Top Gun with a perfect score

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- Brett Becker's large inlet Charley-version U-2 on takeoff at Top Gun

Recreating an aircraft in reduced scale, a scale model, can be easy. It just takes a checkbook and a willingness to spend and you too can have a gorgeous model of a Mustang, or J-3 Cub complete with floats. What will arrive will usually be what's called an ARF (almost ready to fly), which you nearly throw together and have ready to go inside a week.


What happens when you want something that's not readily available? Some rare or special aircraft is tugging your heartstrings. Then what? This gives rise to another approach, which is to build from scratch. This involves a blank sheet of paper, where you draw a centerline, then calipers in hand and working off a drawing of the 1:1 aircraft you begin lofting formers and ribs at whatever scale floats your boat. CNC-routers and laser cutters are the latest toys but a #11 blade and a sanding block still gets the job done. This approach is sometimes called designer scale. E.g. you designed the model from scratch and any errors or omissions, even if merely judgement calls in terms of perhaps increasing tail surface area to benefit real world handling characteristics are your call because you're the designer of the model.

A still different approach is to buy a set of plans someone else designed. This is termed plans-built as disctinct form scratch-built. You're working off someone else's plans, e.g. plans-built. Usually, you also source the sheet and strip wood, plus plywood, to make it. Ahile a variation on this approach is to buy a short kit. That's where plans plus some of the hard stuff is done for you. Stuff like formers and ribs, maybe a canopy and sometimes even cowl are supplied. It's up to you to buy the strip-wood and sheeting.

Sometimes you're lucky and there's a kit. A full kit has all the elements of the short kit, plus the strip, sheet, and plywood as well as decals, wheels, and hardware like clevises, wheels, and engine mount. Depends. Better kits, better stuff included.

Variation on the theme are kits (short or long, e.g. complete) which have a FRP fuselage (fiberglass reinforced plastic - think Corvette if it's in polyester resin, or maybe the telltale green of an epoxy resin - often termed just 'fiberglass'). Moreover, the wing and empenage may be a foam cores or built up. Either way, with hardware, the remaining materials to obtain are adhesives, and finish, plus propulsion and control that you'd add even if you began with an ARF and you're going down the road in the right direction to building your dream model.

Still another alternative approach sees some adventurous souls carving plugs and make molds. With or without vacuum bagging, the end result is the same, a component, fuselage, wing panel, elevator or rudder to be finished, assembled into structural components waiting to be hinged, detailed, painted, weathered.

End result is always the same, a replica in reduced scale of a 1:1 aircraft. Whether it's built to 1/6th or 1/3-scale, or something else - reduced from full scale, you have a model, type remote control to go fly.


In a country divided along Red and Blue political lines, where Ford vs. Chevy and Auburn vs. Alabama are a thing, and where NASCAR rules swaths of the country, are you surprised there are competitions for scale models? Many clubs hold a scale event yearly, sometimes more. Some of these grow to become big deals regional. I've traveled to one in North Dakota called, The International, because it attracts Canadian modelers. Think maybe they've had a guy travel in from Germany. Regardless, regular event, well run, fun.

There are also community organization events. National level outfit goes by AMA (Acedemy of Model Aeronautics). Owns land, national level flying site. Holds events yearly, plus others. Nowaday often run by special interest groups, like helicopters, pylon racing, aerobatic competition, plus scale models.

While the United States hasn't put forth an organized tea for scale in maybe a decade, the organization does make an effort with aerobatics and the helicopter teams. Others, also. Just not scale.

Stepping in to fill thevoid are events that have grown for one reason or another. Privately owned or maybe run by clubs, they're big deals. Think Joe Nall, the TOC before Mr. Bennett passed out in Las Vegas, and in Florida, a local event called the Blue Max, and big time events like Florida Jets and Top Gun. The latter really being a big time scale event. Been going on more than 30 years. Really, really serious.

been reprequires in part some obsession. And not merely skill, but craftsmanship, plus a bit of art, and determination. It calls for a willingness to throw yourself heart and soul into a project. All in. Then you stir in a bit of benign neglecting of a tolerant spouse, and maybe even a little bit of youserf in the form of blood because X-Actos are well known to be merciless and thus, no matter what, a model is always going to have a some of your soul. This, before it ever takes wing.


