Flying high with model planes

In 1912 William E. Scripps, son of the founder of The Detroit News James E. Scripps, taught himself to fly and became the first man in Michigan to own and fly an airplane, a Burgess-Wright Flying Boat. He took The Detroit News along for the ride, turning the newspaper into one of the earliest and most effective proponents of the age of aviation.

The younger Scripps saw the airplane as more than just a source of pleasure and thrills. He used it to test the practicality of delivering newspapers by air and in 1912 took News photographer William Kuenzel up in his flying boat for some of history’s earliest aerial photography.

Throughout his life Scripps championed the involvement of The Detroit News in aviation. That involvement reached its peak during Scripps’ tenure as president of The News, from 1929 to 1952.

ImageThe News’ autogiro flies over the newspaper’s building Feb 12, 1931. Note the WWJ radio tower on the roof.

    So it’s probably no coincidence that during this same period the newspaper became an eager sponsor and participant in model aviation.

To publicize its new autogiro, purchased in February of 1931, the News invited model builders to construct a model of the strange new craft. The autogiro was a hybrid precursor to the helicopter. It had a helicopter-like propeller on top with a regular propeller in front. This gave it the advantage of vertical lift-off and the ability to hover. It could chase robbers fleeing in cars or hover over news events for breaking news photos. The innovative plane was replaced two years later by a single-wing Lockheed, called the Early Bird.

The model contest, co-sponsored by the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation, was open to anyone under age 21, in boys and girls divisions: the juniors under age 15, and seniors over 15. The terms of the contest required that the plane be made according to the design published in the News. The models were judged on their ability to best duplicate the autgiro’s flight characteristics, steepest climb and descent, and longest time in the air.

ImageEntrants in the 1931 autogiro model contest with their models.

    The model specifications were drawn up by Don Gardner, of the News’ aeronautics department. He divided the project into eight parts. The series ran in the paper May 16 through May 22. The first part listed tools and materials:

  • One piece of balsa wood, 1/8 x 1/4 x 12 inches for the motor stick
  • One piece of balsa wood, 5/8 x 1 1/4 x 6 inches for the propeller.
  • One piece of balsa wood, 1/16 x 2 x 24 inches for rotor spars, wing spars, and tail boom.
  • One piece of balsa wood, 1/32 x 1 x 12 inches for ribs and other small parts.
  • Three strips bamboo 15 inches long for tail and other parts.
  • One drilled thrust bearing-small size.
  • Two small size brass washers.
  • One foot music wire No. .020.
  • One foot music wire No. .010.
  • One sheet ordinary writing paper 4 x 5 inches for wheels.
  • Two ounces model airplane cement.
  • One ounce banana oil for attaching paper to wings.
  • One sheet Japanese tissue paper for covering.
  • One piece aluminum 1 x 1 inch x .010 thick.
  • Two straight pins.
  • 24 inches 1/8 flat rubber thread.
  • One square yard of waxed paper.

Necessary tools:

  • One sharp knife for cutting and trimming the wood parts.
  • One small block plane for shaving balsa wood to the right size.
  • Several razor blades for slicing off thin pieces of balsa and for trimming excess paper from the wings.
  • One pair of long nosed pliers with cutters for bending wire parts.
  • Two of three grades of sandpaper for finishing wood parts.
  • One steel edged ruler for slicing off thin balsa and for measuring parts.
  • One small brush for spreading banana oil.
  • One candle for heating and bending bamboo.

The other parts of the series explained how to assemble the craft, “Learn the secret of the Autogiro,” “How to build the rudder: Tail Booms also explained,” “Details of Landing Gear: careful study of drawing advised,” “How to build a propeller,” “Details of wing,” “Rotor support,” and finally, “Last step.” More advice followed on testing and trouble shooting.

“Steep climb and vertical descent count the most,” the series warned contestants.

ImageCharles Dybirg of Detroit, champion of the 1927 American Model League of America contest in 1928.

