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My last post concerned the spirit of competition pushing people to challenge the limits. Many of aviations limits are now so high and so fast that challenging them is beyond any single person and corporate mergers have reduced the number of competitors to a handful.

I was, and lets be honest here, being somewhat pessimistic, because there is an area where single, or small numbers, of people can challenge limits and set records – model aircraft, and I’m sure from the title of this post you can see where this is going.

Sadly, Maynard Hill is no longer with us, but his achievements are, and for me at least they are a sobering reminder not to be so pessimistic.

Maynard Hill has been described as a virtuoso of balsa and glue, but I suspect he was that and more. He had been building balsa models since childhood and held 25 records for height (almost 26,000ft), duration (38hrs) and speed (151mph) when he announced his intention to fly a model aircraft across the Atlantic.

Ok, aircraft cross the Atlantic every day. UAVs do the same. But they’re large complex machines, packed with jet engines, avionics, and redundancy – all the things we expect from a modern aviation system. Model aircraft however are limited to 11lbs including fuel.

Maynard assembled a team to help with the project. He addressed the airframe and propulsion, and others addressed such issues as navigation, telemetry, and manual control.

Maynard perfected a four-stroke engine that used only 2oz of camping stove fuel and hour. The navigation system was developed so that the model could be launched and landed under human control, but cross the Atlantic autonomously. In the 1990s, when Maynard started the project navigation was a bigger challenge than it is today, GPS was only in its infancy.

Maynard planned for problems. He built multiple aircraft at a time and tested them at Butts Farm in Maryland. For the trans-ocean trip he launched them from Cape Spear in Newfoundland. His first set of aircraft all crashed within 30 miles. Undeterred he returned a year later with another set of models. The failures continued until he threw model number 25 (TAM-5) into the air. This aircraft, dubbed The Spirit of Butts Farm, behaved erratically and the team were disheartened when they lost contact with it.

Three hours later and the Spirit of Butts Farm was back in touch. Defying the odds, and I’ve no doubt keeping the team on the edge of their seats, the aircraft flew on. Almost 39 hours later it reached Ireland, where a capture team took over manual control and flew the aircraft to a perfect landing.

1,882 miles on less than a gallon of fuel. A staggering achievement. Maynard wept when he heard the news. I don’t blame him.

There are more details of the project, aircraft, flight, and Maynard Hill himself, on the following websites:

There’s one last piece to this story. When Maynard announced he was going to take on this challenge he was almost deaf and legally blind. Even to the extent that to use balsa and glue he had to dye the glue red to be able to see it.

Its an inspiring story, and one that leaves me far less of a pessimist that there is still a spirit to tackle aeronautical challenges.


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