The Beginning of the Fort Smith FlightMasters Model Airplane Club
… as remembered by Ron Roberts and Bill Calvert
(-- On the occasion of the 50 th Anniversary of the Flightmasters! --)
There seems to be a small amount of confusion among club members as to exactly when and how the Flightmasters got started in Fort Smith. Since both Bill Calvert and I were present at the original meeting held to organize several of the control-line flyers in the Fort Smith area into a club, I will try to recount as much as I can remember.
Unfortunately, many, if not most, of those present at that original meeting have passed from this life and those of us still here have memories that have faded some over the past 50 years. As far as I know, there are only two of the fifteen or so original members still alive, and certainly, in Fort Smith -- Bill Calvert and I.
Bill Calvert and I are good friends and used to fly together in the mid ‘50’s. Both of us remember some of those present, but neither of us remember all of them. Bill, however, may still have some of the photos that were taken at that meeting, which would help greatly. I certainly hope so!
Before getting into specifics, let me put on record that actually there must have been a second “organizational meeting” of the Fort Smith Flightmasters! The original (very first) meeting took place in the summer of 1957 at the Calvert home, (in the basement game room at 1400 North 50th St.). It was at that meeting that the Fort Smith Flightmasters was originally formed and the charter paperwork with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) was completed.
The second organizational meeting must have taken place after 1960 (I moved away in September of 1960) but before 1968, because when I moved back to Fort Smith in November of 1968, I was told that the Flightmasters had been “re-organized” into a Radio Control club. I would love to hear from someone who was present at that meeting!
Since some of you may enjoy the stories (which are factual to the best of our memories) and motivations that formed the background of the Flightmasters, I will try to present this material in chronological order, with only a few side-stories out of sequence. I moved to Fort Smith, from Missouri, after the school year in 1954 – late May or June.
I had an interest in model airplanes and even owned an OK Cub .049 motor that was well broken in by having been ran for hours screwed to one of the posts on the front porch as well as having been mounted in several different Scientific Models solid balsa control-line airplanes. None of those planes lasted very long. My mom and dad bought a just completed house located at 1301 North 50th street and a couple of days later I heard the familiar sound of a model airplane engine! I followed the sound up the hill to Bill Calvert’s garage and a lifelong friendship developed. With each of us helping the other, we both learned to fly control line airplanes well enough that they would last for several flights before a crash allowed us to try another of Scientific’s models.
We also dabbled in air cars that we tethered from a large nail driven into the basketball court at the Sunnymede School yard, as well as air boats and electric boats that we ran on the Rose Lawn Cemetery pond.
When Duke Fox moved his model airplane motor factory from California to Fort Smith he originally located in a small concrete block and stone building on North 32nd Street bout two blocks North of Grand Avenue. The “culls” (motors that Duke deemed were not fit to sell because of cosmetic or technical reasons) were put into 55 gallon drums and set outside the plant for recycling. Until he caught us, Bill & I would rummage through those drums and get all of the .29 or.35 size motors (it is my recollection that in 1954 Fox only produced the .19, .29, .35 and the .59) as well as some mismatched piston and cylinder assemblies. It was reasonably easy, by careful selection, to come up with two or three good motors. (I flew one of those “Stunt .35’s” in a George Aldrich designed Top-Flite Nobler for several years.)
Having acquired several good Fox .29’s and .35’s, both Bill and I purchased Ringmaster’s and began to fly much better. In the early 1950’s the only hobby shop in Fort Smith was located on North 11th Street between North A and North B Streets. It was called “Standard Cycle”. Actually, Standard Cycle was a bicycle shop that had a section dedicated to models that was managed by Frank McCullough. I knew Frank because he and I attended the same church and both Bill and I became well acquainted with him since we spent a lot of time, and very little money, at Standard Cycle.
By the way …. An amusing event occurred late in 1956 involving Bill and Frank:
Bill had built a Sterling Models Chris Craft Cabin Cruiser boat that was about 40 inches in length and was designed for “Radio Control”. Bill had powered it with two Pittman “Panther” electric motors and had his eye on a new Babcock Two Channel Radio Control system that Frank had in the showcase. It had a price of $450.00 and that was for only the radio without escapements, batteries, etc.
