The Right Stuff for the Gold –

Science Olympiad to World Championship Win in Indoor Model Aviation

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10-02-2009 - Check out My New Science Video Website -   Science Olympiad videos found there

By Bill Kuhl

When I first heard the US Junior F1D team had won the gold at the world championships in Romania, it made me feel proud of these young people. So often you hear that everything that young people do has to have instant gratification, they certainly wouldn’t have the patience or desire to build model airplanes. Yet these young men have perfected the building and adjusting of the most delicate indoor model airplanes to a level that few adults in the entire world have in a very short time. Just as proud as I am of these young people, I am also proud of the adult mentors of these young men that have shared their knowledge and countless hours helping many young people in the Wright Stuff event in the school-sponsored Science Olympiad program.

Although I have never met these young people or mentors, I have spent the last couple of years working on an Internet web site devoted to the first model airplane that most young people build, the AMA Cub or Delta Dart. I thought that the story of how these young people had progressed and the lessons they had learned would be the perfect addition to the web site. Information used in the creation of this web site was found in free flight publications, searching the archives of the Yahoo Indoor Group, personal emails, and phone calls to modelers in Ohio.

Rather than another article about the events of the World Championships this article focuses on their progression through Science Olympiad and into Academy of Model Aeronautics sponsored competition. It is written such that hopefully it will be understandable and interesting to non-indoor modelers.

Bill Kuhl


They say the greatest form of flattery for a teacher is when the student outperforms the teacher. If that is true, there should be some very proud indoor free flight modelers in the state of Ohio. October 7-12, 2002 US junior fliers proved to the world that they learned their lessons well in the FAI World Indoor Championships held in the salt mine in Slanic Romania. Placing first in Team and first, second, and sixth as individual juniors, these juniors are always quick to point out they have learned much from indoor modelers from around the Cleveland and Dayton Ohio area. Their mentors will point out that these young men are accomplished builders and know how to trim the flight of an indoor model airplane well.

Even more surprising might be that their start in indoor rubber-powered free flight competition began with the school sponsored Science Olympiad event for rubber-powered model airplanes, currently known as "Wright Stuff". In a very short time the young men had progressed from the SO models with minimum weight of 8 grams to the delicate 1.2 gram F1D planes used in world class competition by adults as well. In fact had the US junior scores been included with the adult class, 15 year old Doug Schaefer would have been second only to many-time US champion Jim Richmond. Junior Ben Saks would have been third. US Junior Matt Chalker placed a very respectable sixth in Junior competition with a big handicap of little time to prepare for the contest when a previously selected Junior Team member could not make the trip leaving Matt to go in his place.

The F1D

At the pinnacle of current indoor free flight events is the F1D rubber powered airplanes which currently are flying for over thirty minutes on a tiny loop of rubber weighing not more than 6/10 gram and a wingspan of 55 centimeters. Yet as delicate as these planes are, not long ago F1D allowed a 65 centimeter wingspan and minimum weight of just 1 gram, the weight of a dollar bill. One reason F1D was changed to smaller, heavier planes with a motor restriction; was that flight times approaching one hour were possible with larger planes. Getting in six contest flights could take a very long time.

Constructing a F1D

One might wonder how could a model plane of this size be constructed to such a minuscule weight? Very, very carefully. It starts with a design that has been minimally engineered to use the thinnest balsa and covering material that could hold up to flying at a slow walking pace. Not only is the balsa very thin, but it must be of a rare portion of balsa that is the lightest and most blemish free. Any imperfection in the balsa, could result in structural failure in flight or when attaching the wound rubber to motor stick. The motor stick and boom is constructed by wrapping wet thin balsa of the proper grain, around a small rod and carefully gluing the seam when dry. Even the propeller is entirely built-up and covered as well.



The Tiny Rubber Power-plant

With only a .6 gram strip of rubber to power these planes; working with the rubber and propeller combinations is very exacting work. With a limit on rubber weight, testing hopefully will reveal the best width and length combination to work with a propeller selection best for the flying site and conditions. The rubber is carefully lubricated and wound to near maximum winds before transferring to the delicate motor stick. The rubber needs to be able to power the plane through a climb to near maximum ceiling height, cruise in level flight at maximum height for sufficient duration and make a slow descent to the floor.

You are probably wondering; how could such a tiny strip of rubber turn the propeller for over 30 minutes? Answer being; the propeller must turn very slowly, which also means the propeller is very large. The narrow rubber strip is actually an advantage, in that more winds can be put in a narrow strip of rubber, the negative is the narrow strip has less torque to turn the large propeller. With such a light airframe, the plane will climb with the propeller not even turning one revolution in a second. All serious indoor fliers use a device known as a "torque meter" to record the power output of their rubber motors and make adjustments based on the readings they get.

