The following is the text for a book I wrote about my Caprice design. I had hoped to actually produce a "real" book with photos and illustrations, but time may not permit that. I hope that you enjoy this book as it is more than just a construction article about the Caprice, but rather a chronicle of my earliest years in competition stunt, and a tribute to a few amazing people who helped me along the way.
Note: For some technical reason the entire text was not able to be posted in this message. I'll post the remainder of the text in two additional messages.
This book is humbly and gratefully dedicated to Bill Simons and Gene Schaffer, two fiercely competitive and divinely gifted Stunt Fliers and Model Builders, who instilled in me the love of a sport that will endure the length of my life and beyond.
By Warren Tiahrt
Bob Hunt breaks new ground with this story. George Aldrich broke new ground back in 1951 with a two part story of the Nobler. Bob Gialdini broke new ground with his comprehensive story of the development of his Olympics. Bob Hunt gives us a few chapters of an autobiography while telling the story of the Caprice from initial conception to the final construction details of his second Caprice. He gives us a real insight into his teen age admiration - or is it hero worship - of Gene Schaffer and Bill Simons, the two stunt fliers who were most influential in lighting the competitive fires that continue to burn brightly. Their friendship grew into a mutual bond that remains intact today.
The Caprice is a bit of a fooler. At first glance, it appears to be just another pleasant looking stunter with no single feature to set it apart from several other models from the late '60s except that it has that certain something that allows it to be an exceptionally good flying model. I have watched Bob win the Classic Stunt event at the 2003, 2004 and 2005 Nats, the Vintage Stunt Championships in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and finish right behind Bill Werwage at three other VSCs. At least five of these events were flown in some very nasty winds and the Caprice was without peer. In addition, John Callentine, Frank McMillan, Bill Rutherford, Kenny Stevens, Buddy Wieder, Roger Wildman, Jerry Silver and several others have Caprices that display the same excellent flying characteristics and are very highly thought of by their owners. Could it be the "Secret Moments? I can't say for sure of a "secret," but there is something “special” about the Caprice.
Try one, I think you will like it.
Warren Tiahrt Preface
The story of a model airplane is oft times more than simply a chronicle of how it was built and how it flew. Sometimes there is a saga involved; a recounting of a significant segment of the journey of life for a particular modeler, and the story of the people, places and experiences that formed his or her path towards becoming a lifelong devotee of the art and sport of model building and flying. This is the case with the story of the Caprice.
I had not planned to revisit this design. It was a defining model from my youth and one that greatly helped in carrying me farther down the road to becoming a successful CL Stunt competitor. Until recently, I just remembered it fondly as one small piece of a very large puzzle that I struggled to put together to achieve an ultimate goal. Now I realize that there is no ultimate goal in the sport of Stunt flying, or in any other sport for that matter. Stunt, like everything else in life, is truly a journey, not a destination. The perfect model will never be designed, and the perfect pattern will never be flown.
I came to realize that the days and years in which the Caprice was the focus of my personal journey through the sport of stunt were among the very best I’d known – or would ever know - in almost every respect. I was the most interested then. My senses were constantly piqued to learn and absorb. The modelers who would become the heroes of my life were performing at their best, giving me far more than adequate inspiration. Whatever it is that makes us choose a path in life had convinced me that this was the one that I would surely follow.
As you will read in this book, the thought to build again the Caprice was not my idea. A new friend I had met along the journey’s path convinced me to revive the memory and place it once again on paper so he could reprise it for competition in the Classic Stunt event. Even then I had no thought to actually build another example of it for myself.
I opened the faded folder that contained the cardboard templates that were used to create the shapes of the original model, and as the familiar lines of the design began to connect on the drawing board, waves of nostalgia hit me. Memories that had been absent from my thoughts for many years came rushing back as each element of the Caprice took shape again. Yes, I would send the plan to my friend who wanted so much to build this design, but I decided also to take a step back into my youth and relive the experiences by constructing one of my own.
Unless you have a prescription for a really wonderful pair of rose-colored glasses, a trip like this one might well be wrought with disappointment, and maybe even a little embarrassment. If the model was not everything that I remembered it to be some thirty-nine or so years ago, then the wonderful memories of the people and the events might also be diminished in my thoughts. This, I reasoned, could be a trip I might well regret.
Fortunately, the airplane was not a disappointment. It was a revelation. I’ve often written and spoken of my belief that the smaller CL stunt models are more fun to fly. The first flight on the new Caprice reinforced that thought mightily. I won’t go so far as to suggest that the smaller models fly better than the larger ones, but I will present the argument that if a model is fun to fly, then you might fly it better, and more often, than one that isn’t. A subject better left to another time and document, I guess…
It became very clear to me as this project progressed that there is no way to tell the entire story of a given model in an average length magazine-type article. There the author is constrained to but 3,000 or so (usually less) words. He or she can focus on one or two aspects of the project in detail, or give a general - but extremely abbreviated - overview of the whole project. A telling of the entire story in detail is just not possible. When you throw in the components of how the model came into being in the first place and how it fit into the fabric of the time in which it was originally produced, it’s easy to see that we never really understand or know the whole story of a published model airplane.
I decided to take a new path with the telling of the story of the Caprice. I wanted this document to include every construction detail, certainly, but I also wanted it to capture the feel of an era and convey a large portion of the history of the sport in my local region in a specific timeframe. I needed to fill in the fabric of the history that I knew about, if only to finally fully understand where I came from, and how I got to the place I am now. Yes, writing this book was something I had to do, even if it would never be read by anyone other than me.
It is my sincere hope that you will find the story of the Caprice worthy of the time it takes to read. I further hope that you will gain an insight to the dedication and genius of those who inspired me to build and fly CL stunt models in the first place. More than anything else I wanted to pay great and humble tribute to a few of the greats of our sport and let you see them through the wide eyes of a young man who desperately wanted to become part of this amazing fraternity.