Radio Control was reasonably new and both Bill and I wanted one – really bad! We would frequently ask Frank to get that Babcock set out so we could look at it. We even tried to bargain with Frank to lower the price, but he would not. He, finally, became irritated with us and refused to let us continue to pester him about the Babcock unit. Bill determined to “get even” with Frank, so after having saved the money for the Babcock System (and already knowing what the price would be with tax added) went to the bank(s) and had the money converted into pennies.
This took a couple of trips over the course of a few days because the banks didn’t have that many pennies and had to get more. Naturally, the bank gave us the pennies in rolls so Bill and I spent half a day unrolling those pennies and dumping them into boxes which we carried (do you know how heavy 46,800 pennies are?) into Standard Cycle and asked to see Frank.
The flying field that many of us used in the mid 1950’s was a vacant field next to Fort Smith Junior College. For those of you who were not here back then, what is now the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith was then known as Fort Smith Junior College and was totally contained in a small 3-story building at the North-East corner of Grand Avenue and Waldron Road. There were no other buildings anywhere on the square of land bordered by Grand Avenue on the North, 50th Street on the West, Kinkead on the South and Waldron Road on the East. That was almost an 8 square block area! Perfect for control line, Free Flight and Radio Control.
The control line area was more or less informally determined to be the extreme Southwest corner (Kinkead and 50th ) which left plenty of room for Free-Flight and Radio Control. Those of us who regularly flew there were: Duke Fox, Chuck Peters, George Moyer, Mickey Fischer, Malcolm Windham, Bill Lutz, John Kleinegger, Bill Calvert and myself. Others would occasionally come by, but we were “regulars”. Malcolm took me under his wing and taught me a great deal about stunt flying.
Another “By-the-way”: Malcolm Windham worked for Fox Manufacturing and was a very good flier. Duke was still trying to promote the “Stunt .35” as the best motor to use (as opposed to Veco, McCoy and Johnson motors) and, therefore, would try to hire the very best stunt pilots available to work for him. They held a regular job in the plant, but were given motors free, all the fuel they could burn, and time to practice. In 1956 Malcolm went to the Nationals which, as I recall, was held at a Navy base somewhere in the Northeast, and entered the Precision Aerobatics (Stunt) competition. He and Mickey Fischer somehow suspended Malcolm’s airplane inside the roof of Mickey’s car and off they went. All of us here expected Malcolm to win the Open Championship that year because he really had the pattern down perfectly and flew it extremely well and consistently.
Unfortunately, during a practice session on the day before he was scheduled to fly, Malcolm crashed his airplane. He was devastated and ready to return to Fort Smith. However, with Mickey’s urging and the help of several other pilots, they worked through the night to repair the airplane. Because of the time limitations (remember – no CA glues back then – we used Ambroid and Testor’s) and the inavailability of the right colors of dope to seal the Silkspan, the finished airplane was really ugly causing him to lose all of the “appearance” points. (I saw the airplane when he got back home and it was really a mess!) He did finish the competition, however, and came home with the Third Place trophy. (Tragically, in the Autumn of 1956 Malcolm was severely burned in a gasoline fire and later died.) I don’t remember who finished second, but George Aldridge finished first and later that year came to work for Fox Manufacturing.
But back to the story: We learned that the Fort Smith Boy’s Club was considering the construction of a new Boy’s Club building right there on the control line corner of “our flying field” along with a few Tennis Courts, a couple of Baseball fields and such. We realized that our flying days were about over at that site. At about the same time, the owner of Standard Cycle determined to eliminate the hobby shop located in his building, because motorcycles were really coming on strong (some of you may remember the Quinn Winters Harley Davidson Motorcycle Shop located on Towson Ave. between South D and E Streets) and he needed the space taken by the hobby section. So, Frank McCullough decided to leave Standard Cycle and build a new hobby shop. It was to be nothing but a hobby shop, totally dedicated to model aircraft and model railroads.
