Birds Of A Feather

Today, a father and son launch the model Flyer they built together in a celebration of their history as much as that of the Wright brothers.

A Century Of Flight

December 17, 2003|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

At 10:35 this morning - the weather and the gizmo gods willing - a fabric-and-wood replica of history's first powered airplane will take flight, replicating the achievement of Orville and Wilbur Wright a century ago today.

But instead of Kitty Hawk, N.C., this particular re-enactment will take place at a model-airplane club field just north of Baltimore. The craft: A one-tenth scale model of the 1903 Wright Flyer that my father and I have spent endless hours building over the past six months.

It's a beautiful airplane - or aeroplane, as the flight pioneers of the Wrights' day used to call them. With a wingspan of 41 inches, the Wright Flyer model we hope to fly is a fragile-looking arrangement of balsa, spruce, tissue paper and wire - with only its dual electric motors and microelectronic controllers suggesting that it belongs in today's world, and not back in the era of Orville and Wilbur.

We are both anxious, hopeful that our Flyer gets airborne today. But whether it flies today, tomorrow or never is not really the point, I've come to understand. As much as it has been a celebration of the Wrights' achievement, which we both hold in awe, it's been a warm reminder of the relationship my father and I are lucky enough to enjoy.

I've always been close to my father, William Patalon Jr. To those who don't know us well, that seems surprising, given our obvious, outward differences. Dad is 66, and the manager of advanced technology development for a division of Northrop Grumman Corp. On the surface, he comes across as serious and reserved, a perfect personality for a career engineer.

I , on the other hand, am 42, very outgoing and can be quite passionate about the people and things that are important to me. Deep down, though, we're actually very much alike.

From the time I was a boy - Willy or Will to my dad - we rarely had trouble finding common ground. Whenever I developed a new interest or hobby - fossil-hunting, short-wave radio, baseball, tropical fish, antique-car restoration, even drag-racing - I would discover that my Dad already knew a lot about it. Sometimes that was because I had picked up a hobby my father had already had. But just as often, he'd go out of his way to read up on my latest interest, so the two of us could spend time working on it together, something I didn't discover until I was an adult.

Of the many interests we've shared, however, one soars above all the others: Flight.

As far back as I can remember, we both have been fascinated by airplanes and most anything connected with flight. We would travel to airports, large and small, to watch airplanes land and take off. We've visited most of the key airplane and flight museums on the East Coast, and regularly attend air shows. And, in recent years, model airplanes have become our chief pastime - again.

In the beginning

We started flying models more than 30 years ago, when I was 7 or 8 and we lived near Pittsburgh. We flew "control-line" models, planes tethered by a pair of long, braided cables, and flown in an endless circle with aerobatic maneuvers mixed in. Members of our Pittsburgh Stuntmasters Club seemed to think I had great raw talent, suggesting that with practice I might one day even compete nationally.

We kept flying until shortly after my father was transferred to Baltimore in late 1973. Over the next several years, though, my other pursuits - baseball, hot rods, high school and college - intervened. We put our planes away, intending to resume after I graduated from Penn State.

Instead, I moved around to various newspaper jobs. It wasn't until I returned to Baltimore and The Sun in 1997 that we resumed flying, this time with radio-controlled models. Now, most Sundays will find the two of us at Kirk Field, the flying field used by our club, the Radio Control Modelers of Baltimore.

Early this year, with the First Flight anniversary on the horizon, I suggested that we ought to do something on Dec. 17 to observe the occasion. Something, I said, like building and flying a Wright Flyer replica.

Almost immediately, my practical dad scotched the idea of building one from scratch; There wasn't time to design, build and test it, he said. If we could find a really good set of plans, though, or a kit, he was game.

We searched catalogs, talked to folks in the industry, and finally found a kit on the Internet, manufactured almost in our back yard. A Cumberland company called Dare Design & Engineering Inc. had a model we thought we could build fairly easily. We ordered it in mid-July.

About a week later, my father called. I could hear excitement in his voice.

"Hey, Willy, it's here," he said. We opened the package together a few days later, a couple of kids celebrating Christmas in July.

Seems like old times

My folks still live in the house I grew up in, just a few miles away from the home my wife and I recently bought. My dad's house has a basement workshop, and it became our replica's hangar.

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