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“I remember walking down the beach, looking at seagull feathers and wishing I had a thousand so I could make a kite,” explains Carl Rankin, a longtime model maker and the man behind several amazing DIY model airplanes.

Rankin’s musings about quills led to explorations with drinking straws, and soon, conjoined with thread, tape, and plastic cling wrap, the Jules Verne model was underway. A marvel to watch, this three-tiered, 56″-wide, radio-controlled airplane is capable of flying at walking speed, a feat more challenging than rapid flight.

Ingenious at finding new uses for common household items, Rankin is always on the lookout for new materials. Skewers, cocktail straws, and paper clips have made their way into his models, and one of his favorite inventions is the use of colorful plastic wrap to cover planes like the Jules Verne. It’s strong, lightweight, and malleable, with the added benefit of lending surfaces a shimmering glow.

Rankin grew up in a “flying family” and enjoyed making model airplanes even as a child. But back then, he fretted that his models didn’t measure up to his brother’s. This worry became fodder for an enduring curiosity about accessible techniques and materials for building, and Rankin has since designed hundreds of models.

In 2004, he handwrote a book about one of them, the Foam and Tape Cub. The instructions are packed with valuable and meticulous details about making models, but they have the charming familiarity of learning from a friend. Made from recycled takeout containers and tape, the plain white surface of the Cub practically begs to be customized. Readers from around the world send Rankin photographs of their own versions of the Cub, from brightly painted or fitted with special wheels to inventive double-Cub biplanes.

Perhaps best of all, unlike expensive store-bought counterparts, homemade model airplanes are durable. As Rankin says, “If they crash, you just tape them back together.”

>> Carl Rankin’s Model Planes: flyingpuppets.org