My final hope in writing about a particular model design, in this somewhat different format, is to inspire others who have similar stories to take up the loom and add to the fabric from their own unique perspective. If enough choose to do this, then we will eventually have a rich and complete blanket of stunt history that will live on and inspire others for years to come. – Bob Hunt CapriceChapter One“The Corner”
In 1965 I was consumed with trying to become a competitive control line combat flier on the East Coast, or at least as consumed as a seventeen-year-old could be while just a junior in high school. What I really wanted to do was become a competitive CL stunt flier, but that seemed like a far too lofty goal at my age and experience level. Still, each year while attending the annual May 30th contest, hosted by the Union Model Airplane Club, I would find time between my combat matches (or after I had been eliminated…) to stand outside the spectator barrier and watch the stunt fliers compete.
The East was a virtual hotbed of stunt activity in those days, and there were usually so many contestants entered in the Memorial Day meet at Union that only one flight per pilot was possible. On the eastern stunt contest circuit, a win at Union was held in high esteem, second only to winning or placing at the Nats.
The list of names of those who competed in that annual meet reads like a Who’s Who of Eastern -- and in some cases, National -- Stunt History. I remember watching Ron Pavloer (designer of the very famous and entertaining Bi-Slob), Artie Meyers, Harold Price, Bob Lampione, Bobby Miller, Billy Simons, John D’Ottavio, Eddie Elasick, and many others of note, fly beautiful patterns in competition at Union. It was a treat beyond compare for someone who desired to one day fly in the stunt event.
There was one pilot, however, who in my mind eclipsed them all with his talent, level of intensity, and sheer will to fly the very best. I’m speaking, of course, of the great, and even legendary Gene Schaffer.
All I had heard about back then was how spectacular this Schaffer guy was. I hadn’t seen him fly up to that point, but his “press” was just amazing. The first time I saw Gene compete, he was flying a jet-styled model that was built around one of the very first foam core wings from Mike and Arnie Stott’s Mankato, Minnesota based Foam Flite Company. The model Gene was flying that day had tricycle landing gear with no spats or simulated doors, and a very simple white and orange paint job with just a bit of black trim. It was extremely spartan in appearance, but also very business-like. Those early foam wings were not cored out internally, so they were prone to be a bit on the heavy side.
Gene, like almost everyone else in the stunt event in those days, used the ubiquitous Fox .35 for power. His style was unlike all the others, however, in the manner in which he chose to run the engine. Most opted for a deep, two-four break, and a slow pattern presentation. Gene liked to run the engine much harder and at a higher RPM, and consequently at a higher airspeed.
Gene also flew in the opposite direction from almost everyone else because he was left-handed. His level laps were flown in the clockwise direction. In those days mufflers were not used, and with the exhaust outlet pointing in the “other” direction, Gene’s models had a unique and very quiet sound while in a downwind maneuver because the fuselage blanketed the noise. This gave his models an eerily smooth presentation in relation to all of the others that were much louder downwind. This may seem like a small thing these days, but it was a significant factor with the “open stack” engine operation back then. Of course, when Gene’s model passed by the judges upwind, the exhaust outlet was on the outside of the circle and at that point very close to the judges. The pronounced, sudden and very loud “wowww” produced as the model passed the judge’s position really woke them up! In an event where being different is difficult, Gene had some automatic advantages, and he knew how to use them to best effect.
Anyway, I finally got to see Gene fly that day for the first time. It was one of those pivotal moments in life. It was one of those times when something was finally fully defined for me, and I knew that this was to be instrumental in forming the path my life would take. Now, realize that I had seen outstanding flying before, and understood fully what I was watching on each of those occasions. Bob Gialdini’s flights with the Olympic at the 1961 Nats were the catalyst that made me want to someday fly stunt. But the flight I saw from Gene that day on May 30th in Union defined how I wanted to fly stunt.
Gene was an ominous looking character in those days; at least I thought so. He was a professional musician at that time in his life and would play in New York City until the wee hours of the morning at a “gig” and then drive straight to a contest without getting any sleep. He looked haggard and even a bit mean. Not someone that a young, impressionable, rural New Jersey boy would readily go up to and ask questions of! I was scared of him right from the moment I first laid eyes on him, but there was something there that I really liked, as well. I later realized that this was perhaps the very first pure competitor that I had seen in person. His persona was unlike anyone else’s.
From the very moment that Gene’s jet-like model broke ground that day, I knew I was watching a very special performance. In fact, I think everyone had that same thought. I first saw it there but had witnessed it many, many more times in the following years; Gene stopped the contest! I mean the action all over the field came to a virtual halt when he took off. All eyes were on him as he set-up for his reverse wingover.
There are moments that are freeze-frames in time for everyone, and as I watched Gene’s model circulate at a very business-like speed – not too fast, but certainly quicker than anyone else’s – little did I know that I was about to experience one. When Gene turned the model into the climb at the entry point of the wingover, I could almost swear that I heard a distinct “pop!” The corner was that abrupt and crisp. The line the white and orange jet scribed over the top seemed to be absolutely perfect. No wavering, no hint of straining to get to the top as many of the stunt models from that era displayed; just a clean, straight, one-speed, defined arc to the point of the inverted pullout. I was mesmerized by the way his model presented. So stable, so confident. And then it hit me that the ship was way past the point where I was used to seeing others begin their pullout. I had time for this thought to register and to even get a chill from the anticipation of a straight in crash as the ship was still descending! Then he turned “The Corner.”
In later years the East Coast stunt fliers who competed on a national level would become quite famous for their “blazing” corners. It would be a conceded matter of fact that no matter how they flew the rest of the pattern, their square maneuvers would have little or no competition for minimum radius corners. Others caught up eventually, but the East Coast boys were the undisputed corner champs for quite some time.
I believe that it was Gene’s type of corner that set the stage and defined that “look” for us. I know that in my mind I had seen my hopeful future in that split second. Can’t honestly tell you here that I remember virtually anything else from that pattern, but I certainly do have a vivid remembrance of that perfect and stunning wingover pull out corner. I also realized right then that I had a new hero! CapriceChapter Two“I’m going to die in Astoria”
I didn’t get too many chances to watch Gene fly after that May 30th Union meet. I really didn’t have a way to get to a lot of contests in those days. My dad was very busy at a new job that required a long daily commute to New York, so weekends for him were the only time he had to work around the house and rest up.
