Why Fly Balsawood Gliders? — A Nostalgic Nod to David Higgins’ Lifetime Glider Fascination —

“If you’re relatively new to Aëromodelling and want to learn a few of the basics, building a simple glider is a great place to start.”

David Higgins 2/26/2023

In fact gliders are the easiest and cheapest Model Aircraft to build so it makes sense to start here.
If you have visited KCFreeFlight.org often, you may have noticed that someone named David Higgins is associated with many of our Glider Webpages.
This is no accident.

Dave Higgins has certainly earned the title of our Website’s Glider Guru.
We’ve set up this Webpage as an introduction to Gliders and Dave’s history with them is a testament as to why you should want to build and fly them.
So without further ado—here is Dave’s story in his own words. LET’S GET STARTED !!! 😁

My History with Gliders by David Higgins

First, let me introduce myself so you can better understand why I’m so passionate about Aëromodeling in general and gliders in particular. 

Growing up during the 1960s, I started out at around 4 years of age flying the 5 cent slip together balsa wood Strato Chuck Gliders made by North Pacific.  These gliders didn’t stay up very long, but they did fly well enough to provide hours of flying fun.  You could make them loop or do long, straight, gliding flights by simply adjusting the wing fore or aft on the fuselage.

Thermic Trio made by SUPERFLIGHT

In the 7th grade I built and flew the Jetco Glider Trio, which had three different looking chuck gliders, and a year or so later I built a Jetco 30” span Trooper glider and then I scaled up the Trooper glider 50 percent and scratch built a 45” Super Trooper glider. Both these gliders were covered with silkspan, were towed up in the air with an electric motor driven handheld winch, and both flew gracefully.

Thermic Trooper made by SUPERFLIGHT

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Jeff Renz and Kieth Varnau — at 60 acres with original Island Flyer

Many years later, in the fall of 1993 while working at the Boeing Everett plant, I heard about a new free flight model airplane club that had recently been formed called BEAMS, which stands for Boeing Employee’s Aerodynamic Modeling Society. At the first BEAMS meeting I attended, I met the club’s founder and first president, Keith Varnau, and one of its regular club members, Jeff Renz, who was putting the finishing touches on his Comet Sparky rubber powered model. Keith had won the 1967 Nationals in the outdoor hand-launched glider event and another BEAMS member, the late Will Broughton, was a retired Boeing aeronautical engineer with many years of balsa chuck glider experience. Those two men taught me just about everything I know about simple balsa wood hand-launched and catapult-launched gliders. They mentored and encouraged me, so that I had enough successes to keep me interested and motivated enough to design, build, and fly these deceptively simple flying models.

HAFFA Members Take Note:

Pictured at the left we have an historic image of HAFFA Member Jeff Renz holding the original Island Flyer in his right hand if you look closely.

Be sure to check out this famous model airplane featured on this website. It’s an excellent starter plane for novice builders new to this hobby and is easy to trim (adjust) and fly!

Island Flyer Model Airplane
Designed by Clive M. Wienker

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Presenting the FP-11 Mk. II Catapult Glider 😁

The FP-11 Mk. II catapult glider has a flat plate airfoil wing and weighs 8 to 10 grams.

Getting started in building and flying simple balsa catapult-launched gliders can be somewhat intimidating at first, especially when you go to a contest and see the glider gurus with their carbon-fiber composite, pop-up wing gliders making perfect transitions at incredible heights.  For those of you who have never successfully built and flown a simple catapult glider, I recommend the FP-11 Mk. II Catapult Glider

You won’t have a lot of time or money tied up into one of these simple gliders.  For one thing, the glider utilizes what we call a flat plate airfoil wing that is made from 1/16” thick sheet balsa, so you aren’t going to expend any time or effort carving and sanding a cambered (curved) airfoil into the wing blank.

It takes around 1 to 4 hours to build the FP-11 Mk. II glider, although we had one of our SAM 8 club members spend around 40 hours building his, and although it was a very pretty glider, its performance was horrible, probably due to its heavy weight.  Using average weight wood for the wing and tail parts, and rock-hard wood for the fuselage, the FP-11 should weigh around 8 to 10 grams ready to fly without the nitrate dope or Minwax Helmsman Spar varnish finish.

The SAM 8 model airplane club that I belong to decided to have a mass launch FP-11 catapult contest in the fall of 2020. Many of our club members had never built or flown a simple all balsa wood catapult-launched glider, but with $100.00 in prize money for the owner of the last glider to land, we had 9 adults and 3 kids eagerly enter the contest. We had two fly-off rounds with our club president winning the $100 final round. Everyone had a blast launching and watching 12 gliders as they climbed or looped, and then crashed or glided to a smooth landing. Some of our club’s members were astounded at how well these simple gliders climbed and glided.

After the contest was over, one of our club members told me that he had had a great time and wanted to build a more advanced and higher performance catapult glider having a carved airfoil wing.

I told him that he could either build a new FP-11 glider having a carved airfoil wing made with 1/8” thick balsa, or he could build the Sweepette-Ette 14 Catapult Glider.

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As a young kid, that humble little 5 cent Strato glider got me interested in anything that flew, which eventually led to a 29-year career as an engineer with Boeing.  Simple all balsa catapult-launched gliders provide more fun for the money than just about any other form of aeromodeling.  If you do decide to build and fly the FP-11 catapult-launched glider, don’t be surprised if it catches a thermal and flies away.  Mine almost did, so I installed the Flip D.T. (Dethermalizer) System on it. 
Happy Flying!

To visit Dave’s other Glider Webpages go to:


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As a Postscript to Dave’s Glider Story, here are some comments by Jb Nisley —
The Webmaster for KCFreeFlight.org.

JB Nisley’s Comments:

As a child of 6 or so Dave’s choice of the 5 Cent STRATO Chuck Glider was also my go-to Glider at my local Five and Dime Store. I remember spending my hard earned allowance money for these gems as well as the Paper Kites that sold for a dime. I will tell you here that it was a rare event indeed that I would have brought myself to buy a Plastic Kite, as the price was a quarter—however they did last longer. (I was also to have been known to make kites out of newspaper using egg whites as glue, and the unbroken sticks left over from store bought ones that had seen better days.)

😁 Many blissful childhood days were spent flying kites with extra long tails in warm summer breezes. ( Ahh . . . . Those were the days . . .)

Note also that Returnable POP Bottles, shown at left, in the 1950s were also a great source of easy revenue for a kid coming in at 2 cents each. My friends and I would search for these treasures in weedy vacant lots at the time, not realizing we were in the business of “Recycling.” Come to think of it—Weedy Vacant Lots now-a-days are hard to find as well. 🤔

“It goes without saying that I bought my fair share of “HI-FLIERS” as a youngster.—especially the ones that sported Rocket Ships 🚀 as I grew up in the age of rocketry
Texaco and other ⛽ Gas Stations also gave away free Kites as promotions.”
Jb Nisley 2/26/2023
Final note about Kites. Check out this Webpage titled GO FLY A KITE By Inez Mccollum.

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