Vol. 17: Medicine Man Glider

Build a majestic, 5-foot-wingspan model airplane inspired by stick-and-tissue designs of the 1930s, then fly it free or radio-controlled and watch it outclass all the toy-store plastic.

+ Downloads & Extras:

The Medicine Man
By Ryan Grosswiler

Download the Plane Plan

Download the Plans (PDF file 10.3 MB)
Plan measures 36" x 24". Print on an oversize printer, or you can print on a regular printer as tiled pages from some versions of Adobe Reader by selecting Print --> Page Scaling --> Tile All Pages.

Or, download the plans in an already-tiled, 8.5 x 11" format (PDF file 4.2 MB; 15 pages)

Model Aviation, Before and After the Wright Brothers

Model aviation long predates the Wright Brothers' 1903 flight - by almost a century. This makes sense, when you think about it: the early experimenters (and quacks) of aerodynamics quickly figured out that their ideas could be more efficiently - and safely - tested in small-scale, unmanned form, without the inconveniences suffered by invariably plummeting off the castle walls while wearing a goofy pair of homemade bird wings.

The first documented heavier-than-air flights (that is, held up by aerodynamic pressure, not by lighter-than-air gas) were by model aircraft built in 1804 and 1871 by Brit John Stringfellow and Frenchman Alphonse Penaud, respectively. Interestingly, both featured configurations that anticipate today's standard propeller/power plant/wings/tail form, a discovery whose benefits were to be lost for quite a while as the would-be flying community slid back into its fixation with flapping wings. Further, Penaud's model used a twisted rubber band to power its propeller.

Following World War I and its headline news of dogfighting air aces, model aviation as practiced by the hobbyist blossomed into being, paralleling the explosive growth of full-size aviation. Aviation of the 1920s and 30s held much the same position that computer science did in the 80s and 90s: an exciting, emerging technology, accessible in various ways to the masses, that opened up new areas of human activity.

The Great Depression only served to expand model aviation's popularity worldwide, as masses of idle men and boys looked for an inexpensive means of engrossing themselves and stoking the imagination. As befits any pastime practiced by hundreds of thousands, it evolved into distinct types:

Free flight (F/F) These models are catapulted by an elastic towline, launched from a kite, or temporarily powered via propeller by a rubber band or small engine. Then they fly at the mercy of the winds. Normally trimmed to fly in lazy circles, they often simply fly away, carried by thermals. To avoid this problem, larger models use a timer or fuse to pop the tail up after a while, causing the plane to stall out of the sky. Successful free flight requires careful workmanship, plenty of open space, and an inherently stable design - the larger the wingspan, the more stable.
Control line (C/L) These models fly in centrifugal circles, tethered by 2 wires leading from a wingtip to a handle. The modeler pivots around, and wrist movement of the handle actuates the elevator, allowing up-and-down maneuvers, while bystanders hear a loud reeeer-reeeer-reeeer. Until the advent of R/C turbines and dynamic soaring, C/L speed models were the fastest of all model airplanes, some exceeding 200mph.
Radio control (R/C) These models emerged more recently, and are by far the most popular form today. Typical models are powered by a small engine and use a 4-channel radio to separately control the rudder, ailerons, elevators, and throttle.

During the 1930s and 40s, the hobby also subdivided itself by different types of models and the particular pleasures they served for the hobbyist. The most common were:

Sport models Vaguely resembling (or not) real airplanes, these are generally designed for ease of construction and flying. This makes them appealing to ordinary hobbyists.
Aerobatic models Overpowered and with zippy control response, these models get the pulse racing, and are fascinating to watch as they dart about the sky. They demand a highly skilled pilot.
Scale models are made to resemble a given "real" aircraft (such as a P-51 Mustang, Fokker triplane, or Learjet) as closely as possible, down to the rivets, fully detailed cockpits, and operating features such as folding carrier-deck wings and retractable landing gear. The ultimate expression in craftsmanship, contest models sometimes take thousands of hours to build, and have the greatest "neat" factor of all models.

From the 1940s to the 70s, model aviation enjoyed a huge following as an established hobby, supported by many devoted periodicals, clubs, companies, products, and events. The first amateur R/C model flew shortly before the World War II on a crude system which allowed extremes of one function at a time (push the button once, rudder full left; push it twice, full right; three times, neutral). Gradually, more advanced radios were developed in the 1950s, culminating with the 4-channel (rudder, aileron, elevator, throttle), proportional, trimmable workhorse we see today.

Until the late 1970s or early 80s, radio systems were expensive, demanding about one month's salary for the ordinary dude. But cheap Asian labor dropped the going rate to a tiny fraction of this, and with better quality to boot. The arrival of affordable radio control systems caused another surge in the pastime's popularity, and R/C models became the hobby that one in five guys aged 10-18 at least dabbled in. With the incorporation of advanced composites and small turbine engines, the artistic and technical achievements in the hobby were astounding. But all this was about to change.

Most recently, in the 1990s, ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) models took over. These models are the current bane of the hobby. Preying upon the instant-gratification mentality, these model airplanes come out of the box fully assembled and covered. They require, at most, a few hours to install the radio equipment and engine. Most of the ARFs I've tested are built OK and fly well (though two, marketed cynically as "trainers," were aerodynamically incapable of flight). But all of them deprive the modeler of the joys of creation, involvement, and experience. Today they dominate the scene completely, giving the hobby a flaccid, "men with toys" feel.

Lift Misconceptions

Some sources erroneously explain that wings create lift by causing the air above them to travel further, which increases its speed and thereby lowers its pressure relative to the air below. Actually, wings create lift by moving the air downward, which pushes the wing upward in reaction. A flat surface can act as a wing, and many aircraft can fly both right side up and upside down, so long as the wings angle downward.


Medicine Man Glider kit from author Ryan Grosswiler, with full-sized plans and pre-printed balsa

R/C airplanes, accessories, tools, and materials

Carries Zaic Model Publications, including Model Glider Design

Join the conversation -- every MAKE article has an online page that includes a place for discussion. We've made these RSS and Atom feeds to help you watch the discussions: subscribe.