The adventure

As modelers we cheerfully set out to do this all the time. It's routine. I've yet to meet a modeler who hasn't at some point or other, set out on a Quixotic adventure to recreate for himself some model he fancies . . . and usually for no other reason than to satisfy himself! Some begin with a clean sheet of paper. Others from an ARF. Perhaps there's even a kit involved. No matter because to a greater or lesser extent, and regardless of the variation from whence the first step is actually taken . . . this dream happens across workshops everywhere and every day of the year!

This act of committing modeling is actually a human condition for some. To commit it with something that actually flies means you're of that little known sub-species of human known as the remote control model airplane modeler. Committing it (modeling) requires you to step off into the void. Into a place where your imagination rules. No, not like Walter Mitty, because we're intent on actually doing something versus merely imagining (OK, it begins with imagining but it progresses to actual doing). And while this is totally incomprehensible to some, it's instantly recognizable by our peers.

Anyway, this caseSTUDY encompasses a story within a story and contains bits of the above and is thus, titled . . . Top Gun with a perfect score; a story representing an expression of faith and friendship, from beyond the grave, and executed to perfection.



The Mystery

That title's a mouthful, to say the least, no question, so we just refer to it as, photo to sky. And instead of hiding the led, I'll invoke the mystery part of the story from the get go. Why? Because it seems simple but there are a lot of moving parts. Let me try to paint the picture as artfully as I am able with the caveat any mistakes or omissions are purely mine.


Since a good place to start a story is the beginning, here goes . . . we have a guy name of Rene Saenz. Mystery creeps into the story right here because for reasons totally unknown, Rene set to work creating a Lockheed U-2 model. Here's Rene with a U-2 spanning 103' (so quarter scale is over 25' of wingspan), What size model, not the +25' of a 1/4 scale model, something more reasonable, 120 inches, 10 foot span.

And a pretty good size one, too, spanning 120" . . . and that's 10' wingspan which is a substantial model regardless of the scale. Was it this instance that set him on the trail?


In recent years, the popularity of models of 1/4 or 1/3 scale would be nuts because the full-scale aircraft spans 103' meaning even a quarter scale, a model would span a tad over 25', which as a practical matter would be less than, 'practical'.

At a ten foot wingspan, Rene envisioned something that would be hard pressed to fit within a small bedroom. About 1/10 scale, fitting it in a an 8x10 bedroom would be a challenge. So don't be fooled by the slender sailplane-like proportions, this is a fairly large model! Let' put a face to Rene . . .

Anyway, and unlike most folks, Rene didn't begin with an ARF. Or a kit. Or even a plan. Honestly, I suspect part of the appeal is the U2 is very rarely modeled. Anyway, we don't really know motivated him, or how it came about because he's no longer with us. So whether it was a 3-view drawing, an image off the the internet, a book, or even a resource at work, or through his club (Rene was part of the Johnson Space Center Radio Control Club of Houston, TX so the U2 association with NASA is well known), in point of fact, we don't know what started him on his quest. Fortunately, it also doesn't matter. What does is what he did next.

Sorry, what he did next isn't clear either. I didn't mean to lead you on. I mean, we suspect he began by laying out a water line, and lofting formers and ribs, e.g. by making a drawing. But we don't know. One thing is certain, he began carving on a hunk of wood. And he detailed the crap out of said hunks of wood as he whittled and sanded away everything that didn't look like a U-2.

And note; he didn't use a soft easily carveable wood but something hard. Hard to carve and shape. It's not an easy job making a solid wood model of a Lockheed U-2. It's harder still when instead of soft pine, you use a hardwood like maple. Why a solid wood model? Why build a model of wood that's far too heavy to ever fly? Simple, it's because it was a special kind of model. One designed not to fly but to be the heart of a mold.

Molded implies they all come out the same. They don't. Details may be obliterated coming out of the mold. These will have to be recreated. Add to it, there are near infinite variations in details as U-2 aircraft were hand-built, e.g. bespoke . . . meaning no two are exactly alike. So details would be added after the fact to account for this.

