Making Things

In the 1950s, most breakfast cereals had cardboard boxes with something to cut out and make on the back. Many of the cereals from then are still around today but it is a sad indictment that modern children could not be bothered to cut out and assemble a model cowboy town, space station or circus wagon.

Puffed Wheat had a very simple idea -– cutout masks called 'Hi Hats'. There was a pirates' hat with eye-patch, a highwayman with eye mask and a space helmet. When they were cut out with scissors, a length of elastic would hold them on your forehead. Instant fun!

The cowboy town was a bit more elaborate. It came with Kellogg's Corn Flakes as far as I remember. Cowboy towns are basically just facades in front of wooden huts and there was a number of different sections of town to collect and cut out. There was the saloon, the barber's shop, the livery stable, the essay office, hotel and hardware store. Folds were indicated by dotted lines and there were A-A B-B tabs and slots to join the bits together.

It was about this time that I got hooked on making things. Anytime I saw a tab or dotted line on paper, I just had to cut it out, fold it up and look at it from every direction. Then I would run off to some friends houses to proudly display what I had made.

When my Grandmother sent me a model aeroplane kit for my birthday, I was delighted. This was a Keil Kraft kit of a high winged Cessna monoplane. All the balsa wood pieces had to be carefully cut out and glued together with balsa cement then the whole lot covered with tissue paper. Well, this particular kit and my young years were not quite compatible. I was just about able to build the wings and tail sections but the fuselage was a dreadful mess. The best I was able to do with this model was to tied a piece of string onto one wing end and whirl it round. The propellor was attached to the nose block with a pin, so it spun round convincingly.

My next model was a 'solid' Hawker Hunter Jet, intended for static display only, these kit came with the wings and fuselage roughly cut to outline but were intended to be sanded to their correct sections. Again, this was beyond my capabilities at seven years old so I simply glued the rough blocks of wood together and fitted the water slide transfers. 
I was absolutely fascinated by aircraft. Every day, a Douglas DC3 'Dakota' would fly over my house traveling between Scotland and Nutt's Corner. On occasions, something more exotic would fly over, a Lockheed Neptune with it's long tail and wing-top fuel tanks, a Fairey Gannet with it's two contra-rotating propellors on front. I remember earlier being in the town main street and seeing a fly-past of dozens of Vampire or Venom jets that made a thundering, frightening noise and made even scarier because I had seen a newsreel in the Regal cinema of them dropping bombs and blowing up buildings.

Eventually, Airfix plastic aeroplane kits arrived in Woolworths. Starting off with a Spitfire and Messerschmitt 109, plus a range of sailing ships. I had to have every new model as it was introduced. The kits were two shillings but to make them up, a sixpenny tube of polystyrene cement and a few tins of Humbrol enamel paint were needed.

As model kits gained in popularity, other shops in the town started selling more ambitions, and expensive, kits from Revell, Aurora and Monogram. Nevertheless, I seemed to be able to find the money to buy every new kit that appeared and I would wander up and down the town on a Saturday morning seeking out new ones previously missed.

After a year or two, there was no more space at home for model kits. I had the best ones out on display in the dining room sideboard, another bunch covering every spare space in my bedroom, several hanging on string from the ceiling and a huge boxful under the bed. It was during a fight with my brother that the bed broke on top of the box of model aircraft smashing most of them irreparably. After that, I lost interest in plastic model kits but had gained the skills to make proper flying ones.

After making a few Keil Kraft gliders and rubber band powered models, I was ready to move onto something more ambitious. I managed to buy a small AM10 engine for five pounds from a friend. I had to cut the grass in the back garden many times to earn that money. I made a few fanciful designs of my own design and surprisingly, they flew quite well. I seemed to have acquired a natural talent for aeronautics. It was unfortunate that the weeks planning and building the planes were inevitably wasted. Although they flew, sometimes too well, they inevitably ended up as matchwood.

One plane with an experimental self-steering rudder flew so well, it disappeared over the horizon on its maiden flight and was never seen again. A flying model of a Grumman carrier-bourne fighter complete with working arrestor hook did two complete circuits on control line before colliding with a seagull. The seagull limped away on a wing and a prayer. The model fared even worse.

Even more spectacular was a scale flying model of a Walrus flying boat. This was a biplane distinguished by having a backwards-facing propellor mounted between the biplane wings. I had scaled this up four times from an Airfix plastic kit, first drawing the plans and then building it from balsa wood and tissue. The .75 cc engine was mounted upside down but worked quite happily that way even running backwards. For its maiden flight, I took it to a lake at the 'Sloblands' on Curran Road. It was a warm summer evening and I had to of my model-making buddies along to witness the event. They had followed every step of its planning and construction and it was right that they were there to see the lift off.

After flicking the propellor a few times, the engine burst into life and I adjusted the carburetor for full revs. The flying boat was floating nicely on the calm surface of the lake and I let it go. It skimmed across the surface of the lake, took of, looped the loop and landed nose down in the water. The engine noise and almighty splash alerted two swans who started swimming towards it. Not wanting the swans to demolish my Walrus, I dived in and swam towards the plane at which point the swans changed direction and headed for me. I had heard stories of what angry swans would do to a human being so I abandoned the aeroplane and headed back for the shore as fast as I could swim.

Eventually, the flying boat drifted into the opposite bank of the lake and I was able to retrieve it. I decided that it was top heavy, not airworthy and it never flew again.

And that finished me with model aircraft for many years.

Joe Gillespie

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Joe Gillespie
Joe Gillespie

Joe reminisces about his childhood in Larne in the 1940s and '50s.