Dave Hirschman

Character-building birthday lessons

June 3, 2008 by Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor


Hard Lessons from Anti-Crash Technology

For better or worse, my 9-year-old son has inherited the aviation gene.

It’s recessive. (His big sister doesn’t have it.)

But Nathan Robert (a.k.a. “Natbob”) has pointed at passing airplanes since infancy. And for his birthday last week, the one thing he wanted more than anything else was a remote control airplane. Not the kind you fly on a string, mind you. He wanted a “real” RC airplane.

If he’d asked for flying lessons, I might have been able to help. But I know next to nothing about RCs, except that they’re hard to build and easy to break.

I took Nathan to a hobby store here in Frederick, Maryland, a few weeks ago and we did some research. I made no promises to buy him one, but a knowledgeable store employee recommended a Super Cub by Hobbyzone, and I thought that made sense.

Nathan counted down the last 10 days until his birthday by marking Xs on our kitchen calendar each morning. And when the big day arrived, he wasn’t disappointed.

The Super Cub was in the living room.

We put it together and, even though it’s not my custom, I actually read the manual. More than usual, I really wanted to avoid doing anything dumb that would ruin this prized possession. The package included a computer CD with a RC flight simulator, and Nathan practiced flying on our home PC.

More Perfectly

The weather and Nathan’s school schedule allowed for a brief flight on Saturday morning. We took his plane to an open, grassy area and fired up the electric motor. Nathan made the first takeoff and my heart soared as the plane circled high overhead.

By prior arrangement, I took over before landing. To our great relief, the plane was reusable afterward.

Nathan flew four times that morning, and he had the plane perform several (intentional) loops. They were egg shaped, but he kept the wings level all the way around.

“How come the engine cuts out whenever I do a loop?” he wanted to know.

“That’s the anti-crash technology,” I said. “Whenever the plane senses an unusual attitude, the motor stops and you can glide.” (Sort of a primitive version of Cirrus Designs’ new LVL button.)

Nathan made the rest of the landings himself. Then the wind picked up and the rain started and we went home. Things could hardly have gone more perfectly.

I Think We Can Fix It

That afternoon the sun came out again, the wind stopped, and Nathan wanted to fly again–and so did I. This time I brought my camera and planned to make the best of the golden evening twilight.

Nathan took off again and the plane began circling.

But instead of climbing over the grassy field, it was headed toward a metal storage building.

“Climb, buddy!” I urged him. “Full throttle and climb!”

Nathan pushed the power all the way up and held the joystick back. But every time the nose pitched up, the engine cut out and the nose dropped. He was losing altitude with each sine wave.

The Super Cub smacked against the corner of the building and fell to the ground.

Nathan was still hopeful as we neared the fallen airplane–but it wasn’t a pretty picture.

The fuselage had snapped in two just forward of the tail, and the prop and cowling were shattered. There was no hiding the extent of the damage.

Nathan tried to contain his emotions, but by the time we got to the car, the waterworks had begun.

“I think we can fix it,” I told him.

But he was distraught.

“It’ll never be the same again…”

Glue and Toothpicks

That night, after Nathan went to bed, I spent several hours with glue and toothpicks splinting the fuselage back together. The white Styrofoam had some unsightly yellow glue marks, but it seemed sturdy enough.

I taped the shattered cowling together and stuck on a replacement prop.

The next morning, I showed Natbob the bruised but patched airplane and suggested we give it another try–but he wasn’t going for it. By lunchtime, he was warming up to the idea.

After dinner, we went–and my wife Martha and daughter Kara came along to watch.

Natbob and I had a frank, preflight briefing, and we positioned ourselves far from any obstacles.

“OK, buddy, we’re going to do our best,” I said. “But we both understand that this may not work. If we crash, that’s part of flying. The important thing is that we keep trying and we keep learning.”

I faced into the wind and prepared to launch the plane by hand.

“When you’re ready, give me full power.”

The words hadn’t left my mouth when the Super Cub’s engine came alive and I let it go.

What Did We Learn?

The plane climbed about 15 feet, banked right and made a descending 180-degree turn. It hit the ground at full power, and the fuselage snapped again–this time just behind the motor mount.

Maybe it’s fixable, maybe not.

Martha put an arm around Nathan.

“I’m not disappointed,” she said. “We’ve got more glue and toothpicks. And if those don’t work, we’ll try some shish kebab sticks.”

Natbob was deflated, but there were no tears this time.

I should have taken a few “after” pictures of the forlorn Super Cub, but just I’m not that cruel. We picked up the pieces and drove to an ice cream parlor.

By the time Natbob finished his scoop of “dirty sneakers,” he was ready to assess the flights. What did we learn?

Flying the simulator on the computer helped,” he said, “But it’s not the same as the real thing.”

And what about the anti-crash technology?

“It doesn’t work,” he said. “Next time we fly, I’m going to leave it off.”


2 Responses to “Character-building birthday lessons”

  1. Steve Foster Says:

    Sounds like Nathan had a tough couple of days learning to fly. The learning process is never easy and hopefully repairs are successful.

    If needed can you save the motors, etc and just replace the airframe?

  2. Melanie Ford Says:

    Hi Dave,

    We misplaced Nathan’s phone number and were trying to get in touch with you guys. We are coming by your way soon and Andrew and my Nate would love to see Nathan. Hope all is well. Looks like Nathan is enjoying himself.

    Melanie Ford

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