    On the big day contestants and their supporters arrived early at Detroit City Airport. Bleachers for the spectators were provided by Perry A. Fellows, manager of the airport. The weather drove the contest indoors and the hangers were alive with the buzzing of 135 model autogiros. There were 39 senior entrants, and 96 juniors, including three sets of brother against brother. Each contestant was given three tries for a best score.

The older contestants went first. Henry Rainey, of 12326 Dexter, enjoyed an early successful flight, as this newspaper account reported breathlessly:

“The judges watched his plane rise almost vertically, pulled upward by whirling rotors like those which enable the big Detroit News autogiro to take off in a short space, and climb steeply.

“They watched the plane circle about the roof of the hangar, narrowing missing beams and light fixtures, and then settle vertically to the floor, its rotors landing it slowly and gently. They gave Rainey a perfect score of 50 points on climb and descent.”

He received an additional 49 points as his model stayed in the air 49 seconds, giving him a total of 144 points..

The only girl entrant, Betty Bean, of 1626 Edison, suffered disaster on her first flight when a wing strut broke on landing. Despite the encouragement of her father, Betty could not make her other two flights. However her model did receive 35 out of 50 possible points for construction.

ImageContestants in a model airplane show at Ford Airport in Dearborn in 1929. The contest was sponsored by American Boy magazine.

    The next day’s account in The News went on:

“An outburst of applause greeted the flight by Carl Patterson, 15, when his gyro rose steadily to the rafters and made the record 52-second flight.

“Patterson’s model climbed swiftly until it touched an overhead light shade with one rotor blade. It clung there a moment, dropped a foot and then swept around the light. On the descent it dropped straight down.


“A perfect climb and perfect landing. The best flight yet, and made by a junior.”

Rainey’s took Senior First, and Carl Patterson took Junior Second

The top six winners got to ride in the real Autogiro on June 13. William J. Scripps hosted, while Detroit News pilot Frank Byerley piloted the modelers.

The winners got to choose the routes of the flights. Some wanted to see downtown, others preferred the suburbs. Harold LaClair, first place Junior, and Carl Patterson took the first flight. They rose steeply in the direction of Belle Isle, then flew over LaClair’s home at 1122 Lakepointe in Grosse Pointe Park.

“I told my mother before I left home this morning that I might fly over our house. Sure enough, we did, and there was mother out in the back yard waving. As we hovered over the house it seemed as if we could almost talk to each other. Boy, if I could only fly the autogiro!”

The Airplane Model League of America

The Airplane Model League of America was organized by Bill Stout and popularized in the magazine, American Boy. It eventually led to the multi-million dollar model airplane industry. A series of articles by Merrill Hamburg and Mitchell Charnley (a one-time rewrite man for the Detroit News) explained how to make these little planes, but it soon became clear that there was no place for boys to get needed materials like balsa wood in small quantities, and banana oil was a scarce commodity. Bamboo was rare also.

American Boy and the managers of the new League set up the first model supply factory and sold kits to make a single flying stick plane at non-profit prices ranging from 65 cents to $3 for a yard-long outdoor plane. A national contest was proposed to be held in Detroit, with $5,000 worth of prizes.

Sixty-five newspapers, including The Detroit News, joined the effort, and 400,000 boys enrolled in the Airplane Model League of America. The supply factory turned $100,000 worth of kits in the first year, with the average order being 14 cents.

Henry and Edsel Ford personally hosted the Detroit contest and held the banquet in their Dearborn hangar, with historic planes as a backdrop for the speaker’s table.

Winners were sent on an all-expense-paid tour of Europe. In England, they competed for the Lord Wakefield Trophy, which went to the plane that stayed airborne longest. The trick was in the rubber band ‘motor’ that would unwind the slowest carry the plane the highest, allowing it the longest glide downward.

European adults from seven countries lost the Wakefield Trophy to the American boys in knee pants.


Bill Stout was born in Quincy, Ill., in 1907. He graduated from University of Minnesota in 1907 and became a newspaperman and aviation lecturer. His habit of whittling little toys earned him the pen name “Jack Knife.” The money earned from his popular aviation column allowed him to honeymoon in Europe on his motorcycle with new bride, Alma E. Raymond in 1906.