I actually had been focusing on trying to learn to fly stunt for a couple of years at that time. I built a Veco Mustang and a Veco Chief in an effort to better learn the pattern maneuvers. The Mustang was the first of two that I would build, and it was a pretty good round maneuver machine, but it just wasn’t capable of a competition type corner. I learned a lot about wing loading with that ship. It had a smallish wing (405 square inches as I remember), and weighed in the 38-ounce range. It would stall if I tried to turn it abruptly.
The Chief, on the other hand, had a huge wing, and it also weighed around 38 ounces. It could really turn! Unfortunately, it was not the most accurate model that I ever built, and I had to use a trim tab to get the wing level. I had messed up in building the wing in several ways on that particular model, and it came out finished with pronounced anhedral. I think it actually looked cool that way!
I had added large built-up, round wing tips that were made up of about a million small parts each, and I also installed wing type landing gear in place of the normal fuselage mounted gear supplied in the Chief kit and new fin and rudder with a rounder shape. I had intended to add a canopy on the top block but never got around to that. I finished the model in all Aero Gloss Stearman Red with a bit of black trim. Thinking back now, I believe my Chief was an awful looking model, but I was very proud of it. Most importantly, it didn’t fly too badly.
I began practicing with the Chief, trying as best I could to emulate the patterns that I’d seen flown at the contests. Naturally, I tried to “hammer” the corners, just like Gene.
In the late summer of 1965, I remember practice flying at my club’s field in Dumont, New Jersey. It was actually a baseball field that we had gained permission to use. There were no competition fliers in that club, and I was the only member who could actually fly the entire pattern. We had a lot of fun, however, and I looked forward to our weekend flying sessions.
I had just finished a flight and had landed. One of my fellow club members retrieved the model and we walked back to our roped-off pit area. I was busy wiping the fuel residue off of the model when I heard a voice say, “Looks like there’s someone here who wants to fly stunt.” I turned to see who had made the comment and nearly dropped the model and my jaw when I saw that it was Bill Simons.
Bill was the top northern New Jersey stunt pilot, and he was also among the top fliers in the entire eastern area. I had watched him fly locally many times but didn’t dare bother him while he was “working.” He did once let me launch his model at a field where he was putting on a demonstration. I think everyone else was afraid to even touch his model, so I actually volunteered on that occasion. Bill’s models were absolutely stunning. He was generally acknowledged as one of the very best builders and finishers in the East, and just the thought of putting a ding or dent in one of his models was enough to keep most far from the risk of launching them.
Apparently, Bill had been out flying at one of his “secret” practice fields and stopped by just to see what was going on at our club. He had watched my entire flight and came over to make a few encouraging comments and to offer any help that he could.
I was at once both stunned and elated. I actually flew a pattern that was recognizable enough for Bill to watch and then make a favorable comment about. I gathered up all my intestinal fortitude, thanked him, and then took a chance by asking him if I could take a few minutes of his time regarding a few technical questions. He said to fire away, and I guess I must have overwhelmed him with a barrage of stuff. In retrospect, that outpouring of questions from me must have convinced him that I was more than just a bit serious about giving this stunt thing a try.
Bill wrote down his phone number on a matchbook cover and gave it to me. He said that if I had any additional questions, I should give him a call sometime. I kept that matchbook cover for several years, even long after I had committed his number to memory. I even wrote his number in several other places at my home, just in case!
I waited all of about sixteen hours to call Bill (didn’t want him to think I was too anxious!) and began asking more questions. We lived about ten miles apart at that time, and he suggested that I come to his house for a visit one evening that week. I remember not getting much sleep the night before that visit.
When I got to his house, Bill took me to his upstairs shop (a converted bedroom). What happened next is probably as much to blame as anything else for my lifelong love affair with the stunt event and stunt models.
Sitting on one table in the shop were the pieces for Bill’s next new stunt model. The wing, fuselage crutch, rudder, fin, and stabilizer and elevator assemblies were sitting there squarely arranged in absolute pristine beauty. I mean, man, those components looked perfect! No gouges, no glue stains, no smudges -- just pure clean balsa parts that were perfectly sanded and shaped. Artwork!
I guess I went into a state of shock when I saw those pieces. I suddenly felt that I’d been thrown into the deep end of the stunt craftsmanship pool, and I was about to drown. I had no idea that building could be done at this level. I think my reaction pleased Bill.
I wanted to build like this immediately, but the thought of how much valley was between the peak where I was in my building and flying, and the peak where Bill was, seemed daunting. Bill sensed all of this, I think, and offered to mentor me as I built a new model. He suggested that I build a “Simonized” Nobler, and gave me all the secrets of what to use from the kit and what to change and make anew. I left his house that day with renewed focus and a sense of purpose. I was beginning my journeyman period, and Bill Simons was going to be my teacher. How great was that!
Bill and I went on to become extremely close friends – brothers really. He was even the Best Man at my wedding. I can never repay Bill for the things that I learned from him, and there are a lot of stories that I could relate. Without doubt, Bill Simons was one of the most influential among many wonderful people I’ve met and embraced during my life in modeling.
Anyway, I began building and flying with Bill shortly after we met. About two weeks after that initial meeting at the flying field in Dumont, Bill told me that he was going to compete in the Willets Point contest (the future site of Shea Stadium) that coming weekend. I asked him if I could go along to watch, and he told me that normally that would be fine, but on this occasion he had been invited by Gene Schaffer to come out to Astoria (a section of Queens, New York) and have breakfast with Bob Lampione and him before going to the site of the contest. Bill didn’t want to take it upon himself to invite me to Gene’s apartment, and I understood that.
The look of disappointment on my face must have gotten to him, because he informed me that he would call Gene and ask him if he could bring me along. I really didn’t expect to hear from Bill with a positive answer, but that evening he called and told me to be at his house bright and early on Sunday morning. Gene, who didn’t even know me at the time, had said, “Sure, bring the kid along.”
I was at once elated and also scared to death. I was in a car with one of the stunt legends of our area, on the way to the apartment of the top stunt legend of our area, and I was just a nobody. Yikes, be careful what you wish for!
We arrived in Astoria and went up to Gene’s apartment. The door opened, and there he was. Up to that point the closest I had come to Gene was the far side of the spectator fence at the Union meet. Bill and Gene exchanged greetings and then Bill introduced me to Gene.
