The History of the National Aeromodeling Championships

Am I the best?

For those aeromodelers who ask themselves this question, competition is the key. Facing an opponent, and besting him or her is the only true way to know.

The challenge, to see who the best is, started almost as soon as two people could fly a model airplane. These competitions were initially regional affairs with exchange clubs, parks, businesses, schools, and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sponsoring many. In
larger cities such as New York and Chicago, the early model airplane clubs would host their own events.

The first model airplane contests

In the early years of flight, the airplane was seen as an exciting new discovery and model contests were held around the world. Some events, such as the contest for the Louis Adams Cup held by the Westside YMCA of New York in 1909, attracted local fliers, while larger contests were sometimes even held as part of full-scale aviation events.

In 1909, Louis Adams, Vice President of the Aeronautics Society of America, offered a cup to be awarded to the modeler who could win the YMCA’s longest flight contest three times. Dr. C.W. Dederer won the cup with a final flight of 149 feet 6 inches.
Article courtesy The New York Times, October 24, 1909
Lineup for the 2nd round of the Louis Adams Cup event, November 7, 1909, won by Wilson Marshall Jr. (on left).
Image Courtesy Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal, December 1, 1909.

The first national aeromodeling competitions: 1915, 1916, and 1919

After several years of local contests, the Aero Club of America sponsored the first national aeromodeling contest in 1915. Three events were flown throughout three months, with local clubs hosting their own contests. Results were then mailed to the Aero Club of America.

Fliers pose with their model aeroplanes c. 1911 Source: Percy Pierce Collection, NMAM Archives

The first event was distance launching from hand, second was duration launching from water, and third was duration launching from the ground. Cash prizes, as part of the Aero Club’s National Aeroplane Fund, were awarded to the individuals achieving the best scores each month. A silver trophy, the Henry S. Villard Trophy, was awarded to the club whose members had the highest collective scores.

In 1907, a model airplane event was held as part of the competition to see who could fly a full-scale airplane from
London to Manchester, England. A.V. Roe, seen here holding his airplane, won the model event.
Image courtesy The Drachen Foundation, Cody Collection Glass Plate, 1907.

The national event was repeated in 1916, but because of World War I, was not held again until 1919. The Illinois Model Aero Club won all three years and the trophy was retired to the club, ending the only national aeromodeling event.

With the national trophy no longer available, regional competitions and national records again became the aeromodelers’ main focus.

A national contest is reborn

Although proud of their win, the Illinois Model Airplane Club members felt a national contest was needed. In 1923, the club asked the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) to hold a model airplane contest as part of the full-scale National Air Races in St. Louis, Missouri. The vice president of the NAA, Bernard Mulvihill, offered prize money and a trophy if a model event was held.

1923 air race poster
The Mulvihill model airplane committee prepares to depart for St. Louis – left to right – Paul Shiffler-Smith, Henry Tiecotter (flight mechanic), Ed Lange (winner of the 1st Mulvihill event), “Buck” Weaver (pilot), and Bert Pond. Model Aviation, February 1977

As the air race approached, there was still not a model event. Charles Dickinson, president of the full-scale Illinois Aero Club, flew modelers from Chicago to St. Louis to meet with the race organizers in his World War I Breguet bomber, converted to carry passengers.

The meeting was successful and “Event No. 6, Mulvihill Trophy Duration Race for Model Airplanes” was added to the Air Race Program. Although there were 27 entries, only 12 participated, with 16-year-old Edward Lang and his twin-pusher placing first.

The contest lineup for the Mulvihill Race for Model Airplanes, St. Louis National Air Races, 1923 Model Airplane News, December 1953

For the next three years, the Mulvihill Event was held as part of the National Air Race schedule, but in 1927, although a model airplane event appeared on the Spokane Washington Air Race schedule, the Mulvihill trophy was not awarded.

Whose national event to attend?

Between 1927 and 1930, several groups held their own national model airplane contests.

The Playground and Recreation Association of America held its National Playground Miniature Aircraft Tournaments from 1927 to 1929. A reported 20,000 contestants, juniors 15 years and younger and seniors ages 16 to 21, qualified in regional meets held across the country. The
winners were invited, all expenses paid, to attend the one-day national event. In 1929, a special Amelia Earhart trophy was awarded to the girl who made the best flight at the tournament.

