Model airplane artist passionate about his craft

by James Thalman Davis Clipper LAYTON—Meet Robert Gray. At age 79, he’s got to be one of the happiest guys in Davis County, maybe even in Utah. If he hasn’t figured out the meaning of life, he knows the next best thing to it—maintaining a life-long childhood passion. His “thing” is model airplanes. He whittles miniature propeller bi-planes from the barnstorming days to World War II fighters that he often gives away. Gray can do one in two weeks. His full-scale love of airplanes really takes flight in his homemade, carefully sculpted and properly scaled radio-controlled beauties that fill his garage. He builds them from scratch from blueprints he has often drawn himself. A Robert Gray design is still considered the height of excellent model making among RC (radio-controlled) enthusiasts around the country. He was soldering a landing gear on his latest – a 1947 Aeronca Champ – recently. “Landing gears are a pain to work on,” Gray says with a laugh. He says most everything with a laugh, so he’s not quite convincing when he says anything about building an airplane is a “pain.” He obviously loves every single teeny, tiny bit – and there are hundreds of them – involved in a project. And just as one gets completed he has another one coming off his assembly line of ideas for the next one. To the casual observers, whose experience with model planes were the 15-cent balsa wing and fuselage with a rubber band powered propeller, Gray is a da Vinci. For there is art and craft involved. Behind his combination garage/hanger/workbench/man cave, is a collection of saws, planes, balsa wood slats, glues, paint supplies, iron-on plastic exteriors, you name it. The menagerie would easily fill three shelves at Home Depot. How on earth can he possibly remember where everything is? “How does a musician know where the notes are,” Gray says, laughing but taken aback a bit by the question. “Of course I know where everything is. I don’t have to remember because everything is right where it belongs.” That’s probably because Gray is right where he belongs. He’s been a “modeler” since he was 7 years old. He’s carved 102 miniatures and given 80 of them away over the years. He gives the big birds away, too. Usually after test flying each just one time. Gray has a model marriage as well. He and Maria will have been married 58 years come December. They met in Kindsbach, Germany, in 1960 when Gray was in the Air Force. Take a guess what the two new lovebirds did on their first date. They went RC flying, of course. Maria, showing her true colors and willingness to put up with her new beau’s passion, held the plane in place, motor running, as he ran to pick up the controller. “Rocks and dirt were flying everywhere, but I managed to hold it until he took off,” Maria says, also with a laugh. Ironically, Gray’s not so keen sending his work into the wild blue yonder. His thrill comes the moment he completes a plane. “It’s all about using your hands and brains and getting the thing as close to scale as you can,” he says. Not flying a model isn’t strange whatsoever to Gray. To him, there are two kinds of people in the world – fliers and modelers. “Most modelers don’t like to fly all that much,” he says, noting that the 70 or so members of the Northern Utah Radio Control Aircraft Club don’t tend to be fliers, either. When asked if he’ll ever retire from building his flying machines, Gray says, “Oh, no,” twice for emphasis. “I’ll keep doing this until I fade into the sunset. I’ll just pick up my wings, and go from there.”


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