, but “line-controlled,” he says, adding, “The plane is very acrobatic, but tied to two lines like a two-line kite.”

Sometimes, pilots will engage in their version of combat: Each pilot attaches a 10-foot crepe paper streamer on the tail of his plane and tries to fly in such a way as to cut the other pilot’s streamer.

“The crowd loves it,” Goldsmith said, “because sooner or later – if you do it enough times – you’re going to hit the other plane.”

Lynch has won two national championships for “control line stunt” as a pilot and also earned multiple national awards for his construction and design of model airplanes.

He can detail the specific pattern he flew in winning those national stunt championships. Suffice to say, it’s a lot of different loops and figure 8 maneuvers, the plane turning this way and that – upside down a lot – the flight finishing with the air-drawing of a four-leaf clover.

“It’s really quite beautiful as a spectator,” Lynch said, “watching maneuvers being painted in the sky. It takes years of practice to do it.”

But just getting the plane in the sky is half the fun. Goldsmith says someone who is “reasonably skilled” can put the Ringmaster model together in about 40 hours.

While the pandemic kept them grounded for several weeks, it couldn’t stop them from constructing planes.

“Order it, put it together piece by piece, paint it, and you can do all that without going out anywhere,” Worley said.

“I have two shops in the backyard,” said Lynch. “My daily routine is building and designing model airplanes. My routine really hasn’t changed.”

For Robinson, the retired FedEx pilot, it was a good time to go deeper into the hobby. He says he has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and so any recreational flying was out.

“I do a lot of scratch building, not from kits,” he said. “There’s no pressure when you’re retired, you don’t have to get it done. You can do it tomorrow.”

Patience and the payoff

They know how much the times have changed. But they also know what aviation – their version of it – has meant to them over these now many decades.

Robinson’s father introduced him to model planes and that was that: He was hooked. Even when his dad died in an airplane accident in South America, it didn’t stop him from making aviation a career.

“It is unfortunate more young people aren’t involved,” he said. “But it’s easier for Mom and Dad to buy Johnny an Xbox.

“It’s a different set of skills, obviously,” Robinson said of piloting a control line model airplane, “but in some ways it’s more difficult than flying full-size.”

Just as a football coach might speak of the sport teaching life lessons, Lynch says the same for “aero modeling,” ticking off all that can be learned: “Endurance, patience, commitment, focus.”

Said Lynch: “It is so self-satisfying to draw something, design the airplane for what you want it to do, build it, and then go out and watch it perform.”

His 8-year-old grandson Taylor Pugh will be there Saturday flying and he’s pretty good: “He’s going to be a terrific aviator and he wants to be a FedEx pilot.”

Worley will have three generations flying: a son, a 19-year-old granddaughter, and possibly one or two younger grandsons.

There is joy in that, of course, but there is still joy at age 75 when he builds another plane, makes it air-worthy, and then turns it loose in the sky.

It’s accomplishment meshing with freedom – no computer technology necessary, no one else’s help required.

“You can fly on your own,” Worley said, “and you’re not thinking about anything but you and that airplane.” 


model airplane Ringmaster Worldwide Fly-A-Thon
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


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