In 1927, the American Association of Model Aero Clubs held the first National Indoor Model Airplane Contest, in Detroit. William Stout, cofounder of Aerial Age magazine and owner of the Stout Metal Airplane Company, sponsored the indoor trophy, which officially became a nationally contested trophy.

The Airplane Model League of America (AMLA) Nationals, sponsored by American Boy
magazine, set the standard for future events. Held in Detroit from 1928 to 1930, the two-day event featured the Mulvihill and Stout indoor and outdoor trophies, plus a scale static contest and an awards banquet. The winners of each event also won trips to Europe.

American Boy magazine September 4, 1930

The Great Depression hits aeromodeling

In 1931, American Boy magazine announced that it could no longer afford to hold the national competition. Fortunately, for the next two years, companies stepped forward to help
including the George Wanner Model Airplane Kit Company of Dayton, Ohio, in 1931, and the L. Bamberger Department Store of Newark, New Jersey, in 1932.

The 1931 national winners demonstrate their models for President Hoover on the White House lawn. Left to right are Joseph Ehrhardt of St. Louis; George Lamb of Oakland, California; President Hoover; Merrill Hamberg, Secretary of the Airplane Model League of America; Emanuel Feinberg of Detroit; Steve Klazura of Chicago; and Mr. Haas, American Boy magazine.
American Boy-Youth’s Companion, September 1931

The National Aeronautics Association takes over

When it looked as though no one would help in 1933, the National Aeronautics Association (NAA) finally took over. With the help of cosponsors such as Model Airplane News magazine, various chambers of commerce, private companies, exchange clubs, parks, Kiwanis, and the YMCA, the NAA organized the Nats until World War II.

New events and trophies were added each year including the Bloomingdale Cup for indoor fuselage, Moffett Memorial Trophy for outdoor fuselage, Texaco for best gasoline engine flight,
Universal Model Airplane News Trophy for best exhibition (nonflying) Scale models, and the Ed Roberts Trophy for radio control.

Rules also changed. Those 21 and older were allowed to compete again; judges timing Free Flight events could no longer follow a model or use binoculars; and the engine run for gas Free Flight
models was limited. During the competition, the hotels continued to be a hotspot for modelers eager to repair and adjust their models and catch up with friends. Depending on the location of the event, contestants could also attend ball games, see movies, go to amusement parks, and during the St. Louis competition, see the trophies, medals, and souvenirs collected by Charles

In 1938, Milton Huguelot became the first National’s Grand Champion – awarded based on points accumulated in events flown.
Model Airplane News, September 1938
  • In 1935 the Hotel Statler placed a huge room on the third floor at the disposal of the modelers, the largest yet, and agreed not to sweep until after the event for fear that some small piece could be broken. For six days, engines could be heard, sheets of micro film were drying, and balsa chips covered the floor.
  • Ford Motor Company provided bus transportation, Chevrolet Motor Company provided 1,200 box lunches, and the Plymouth Motor Company sponsored the victory banquet including a lake steamer in 1938.
  • In 1940 a trade show was held in the Hotel Sherman featuring “every kind of merchandise dear to the hearts of model builders including all kinds of motors, airplanes, material, and gadgets, as well as the latest copies of magazines.” —Model Airplane News, September 1940

All of this culminated with the 1940 National Aeromodeling Championships (Nats) in Chicago. Despite the national military buildup and the war in Europe, 1,400 contestants registered for 27
events held in four days.

14th National Model Airplane Championships Banquet, July 5, 1941
0167 Gilbert Coughlin Collection, National Model Aviation Museum Archives

World War II halts the Nats

Although many hoped there would be a Nats in 1942, it was understood that war conditions would affect the event. Finally, in August, the official announcement was made. Because of wartime conditions and defense conventions, there would be no event. Modelers would have to wait and hope for an end to the war.

