Intended for healthcare professionals


Why I . . . make free flight aircraft

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: (Published 10 June 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q1157
  1. Erin Dean
  1. The BMJ

Consultant radiologist Martin Pike talks to Erin Dean about the satisfaction and enjoyment he gets from building and flying his own aircraft

In calm weather, Martin Pike can often be found at a stretch of open land near his north Wales home flying small model aeroplanes. Fringed by hills and mountains, it’s a stunning spot for the Bangor consultant radiologist to enjoy his hobby.

“I often fly in the early evenings, as the sun sets behind the mountains,” he says. “The aircraft are quiet, so it’s a peaceful, heartwarming activity. Part of the enjoyment is finding the planes after they’ve landed, which can mean walking several kilometres looking for them.”

These small, light planes are free flight models, which means they fly without external control. Carefully handmade, mainly from balsa wood, tissue paper, and wire, they may be flown indoors or outside.

Some just glide, while others are powered by propellers that are spun by a twisted rubber band before they take off, and others have small motors.

For Pike, the hobby started with building Airfix type plastic kits of Concorde and other aeroplanes as a child, which were not designed to fly. By the time he was 17, he had started building his own more complex craft that were designed to fly.

He drifted away from the hobby for a while before returning to it around 20 years ago, when the internet allowed him to gather information and connect with other free flight enthusiasts.

Free flight aircraft can be built from kits, plans, or completely from scratch. Creating a model is an absorbing feat of engineering and a delicate skill that involves building an accurate and stable model, while keeping it light and well balanced, Pike says.

“There’s something quite cerebral about it,” he says. “You can’t just buy free flight planes, you construct them. When flying them you really have to think about the aerodynamics and how it is flying.”

Enthusiasts often gather to compete with their craft—and travel significant distances to do so. “Part of the joy is getting together with other people interested in the same thing,” Pike says. “While you’re striving to achieve something and you’re pitting yourself against others in competitions, there’s also a lot of camaraderie and sharing of information and advice. It’s quite a small community, so you get to know people.”

Free flight modelling offers Pike a sense of seeing something through to completion, which his work doesn’t always offer.

“As a radiologist I don’t produce anything,” he says. “I write reports and they disappear; I don’t actually see the patients, so I don’t have the satisfaction of a GP or surgeon of seeing someone get better. To create something that I can say I built is great, and quite a thrill. I can also see that I’m improving from looking at my earlier models.”

While the hobby offers an outlet that is very different to work, he does wonder if what he describes as the “slightly pernickety” nature of those drawn to diagnostics sets him up well for the attention to detail required for building the aircraft.

It is a niche activity, which peaked in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, and does tend to draw an older crowd, Pike says. He hopes that more people get to see its appeal and become involved.

More than anything, seeing a self-built plane fly brings a sense of joy and wonder, he says. “For me there is a special thrill in seeing something I’ve made out of sticks and tissue take to the air and fly under its own power. It is like being 8 years old again—it’s that kind of magic.”

How to get involved

  • If you decide to build a model, start big (50-75 cm wingspan) as they are easier to balance and fly than smaller craft

  • It can be easy to get discouraged when a plane won’t fly, so start with a simple aircraft from a kit

  • Find a big space to fly—a sports field or larger

  • Seek out local clubs (which can be quite scarce) and other enthusiasts to learn more and benefit from members’ experience. The British Model Flying Association (BMFA) has a list on its website1

  • Aeromodeller magazine is a good source of information on free flight. Online societies like SAM 352 and SAM 10663 and website Maxfliart4 are valuable sources of support and inspiration

  • For competitions there are strict criteria for different categories set by bodies such as BMFA4