The Flight of the F1D

Watching a F1D in flight, it appears to be flying in slow motion. The plane moves at a slow walking pace, the propeller turns slowly, you can count the revolutions of the blade. Handling of the delicate plane must be slow as well; you walk slowly with a gentle grip on the motor stick to the launch area or the plane will break in transit.

Once released, the plane circles slowly upward. Fliers may guide the plane’s path with a long pole at lower altitudes and helium-filled balloon attached to a line as the plane climbs out of the reach of a pole. Considerable skill is needed to guide the delicate planes without damage. Often the plane are damaged during steering or retrieval when caught high above, it is all part of the challenge.

The Salt Mine Flying Site

One of the most famous indoor flying sites, it is also one of the most challenging. Cold, and dark; the rough salt walls often heavily damage planes stuck on the walls during retrieval. Although the top of the ceiling is 220 feet, it is only 35 feet between the catwalks at the apex of the cavern. Planes that managed to stay in the small orbit at the top, sometimes tangling together in flight, ruining what could have been a winning flight. Just as often the delicate planes were damaged when the tightly wound motor was transferred to the fragile motor stick on the airplane.

The Science Olympiad Beginnings

Just as you would not jump into a state-of-the-art racer and race in the Indianapolis 500 just because you have a driver’s license, you must work your way up through simpler rubber-powered airplanes progressing to F1D. The US Junior champions had their start with indoor rubber-powered airplanes in an event in the school-sponsored Science Olympiad competition.

Matt Chalker

Ben Saks

What is Science Olympiad?

Science Olympiads origin can be traced back to 1982 in Michigan and Dr. Gerard J. Putz, Regional Science Consultant. The first national Tournament was held at Michigan State University in 1985, the US Army was the sponsor, seventeen states participated. By the year 2000, there were over 13,000 schools in all-50 states and Ontario participating in Science Olympiad.

The Science Olympiad Mission Statement is:

"To improve the quality of k-12 science education throughout the nation."

Students can work in teams. Grade levels are divided into divisions but the lowest grade levels have no national tournament. Science Olympiad consists of many events in three broad goal areas; "Science Concepts and Knowledge", "Science Processes and Thinking Skills", and "Science Application and Technology".

In the early years model airplane competition consisted of paper airplanes. The rubber-powered event was originally called "Propeller Propulsion" and was a trial event in 1997, paper planes were flown as well, and Propeller Propulsion became an official event in 1998.

The Frustrating Beginnings

The change to rubber-powered planes came about almost by chance; the original supervisor of the paper airplane event had called Tom Sanders at Midwest on other business. Near the conclusion of the conversation he told Tom that he needed to come up with a new flying event, Tom suggested indoor rubber flying but it took flight demonstrations and a lot of lobbying (three years) to make this an official SO event. Tom gives a lot of credit for the support of the Midwest Products president, Sue Burney in backing him in his promotion efforts.

John Gowen's 1998 SO plane

For the season of 1999 to 2000, the event’s name was changed from Propeller Propulsion to Wright Stuff. The rules went through many changes in the course of a few years, but basically specified a rubber powered plane built of balsa of a maximum wingspan, a plastic propeller, and minimum weights for airframe and rubber motor. High School planes were required to have wheels and take off the floor, while the middle school planes could be hand launched. Some clever competitors came up with biplanes, which can have a slight performance advantage if built light enough because of the increased wing area. Subsequent rules specified, "monoplane", meaning only one wing.

John Gowen with monoplane and bi-plane

Younger Ben Saks with bi-plane 

The Early Days of Science Olympiad

In the beginning everyone was pretty much in the dark and flights of only a few seconds were common. The planes were not of a suitable design, grossly overweight, and not many non-indoor modelers knew how to adjust the planes properly for a good flight. The planes used were of a design for complete beginners that were constructed of wood and covering material much too heavy for good performance. The size of the model did not take advantage of the specs in the rules.


Pure beginner models are built to be simple and rugged but are too heavy and do not take full advantage of the competition specifications.

It was not just that the beginners were bad at picking the correct airplanes, for the most part the proper materials are not even found in most hobby shops. Hobby shops have to sell only what is most popular to survive, and radio control related items are normally where the money and demand is. Even the balsa sold for RC planes is normally too heavy for indoor planes. Success with indoor flying requires that you know about the cottage industry businesses that supply the proper materials.