Now it is important here that you understand just a bit more about Gene before I go on. While Gene was still in grade school, an automobile hit him. This happened while he was hurrying home to show his parents a special award that he’d received. The accident was a bad one, and it left Gene with a damaged nervous system. The result was a rather pronounced series of very noticeable, nervous “ticks” which manifested themselves in many ways, including a series of audible and involuntary popping, clicking, and snapping noises, and a number of unusual stretching gestures made with his neck, jaw, arms, and shoulders.
Please understand that I share the following commentary with a genuine respect and admiration for Gene, and there is nothing herein that I wouldn’t have outright said to Gene. (I read this to Gene just to be sure that he was okay with the release of this information. He agreed that it is an integral part of his story and should be included. ) In fact, as we grew to be good friends, the tick and noise thing became an endearing source of hilarity for all of us, Gene included. He knew how to use that trait as a competitor to good effect, too!
I remember Gene’s starting to shake my hand, but at the very last instant he pulled back his hand and waved it all about while making some very unusual popping and snapping sounds. He stretched his neck, looked at the ceiling, and then looked at me and again offered his hand. I almost freaked out.
I was scared enough at just the thought of meeting this tough looking, gifted pilot. Throw in the component of a wild nervous tick condition -- that Bill, by the way, neglected to warn me about – and I was nearly incapable of speech. I stammered a hello, and I think I gushed a bunch of stuff about how great a pilot I thought he was. Gene rolled his eyes towards the ceiling, made some wild chewing gestures, uttered a couple more strange sounds, and said something like, “Yeah, thanks, nice to meet you, too. Now get your ass in here and let’s eat!”
As I walked into the apartment, my eyes were drawn to an airframe that was sitting on the living room floor. It was Gene’s new Stunt model, and it was not yet fully finished. The entire model was painted in matt black, and it looked stunningly perfect in every respect. In fact, it looked like a piece of modern artwork sitting there.
Gene preferred low-slung, sleek, and stylish models; the Jet he had flown at Union earlier that year was just an experiment for him -- a way of quickly trying the then new foam core wing construction. His specialty was the racer-like model with minimal fuselage depth and very low-to-the-deck cockpits. He told me much later that Charles Mackey’s Lark was the inspiration for this look. In fact, Gene made many Lark fuselaged models that featured slightly thicker than stock Nobler wings. It was a sort of trademark for Gene in those days.
Characteristically, Gene’s models all featured fairly long nose and tail moment arms and needle-nose spinners. The combination made his models seem even lower and sleeker than they actually were. This new model was his best looking by far up to this point from a strictly design point perspective. It featured a torsion bar, fuselage-mounted landing gear system, and no plastic canopy on the cockpit area. This one was to have a painted-on canopy, something virtually unheard of in those days.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of this model; I was mesmerized by its appearance. I asked Gene if I could pick it up, feel the weight, and look at the bottom of the model. He said, “Okay, but be careful with it.” Like I really needed to be told that! Like I would do something stupid like start to turn it over without checking for any obstructions in the room…
I lifted that model as though it were made of eggshells. It didn’t seem to weigh anything at all. How was it possible that this solid core foam wing model could weigh so little? Amazing! I started to slowly flip it over, and then it happened. Funny how a soft balsa wing tip hitting a hard maple stereo cabinet can make such a loud thud. Yup, I had rotated the ship the wrong way and put a really nasty little ding in the right lower wing tip block of this otherwise immaculate model. Suddenly, the banter between Bill, Bob, and Gene stopped. They all looked over at me and the dented ship. I remember thinking, “I’m going to die in Astoria.”
Actually, Gene took it quite well. He began popping and snapping and twitching at an accelerated rate, then rushed over to grab the ship from my hands. In his agitated state he flailed the model this way and that, and I was sure he was going to bang it on every piece of furniture in the room. He finally calmed down and inspected the damage. I know he was doing a slow burn inside, but told me that he could easily fix that dent and told me that he wasn’t mad. Yeah, right.
That was a traumatic experience to be sure, but I never did forget the first look I had at that sleek stunter. I knew from that moment on what type of model I wanted to fly. Gene’s styling sense had totally sold me on that look.
The contest that day? Gene won. CapriceChapter Three“Secret Moments”
In the spring of 1966, I finished my “Simonized” Nobler. Bill Simons had built about a gazillion Noblers over the years, and had found areas that he felt could benefit from some further engineering. In fact, when I bought my “Green Box” Nobler kit to start building my first real competition stunter, Bill told me to remove the wing ribs and the “D” Tube spar pieces from the kit box and throw everything else away – except the landing gear wire if I were going to build the model with the standard gear placement.
I decided that I wanted a wing gear model, so the gear wire followed almost all that high-priced, die-cut balsa into the trashcan (I did keep the leading edge and trailing edge sheeting). I’m sure glad my dad never found out that I threw away almost all of that kit!
Bill told me to start with new 1/8-inch balsa sides – without the lightening holes that kit sides had - and new formers that didn’t protrude upward from the sides to form the basis for the aft turtle deck. He told me that I would be using carved and hollowed blocks for all of the fuselage shapes and the cowl. Ditto for the wingtips; they would each be made from two pieces of balsa block, carved and hollowed. It was clear that Bill had made a few of these and had found ways to make them stronger, faster, and easier. He told me to substitute ¼ inch sheet balsa for the built-up stabilizer and elevators supplied in the kit and to make a built-up and sheeted rudder as well.
I followed Bill’s directions to the letter, and the result was the first really pretty Stunt model that I owned. I painted it in Candy Apple Red with black and white trim; it was my pride and joy. Bill flew the first test flight and pronounced it a very good ship. I remember it weighed in at about 44 ounces, which was not too bad for a first try at a contest-finished model. I powered it with a Fox .35 Anniversary Special (the one with the gold anodizing) and a Top Flite 10 x 6 prop. With that model and Bill’s coaching, I began to fly at a competitive level – at least in the Senior Stunt division.
