Radio Controlled (r/c) Aerial Photography: 1976

A day in the life of ‘Biggles’ Castro, Aeronaught

super 60
Super 60

This is sometime in 1976, Hastings, England

I’m into Amateur radio, kites and flying- So I buy plans for an early digital proportional radio control system for flying models-
Then I see how Expensive its going to be.
So, off to “The Trading Post”, where all such good things are found military surplus, cheaper. Lots of un soldering and rehashing later, the Unit to the left of the picture is built, with a Perspex front in an aluminium box, an old car antenna  two joysticks and a couple switch channels.
It runs six pulse width modulated square wave signals on a 27mhz oscillator, and uses about 1w of power. The receiver and servos, I reluctantly buy secondhand from Roy in town, as they are too intricate to build for myself.  I have an old US “Admiralty” oscilloscope that cost ten pounds (About $15.00) to test this lot out. It weighs about 200 pound. I buy the aeroplane plans for the “Super 60” above, with a sixty-inch wingspan (5 foot) and spend the next ten days building and trimming it from 1/4 in balsa wood struts and thin ply, covering it with heatshrinking orange polyurethane coating. A hairdryer and iron are put into service for this. This picture is outside my home at the time in Hastings, England.
The plane   has a 4.5 cu in methanol Enya glow plug engine and sounds deafeningly like chainsaws through megaphones while  running, and smells like a brewery, especially when test-run in a bedroom.
I have to bolt it to down to my desk.
The whole lot threatens to take off. I sit on the desk.

Obsession

This is gonna be Good! Test flights go well. I have no car and walk some 5 miles most  weekends for several months to a  cow field flying-site at Harley Chute Road near the railway line. I get scarred from the backlash from the propeller, which must be flick-started and is spring-loaded. I crash-land in cowpats— Split the wings in flight twice and rebuild her over a dozen times. Most times, the cows try to eat the fuel as it contains castor-oil lubricant, which they seem to enjoy.
Each repair session,  she gets heavier with epoxy glue, bicycle spoke reinforcement and slathers of glass fiber resin . I use a spare servo channel for bomb doors, to drop toilet paper and parachute  plastic soldiers onto the few passers-by. The heavier she gets, the faster she flies, and she now needs to be hand-hurled as she is too unwieldy to take off under her own power, like an albatross. Then, one mid-winter- An Inspiration! I get an old plastic Kodak Brownie camera, rig the bomb-door servo to its shutter and strap it outside the plane. The reverse-stroke of the servo is used to wind on the Next Frame. Now also being into photography, I can’t wait to develop and print the ancient rolls of 12-frame 120 “Panchromatic” film on board.
This day (January 16 1977) was particularly chilly, and the fuel would not vaporize. I had to pour a little on the cylinder head and set it afire to preheat it. She’s Off! Lumbering like a pregnant smouldering she-buffalo, into the gray skies of southeast England, lurching drunkenly leftward where the weight of the camera is….

air picDisaster


I am trying really hard to position Albatross for a clear shot of the railway line and fields on either side where I fly, over 300 feet up. She repeatedly lurches leftward. Perhaps I should have kept an ‘eject’ control for the camera? Now she starts to become really panicky in the air, even before the first picture is taken, as the fuel thins out with running-time and she accelerates. The added weight and lopsided load of the camera strapped to the square fuselage is Too Much! She gathers momentum, earthward, in a steady but accelerating spiral. All attempts at control just force her into a tighter spiral.  I push the camera control channel three or four times. The stuka-like howl of the little Methanol engine being overdriven by air rushing over the prop is fascinating… Time for Just One Photo (above) blurred by vibration and speed…..
crash

*%^# BANG! *@*@ $$! The cows look round, interested,  as the Super60 hurtles into the soggy ground amidst a cascade of splintered balsa and steam that abruptly slices off the high pitched screech of her engine.

One faint Click. The shutter goes off one more time, but the picture is hopelessly blurred with mud and cow-does as I find later.

Postmortem.

Only one thing left to do! I position the camera on a tree stump with the servo and receiver attached. These have, amazingly survived the impact. I send the Final Fateful Signal from the transmitter under my left arm. This is the Picture. Most of the Super 60 is matchwood inside the tough polyurethane film used to cover her, which is torn in a few places. A crater about a foot deep is excavated to recover the engine, still steaming (it lived to power another 3 planes) and batteries. Parts of her live on in a couple of later gliders and certainly in the memories of a few herbivores that day.

So this is how to run an airline?

(c) 1998- Paul Castro