Model airplane hobby brings years of enjoyment

See his display during Threshing Days Aug. 2-3

Staff reporter

It's in his blood just like it was in his father's blood.

Jim Lehrman of Goessel has a true love for airplanes.

He was raised around them, after all, his father being an accomplished pilot of a small, personal aircraft at the former Goessel Airfield, one-half mile east of K-15.

There were three hangars there at the time owned by Dr. A.K. Ratzlaff, Wilbur Ratzlaff, and Jim's dad.

But Jim's love for airplanes is a little bit different. Instead of piloting full-size airplanes, he builds and flies free-flight model airplanes.

The unassuming, retired aviation employee has been building planes all of his life, entering his first competition more than 40 years ago.

"It was the thing to do then," he said.

Some of Jim's aviation wonders have small engines, some don't. Rubber bands, Japanese tissue paper, and a sense of adventure are the key ingredients necessary for flight.

Trusting the wind, and getting the airplane back, are major parts of the sport.

A small .020 to .35 size engine is attached to the airplane which has a timer, typically a nine-second timer. The motor and timer is about one-inch square and is flat against the wooden body of the plane. The engine keeps the rubber band and front propeller turning. Jim also has some planes that fly with gas engines.

Right before launching, Jim lights a dethermalizer which is located at the rear of the plane, just below the back wing. When the wick burns down, it causes the back wing to tilt up just enough to bring the plane back to earth.

"These aren't remote control airplanes," Jim explains. There are no tethers or other devices to control them.

"There is no control over them after they take flight," he said.

Here's how it works. The airplane engine is turned on and the dethermalizer is lighted. The airplane takes flight.

"They can sail almost out of sight," Jim said.

When the nine seconds are up, the engine switches off which causes the front propeller to stop turning. The airplane then is in free-flight, thus the name of the sport and competition.

The object of the game is for the plane to be in flight as long as possible with two minutes being the optimum flight. Hot weather keeps the plane in the air longer.

When the dethermalizer burns down and the back wing tilts, the plane quickly, but safely, descends to the ground.

That's when the fun begins — looking for the aircraft.

So, how many has the veteran flyer lost?

"Actually, not very many," Jim said with a smile.

Typically the airplanes are launched from large, open fields with bicycles or motorcycles available for chasing. Jim's name, address, and telephone number are on the plane in several places.

"I went to a competition in Perry, Okla., and lost a plane. It was returned to me after someone found it in a stock tank on a farm," Jim said.

Right now, Jim does have one AWOL plane that he lost at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City at a recent competition. He's not too worried about it because when he lost one at the race track before, security found it and returned it to him. He's confident the same will happen again. Some flyers have put radio transmitters on the planes to locate after flights.

"About everybody but me is doing that," he said.

Most of Jim's airplanes were built from kits that cost around $20 each. The kits take him about a week to build. Engines for the aircraft aren't manufactured in the U.S. any longer but there are enough of them still in circulation that he doesn't have any trouble finding what he wants.

"I go to swap meets and can find what I need in magazines," he said.

The frame of most of the planes are made out of wood with Japanese tissue paper covering them. They look delicate but are really quite durable.

His favorite model is the Jimmy Allen plane which was popular in the 1930s. Competitions were sponsored by Skelly and broadcast on the radio.

"Dutch Reagan was the radio announcer then," Jim said with a twinkle in his eye. "Dutch Reagan became President Reagan."

Another model airplane enthusiast was silent film actor Reginald Denny. Jim said Denny became interested in radio-controlled model airplanes and opened a model plane shop in the 1930s.

The actor designed a plane, made airplane kits, and even engineered a radio-controlled target drone during World War II, manufacturing thousands of the drones for the U.S. Army.

Jim has traveled around the area and to neighboring states for competitions. One wall of the former Lehrman Oil Company building in Goessel, where Jim stores and works on his models, is packed with trophies from those competitions. He's an active member of the Society of Antique Modelers and the Flying Aces Club of Wichita.

After working and living for 35 years in Wichita, Jim retired and returned to his hometown of Goessel about three years ago.

He wants to share his love for modeling and free-flight so is offering an up-close and personal glimpse of his dozens of airplanes.

During this year's Country Threshing Days at Goessel, Jim will have his treasures on display Aug. 2-3 at the former gas station, 104 W. Main, Goessel. There probably will be other model airplanes there from fellow enthusiasts.

With the advent of Wii and Guitar Hero, Jim knows flying model airplanes is a dying art but wants to interest youth in the sport, just as he was.