Frank’s wife, Marie, had inherited a Dairy Farm that bordered Highway 71. Remember, back then the Fort Smith city limit was at what is now Zero Street on the South, and what is now Highway 271 was gravel and tar road known as Texas Road. Cavanaugh Road was only a short section line and was dirt. There was a nightclub outside the city limits, on the Highway 71 curve where Breeden Dodge now is, because it served beer and mixed drinks which was not allowed inside the city limits. The land where the hobby shop was to be built was directly across the street from the 71 Drive-In Theater, which was located on what is now Zero Street right where Sutherland’s Lumber is now located.
Well – we needed a new flying site! Duke and Frank (and maybe some others, too) had several discussions with City officials about using the vacant area next to the road leading to the Fort Smith Airport, and we were told if we “incorporated” into a club and purchased an insurance policy they would give their permission. Duke had information from the AMA and after showing it to the City officials we were told if we became chartered with the AMA they would allow us the use of the airport property. So, Marie McCullough (Frank’s wife) wrote a letter to the AMA asking for the necessary forms and applications and by word-of-mouth a meeting, news of a meeting to be held in the basement game room at Bill’s home, was planned for sometime in late June or early July of 1957. I’m sorry that neither Bill nor I can remember the exact date but maybe, if Bill can come up with some photographs, there will be a date on them. I contacted the AMA a few weeks ago and asked if they had that information, along with a list of members, in their archives, but was told that the AMA records only go back as far as 1974. (This was at the time this article was origninally written.)
The meeting was held toward the end of June or early July of 1957. Those people that both Bill and I can remember being at that meeting were: Duke Fox, Betty Fox, Frank McCullough, Marie McCullough, Chuck Peters, George Moyer, John Kleinegger, Bill Calvert and Ron Roberts. Both of us remember about 15 or so folks present, but can’t remember just who the others were. Possibly Mickey Fisher and Bill Lutz were there, but we can't be sure. It was during this meeting that the forms and applications were completed, some simple rules were recorded, officers were elected and the Fort Smith Flightmasters was formed. The city allowed us to improve the flying site next to the airport and we were off!
A control line circle was asphalted, a small concrete block building was erected and we held our first contest on January 1, 1958. We had printed some flyers and distributed them around town. George Aldridge was here by then and put on a tremendous control line flying show. Cars were lined up down two sides of the field and spectators sat in their cars and watched because of the cold temperatures.
Somewhere, I still have the trophy I won for placing third in Stunt competition at that contest. We continued to use that airport site until the summer of 1969 when the airport asked us to leave because we were flying Radio Controlled planes too close to the airport and the FAA thought it best if we didn’t.
For my job during the Summer of 1957 I was helping Frank McCullough build the concrete block building that was to house the new hobby shop. About the time the building was completed, and merchandise ordered, Marie McCullough divorced Frank, took her maiden name of Loudermilk and Frank went to California with his girlfriend. I went to work full time in Marie’s hobby shop and finally could afford my first Radio Control system and airplane.
The airplane was a Sterling Models “Esquire”. Before there was such a thing as Monokote, we covered our airplanes with either Japanese Tissue, Pure Silk or Silkspan, a tissue that had silk threads embedded into it. The covering was adhered with clear Dope (about the same stuff used on full scale aircraft) then painted with a pigmented Dope. The fumes from Ambroid glue and Dope was good stuff!
After spending several hours closed up in your garage doping a plane you were too dizzy to walk straight! The best brand to use was Aero-Gloss. Wanting to be different, and not wanting to wait for a new shipment of Aircraft Silk, I covered my Esquire wing with a ladies white silk scarf with giant Blue flowers printed on it. Scarves were about a square yard in size and could be purchased at Woolworth or Kress’s for $1.00 each. The fuselage was covered with a plain red scarf and the horizontal stabilizer with a plain blue one. Really, it looked pretty good!