Model airplanes in the time of dragons

A pox on plastic; a pox on electronics and radio-controlled gadgetry.

I have gone back to balsa wood. If you’re not yet 35 you’ll probably have to look it up. It’s one of the lightest hardwoods in the world and it was once the material from which that ruddy, beaming, optimistic and enthusiastic small boys made model airplanes.

Not any more. Now they are made of polystyrene, or plastic, and they come with wires and batteries and – no doubt – nuclear-powered engines that any kid can knock up in five minutes in his bedroom.

Well, I’m not having it. My grandson is five. And he likes airplanes. A grandson and a grandfather can do a lot of bonding over a model airplane (or aeroplane, as they used to be known).

You may need to sit down for this next bit, but I was once a ruddy, beaming, optimistic and enthusiastic small boy. I made aeroplanes out of balsa wood. They were powered by rubber bands and propellers (if you’re under 35 you’ll have to look up propellers, or look at a boat – one with an engine).

I spent hours every evening with balsa wood and plans, modelling knife and glue (and even a kind of varnish that was known – prophetically perhaps – as dope, constructing aeroplanes that would fly for five, ten – at their best, even 15 minutes!

Into a tree.

I have to be honest here and say that they resembled aircraft as we know them in the same way that the heavier-than-air aircraft, built 105 years ago by the Wright brothers, resembles an intergalactic rocket.

But they flew! Even if only temporarily. And they were fun.

I explained all this to my grandson, as I glued the tail on.

“Is this what planes looked like in the olden days?” he asked.

“There weren’t any planes in the olden days. Only dragons. And knights.”

“Did knights fly in planes?” I think he was sceptical.

“Of course not. Knights were a long time before planes.”

“Did you know any knights?”

“How would you like to write your name on the wing?”

“Does it fly?”

“Of course it flies! It’s an airplane!”

He eyed it suspiciously. “Where’s the control box?”

“It doesn’t have one.”

“How does it work, then?”

“You throw it.”

“Did you know any dragons?”

The problem with bonding is that very often only one half knows the rules. I was doing my bit, but my grandson (whose name is Noah – maybe I should have been building a bloody boat!) had no idea what fun we were having.

We went to the park, eventually. I had decided to keep it simple. I had built what we used to call a chuck glider. Basically you chuck them, and they stay aloft for 30, 40 even 60 seconds. That’s a long time for a thing made on the kitchen table.

It’s been a a few years, so I may need more practice. Mine nose-dived into the creek. I fished it out with a stick, soaking my trousers in the process.

“You should have digital trims,” he said. “With independent adjustment. You wouldn’t need anything with very much power, as long as the frequency was right. I mean, it didn’t go more than … three metres.”

“But … but … we built it ourselves! And we can make some adjustments. We’ll get better. And … we’re having fun. Aren’t we?”

“You’ve broken it. And it’s gone soggy. Plastic wouldn’t do that.”

The past is a foreign land. They do things differently there.