There was a famous contest that was held each year in New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the New Bedford Airport, and I wanted to go. Bill Simons had a previous engagement and couldn’t make the trip. I was of driving age at that point, so I convinced my father to allow me to take the family station wagon and go alone to that meet. I would have to leave late on Saturday night, drive over two hundred miles, grab a little sleep in the car, then compete all day long and drive home on Sunday night. That he let me attempt this trip was amazing, but I think he knew how anxious I was to prove myself against all comers in my age bracket. Dad always did fully support my modeling interests.
That drive was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my young life. It was an adventure, really. I had not gone anywhere outside of our immediate area, alone, and certainly nowhere of any distance at night in the car. There were lots of new feelings running around in my head during that trip, and I remember really liking the mystery of night driving on a secluded New England highway. In fact, I really believe that is why I prefer long distance night driving to this day. Those who know me well also know of this penchant for leaving for home after a full day’s flying and driving through the night. They just think I’m weird.
On that trip I learned the joys of channel surfing on AM radio to find just the right driving tune, and of course the time honored practice of singing along at the top of my lungs. (I know… I won’t quit my day job.) I also liked looking in the rear view mirror and seeing my gleaming red Nobler strapped in and waiting. That was my first hit of the gunfighter mentality. I was going into someone else’s territory to do battle. Great stuff!
I arrived at the airport in the wee hours of Sunday morning, and almost immediately dropped into a deep sleep lying on the front seat of the car. I was exhausted. I guess I slept for about three or four hours until awakened by the sound of a model airplane engine. Someone was getting in an early practice flight.
I got up and went into the airport to use the facilities and get a cup of coffee. When I went back outside, I saw that a number of contestants had arrived. Among them was Gene Schaffer, who had brought along his wife Sue. Gene had this absolutely gorgeous, gleaming red Firebird, out of which he pulled his latest sleek stunter. This was the model that was to inspire the Caprice design. As much as I had liked his model that I damaged in Astoria, this one was even more stunning and well proportioned.
I had gotten to know Gene a bit by this time, and had even visited him alone once at his new home in Lake Hiawatha, New Jersey. I was getting braver…
Gene asked if I would like to practice with him, and I quickly accepted. That was an honor! We were told that we couldn’t practice on the actual contest site for a while yet, but we could practice on an adjacent ball field. Trees bordered that field on one side, and it was quite tight. I wasn’t too sure that there was enough room to fly there. Gene suggested that I go first.
In retrospect it might have been a good idea to walk the lines, with the model attached, around the circle to the tree line to insure that there was enough room. But we didn’t…
I fired up, signaled for a launch, and took off. I had made a full lap before the outside wingtip hit a branch that was overhanging the circle. I backed up as much as I could and completed the flight carefully to prevent another mishap. When I landed, I ran to inspect the ship. Only a small rip was found at the top of the last outer wing rib bay, and a small piece of scotch tape fixed it up well enough to continue flying that day. But, alas, my pristine winged weapon now had a scar. I was a bit miffed. Gene opted to wait to practice until the main contest site was opened…
All went well that day for both of us; I won the Senior Stunt event, and Gene won in Open. As always, when Gene flew, the entire contest came to a halt to watch him. Amazing… simply amazing.
I think Gene could tell that I was pretty tired after the contest. He suggested that I follow him on the way home, as we both took the same route for most of the way. I remember being so sleepy that I could hardly focus on the road. I know I weaved around a bunch. After about an hour on the road, Gene signaled me to pull off at an exit. He pulled into a fairly expensive-looking restaurant’s parking lot. I was on a very strict budget that weekend; in fact I was down to about five bucks!
Gene and Sue said they needed to eat and that I should join them. I started to make some lame excuse about needing to get back on the road, but Gene told me to shut up and come with them. He also said that he was buying! Wow! This was great. One of my Stunt heroes was taking me to dinner!
Gene said that we needed to celebrate our “team” win and fairly demanded that I order a steak. It was pretty much at that moment that I knew I had been accepted into the competitive East Coast Stunt scene. In retrospect I think that his offer of dinner was also his way of apologizing for the tree strike earlier that day; I think he felt in some way at fault for that. I was starting to see through Gene’s tough, gruff exterior and was finding a kind and gentle soul there. It was the start of a very long, meaningful, and fun friendship.
My Nobler was a really good flying model, but it didn’t present or fly like Gene’s “Blackbird” (so named by me because Gene didn’t name his models in those days, and he did paint all of his models in base black for about five years). I really wanted a model that would drive through wind and turbulence as Gene’s did, and one with which I could get that great looking corner.
I asked Gene at dinner that evening if I could have the plans for his model so I could build one. He informed me very matter-of-factly that there were no plans for the ship. He went on to tell me that all of the dimensions for his models were in his head! Not being one to take a hint, I pressed on. “Could I have those dimensions?” Gene let out a nervous laugh, popped and twitched a bit, and then looked me straight in the eye. He didn’t say anything for quite a few moments; he was very still and serene. (I later learned that when Gene was serious and focused, he could overcome the nervous condition. This was certainly the case when he flew!) Then he smiled very sincerely and said yes.
What followed was a serious discussion of my intentions. He would only give those dimensions to me if I would assure him that I was going to build the ship just as he instructed. I still get chills when I think about that discussion. I promised, of course, to follow his every direction and not make a move without consulting him.
Gene asked the waitress for a pen, ripped a section of the paper placemat, and began listing all of the dimensions on it for me. He told me what wing design to order from Foam Flite, and then he gave me the “Secret Moments,” which, according to him, were the real reason for his models’ great performance. Gene was very stern and direct when he uttered those dimensions. It was as if he were giving me some priceless map to a hidden treasure.
Those moment arm dimensions are forever etched in my memory, and I might forget a lot of things, but never those numbers! Nose Moment: 9 3/8 inches; Tail Moment: 14 3/4 inches. Doesn’t sound all that impressive now, but I felt somehow blessed when he uttered them and wrote them down for me.
Along with the Secret Moments came a solemn oath not to tell anyone else. Of course, Gene released this information to general distribution himself some years later, so I guess it’s all right for me to relate it again here.
Pressing my luck, I asked Gene if I could change the wing tip, tail tip, and wheel spat shapes to suit my own taste. Surprisingly, that didn’t seem to bother him at all. In fact, I think he liked the idea, so when I returned home, I began working on the model that was to eventually become the Caprice. Wow, what a trip! CapriceChapter FourWhat’s in a name?
