Zen and the Art of Aircraft Modeling

I've been reading (for the third time) Robert Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I keep thinking, as he talks about motorcycles, about model airplane building and flying. The book, of course, is not really about motorcycles or even Zen, but about bringing together the either-or worlds of the rational and the intuitive, subject and object, mind and matter, the classical and the romantic philosophies. But motorcycle maintenance seems such a cut-and-dried rational activity when, as he shows, it is much more than that, I'm continually aware of exactly the same thing in my modeling.

In building my first RC model, a Goldberg Mirage, I was gluing up the wing and suddenly was struck by the elegance of that part. The incredibly subtle shape of the ribs would, when covered by a skin of plastic, lift three pounds of aircraft off the ground! Yes, the laws of physics and all the rules of aerodynamics and everything have been proved to work for decades. So, what's so special?

When I built my first flying model as a teenager, I followed the instructions with sufficient care that the craft came out looking like the picture on the box, and when I wound it up and tossed it, it flew. It felt good: an accomplishment. I never thought about why it flew. But at 65 years of age, even before that Mirage saw a flying field, I marveled at what it promised. I thought that wing was the most beautiful thing I had seen. I think I got in touch with something deeper than gluing sticks together, and whatever it was has stayed with me ever since.

Persig talks about the huge controversy raging between technology and values (that was back in the early 1970s). Technology was about "things" and "objectivity" and didn't consider people and beauty and feelings. "Art" was forever divorced from "science." He tried to show that both sides come out of something bigger, something more important, that he called Quality. And caring about quality was the important aspect of good craftsmanship, even after one knew all the rules and steps of motorcycle maintenance. You needed both art and science.

It's been plain to me in the past five years since I began building models again, that something more goes into this hobby than just wanting a toy to fly around and pretend it's an airplane.  Especially in the designing (or modification) of these models, we have to pay attention to "good" practices, hundreds when you think about it, of decisions that consider the dynamics of flight. The rules only point to value, they are not value itself. That comes out of our caring about what we do. It also shows itself in our very selection of models to build—there's something rather mysterious about how I choose what to work on, something in my subconscious that responds to my particular brand of "quality." All through the process of building, and probably even flying, I make decisions based on something other than "empirical data." And I'll bet that you do, too.

Whether it matters to you or not is a different question. You might want to just do your thing and keep making those decisions the way you have, without considering where they come from. That's okay, too. I'm not writing this to make a difference in you, but to ponder something that seems important to me.

So keep building, and keep flying. But one day next summer, when you are bringing that newest craft in on final approach and it looks like it's going to drop to the runway exactly the way you want it to, and you feel "something" in your gut like, "Wow!"—that's what Persig means by "Quality."

Donald Skiff, January 15, 2000

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