The Miracle of Flight,
to Scale


The Wright Flyer replica at the Hong Kong International Airport.

Few things stoke the imagination of an engineer more than flight, and for many, their first model airplane is a lasting memory. But just because it’s a model and not the real thing doesn’t mean its creation doesn’t bring challenges of its own.  

Reducing the Scale

Jaime Johnston was once a biomedical engineer who worked for Raytheon Medical Systems and later went out on his own. But today, he’s known as the owner of Arizona Model Aircrafters, Scottsdale, AZ. “The models we do are scale models,” he says. “This means I’m taking a look at the plans, blueprints, or whatever documentation is available on the real plane and interpreting that and doing production drawings,” he says. “We really continue a tradition. Model building in general has its roots back in construction and architecture—even back to the pyramids.”

For example, take their 1903 Wright Flyer model. Here they took the blueprints and consolidated it into a five-page plan, set the structure of aspects such as the winged ribs, and set it to scale. “Where Wilbur and Orville used steel tubing and steel plates banged out in a blacksmith’s shop, we did it with brass tubing and brass sheets and replicated hardware in miniature,” he says. “I think in the 1930s when the Flyer was acquired and restored for display it was built from about 70 to 80 pages of blueprints. Now that’s an extensive job.”

With their Fokker plane models, they reduced scale by using aluminum tubing as opposed to steel tubing used on the actual planes. The wing is almost identical in construction, although the original had thinner material, Johnston says.

The WWI triplane Fokker Dr.1. model used in the movie Flyboys. Image:





On the Silver Screen

Another area where models make noise is on the silver screen. “For the movie Flyboys, we did designs for models of triplanes and Nieuports and also provided quarter-sized models of the Fokker triplanes.” The company even did work for The Aviator, providing them with applicable blueprints and drawings.

And what’s the biggest model you can think of? How about full size. Today, Johnston finds his business is also making full-size replicas of planes for museums and yet another film: Unbroken, the directorial debut of Angelina Jolie.

Having an understanding of lasers as a biomedical engineer, he believes his company was only the second to use laser cut kits for model planes, giving them a prime advantage in their earlier years. “The first laser cost me $40,000 but it gave me an infinite variety of things I could do,” he says. “We could have designs offering a variety of scale sizes, making kits from one inch to the foot standard sizes.” As far as programs, he utilizes SolidWorks and Solid Edge for some of the parts but believes it’s as much about appreciation and patience as software.

 “At their best, planes are one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see,” he says. “My focus is keeping the construction, the outline, and what will be the finished appearance as accurate and true as possible. Many customers have incredible knowledge because they’ve been enjoying models for years. It’s a hobby that stays with them.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

At their best, planes are one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.

Jaime Johnston,
Arizona Model Aircrafters


January 2014

by Eric Butterman,