Construction on my new and as yet un-named, Gene Schaffer-inspired design began in the fall of 1966. I drew no plans at that time, opting to be just like Gene and draw the necessary lines for construction right onto the balsa. I did make cardboard templates for all the important shaped pieces such as the wing tips, fin, and wheel spats. Basically those were the only parts that differed from Gene’s dimensional drawing. I used the same tip shape that I had used on my Simonized Nobler. That shape was rounder and fuller than the stock Nobler tip, and it added about an inch of span per panel as well.
I received my very first foam wing from the Foam Flite Company and began sanding the balsa skins smooth the very same evening. In those days the wings arrived covered with 1/16-inch balsa skins, which were not sanded at all. The ¼-inch leading edge and trailing edge caps were glued on but not shaped or sanded to conform to the sheet skins. That was fine; we could sand to our heart’s content and be as critical as we pleased. I think I fussed with the sanding of those panels for about a week before I pronounced them ready for joining.
Every operation on a foam wing in those days was a first for those of us who were just beginning to try them. They were pricey enough, even then, that you wanted to be certain not to make a catastrophic mistake. Bill Simons had built one at the end of the previous year, and so he was the local expert on the techniques involved. I made several trips to his house with that wing at each stage, just to be certain that I didn’t do something stupid. He explained to me how to install the controls and the landing gear blocks, and then checked my work before any glue was allowed near the components.
Once the wing was together the rest of the work seemed easy. In fact these new-age models went together very quickly, even if you spent just a few hours a day on them. The fuselage crutch was fitted with top blocks, bottom blocks and a cowl block, and then carved and sanded until the desired shape was achieved. Many of the popular kit designs – the Nobler included – required bending sheeting over formers, or planking with narrow balsa strips. That was far more difficult it seemed than carving a solid block to shape. It’s funny how things change. Now we try to eliminate as many blocks as possible and mold top and bottom blocks whenever possible!
The blocks for the Caprice were hollowed as much as I dared to eliminate all possible dead weight. The foam wings were heavier than the built-up ones we were all used to using, and care had to be taken everywhere in the airframe to make up for that extra weight.
This carving, sanding and hollowing process became my very favorite part of stunt model construction because it allowed so much creativity in achieving shape and form. I still really like carving just because of the artistic aspects. Hey, I’m just old school!
The stabilizer and elevator assembly was made from 3/8-inch thick balsa. The pieces were cut out as per the dimensional drawing, tack glued together and sanded as a unit, tapering the assembly towards the tips. A square center section on the stabilizer was maintained to allow easy alignment when assembling the stabilizer to the fuselage crutch.
Once the wing was completed, the blocks carved and hollowed, and the stabilizer and elevator assemblies completed, I vividly remember having all the parts laying on a table and thinking that the grouping looked just like the parts I saw when I first entered Bill Simons’ upstairs workshop. I was learning!
Gene and Billy had really stressed the importance of absolute accuracy in the assembling of the components, and I do remember that procedure taking a long while, as I checked and rechecked all the dimensions before gluing. In fact, now I believe that this is more important to the eventual way a Stunt model flies than any so called “Secret Moments.”
Anyway, the ship was finally ready for finishing. I covered the entire airframe with extra light (Double “0”) grade silkspan and applied several coats of clear dope. Then I mixed up a fillercoat from clear dope and talcum powder. I added a good shot of red colored dope to allow me to see how much filler I was removing during the sanding process. After a few evenings of elbow grease the ship was ready for the final base color coat. Nope, didn’t even consider anything but black! This was going to look as close to Gene’s model as possible.
I vividly remember setting the airframe -- with its fresh coat of black dope – on my parents’ living room rug. I put the wheels on the axles, taped the spinner in place and then spent about four hours “hangar flying” it from every possible angle. It might not have been quite as perfect as Gene’s appeared to me that day in Astoria, but it wasn’t bad!
Red and white trim was applied and then it was time for the most important part – choosing and applying a name! Unlike Gene who didn’t name his planes, I couldn’t wait to give mine an identity.
Choosing a name is a serious thing. A lot of work goes into one of these models, and over an entire lifetime you won’t have too many of them, so the name must be given a lot of thought.
I remember making a long list of possible names. You would have thought I was naming a son or daughter at this point. This was a sleek, sophisticated model, and it needed a sleek, sophisticated name. I had always liked Eddie Elasick’s Impala, and began thinking of other popular automobile names that might capture the essence of the design.
Being a Chevy fan narrowed the field somewhat, and I imagined the top inside wing emblazoned with such monikers as Bel Air, Corvair, Biscayne, etc. None of them seemed to fit the image. Chevy had a new car in their lineup in that era - the Caprice! “Hey, that’s not bad,” I remember thinking. I wasn’t sure what Caprice meant, but it sounded good to me.
I just now highlighted the word “Caprice” and went to the thesaurus function in Microsoft Word. Among the meanings that came up were Whim, Impulse, Fancy, and Notion. Isn’t that interesting…
Unfortunately I was not too adept at that time in making fancy stencils and ended up using a military crate-labeling stencil for the name. It was not very sleek or sophisticated, but at least it had a name.
Several coats of Aero Gloss clear dope were applied. Since it was winter by this time, I let the ship sit and dry for several weeks before wet sanding and rubbing. When I finally did rub it out, I was more than pleased. This was really a good-looking model, and I was very proud of it. Question was, “Would it fly?” CapriceChapter FiveDays of Tundra
“Darn it Bobby, it’s just too windy to fly.” Bill Simons uttered those same words to me on quite a few occasions - and he was always right. On this particular occasion he was admonishing me to not start the engine in the Caprice and attempt the very first flight with it on the morning of the first spring contest in 1967 in Millville, New Jersey.
The wind was howling across the concrete parking where the meet was supposed to be held. I was the only one stupid enough to even take a model out of the car that day. It was extremely cold, and the Fox was not cooperating. I remember it backfiring and whacking the nylon 10 x 6 Tornado prop across my finger several times. Trust me, glow fuel hurts when it enters an open wound!