Like most things competitive, the model plane must be of a design that matches the specifications closely in the rules, that is, come as close to the maximums and minimums as possible. Some people were modifying designs created for other events to fit Science Olympiad rules.

As the popularity of the event increased plans and kits became available that were designed to maximize performance by coming close as possible to the limiting specifications that were established by Science Olympiad. Problem was, rules were changing almost every year, making planes designed by the previous years’ specifications illegal.


Many of the SO planes incorporated "winglets" (vertical fins at the tips of wing or stabilizer)  for stability and cleaner bounces off the ceiling.

Within a couple of years, the indoor rubber event became one of the more popular events of a couple dozen events offered through Science Olympiad. Yet, the model plane event created a few challenges for the schools hosting the event. A large part of indoor flying is the indoor flying site; the ceiling make-up and height, obstructions such as basketball hoops, and fast moving air coming into the flying area. These planes are so lightweight that often the air coming out of heating or cooling ducts would pin the planes hopelessly against a wall.


Flying in buildings with exposed beams or over theater seating is not ideal, but ideal flying sites are hard to find.

Plastic Props

One of the more controversial aspects of the SO rules were specifying a commercially available plastic prop and allowing modifications. This might seem like a good thing in that the students would not have to build a prop, but the only available plastic props are really designed for outdoor flying and are much too heavy for a SO plane. This means the student must scrape away plastic from the 5-gram prop to arrive at a competitive weight somewhere between 2 and 3 grams, this can take a few hours. Many top competitors will also twist the plastic prop to put more pitch in.

There were however, good reasons for using plastic ready-made propellers. More advanced types of indoor models require the builders to carve a prop form and a pitch jig. Balsa must be wetted, wrapped to the form, and baked in an oven. The prop blades must be carefully glued to the prop spar in a jig that ensure that both blades are at the proper angle. With a plastic propeller someone can at least start flying fairly successfully with out all the effort of building a balsa propeller.

The Event Matures

Experienced indoor modelers began training students and teachers to build and trim indoor rubber powered airplanes; they had to start from ground zero. Turns out that many of the students had the desire and the ability to build very good models, even though they had never seen one. They weren’t afraid to try new techniques and were always trying to take it to the next level. Modelers that I interviewed were very impressed with these young people and there seem to be friendships formed regardless of age.

While interviewing Joe Mekina on the phone, I asked him if the Ohio modelers enjoyed helping the students; his reply was that the same modelers volunteered every year.

The Power of Knowledge

As time passed, designs specifically for the Science Olympiad rules began to appear as plans and complete kits. A couple of publications specifically for the Science Olympiad event were available and an excellent CD-ROM of building and flying instructions.

Another great resource on the Internet is the "Expert Volunteers" list that Thayer Syme included as part of his web page "Free Flight Fantasies". Aircraft modelers can volunteer their expertise or schools can find modelers, it is grouped by state.

What Could be Learned From This?

Getting a model airplane to fly on the small amount of power provided by a loop of rubber involves many areas of science. All the small details are important to the success and must be carefully optimized through experimentation and keeping detailed records. Any changes made to any one part no doubt would affect something else that would have to be adjusted as well. Craftsmanship in building the model is important, but getting the aerodynamics correct, and matching the propeller and rubber efficiently are equally as important. Most indoor modelers use a torque meter and keep detailed records of the batches of rubber used (by manufacture date) to get maximum energy from the rubber. Small changes in the width and length of the rubber make big differences as well.


Many modelers who were mentoring the students exposed them to the indoor rubber events flown under rules established by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. A few of those students took a real interest in the AMA events and began competing in major contests. They did well with the AMA events progressing to the most delicate plane type, F1D.

John Kagan 2000 Senior F1D World Champion provided a great mixture of supervision and motivation as these students fine tuned there models during this competition.


Matt Chalker weighs F1D, John Kagan observes.

Keeping Wright Stuff Going

Chances are there might not be a rubber-powered event in Science Olympiad next year. It has been suggested that a new event using catapult gliders built and flown at the contest replace Wright Stuff. Although this could address builder of the model issues, I think what would be lost in potential for learning would be tragic.

Requirements for Successful Indoor Programs for Young People

Access to flying sites is a big problem. Young people need adequate time at indoor flying sites to test and trim their planes. This is as big a part of the process as building, and probably harder to learn from reading a book or CD-ROM.

Indoor Mentor Shortage

Finding mentors that can help in person can be a problem; modelers with only RC background might not be much help either, although they certainly could learn. It has been pointed out that more young people have been exposed to model aviation through Science Olympiad, than by any other means. At the peak of model aviation’s popularity in the 1930’s, most modelers were young people.

