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Model Aviation Has Roots in Centre County

by and on January 22, 2020 5:00 AM

Building and flying model airplanes is a hobby enjoyed by thousands of people around the world. The hobby has a long history, and some of it involves people from right here in Centre County.

William Likens “Bill” Brown was born on May 30, 1911 to upper middle class parents in the Philadelphia area. As a youth, he and his friend Maxwell Bassett built and flew many rubber-powered models, including some that Bassett had designed. Model planes in those days were powered by rubber bands, but Brown dreamed of making a miniature engine for them. While in high school, Brown fabricated parts for an engine in his father’s machine shop.

When Brown had an engine ready, Bassett had a model plane designed and built for it. Bassett experimented and practiced all summer long and started getting good results with the model design.

In 1932, Brown and Bassett took their model, named “Miss Philadelphia,” to the National Championships in Atlantic City and entered it in the powered models class. In that class, almost all contestants used rubber band power. The plane came in fourth. To the rule makers, Brown’s engine was just a passing fancy that would create little further interest.

The next year Brown and Bassett showed up at the New York’s Roosevelt Field for the 1933 Nationals with several different models and engines. They swept first place in all three powered contests. The judges finally made new rules for gas models.

Brown and his father formed Brown Junior Motors, and began manufacturing and selling the engines in 1934. The Brown Junior engine was an immediate success. It was the first practical gasoline-powered model aircraft engine ever made. In the first two years of business, the company sold 5,000 engines. Brown Junior Motors made gas engines until 1940.

Brown later turned his attention to making tiny engines powered by compressed carbon dioxide gas. These engines displaced just .005 cubic inches, and could fly small (12 to about 20 inch wingspan) stick and tissue planes that were normally rubber-powered. He formed a company called Campus Industries, which manufactured the engines.

After graduating from high school, Brown studied mechanical engineering at the Pennsylvania State College (now Penn State) for the next two years. He was working on a mechanical engineering degree. He liked the Centre County area, and so he moved Campus Industries to Pine Grove Mills, and resided in State College. He was a member of the State College Radio Control Club. He was passionate about the field of model aviation and encouraged young people to develop an interest in it.

Brown received numerous awards and accolades for his work. Several of his early engines are included in the collections of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He was elected to the Academy of Model Aeronautics Model Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974. He was known and recognized internationally for his achievements.

Bill Brown holds two of his Brown Junior model airplane engines. They were the first practical gasoline-powered model aircraft engines ever made.

Just as full-scale aviation has the Wright brothers, radio controlled model flying has the Good brothers. Twin brothers Walt and Bill Good had a fortunate set of skills. Walt was an avid airplane modeler and Bill was a ham radio operator and electronics expert. They combined these skills and built and flew the first practical radio controlled model airplane back in 1937.

Called “Big Guff,” the plane  had an eight-foot wingspan and was powered by one of Bill Brown’s Brown Junior gas engines. It had rudder and elevator controls, activated by wound rubber escapements. It used a vacuum tube receiver and the transmitter sat on the ground, powered by a car battery. The radio was all hand built by the brothers, since no commercial RC equipment was available. It led to the development of modern radio control equipment.

A few years later, in 1940, the late Clark Hile and Terry Noll of Pleasant Gap built a “Big Guff” model, and flew it as a free flight plane. They then decided to equip it with radio control. They too, had to hand build their radio equipment. They bought many electronic components for the radio at a radio repair shop in Pleasant Gap, owned and operated by Charles K. Stitzer. They achieved many successful flights of the “Guff” at the old Bellefonte Airport, which was located along Route 64 between the lime plant and Garbrick Road. Their flights are believed to be the first RC flights in Central Pennsylvania.

The “Guff” sat in Hile’s attic until 1977, when local modeler and full-scale aircraft enthusiast Bob Grove acquired it and fitted it with a glow engine and modern RC equipment.

Years later this author received a phone call from Bob Edelstein, a modeler formerly from Mill Hall, who had moved to Michigan.

He said he had acquired the “Guff” from Grove and had repaired and restored it to near original condition. He installed an original Brown Junior engine in it and it was placed in a museum in Lansing, Mich., near Edelstein’s home. The Good Brothers were from that area, hence the museum exhibit in their honor.

Thanks to these, and many other pioneers, those of us who fly RC models today have lightweight, sophisticated, reliable radio equipment to guide our creations in flight.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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