Top Stories from the Features pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, October 23, 1995

The Master Builder of Model Airplanes

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
MILHARS, France - ''When I fly the big airplanes my knees tremble,'' said Yves Segonds. It has nothing to do with fear of flying for the 57-year-old man who has been in a real airplane only four times in his life. No, he is referring to radio-controlled model airplanes that are piloted from the ground, which he has a passion for building.

His have won prizes from model airplane associations, are imitated by other constructors and have appeared on France's Ushuaia adventure television program. ''I like to make airplanes that are different

from what everyone else does,'' said Segonds, at his home in the village of Milhars in southwest France.

He builds them not from diagrams, but from photographs of the originals. A high point came in 1992, when he built the largest four-engine model airplane in Europe, his Lockheed Orion P-3C, a U.S. land-based maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft first flown in 1968. The model weighs 21 kilos (46 pounds), has a wing span of 3.25 meters (about 10 feet), and was timed by the Fédération Française d'Aéro-Modélisme flying at 150 kph (94 mph).

Segonds is proudest, however, of his Grumman E-2C Hawkeye early warning and control aircraft. It is the kind of radar airplane the U.S. Navy used during the Gulf War, with its distinctive round dish above the fuselage. ''I've never seen an airplane fly the way that one does,'' he said of his model, which made the cover of RCM (Radio Commande Magazine). ''It does rolling, looping, flying on its back for 200 meters, one meter from the ground. But it will not accept engine failure. The moment an engine cuts, it rolls onto its back and dives to the ground.'' The plane crashed three times and he rebuilt it each time.

He is obsessive about details. The Hawkeye's dish radar rotates during the flight, like the original. His landing carriages descend slowly, never just springing out. He builds everything himself, radio control equipment included, and it costs him very little, since he uses anything on hand, like old bicycle spokes for the landing gears. All he buys are the engines and propellers.

Segonds made his first airplane in 1950 from wood of the Aveyron region, where he was born.

''I made a glider from a diagram that I found in a magazine when I was 12. On the first launch it crashed horribly. The wood was far too heavy. I had absolutely no idea how to make a model.'' He buried the idea and went to work in a string of jobs, from which he would pick up skills that would eventually go back to airplane making. Like working with fiberglass when he was foreman at an air conditioning company.

In 1965 he made what he calls his ''first true model,'' the kind attached to cables. ''It was made from a kit with pre-cut wood. Then I made one myself from a block of wood that I hollowed.''

He continued for a couple more years, then stopped, bringing his wife and four children to Paris where he took a night course in electronics in 1971 in order to build his own stereo equipment. ''I learned to make radio controls, then I started making airplanes again in order to put the radio control equipment in them.''

He has no idea how many model airplanes he has made. ''I know that for three or four years I worked on them for 10 hours a day,'' he said, in addition to his day jobs.

The watershed year was 1986, when he met René Lempereur, who was president of the model club to which Segonds belonged. Segonds visited him in his atelier and saw on the wall a photograph of the Avteck-400 and offered to build it. ''One week later I came with the fuselage under my arm, completed. And so we started our team, I the constructor, he the pilot.'' The team lasted until Segonds took early retirement from his day job in 1993, bought a stone house in this village of 300 people, and decided to move from model airplanes to the real thing.

''After I built the biggest model, someone else made a six-engine plane. After that I wanted to make one with 12 engines. Then I stopped because I thought, 'No, it's pointless.' Just to show that I could make one that was bigger than everyone else's.''

So he decided to build an airplane in which he could fly himself. He chose an unusual one. It is called the Pou-du-Ciel (literally, Sky Louse),and was first built in the early 1930s by a French aviator named Henri Mignet. It was one of the first airplanes cheap enough to be built by the common man and was one of the first ultralights, which is the kind of flying permit that Segonds is required to pass to fly it after he finishes the plane this fall.

''I wanted an ultralight that looked like an airplane,'' he said, ''rather than these ugly looking little contraptions out of tubes and canvas. The most interesting part of the construction process for me is the gluing together of pieces of wood.''

Will his knees tremble when he flies aboard the Pou-du-Ciel? ''I don't think so. It's more for the airplane than for me.''

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