I managed to get the engine running, set the needle and took off on the maiden flight. Actually, that’s a bit oversimplified. As Bill released the model, it over-rotated as the wind got under the tail and the tip of the prop hit the pavement. It ground off quite a bit of diameter, but it did manage to finally crawl into the air. Not the start I was looking for.
I remember trying a couple of loops, but the model accelerated so much in the heavy wind that I thought the lines would break. I decided to fly it level until the fuel was consumed. The landing was even less graceful than the takeoff, with the model ending up on its nose when a gust hit it from behind on rollout. The landing gear on my model was made a bit too long, and it caused problems for the first few meets in which I flew it. If the ship had set lower to the ground, those first flight glitches might have been avoided.
Anyway, it survived its maiden voyage, and was then put back in the car. The contest was cancelled because of the high winds, and as it turned out my flight was the only one flown that day! Billy yelled at me the entire way home for my foolishness. It was not the only time for that either…
Things got much better as I began trimming the Caprice. In those days we didn’t have adjustable leadouts, or adjustable tip weight boxes. There wasn’t too much we actually could trim but the CG location and work with the engine and prop combination a bit. Thankfully the leadouts on the original were positioned very well, and the ship proved to be a great flyer.
It was stable and turned equally both upright and inverted – a testament to accurate assembly of the components. It was very easy to fly, and with it I began to build a modest local reputation in the Senior Stunt division. The only real stumbling block for me in those days was one Dawn Cosmillo.
Dawn was the protégé of John D’Ottavio and Larry Scarinzi. She was an excellent pilot and had very good, well-built, well-trimmed and potently powered airplanes (Thanks to Larry’s magical ways with engines and nitro bottles I’m sure). She was a great competitor and I looked forward to flying against her in contests. The fact that she almost always beat me only made me more determined to get better.
I only bested Dawn a few times during those late 1960’s years. She quit flying around 1970. I really think that I owe much of my success to her. I tried incredibly hard to fly well enough not to be beaten by “a girl!” Trust me; I took a lot of abuse from my friends about that. Those of us who flew with Dawn saw her only as a savvy, competent and dedicated competitor. We never let the gender thing become a factor, and it never should have been. I truly wish she had kept on flying.
Anyway, I flew the Caprice a lot. It was a great tool with which to get to the next level in Stunt competition. I saw and felt in it the traits that I admired in Gene’s ships. It was solid at the end of the lines, it was very stable, and it possessed real drive through bad conditions and turbulence. I really believe that the density of the solid foam core wing had a lot to do with that. I also believe, however, that the concentrated weight at the tips accentuated other things that were not good. If the model was flying in extreme turbulence it would drive through okay, but it would “dance” laterally to a small degree. Newton’s law was quite evident there on the heavy tips.
My Caprice weighed in at around 50 ounces. Clearly I had a way to go to get down to the 44-ounce weights that Gene and others were hitting with their foam wing models. In ideal conditions the extra weight was not a big factor. But, in windy weather and turbulence it became clear that more power might really help this ship.
The OS Max .35S was being tried by several Stunt fliers around the country at that time, and the reports were that it had the same good two-four break traits of the Fox, but produced a considerable amount more power. I saved up and got one!
The extra power was more than welcome, and the ship flew better than ever with that engine. It was becoming more than just a model airplane; it was a trusted weapon!
The last competition for the Caprice before I entered the Army in 1968 was the famed Garden State Circle Burners’ Snowbird contest in February. The ground had thawed somewhat the month before the meet and lots of footprints were made all over the field by the members trying to get in some winter flying. By the time of the Snowbird meet, the weather had turned very cold, and the field froze solid again. The result was a very rough, tundra-like surface with lots of deep holes.
On my first flight that day I landed and hit one of those holes dead square with the outboard landing gear, and it snapped off clean! Actually a wire stub was still protruding from the wing. Someone had a propane torch and we were able to bend a new piece of wire with an axle, and lash it to the broken strut extending from the wing, braze the assembly solid, and remount the wheel. That got me through the day, and it offered the opportunity to make a more permanent repair and shorten the original gear to the proper length, as per Gene’s model, at the same time.
Dawn won that day, but it was a very close contest in which I ended up taking second place. I remember her father coming over to me and saying that I was providing Dawn with worthy and needed competition. That comment made me feel really good. Dawn was a National Senior contender and a former Junior National Champ!
Shortly after that contest I entered the Army (in April of 1968) and didn’t get to fly any of the 1968 summer season. My Army experience was short lived due to a bad fall in training in which I broke my back. I was having extremely bad leg pain after the fall and was admitted to Walton Army Hospital at Fort Dix. I spent several weeks in traction there and was finally Honorably Discharged in October of that year. The doctors didn’t actually tell me that my back had been broken; I found that out years later. The result of that injury was a life filled with terrible back and leg pain. Only recently has that pain subsided. Looks like 1968 was my year for “landing gear” problems!
When I returned home from the Army I flew the Caprice several times before winter closed in. The following spring I took it to a contest at Mitchell Field on Long Island. It was very windy that day, and Bill once again told me not to fly. In fact, the contest was cancelled. But Gene had other ideas.
Gene was well known for being the very best East Coast flier in the wind. His home field was the model airplane facility at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York. It was rare to ever have a calm day at that site, and so Gene got lots of wind practice. In fact, I think Gene preferred to fly in heavy wind just because he was so good at it.
Whenever the wind got too bad to fly patterns safely, Gene would put a smaller diameter prop on his plane, put in just enough fuel to get airborne and begin flying consecutive lazy eights. When the engine stopped, he would use the power of the wind to keep the plane’s momentum and fly for hours sometimes, doing lazy eights and other downwind maneuvers.
That day at Mitchell Field Gene put on a real wind flying show. I wanted to try that for sure! Bill Simons - always the voice of reason - tried to talk me out of it, but I was determined. Gene gave me some instructions, and I took off and began doing lazy eights. When the engine shut down, the model actually picked up speed! Really, the wind was making it go faster than it did while running.
I did a bunch of eights and then Gene called out and said to take a level lap and try inside loops. You have to really work at it to whip the model around the circle in such wind, but I did it and started doing deadstick inside loops. Then Gene called out for outside loops, and I did a few of those. Hey this was fun!
