Model airplane legend Maynard Hill dies at 85

June 10, 2011

Maynard Hill, a pioneer in unmanned and model aircraft who sent an 11-pound airplane across the Atlantic in 2003, died June 7 at his home in Silver Spring, Md., The Washington Post has reported. He was 85.

Hill, a member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) Hall of Fame and former president of the academy, earned 25 world records for speed, distance, and altitude over a long career of modeling. He led a team that flew a balsa-wood model airplane carrying 5.5 pounds of Coleman lantern fuel from Newfoundland to Ireland, a distance of 1,882 statute miles, on Aug. 11, 2003.

Hill was 77 at the time of the transatlantic flight, and legally blind. Yet he worked on model after model perfecting the design that eventually stayed aloft 38 hours, 52 minutes, and 14 seconds before landing within feet of its intended mark across the ocean. He dyed his glue red to better see it while working.
The team, known as the Society for Technical Aeromodel Research, built and tested dozens of versions of the aircraft before sending out Trans Atlantic Model 5 (TAM 5)—the fifth model to attempt the transatlantic flight over the course of two years. Before TAM 5 made its landmark journey, four models had failed to reach the mark, with flights that ranged from 17 ½ minutes to eight hours.

Most of the flight testing took place at the farm of pilot Beecher Butts, so Hill called the transatlantic model The Spirit of Butts’ Farm. The successful flight was controlled by radio and GPS navigation; David Brown, then president of AMA, glided the aircraft in for a successful landing. The flight marked Hill’s twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth world records, for distance in a straight line and duration.

Born during the Golden Age of aviation, Hill was inspired by famous aviators of his childhood. In an autobiography for AMA, he described how his passion for model aeronautics grew: “As were many boys of the decade, I had my mind on model airplanes more than girls. The thrill of launching a black-and-yellow tissue-covered rubber-powered model of a Corben Baby Ace was enormous! Red-and-white Rearwin Speedsters and all-yellow Piper Cubs were even better. You learned something new or acquired a skill with each model. Success was not always easy; patience and persistence were among the valuable lessons.

“By age 9 I had acquired a fairly serious addiction to balsa wood and glue.”

Hill added radio-control aeromodeling to his repertoire about a decade later, and eventually parlayed his hobby into research and development positions in the budding field of unmanned aircraft systems for the military.

According to The Washington Post, Hill is survived by his wife of 59 years, Gay, as well as three children (Christopher H. Hill, Vivian Snipes, and M. Scott Hill), a brother, a sister, and 10 grandchildren.