Friday, February 14, 2020

Tiny foam gliders bring aviation museum to life

Front and back of package glider came in, showing what it looks like.
My grandchild has probably loved her foam P-47 Thunderbolt glider to death by now.
On a visit to an aviation museum in Maryland I came across some Styrofoam gliders in the form of World War II fighter planes, for sale in the gift shop.

These little (only 8 inches long) foam gliders have been around for years but they can be hard to find in stores, perhaps because there is so little profit in selling them.

They were only $1 each at the gift shop, a fair price for what, after all, are just flat foam cut-outs of wings and fuselages you fit together and throw. Each has a plastic propeller that fastens to the nose and spins when the gliders are tossed.

The brand name appears to be "Power Prop." Of course, the props receive no power whatsoever except the breeze as they fly through the air.

But never mind that. The gift shop collection included some of my favorite historic fighter planes: the P-39 Airacobra, P-40 Tomahawk, P-47 Thunderbolt and a P-51 Mustang. They might have had a Spitfire. And there were some Japanese and Russian  fighters, which interested me less than the Allied planes.

So I bought a selection, thinking to share them with my granddaughter, who accompanied us to the museum. Not yet two years old, she could say the word "airplane" but I was not certain she knew what an airplane is. (Ironic since, of course, in this day and age, she already had flown several times as a "lap baby" on an airliner.)

Given her age, I thought it best to dole the gliders one at a time. One now, and the next in five years, maybe!

Of course, her first interest was to crush the P-47 I gave her. Styrofoam crushes so nicely.

I'd run across this brand of toy gliders decades ago, in some store, and bought a supply. When assembled they fly OK (not great) but what impressed me back then was the relatively authentic looking markings.

Often these are in "off" shades of color printing, and the foam shapes seem to be cut mostly to resemble Spitfires (elliptical wings) or ME-109s, regardless of their markings. But they are still evocative.

When I got home from the museum this time I Googled the markings on the P-47 glider and discovered that it represents the airplane of U.S. ace Gabby Gabreski. They even got the tiny tail number right! I plan to investigate the others and see what historical connections they may have.

It impresses me that they bothered to even try for a hint of accuracy. Most potential buyers wouldn't know a Navy Hellcat from a Focke-Wulf 190, much less the plane of a particular ace.

The cut-out shapes are not perfect for each particular plane, but they aren't completely random either. For instance, in that first batch I bought, so many years ago, there was a P-38 Lightning, an unconventional, twin-boom airplane. The foam model inside the package made every effort to reproduce that peculiar shape.

Some people collect these things. There's a blog, now dormant, entitled "The Styrofoam Glider Squadron," that gives more information about some really rare airplanes modeled in foam.

Can you believe there was even a foam glider devoted to the odd British Boulton Paul Defiant? That was a fighter plane with all its guns located in a turret instead of in the wings or nose.

At $1 per, these things aren't precious mementos. I kept that first batch for years until a co-worker began bringing her young son in to work some days. The combination of a handy kid and that second-story staircase in the office was perfect. I brought in my collection of foam gliders and the staircase became the boy's wind tunnel.

I tried to make it a learning experience: he taped pennies to the fuselages to help the planes fly straighter. But it was really just pure, destructive fun. He flew the planes (and I fetched them back upstairs) until they were battered beyond use.

I hope my granddaughter will humor me like this someday in the future.

At the museum gift shop I tried to explain my interest in the toy planes to the cashier.

"You have to get more of these!" I bubbled. "They're the best!"

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