He is primarily known as “the man who sold the airplane to Ford,” and in so doing sold it to the world. Before World War I, Stout envisioned a commercial craft that would fly out of Detroit with a payload. This view caused even his friends to smile.

By 1912 his technical writing skills grew to earn him a job as technical editor for The Chicago Tribune. He came to Detroit in 1914 to become chief engineer of the Scripps-Booth car company. They wanted him to redesign their motorcycle, but he designed the company’s first automobile instead.

In 1918 he built and flew the first internally-trussed airplane in America. Shortly afterward he launched the first all-metal machine in Detroit. His engineering lab became a division of Ford Motor Co. and his planes were used to deliver parts and mail without mishap.

When World War I broke out, he became an aviation advisor to the government.

Later he established Stout Engineering Laboratories, which failed.

Then he instigated an innovative campaign to raise money to build airplanes with the slogan “Invest with me and lose your shirt.” He wanted real investors, not those who only wanted to make money. He raised $128,000, but sold the idea to Henry Ford, who persuaded Stout to stay on as general manager. They built the historic Trimotor passenger plane of 1925. Daring investors did well with Stout.

Soon after he left to join the Packard aircraft division. The Detroit News commissioned English artist, Frank Edward Slater to draw a portrait sketch of Stout which appeared in the paper on January 30 1927.

In 1951 Detroit News writer, George W. Stark reviewed Stout’s book, “So Away I Went!”. The Stout memoirs essentially tell of airplane development in this neighborhood that affected the entire world.

ImageFrances L. Allen of Pittsburg proved model building was not just for boys with her entry in Detroit’s 1936 contest.

    “So,” Stark suggested,”it should be read by all who have a curiosity about the tremendous development and the part Detroit played in it. Stout mentions the great names: the Wright Brothers, Donald Douglas, Katherine and Eddie Stinson, the daredevil pilot Bert Acost, and Matty Laird among the famous flyers who were once boys in model plane clubs, which the author started.”

“His story of Bill Mitchell is his own and makes us all proud that this abused man was one of us here in Old Detroit…”

“Packed with human interest is his account of his associations with Ford and Packard, Henry and Edsel, Bill Mayo, Alvin Macauley. Dramatic is the story of the historic flight he took with Mrs. Lindbergh from Detroit to meet her famous son in Mexico City.”

Imagine the tune, “Flight of the Bumblebee” as you think of Stout: “When a fly zooms into Bill Stout’s laboratory, does he swat it? No! The unpredictable genius cages it, watches it land upside down on the ceiling without benefit of safety belt, counts the beat of the wings-a mere 330 times a second-notes how they oscillate throughout both vertical and horizontal planes, and behold, one of these days we shall see what we shall see.”

ImageJohn Trew of Detroit displays his entry in the 1938 Model Plane Meet at Wayne County Airport.

    Said Stout, “Man had learned everything about insects except how they fly. We are going to have to explore insect flight which is a lot better then bird flight.”

“There are 50,000,000 years of precedent in nature,” Stout mused as a scaled up model of a dragon fly whirled around his shop.

“The dragonfly is about right. It has two wings on either side, alternating up and down. The furious flapping and adjustable angle with which the wings bite the air keep the insect going. It can stand still, fly backwards or skid sideways.”

But Stout also came down to earth after all his creative speculations, “They say you have made a good landing if you can walk away afterward. Long habit has made me prefer to ride, but if necessary, I’m prepared to walk.”

In 1948 after 34 years in Detroit, he went to live with his daughter in Phoenix, Arizona. He died of a heart attack in 1956 at age 76. A few years before his death he was working on a plane with wings that flapped like a bug, like his favorite, the dragonfly. He wanted to make a small vehicle with wings that would fold unobtrusively down when it was on the ground, after having flown carefully around without need for long runways.

ImageBobby Bienenstein of Detroit and his model at the 1941 show at Ford Airplane in Dearborn.

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News