June 22, 2011 — He was called Little Lindy. And while Maynard Hill wasn’t the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, he did secure a spot in aviation history for a similar feat.
Except his plane was a little smaller than Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.” Make that a lot smaller.
Hill, a model airplane designer who flew one of his radio-controlled airplanes 1,882 miles across the Atlantic Ocean on less than a gallon of fuel in 2003, died June 7 of prostate cancer at his home, the Washington Post reported.
But Hill, 85, was a legend in the model-aircraft world even before that feat, the Washington Post reported. Beginning in the 1960s, he set 25 world records for speed, duration and altitude, flying his radio-controlled aircraft as high as 26,990 feet, as long as 38 hours and as fast as 151 mph.
Hill, who had retired as a metallurgist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, was legally blind due to macular degeneration and mostly deaf when he announced in the 1990s at a radio control club meeting that he planned to fly a model airplane across Atlantic. International rules state that a plane must weigh less than 11 pounds — including fuel — to qualify as a model.
While some doubted it could be done, a group of retired engineers and computer programmers jumped on the idea and helped Hill. In his basement, Hill created 29 versions of his design — the first 24 of which failed, crashed or disappeared in flight, the Washington Post reported.
In 2002, the team attempted their first transatlantic flight. But it was a complete failure, with three planes crashing into the ocean. The team learned the problem was a flaw in the navigational software, made changes, and tried again. Hill’s 25th plane made the flight into history books.
The balsa-and-Mylar plane, which was dubbed the “Spirit of Butts Farm” because that’s where many of its test flights took place, had a six-foot wingspan and weighed less than 11 pounds with fuel, the New York Times reported. The flight from Newfoundland to the west coast of Ireland took under 39 hours.
In an autobiographical essay, Hill wrote, “By age 9, I had acquired a fairly serious addiction to balsa wood and glue.” That addiction never left him.
“Anybody that does something great in his field has to be obsessed to some extent, and he was obsessed,” Bob Bamberger, a senior staff member at the Johns Hopkins lab, told the New York Times. “Why do people want to jump higher or run faster?” he added. “It’s to excel, and that was Maynard’s big thing. It was to do things no one had ever done in the field of model airplanes.”
Maynard Hill holds one of the planes he designed to cross the Atlantic. Photo by Michael Lutzky/The Washington Post
Despite problems with both his hearing and his sight, Maynard Hill builds another model airplane in his workshop in Silver Spring. Photo by Michael Lutzky/The Washington Post
Maynard Hill and John Worth prepare to break the closed course distance record with the transmitter visible in the background in this 1965 photo,
Photo credit: Radio Control Hall of Fame