Post War Nats

“Happy Days are here again…Just imagine, this is the opportunity to fulfill all those dreams
cooked up in foxholes all over the world” Air Trails Annual for 1946, page 9

With World War II finally over, aeromodelers were excited to get back to flying, and competing! The AMA, now totally in charge of the National Aeromodeling Championships, did its best to arrange the event, but lacking money and manpower the event struggled.

Model Aviation, June 1946 – Lee Renaud Memorial Library collection
In 1946, control line model competitions were held for the very first time as part of the Nats.
Life Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 12, September 16, 1946, p 39.

For modelers, the 1946 Victory Nationals were the event to attend. At first the Nats were to be held in Chicago, but when that fell through, it was feared the event would be canceled. Finally the AMA was able to make arrangements to hold the event in Wichita, Kansas, where 1,200 contestants competed in 23 indoor and outdoor contests. For the first time, two of the outdoor events were for
Control Line (CL)—CL Speed and CL Stunt—while a number of other CL demonstrations were flown including Combat.

11-year-old Dave Slagle, with his parents, holding the trophies he won in Control Line Stunt.
– Air Trails, November 1946
1946 marked the first appearance of the Micro-Bilt bus, a fully equipped workshop on wheels where experienced engine mechanics made free field repairs. An engine repair station would be a fixture of the Nats until 1968.
– Air Trails, December 1946

In 1947, the Nats traveled to Minneapolis, but again there were problems. This time there were too many events and contestants, quickly overwhelming the volunteers and the site. When it was
over, the AMA realized that if the Nats was going to continue, something had to change.

The United States Navy saves the day

In 1948, the AMA approached the U.S. Navy for help. A longtime supporter of aeromodeling, the Navy agreed and offered the Olathe, Kansas, Naval Air Station (NAS). The Navy also housed every
contestant in the base gym (which included a swimming pool), fed the contestants at cost, and opened a large hangar for 24-hour model airplane repairs. The real key was manpower, with Navy
personnel assisting in every capacity.

The Navy welcomed the 1948 Nats contestants with this unique sign.
Model Airplane News, November 1948

The 1948 Nats was such a success that the Navy agreed to continue sponsoring the event, returning to Olathe in 1949, with 1,200 contestants in attendance flying in 26 events.

Beginning in 1950, the Nats, now popularly called the Navy Nats by modelers, began traveling to various NAS bases across the country: Dallas in 1950 and 1951; Los Alamitos, California, in 1952; and Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, 1953.

In 1954, the Nats began a cycle of rotating between four NAS bases, a cycle that would continue until 1967—Glenview, Illinois; Los Alamitos; Dallas NAS; and Willow Grove—before starting again at Glenview. The U.S. Navy, the National Exchange Club, and the AMA worked together to develop both the rotation and the time for the event—July.

By 1968, a reduction in military spending forced the Navy to begin limiting its level of support, and in 1972, the last Navy Nats was held in Glenview.

The Farewell Nats – Flying Models, November 1972
Left: Three officers look over Bud Nosen’s R/C Scale winning Skyraider.
Right: Dave Platt shakes hands with Glenview Base Commander, Capt. Merchant, as his Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless model is presented to the Navy as a farewell gift from the Nats.

The Traveling Nats

The AMA Takes Over the Nats

After 25 years of Navy support, it was now up to the AMA to run the Nats. For the next 23 years, the Nats would visit 16 different cities across the United States as the AMA struggled to try and make Free Flight, Control Line, and Radio Control modelers happy. From the beginning, three challenges had to be faced: location, manpower, and money.

In 1973, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Wittman Field in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was selected for the first AMA Nats with the Indoor Nats held at the Jones Armory in South Chicago. The Wisconsin location allowed those who had worked the Glenview Nats to help. Although RC and CL had good surfaces from which to fly, problems arose for the Free Flight. Because the full-scale
airport did not close, Free Flight models had to be flown in a small space with engine runs limited to only 7 seconds. To pay for the field rental, it was hoped that charging admission to the general
public would help offset cost. Unfortunately with rent, trash pickup, extra security guards, portable toilets, and other assorted costs, it turned out to be the most expensive Nats yet held.

