I’m sure almost all of you played with balsa wood gliders at some time in
your youth, just as I did.
Whether it was a toy that your mom or dad bought you for “being good” … a
party favor … or something you spent your allowance on in order to have
some fun with friends on sunny, summer’s day.
We just opened the packages … slid the wings and tails
into the slots … and we were ready to go flying.
Few of us even bothered to read the assembly instructions.
We all knew what airplanes looked like.
Assembly was simple and easy … almost intuitive.
Some of the gliders, we merely tossed into the air.
Some we shot skyward with rubber band catapults.
Others had rubber-band “motors” that we wound furiously and released
to fly off under their own power. (If they were rubber-powered AND had an
"undercarriage" ... wheels & struts ... they took on the moniker "ROG" because
they could actually "Rise Off the Ground".)
Many youngsters loved to fly toy airplanes, but … like me
… lacked the building skills necessary to assemble those marvelously
complicated balsa wood stick & tissue kits.
So these “ready-to-fly” (RTF) balsa wood toys provided an easy way
for us to enter the realm of flight.
We soon discovered that we could alter the way the gliders
flew by moving the wings forward and back … or by adding weight to the nose
… or by changing the shape of the wings and tail with a piece of sandpaper …
or even by winding more and more knots into the rubber-band motors.
Unknowingly, we were actually learning about the basics of
flight in almost the same way Wilber & Orville Wright did ...
experimentation. (As the legend
goes, it was the gift of a rubber-band powered helicopter toy that first piqued
the Wright’s interest in flying.)
Many, many times, our best flights ended with the airplanes
landing on a neighbor’s rooftop, or in a tree or disappearing totally from
sight. But a quick trip to the
store could easily replenish our “air force”.
They seemed to be available everywhere, with lots of company choices.
There were company names like American Junior, North Pacific, Guillow, Comet, Testors, Champion and Top Flite.
And many others I can’t remember.
Ready-to-Fly Balsa Wood Toys
Fond memories indeed. And
for me, the start of what turned out to be a 35 year career in aviation.
Although hand-made airplane-like (or bird-like) flying toys
appeared in the 1800’s, it’s unclear exactly when company-made RTF toy
airplanes first became available. Some
model airplane kits reportedly appeared as early as 1910. 1911
issues of “Aircraft” magazine (about “real” airplanes) had numerous ads
from several manufacturers for model airplanes in kit and RTF form.
Most of these were expensive to buy.
In a time when $20-25 per week was a really good, working-class salary,
the Ideal Model Aeroplane Co. (which became the Ideal Toy Co.) advertised
airplane kits for $4-6. RTF
versions sold for as much as $20. Most
of the Ideal RTF airplanes were “factory built” examples of their kit
From 1914-20, Ideal offered wood and fiber board RTF gliders for 45
cents. Though not inexpensive by any
means, these can probably be considered some of the fore-runners of our
In the 1920’s and 30’s, balsa wood became more readily
available and the number of simple RTF toy gliders increased.
Certainly the Charles Lindbergh phenomenon also boosted sales of toy and
model airplanes of all types. However,
most were still only available from hobby shops, finer toy stores or through
mail order. Many of the companies
that would become household names in the toy and model airplane world …
American Junior Aircraft Co., the Paul K Guillow Co., the Cleveland Model &
Supply Co., the Testor Corporation and Comet Model Airplane & Supply Co. …
all had their beginnings in this period.
During World War 2, balsa wood was considered to be a
“strategic material”, so toy airplane production was reduced dramatically.
However, American Junior Aircraft founder Jim Walker cleverly developed a launching
platform for his folding wing balsa gliders.
This provided the Army with a quick and effective system for gunnery
practice. As a result,
American Junior Aircraft
received significant supplies of balsa and over 120,000 Walker gliders
met their doom for the war effort.
After the war, balsa once again became plentiful.
As the post-war economy … and family “production” … boomed,
dozens of companies now competed in the toy airplane market.
The number and variety of toy airplanes was truly dazzling.
New and important entrants into the RTF glider market included
North Pacific Products, Pactra Chemical Co. and Top Flite.
For many of us, great airplane names like Hornet,
Interceptor, Super Ace, Super Saber, Space Kadet, Ceiling Walker, Skeeter and
Sleek Streek became integral parts of our everyday vocabulary.
In 1953, the Paul K.Guillow Co. introduced the Jetfire
glider, which was the first of its type to be mass-produced and packaged in
high-speed machinery. This
allowed Guillow to meet the production quantity and unit price demands of the
now-flourishing “chain stores”. The
mass-marketing success of Guillow and a slowing economy spelled the end for many
of the smaller companies in the 1950’s and 60’s. Some, like American
Junior Aircraft, North Pacific and Comet disappeared into larger
companies. Others just
disappeared. By the 1970’s,
only a few players were left in the game.
Guillow is the dominant manufacturer of wooden toy gliders in the US. This is
understandable in my view, since they are the most akin to the gliders of the
distant past. Kids can fly ‘em right out of the package … or learn the
intricacies of modification and trimming for increased performance. Several
other companies produce flying toy airplanes using plastic and foam, but their
flight performance and durability are … to put it kindly … disappointing.
Likewise, contemporary laser-cut wood gliders from Asia also seem to “miss the
mark” on quality and “fly-ability” in my view.
era of internet auctions and antique malls, vintage gliders can often be found
if one is persistent. However, many gliders are now finding their way into
collections verses being used as “toys” for a weekend’s flying fun … so prices
are rising accordingly.
Please read more about these flying
toys in the following pages:
Author’s note – This article is provided for the
entertainment of readers. To my knowledge, no definitive book(s) on the
subject currently exist. However, the information was sourced as much as
possible from original catalogs and ads, period newspaper articles and
first-hand data from company representatives. The opinions expressed are
not necessarily endorsed by the website management.
I welcome any comments, questions or corrections.
David C “Dave” Pecota