Model-Airplane Buffs Aim for Transatlantic Record

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 5, 2002

The history of transatlantic aviation could see a new milestone this week, as an ambitious group of model-airplane makers launches an 11- pound (4.9-kilogram) ultra-light craft on a journey from Newfoundland to Ireland.

If successful, it would be the first Atlantic crossing by a "true" model airplane.

The craft, named Spirit of Butts Farm, will try to make the flight on only 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) of fuel. While its designer, Maynard Hill, is confident of success, he acknowledges that the plane could be "drowned" in a squall or could exhaust its meager fuel supply and plunge into the sea.

After guiding the craft—named for Beecher Butts, an 88 year-old aviation enthusiast—to its cruising altitude, Hill will put the plan on autopilot and, from his safe seat in Newfoundland, anxiously await its arrival in Ireland. Pilot Paul Howey and others will be in Ireland waiting for the plane to appear on the horizon. They will head out to the bog and, if the plane comes in, take over manual control and land it. FAI officials there will be able to certify the record achievement as well.

Hill heads the Society for Technical Aeromodel Research (STAR), founded expressly to fly a small radio-controlled model plane nonstop across the Atlantic. The Newfoundland-to-Ireland feat—four years in the making—would set a new world record for straight-line distance by a radio-controlled, piston-powered model airplane.

A veteran aeromodeler, Hill is chiefly responsible for designing and developing the plane's model and engine. In more than three decades of flying model planes, he has established 23 different world records under the rules of the hobby's governing body, Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI).

Hill's world bests include marks for altitude (26,990 feet/8,226 meters), duration (33.67 hours), and speed in a closed circuit (167 mph/269 km/hour). "It's just been a lifetime occupation to set these records," he said, "but this one has turned out to be a really, really big challenge."

A successful flight by Spirit of Butts Farm would be the first Atlantic crossing by a "genuine model airplane," which, as specified by FAI, can weigh no more than 11 pounds (4.9 kilograms) and have an engine with no more than 10cc displacement (a measure of the volume of each engine cylinder).

A previous transatlantic crossing was made in 1998 by an unmanned aircraft launched by the Insitu Group and the University of Washington, but it weighed nearly 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms).

Design Constraints

Spirit of Butts Farm is made of balsa wood and has a 6.5-foot (1.9-meter) wingspan. Its engine is a four-stroke with 10cc's of displaced volume.

Continued on Next Page >>




NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.