The Comet Model Airplane Company

The Comet Model Airplane company produced the first production run of Target Kites for the Navy. Robert Reder, author of a book on the history of the Monogram company, worked at Comet as his first job. In this extract from the introduction to that book he describes his experiences at Comet during the war years. (The complete text of the introduction may be found on the AMA website.

The War Years

In 1939 the clouds that led to World War II were gathering. Along with most other industries and businesses, the supply of materials needed to make commercial goods would gradually be choked off. Even materials not needed for wartime use were in short supply because of transportation priorities. It became apparent that it was only a matter of time before model building, as we knew it then, would come to a halt. Balsa wood, which grew in Ecuador and Costa Rica, became a vital war material. Because of its high strength-to-weight ratio, it was excellent for making life rafts and cores for “sandwich” construction in aircraft such as the British Mosquito bomber. Besides, it was bulky and shipping cargo space was at a premium and soon became government regulated of necessity. In order to maintain sales and keep the factory open when balsa was no longer available, many of the regular kits were marketed using other wood that could be obtained at that time. Some of the basswood sheets used in kit production were “peeled” off of a rotating log in lathe fashion – similar to making veneer for plywood and facing material. It was a poor substitute for balsa.

At Comet there was a massive effort to put the facilities to good use in the war effort. This involved intense exploring and resulted in a variety of interesting ventures. There was need to train more of our young men and women to be flyers. In one of our studies, we worked with the Civil Air Patrol in Washington, D.C., to develop and produce kits to build full-scale training gliders. One of our designers, Alex Horback, was the headman on this venture. His broad search finally settled on a British design that could be used as a training glider. In effect, it was a full-size model airplane design because it resembled so closely what we as hobbyists had been making in a smaller version for so many years. The major structure was wood framing covered with fabric because wood was more readily available than metal. After much study and evaluation, the project was halted. Because of the urgency for training thousands of pilots, a basic decision was made by the top brass to eliminate the glider phase of training and go directly to training pilots in powered aircraft from the outset. Thus our glider training phase was eliminated.

A very important need in wartime was to recognize and identify aircraft flying overhead to determine if they were friend or foe. This was vital, not only to aircraft crews, but to land- and sea-based gunnery crews as well as civilian spotters. At Comet, we worked with the U.S. Department of Navy, Special Devices and the U.S. Department of Education to develop a nationwide program for building 1/72-scale identification models. Our liaison for the project was (then Lieutenant) Paul E. Garber, aviation curator at the Smithsonian Institution.

The program involved the design, templates and step-by-step illustrated instructions for models of Allied and Axis aircraft to be built in high school woodworking and craft shops and on military bases throughout the country. The models were made of basswood in 1/72 scale and painted all black. In the building process the students became familiar with the differences between airplanes. After they were complete, the models were used in pilot ready rooms and for training gunners and spotters. The program was successful and served the purpose well. As the war progressed, these recognition models were made of injection modeled plastic. Examples of these models are on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Another important contribution was the development and production of Lieutenant Garber’s Target Kite. This was a five-foot maneuverable kite flown on two lines so it could simulate the movement of an enemy fighter, the profile of which was stenciled on the face of it. Black top views of a Japanese Zero or a German FW190 were used. The kites were an important aid for gunnery crews in learning to lead a target. When the wind was not strong enough, the kits could be towed behind a Jeep or flown from shipboard when underway.

A great variety of other projects were developed and manufactured to help in the war effort. Among these were:

Wind Tunnel – Tabletop unit for classroom use to teach and explore the forces related to flight. Carl Goldberg designed and led this project.

Target Gliders – Catapulted models made of harder wood for higher wing loading and speed. Used for gunnery training. The profile fuselage was equipped with an insert panel hinged at the rear so a hit would open the flap and bring the glider down noticeably. Used in conjunction with a special BB machine gun.

Air-O-Trainer – Profile model of a Bell P-39 fighter with a 24-inch wingspan, working stick and rudder pedals that moved the control surfaces. These were used for classroom pilot training.

Waco Gliders – Scale models of invasion gliders for classroom training purposes.

Balsa Life Rafts – Developed alternate designs for more efficiency and rapid assembly in construction.

Radar Reflectors – A lightweight package of reinforced aluminum foil secured to a folding balsa framework measuring 1-˝-inches by 24-inches by 48-inches. Thread connected the corners of each two-foot by four-foot panel when opened. Equipped with a simple pneumatic Austin timer to delay deployment and attached to a weather balloon, it opened after a pre-set time into a 12-foot long array of radar reflectors for checking wind speed and direction aloft. It could be used from land or shipboard. Hundreds of these units were produced.

The years spent at Comet were rewarding from a learning standpoint, and the excellent design group that I had the privilege of supervising was made up of many prominent modelers. Among these were Al Horback, Syl Wisniewski, Carl Goldberg, Ed Lidgard, Wally Fromm, Sid Axelrod, Fred Schlienz, Joe and Rita Konefes, Pete Vacco, Walter Eckart, George Gordey, Vito Garofalo and so many other designers who helped make it all go.