Gene called out for outside squares, and I gamely gave them a try - but only a try. The model lost momentum when I missed the wind, and it fell in towards me and shattered on the runway. Both Gene and I were laughing like fools, but Bill was really mad at both of us. I had crashed my only flyable ship right at the beginning of the 1969 season; a season in which the Nats were going to be at Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. You are wondering what happened to the Candy Red Nobler? Red Reinhardt had crashed it some months earlier!
The saga of the original Caprice had come to an inauspicious end; it really deserved better. I often regret trying wind flying that day, but I suppose if the situation presented itself again, I’d try it again. What can I tell you, I’m just not too bright sometimes… And, whenever Gene threw down the gauntlet, I would always pick it up.
I was already building a new jet-styled stunt design called the Tangent for use in 1969, and had designed yet another jet styled ship that I called the Avanti. I didn’t even think about building another Caprice for many, many years.CapriceChapter Six“If it’s Dennis, I’m not here!”
A few years back, while attending the annual VSC (Vintage Stunt Championships) in Tucson, Arizona, I had the pleasure of meeting one very interesting and talented character. I say character, because the man I’m going to reference here had a completely different way of attacking/approaching the sport and art of Stunt flying than I’ve ever seen before. He was applying interesting concepts for learning at an accelerated rate, and he seemed to be making progress by leaps and bounds.
That’s when I first met Dennis Choate. We hit it off as friends immediately. I could sense a deep and profound intelligence in Dennis, and everything he’s done from the moment that I first met him has only reinforced that thought for me.
Dennis is very much a “Let’s get right to the point” kind of guy, and he often calls with a barrage of very well thought out questions. I can almost hear his mind absorbing material as we speak. He hears every word and assimilates every thought carefully before asking the next logical question. As I mentioned before, he’s a really intelligent man. You have to be “on your game” just to hold a conversation with Dennis!
Since the beginning of the Classic Stunt event, I’ve built models that were flown by my Stunt “heroes.” It was a way of paying homage to those who were – and in some cases still are – great designers/pilots. Even though I have three designs that qualify as Classic Legal, I still preferred to build the designs of others.
One evening a few years ago, Dennis and I were talking about Classic Stunt designs. We were kicking around what designs we felt had the most competitive edge. Naturally, we both agreed that Billy Werwage’s Ares and Vulcan designs were excellent, and we also agreed on Bob Gialdini’s Olympic MkVI as being a good one. In fact, the Olympic was the one that Dennis chose to fly for several years. He made a number of them and even built a few profile versions to test engines and to get used to the feel of that setup of moments. He’s not lazy!
Other designs that we both seemed to like were the Charles Mackey designed Lark and the Bob Tucker designed Tucker Special. I happened to mention in passing that I had once designed a model that had some aesthetics that were somewhat akin to the Lark but was really based on Gene Schaffer’s models from the mid to late 1960’s. I described the model and Dennis became very enthusiastic about building one for Classic Stunt at VSC. I told him that I didn’t have a full set of plans for the model but did have all the dimensions and the templates for the critical shapes. I also knew the exact wing design that was used and could, perhaps, draw a set of plans for him – someday.
Dennis became obsessed with getting those plans, and he called me almost every week for more than a year! I couldn’t understand why he was so adamant about building that particular model. It was fairly obscure, even in its own area in the 1960’s, and it certainly never won any contests of note. It wasn’t as stylish as, say, an Ares or a Lark (at least from my perspective). Why would he want so intensely to build that model?
Dennis kept the pressure on and finally admitted that he just wanted to fly a model that I designed in my early years of flying. Wow! Talk about a compliment! I never dreamed that anyone would look at my early work and find it worthy of replicating. Well, I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.
I’ve always thought the Caprice had fairly decent lines, but that was only because I liked the way Gene’s models looked, and the Caprice was essentially a rip-off of one of those models. “Okay,” I thought, “I can live with this.”
Another year passed, and I could tell that Dennis was getting more than just a bit impatient waiting for those promised plans. In fact I remember telling my son Robby one day when the phone rang, “If it’s Dennis, I’m not here!” One day, however, the spirit just moved me. I dug out all the photos and templates and put a piece of Mylar on the drawing board. (I was really just tired of Dennis’ persistent urging, and being afraid to answer the phone.)
The first thing that I drew was a blank fuselage side with the all-important Secret Moments. The next few hours were just a happy blur as the Caprice side view took form again. A rush of genuine nostalgia came over me. But, was it accurate? Well, I knew the wing, moment arms, and force arrangements were dead on the money to the first one. The same held true for the wing tips, tail tips, the wheel spats, and the fuselage block shapes. There just wasn’t much more to this model than those few items, so the answer was a resounding, “Yes!”
If I were to design this model today, I’d certainly shorten that long nose moment arm. In the 1960’s we were flying with 6 1/2 ounce Fox .35 engines that were not fitted with a muffler. The props were lightweight wood units, and we were using no more than 3 1/2 ounce tanks. Remember, there was only one lap required between maneuvers back then, and that meant we didn’t need as much fuel as we do now with the two laps between maneuvers rule. Not too many think about that!
Today’s engines are heavier. The mufflers, though very light, still weigh something, and the carbon props are certainly heavier. I was worried a bit about all of that, but, ultimately, my fears proved to be unfounded. Here, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I sent a copy of the raw Caprice plans to Dennis and waited for the call I was pretty sure I would welcome. Sure enough, Dennis was very pleased with the look of the ship and promptly ordered two sets of covered foam wings so he could get one done quickly. He’s a dynamo when he gets going.
Right at that very time, Dennis’ business really took off. Dennis owns Dencho Marine, a company that builds very sophisticated, expensive, and highly competent offshore racing sailboats and pleasure craft. His reputation is among the very best in that line of work, and he became inundated with so many orders that he just didn’t have time to build his Caprice for that year’s (2003) VSC. I’m afraid the same held true for the 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons, as well. Hey, you have to make hay while the sun shines I guess, and for him modeling had to take a back seat for a while. Hmmm, maybe I should start calling him every couple of days and ask when his Caprice will be finished. Yeah, that’s the ticket…