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Written by Jay Smith
Bob Underwood: Modeler, educator, administrator, motivator, and lifelong learner
Extended interview from the June 2016 issue of Model Aviation

Jay Smith: How did you get involved with model aviation?
Bob Underwood: The first question and I am stumped! I really haven’t the foggiest idea what prompted my interest. I vaguely remember a white, rubber-powered model that my dad and I took to a contest in Forest Park in St. Louis. It would have been in the 1930s, and possibly it was a Plymouth meet. There was one flight—sort of—that was very short and included a well-defined stall and ended with an outstanding crash!

Although my dad did not build model airplanes, he was very detail oriented, observant, and did create an excellent, scratch-built shelf model of the Mayflower. It had hand-carved divots with small holes that were drilled employing a tiny finger-twisted drill encased in masking tape. The rigging was composed of thread involving many thousands of hand-tied knots.

Whatever aviation-oriented impulse that inhabited my brain was greatly encouraged by my dad and resulted in my continuing to build flying models through the 1930s and ’40s. Kits were intermingled with scratch-built Control Line and Free Flight (FF) projects and ranged from rather normal to really odd.

By far, the most successful fliers were the many Thermic 50 towline models. A scratch-built FF aircraft powered by a tired, really used O&R engine that managed “fantastic” flights of perhaps a minute (maximum) and an altitude of 30 feet! Of course, that was only contingent upon my getting the points, condenser, and coil to all work at the same time! It was a time of learning.

As an introverted kid and a loner, any modeling skills I learned were by trial and error. The scratch-built models all employed the “LAR” (looks-about-right) design technique. I was convinced I wanted to become an aeronautical engineer as I entered high school. Had I continued on that course, it might have resulted in an engineer who did not like math and never really figured out a slide rule!

Strangely, my model airplane activity abruptly stopped in 1946 and was replaced by cross-country, track, and photography, as well as the desire to become an elementary school teacher. The latter happened and model airplanes did not reappear until 1966!

JS: How has model aviation impacted your life and/or career?
BU: “Greatly” would be the simple answer, however, within four years of that 1966 date, the words “model aviation” became “AMA” and “your” became “our” lives and/or careers.

The support of my wife and two daughters for my actual airplane building, as well as competing in and organizing events, included their participation as well. Although they didn’t build or fly models, by 1970 they had become deeply involved in AMA activities.

My participation as a competitor afforded all of us opportunities to travel, both nationally and internationally. Additionally, there were many other local, national, and international events and shows that we worked at in various capacities such as souvenir sales, Delta Dart building programs for kids during the Nats, trade show booths, administration, score tabulation, hosting at international events, etc.

In 1985, the impact on our lives changed more dramatically. In 1982, John Worth [then AMA executive director] asked me to join the AMA staff. In July 1985, after I had completed 30 years of teaching fifth-graders in the St. Louis area, I became the AMA Technical Director and we moved to Virginia.

It was then that my wife and I more clearly understood that AMA wasn’t just about model airplanes; rather it clearly was about two very important things: people and educating!

Model airplanes began to serve as a tool, aiding us in creating meaningful human relationships. For me, the root that could be identified as “model airplane” in my life had grown into a tree with many branches labeled technical, recreational, competition, administrative, promotional, social, and most importantly, educational. I learned as I taught!

The unnumbered hours of scratch-building models for competition, the gazillion hours of committee meetings for the AMA and the FAI, and the hundreds of columns written for various magazines, tended to pale in comparison to the wealth of rich friendships which were generated through our family’s AMA attachment as volunteers, participants, and staff. In truth, I see this page not as “I Am the AMA,” but rather “We Are the AMA.”

JS: What disciplines of modeling do you currently participate in?
BU: I still fly RC, but mostly just with my grandson. At age 15, his reflexes outstrip mine. The best I can do now is to instill some discipline to the mix and end the simple boring of holes in the sky.

I’ve backed away from the competition in which I was so intensely involved for years—especially around 1977 when I formed the AMA Special Interest Group, the National Association of Scale Aeromodelers (NASA).

The awards from contests, AMA, NAA, and FAI grace walls and shelves in our home and evoke rewarding and pleasant memories. Unfortunately, at my age now travel is more difficult, and once I’m at the field and on the ground, repairing something it’s really hard to get back up!

JS: What are your other hobbies?
BU: I have a love of music and singing, although other than our church choir, there is not much demand for 85-year-old tenors, especially those who didn’t have a solo-quality voice to begin with. But my return to my early love of photography has caused my iMac to light up with many beautiful scenes and memories, both for the Underwoods as well as for our church for which I serve as a photographer.

JS: Who (or what) has influenced you most?
BU: My mother and father instilled curiosity and a willingness to never stop learning, to be patient, listen carefully, to be observant, and ask the difficult question. Those have held me in good stead as I came in contact with the thousands of individuals and experiences along my modeling road.

Those individuals have not all been modelers! I have learned many techniques and skills that I applied to my building and association administration that came from next-door neighbors as well. In competition, I discovered I always learned more when I didn’t stand on the winner’s platform than when I did.

JS: When thinking of all your aeromodeling accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
BU: I believe the answer here is having had an opportunity to try to be an educator, facilitator, and motivator for our activity! Just a month ago, I sensed a degree of success in that endeavor. As a District VI associate vice president, I attended a Greater St. Louis Modeling Association meeting to assist with some discussions.

At the conclusion of the meeting, a man came up to me and indicated that I had met him and his father in the 1970s when he was 11 years old. They had become interested in modeling and were looking for help. Although I honestly don’t remember the meeting or the subsequent connection, he emotionally thanked me for having started him on what is now his life career.

Both moved and taken aback by his sincerity and fervor, I extended my hand to shake his. What I received was a big old bear hug instead! That experience was certainly worth a lifetime of waiting for glue to dry, burned-out glow plugs, and vertical landings in the middle of a field!

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