Molded is really a base from which to begin because it's not a finished structure, e.g. painted and detailed as a flying aircraft. Far from it. I mention this because Rene died before he finished. Yes, the basic molds were done - but - it wasn't anything you could fly because he had the means to make skins, but not the structure.

You see, without structure, how do you keep a shape, withstand aerodynamic loads, attach a servo or a motive source, or even a battery? You don't! In fact, without a structure, you merely have a decoration, not a model that can fly. I mention this on the off chance you hew to the belief the mold is the model. This becomes germane in a moment.


So there's a rub in all this after Rene up and dies (which I'm sure wasn't in his plan). As we all know, dead means the end . . . and not to put too fine a point on it, but it also means the end of his project, right? Not quite.

To recap; long before a mold had ever been pulled, before resin had ever been mixed, cloth draped, and long before segments of the positive had ever been assembled into the components of the negative, the guy doing the project dies. Sure, there's a mold but there's no internal structure. There's not so much as a sketch or drawing regarding what he had in mind!

When the guy ramrodding the project died, he'd done maybe 50% but that meant there was still 90% to go. Seriously, because unless you've ever taken on someone else's project, you have no clue of how much work remains. First, you have to get into the other guy's head, e.g. figure out where he was going and then you have to figure out how to finish. Believe me, it's no small job. Quite honestly, this is where the story should end. Except it doesn't. Why? It's because there are other people involved. People who stepped up. So this is the rest of Rene's story.



The Cast

To recap; Rene dies and leave an immensely complex project only partly done. Usually, that's it, it's where the story ends because the next step is to call for a skip (meaning it's headed to the county landfill). Thing is, Rene's wife, Amy wanted to see his vision through. A formidable woman, Amy enlisted the help of Stephen Bird of HOTMAC (Heart of Texas Miniature Aircraft Club) of Waco, TX (late in life they'd moved from Houston). If the name HOTMAC is familiar, it's because they recently hosted the Greater Southwest Jet Rally. Anyway, Stephen made it his mission to help Amy by finding someone with the requisite skills to finish the project. Someone who wouldn't drop the ball.

Here's the thing; as a scale model builder myself (with on the order of 50 years of experience), allow me to interject how picking up the pieces of someone else's project isn't easy. I mean even when you and the guy have time to cleanly hand off the baton, even then figuring out where the originator's head was isn't easy! But when the originator is far beyond a phone call? Honestly, it's the next thing to impossible (e.g. not merely hard as Hell).

Enter Brett Becker and his wife Wency, If the name's familiar it's because for the last few years Brett's been campaigning an XB-70 Valkyrie bomber around the country and especially at Frank Tiano's scale event in Lakeland, FL - Top Gun. Others, to include your author also have a small role to play. Anyway, here's what unfolds.

First, after all the crying, Amy calls Stephen who sets out to find someone qualified to pull models, design structure, and put this thing in the air. Ain't easy because if nothing else, a lot of wanabees will say 'Yes!' but then put the molds in the corner for another day (once the sheer scope of the works exceeds the initial rush of enthusiasm).

Recognizing this, Stephen Bird has set himself the rather difficult task of identifying someone who will actually come through. In the end, he agrees the best qualified is Brett Becker. Brett, for his part is agreeing to biting off a huge job. And one where jealousy will see accusations he isn't the real builder. More later. And Wency? I actually have a spot of pity for Wency (Brett's wife) because only later does she unwittingly learn that because of agreeing to this obligation, she won't see much of her man for months and months! And remember, this is during the first year of the COVID19 pandemic!

So the first thing is arranging for the transport the molds. Not easy but I'll gloss over the exercise. Next it's discovering there are no drawings, sketches, or plans. Nothing whatsoever because and because molds are meant to be flown this is a big piece of the puzzle that's missing. Please realize without structure, e.g. just the molds for the skin, you don't really have a model airplane. And no, I don't say this to belittle Rene, or build up Brett (quite the opposite in both instances), but you have to understand molds do not a model make. Period. So a complex undertaking has become more difficult!


The rest of the story

Here's what comes next, as told with photos shared with us by Brett . . .

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