The following years were full of ups and downs. Some years sites were free, but staffing was an issue. Other years, a single Nats might use several different flying sites, creating problems with registration and score tabulation. There were also the regular complaints about the flying sites themselves, including heat, dust, wind, rain, poor pavement and concrete, radio frequency interference, hills, and trees.

The registration tent welcomed contestants to the Nats.
Source: 1973 Nats, 0001 AMA Collection, National Model Aviation Museum archives.
Contestants line up at the radio transmitter impound table.
Source: 1973 Nats, 0001 AMA Collection, National Model Aviation Museum archives.

Each year the AMA worked to make improvements. Large information tents became standard, offering event registration, event results, a hobby shop and souvenir stand, bulletin boards, site maps, and most important of all, the trophies. Hoping to improve how the events were run, the AMA asked the contestants and the associated Special Interest Groups to help run the events.

In 1979 computers made their first appearance at the Nats, helping with the sailplane scoring.
Source: 1979 Nats, 0001 AMA Collection, NMAM archives

Additional activities were added to the Nats experience, including movies, seminars, a small trade show, off-site tours, fun-flys, and nostalgia nights where famous modelers shared stories of past Nats. On several occasions, the Nats did return to military bases and modelers were able to enjoy military flights and static displays, reminiscent of the old Navy Nats.

Despite the successes it became more difficult for the Nats to travel to various locations. The weekend Nats were a thing of the past as the number of official events continued to climb. Costs also continued to rise, both for the flying site rental and for the workers. Modelers were also getting tired of wondering if the Nats flying site was going to be good or bad. Because AMA did not own any of the property, site improvements were limited by what the site owners were willing to do.

By the mid-1980s, the AMA realized that a solution had to be found: a single national flying site.

Nats in Muncie

The sun rises over an old farmhouse on the AMA’s flying site. The farmhouse was used as the Nats Headquarters for many years.
Photo courtesy of Allen Brickhaus

The outdoor Nats Find A Home

Discussions about a permanent Outdoor Nats site began as early as the mid-1970s, when the AMA discussed a site in Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1985, the AMA Executive Council created a committee to actively search for a site. More than 50 proposals from across the country were reviewed and in 1989, negations began with property owners in Muncie, Indiana. In June 1990, the property was purchased and construction of the International Aeromodeling Center (IAC) began.

Each year, AMA district flags are flown along the entrance to the International Aeromodeling Center, welcoming Nats participants to the competition.
Model Aviation magazine, December 1996, page 59

The First Nats at the IAC

The first official Nats at the IAC was scheduled for 1996, but a problem in 1995 with the sites in Tri-Cities, Washington, brought competition sooner than expected. After much debate, including the possibility of canceling the event, it was decided to hold Control Line, Scale, and Indoor Free Flight in Washington, move Pattern and Pylon to Lawrenceville, Illinois, and bring the Electric, Outdoor Free Flight, Helicopter, and Soaring portions of the 1995 Nats to Muncie.

This Place was Built for Model Flying

In 1996, all of the Outdoor Nats events were held at the IAC. This was the first time the event had ever been held on a site specifically designed for model aircraft. Thirteen Special Interest Groups, each representing a different model discipline, worked with AMA and the Nats management to hold 104 official events. Because all of the events were flown on the same site, the Nats were staggered throughout the month of July, limiting radio frequency interference problems and maximizing available space. Today this strategy continues. Since that first Nats in Muncie, the AMA has made many improvements to the site, including the addition of paved Control Line circles, grass runways, and camper parking.

In 1996, the Indoor Nats was held in East Tennessee State University’s Mini-Dome. With a 116-foot ceiling, the site offered modelers an excellent venue for record-setting flights. For the next 17 years, Indoor Free Flight modelers would return to the Mini-Dome; however, in 2012 the University notified the AMA that it would no longer be able to support the event. Several venues were considered and the University of Illinois Armory was selected. The armory was built in 1914 and offers modelers a 98-foot ceiling.

From 1996 through 2012, the Indoor portion of the Nats was flown in the East Tennessee State
University Mini-Dome. Photo courtesy of Brett Sanborn.

Today, as competitive aeromodeling enters its second century, there are discussions about the future of the Nats. Regardless, as long as there are modelers, each summer they will want to know, “Am I the best?”

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