A brief history of flight

My inner child loves glue and paint, and assembling things. When I was about 12 or so, I got a model Dodge truck for Christmas, which I promptly assembled (badly) and painted bright red. A year later, I got a 1930s paddy wagon, which was not at all easy to assemble! Then there was a model of the Titanic, which was more enjoyable because I didn’t have to piece together a motor. And then I sort of lost interest in models when I got to high school. My dad started doing them when he retired, assembling models of old cars and painting them bizarre colours. I re-discovered this hobby out of necessity about a year and a half ago. I say “necessity” because everyone needs a hobby, and my favourite past time, biking, isn’t really an option here as my bike is 3 provinces away. So I decided to start doing models again as a way to keep my hands and brain occupied when the insomnia bug bit in my last year of grad school. Also I had a terrible professor that year, and oddly, putting together models was the best way for me to get out my excess aggression. I found a little hobby shop here and bought some small, cheap model kits, and built entire models in one sitting (usually between 2 and 6 AM). Now I don’t have the aggression, but I still like playing with glue and paint and little plastic parts, building something tangible. On days off from work, I can spend hours at my kitchen table working on a single section of a model. I no longer do them in one sitting – now they take weeks, or months.

One of my colleagues asked me recently what I do on my days off, since everyone I work with knows I’m not a partier, I don’t go out to bars on Friday nights or anything like that. I prefer quiet evenings at home, with a book or a movie. So I explained my models, and he didn’t quite understand the appeal. Which is fine. It’s like scrapbooking, for me. When I used to scrapbook, I was cutting and pasting the past, but a little bit of the present always made its way onto the page. It’s the same with my models. I’m assembling something from the past, but each model tells a story about what I was trying to escape when I put it together. Those uneven supports on my De Havilland Tiger Moth announce that this model was assembled after 3 days without sleep. Each one has a story.

Piper Cherokee:

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This was my first adult foray into model-building, and the decals wouldn’t separate from their backing so I invented my own markings. I gave it the same call numbers as the twin-engine Cessna in Wings (N121PP) because I was watching a lot of that show. Actually I went looking for a model Cessna, but couldn’t find one. The Cherokee was pretty close, though.

De Havilland Tiger Moth:

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This one was done in one sitting after days without sleep, which is why the lines and supports are all crooked and the decals are wrinkled. I liked this one both for the historical significance and also because I was on a JAG kick. One of the main characters on JAG, Harm, owns a little yellow bi-plane, although his isn’t a De Havilland – I can’t remember what it is.

F-15:

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Another mini model, after another sleepless night and another day of class with the aforementioned terrible professor. I had called her out on the historical inaccuracies of her lectures, which she didn’t appreciate. She really didn’t believe history (or at least accurate history) had any place in an English class, which irritated me more than a little, so I went out and bought this kit, and assembled the plane that night. I was actually looking for an F-18, but the F-15 was as close as I could get. At the time, I was writing to an American airman who flew an F-18 in Iraq, so I guess I sort of built this for him, or at least in honour of him. Not long before, I had received a letter from him (a rare occurrence – he mostly emailed, and I sent snail mail), with a small St. Rita medallion. We were both Catholic, and I had told him the story of how, when I was told I could take a saint’s name at my confirmation, I immediately chose St. Jude. But, of course, St. Jude was male, so I would have had to change it to Judy, which I didn’t like. After weeks of research, I found St. Rita, who, like St. Jude, is patron saint of hopeless causes, but she’s also the patron saint of abused women, and is usually portrayed with a rose (my favourite flower). So I took the name Rita at my confirmation. Anyway, I had explained all of this months earlier, and then here was this little medallion from Iraq, along with a story. My airman had traded a St. Christopher medal for the St. Rita from another American soldier, who had traded for it from another soldier, who had gotten it from another soldier, who had bought it in Italy. After he relayed the history of this little medallion, he said he figured it had been floating around Iraq, from soldier to soldier, since at least 2005. That’s pretty neat, I think.

Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion:

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This one. This one is my pride and joy. This one took months of work, from assembling the moveable rotor and all the smaller attachments, to painting the camouflage and placing the decals in their correct places. It’s about two feet long, with equal-length rotor blades, and it acts as the centre piece on my mantel. No, it’s not entirely historically accurate. The real CH-53s, operated by the US Navy during and after the Vietnam War, were grey, while the HH-53 (the Super Jolly Green Giant), operated by the US Air Force in Vietnam, were camouflage. The model came with decals for either a 1968 USAF model or a 1988 US Navy model. I wanted Marine Corps decals, but that wasn’t an option. So instead I made a camo Navy version, with some USAF decals (the star with stripes). Not very accurate, but I’m more of a Navy girl than an Air Force girl, and I wanted camo rather than grey. Whatever. This one was a summer project, assembled as I was avoiding finishing my thesis. I loved this model because the CH-53 was developed in response to the Vietnam War. It was a way to rescue downed aircraft (this was a heavy-lifter) and save the pilots who might otherwise have been taken prisoner, or killed. Unlike the F-15, which is a fighter jet whose primary use is to kill the enemy, the CH-53 was a rescue vehicle developed in a time of war. It’s such a beautiful machine, and I would love to see one up close. For now, I’ll settle for gazing longingly at my model.

1943 Polish Officer’s Car:

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My most recent foray into model-building brought me back to the 4-wheeled vehicle. And yes, that is a Superman mug in the background – my other childhood obsession that carried over into my 20s. I think I worked on this one, off and on, for close to a year before finally finishing it. The instructions were entirely in Polish, so there was a lot of creative guessing involved. Not very historically accurate, since I used the markings for a few different variations, but whatever. Many, many days off work were spent trying to piece this thing together, and although it was fun, it’s not nearly as beautiful as the CH-53, or as meaningful as the F-15.

I still have one model kit left to assemble – a miniature Lancaster Bomber. That one I’m going to savour. We used to have an old Lancaster on a pedestal in Jackson Park back home, perpetually in flight. Before the city took it down, I used to bike there in summers to look up at the underside of the plane. And then when they did finally take it down, they opened it up for tours. I dropped my $2 in their donation jar and climbed up into the cockpit of that beautiful old plane, stretched out on my belly at the rear gunner’s position, took rolls of photographs. My plane. I always thought of it as my plane, because I understood the history. This particular one that was perched over Jackson Park never saw action – the war ended before it could be shipped overseas – but Lancasters were by far the best planes for night bombing raids. They didn’t just drop bombs, though. In April 1945, several planes, including a few Lancs, were chosen to drop food into Holland to feed the people who were starving under Nazi occupation. The first of two Lancasters on the test flight for this mission (which lasted until late May) was nicknamed the “Bad Penny” (there’s a children’s book about this plane, by the way), and was piloted by a man named Robert Upcott, from my hometown of Windsor, Ontario. So I will thoroughly enjoy piecing that model Lancaster together, and immersing myself in Windsor’s part in World War Two.

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