It has been said many times; getting a rubber-powered plane to fly well is not something that is intuitive. Listen to just about any experienced modeler including myself, and they will tell you they did not have much success at the start. We were stubborn enough or met someone to help us along the way and had some success.

More SO students probably would learn more if they were given some direction from the start. How can anyone figure out what to do if they do not see it is possible? Hopefully students will make a connection with some of what they have learned with model airplanes to other areas of their lives. They have learned the importance of accuracy; they have learned that they can not remember all the little details of their experiments and must record the results. They will learn how to deal with frustration, and to fix what is wrong and move ahead again. They will learn how important it is to use the correct materials, even though it would appear something else would work just as well.

The Young Super Stars of Model Aviation

In writing this article I wanted to find out a little about the personalities and interests of these outstanding young people. What I also found were other young people that had done very well in SO and pursued the AMA events as well. Parker Parrish from Georgia had been selected for the team but was unable to go. Parker seems to have an interest in many phases of the model aviation as well as RC cars. Another young man that has done exceedingly well but missed getting on the team, is Brian Johnson. Brian was very busy applying for college, so his father Wayne provided me with a chronology of Brian’s contest accomplishments.

General Observations of the Young Super Stars

The young men appear to have some differences in their interests, but more in common. They all have a great desire to learn more and take on new challenges, they are willing to share their knowledge and help others. To advance themselves they will research information in many ways including using the Internet.

Along the way they have had their disappointments, but with a great attitude they always turn things around. New challenges or technology never scared them; they were always ready to take it to the next level. They all seem to mention the importance of asking questions.

What really stood out to me, in anything the young men had written, was they were so appreciative to all the people that had helped them along the way; including their mentors, family, and other people far away. Yet, they were always willing to help others.


Matt Chalker Helping Middle School Students    

Doug Schaefer with F1D, note large prop.

Additional Information

Typical Balsa Dimensions for a F1D

Tim Goldstein proprietor of  Tru-Weight Indoor Balsa & model supplies supplies the rare lightweight balsa wood and other specialty supplies sent me the following as a comparison of the lightweight material:

Motor stick 013 - .014" about 4 - 4.5 lb/ cu ft
Tail boom .007 - .009" about 4 - 4.5 lb/ cu ft
Prop outlines .022 - .023" about 4 - 4.5 lb/ cu ft
Wing spars .035 - .045" thick x .100 - .045" tall  

Covering Material for F1D

The film they are using is either Y2K2 or Y2K. The Y2K2 is about 1/3 of a micron thick and standard Y2K is about 1/2 a micron (micron is about 0.000039"). It is much thinner than a human hair which if I remember correctly is about .003 - .006".

Additional Articles

Indoor News and Views Issue # 109 - web site is

Picture of the mine flying site appeared on the cover.

Pictures from Sandy Schaefer and comments by Mark Schaefer, Doug Schaefer, Jim Richmond, Steve Brown, John Kagan, and Nick Aikman

Free Flight – The National Free Flight Society Digest Volume 36, No. 10, December 2002

Cover picture top half three highest placing juniors – Doug Schaefer (U.S. 1st), Ben Saks (U.S. 2nd), and Somesan Horatiu (Romania, 3rd)

Bottom half – three highest placing seniors – Jim Richmond (U.S. 1st), Aurel Popa (Romania, 2nd), and John Kagan (U.S., 3rd)

Articles by all three members of the gold winning US team; Doug Schaefer, Ben Saks, and Matt Chalker

Article on the National Free Flight Society web page by Joe Mekina

Flying Models Magazine - January 2003 - F/F Sport Column by Larry Kruse

Science Olympiad Related Web Sites Sites

Cloudbusters Model Airplane Club 

Indoor Duration - good indoor articles  

Home of Cleveland Clowns

"The Wright Stuff"  Book by Gary Baughman

Wright Stuff - ROG : pictures and video clips

Official Science Olympiad National Homepage

Link to 230 click-able thumbnails of SO models (larger image can load slowly)

Special Thanks to the Following Individuals and Their Help on This Project:

Bill Gowen, Bob Clemens, Dick Baxter, Don Slusarczyk, Dr. Edmund Liem,  Floyd Richards, Fred Tellier, Joe Mekina, John Kagan, Mark Schaefer, Matt Chalker, Parker Parrish, Tim Goldstein, Tom Sanders, Vern Hacker, and Wayne Johnson 

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