Frank Lucas started building model airplane kits in his mother's kitchen—Today his factory turns out more than a million kits a year
Kindergarten of the Air
WITHIN a few years Canada is destined to lead the world in aviation,” is a statement heard with increasing regularity. When and if that day arrives, it can already be conceded that to some extent the reaching of such an objective will be due to an idea, followed by energetic planning, of a young Canadian who has succeeded in making other youthful Canadians more air-minded than their contemporaries in any other country in the world.
No, he didn’t start a publicity campaign and he didn’t invent a slogan. Originally his idea was simply to help a gang of boys who were interested in building model airplanes. The idea grew, and the upshot of it was that he succeeded in kindling the imaginations of boys from one end of the country to the other and making it possible for them to build model airplanes, too. Incidentally, he built up a business which now employs forty boys recently out of high school.
The young man who did all this is Frank Lucas.
Ten years ago, when he was still struggling with the Fourth Book, Lucas left school to face a world already plummeting into depression. He had no money and no influential friends, but he succeeded, when business seemed headed for chaos, in creating a new industry for Canada — the manufacture of model airplane kits.
Today, at twenty-six, Frank Lucas looks the part of a highly successful businessman. His office is a model of efficiency, and he has developed the busy man’s habit of keeping his desk always clear. His attractive and efficient teen-aged secretary is not long out of High.
Frank Lucas is married—very proudly married, lie says of his wife, “She believed in me from the first—” with the suggestion that she was one of the few who did believe in him.
He does not put on airs, but this young businessman inspires respect. His promises, sparingly made, are as good as gold.
“Next year,” he told me in 1938, “I will double my output and make a million kits.”
Actually his factory turned out a million and a quarter model airplane kits in 1939.
Spare Time Start
W/HEN LUCAS left school ten years ago, he managed W to rustle himself a job with a lumber broker. It wasn't a good job and it didn’t offer much outlet for ambition, but Lucas realized right from the beginning that oppor-
tunities never come tailored to measure. To recognize an opportunity when it did come—that was the main thing. Making it fit was something to worry about afterward.
He worked faithfully for the lumber broker and, being a clean-cut kid, he spent most of his spare time at the Central Y.M.C.A. in Toronto. At the “Y” he became interested in a group of boys, younger than himself, who were building model planes. Although he knew nothing whatever about building models, the boys turned to him for advice. With the impetuous sureness of youth, they recognized in him the qualities of leadership.
He settled their problems. When difficulties arose in matters of model construction and so on, he was usually able to suggest a way out. He liked the youngsters and liked their enthusiasm—and, what is more, he discovered the keen joy of disinterested giving. He had no thoughts beyond this. Model plane building didn’t interest him particularly, and to this day he has never built a model of his own. It was fun helping others—that was his attitude.
But then opportunity came, in the guise of a salesman— but let Frank tell the story himself.
“It began,” he said, “with a fellow coming to our office and trying to sell the boss a carload of balsa. At that time I couldn't have told balsa from teak, but I overheard the salesman explaining how light it was. and how it was being used for radio cabinets, and how kids in the States were using it for model airplane building. I was interested in that. My kids at the ‘Y’ were making their models by whittling down strips of pine, and I thought if balsa wood was so much lighter it would be a good plan to get them some.
"That was the start. I bought a few feet of balsa and sold it to the boys for what it cost—just to oblige. Then
Frank Lucas started building model airplane kits in his mother's kitchen—Today his factory turns out more than a million kits a year
they started coming to me for elastic, silk and cement, so almost without realizing it I started building up a little business on the side.
“Time after time it came to me that what the fellows really needed were kits—sets of plans along with the necessary material for making the plane. But I had a job, there was a depression on, and for a while it seemed best to sit tight.”
His interest in the gang at the “Y” resulted in him becoming chief adviser to the Y.M.C.A. model airplane club, and in this capacity he started organizing model airplane races. These races attracted the attention of the newspapers, businessmen became interested, and model building began to receive much deserved publicity. Youngsters who had heard about Frank Lucas and his club wrote to him for advice. How could they, in isolated communities, get the materials and plans for building?
Frank took their problems under advisement; or, in his own words, he started to dope things out. Of one thing he was certain—model building wasn’t a craze which would peter out in a year or two. It was something you could bank on—something just peculiarly right for boys to do. It developed their inventive sense, it satisfied that inherent desire which is in every boy to create something with his own hands, and it was competitive, for the building of model planes is but a prelude to racing them.
More and more he began to see possibilities in his sparetime business; and at last he decided to turn out a complete kit. with plans and parts, which would enable youthful enthusiasts to build planes according to a design which had been tried and tested.
Instead of whittling down strips of pine, most of the model builders in Canada were now using balsa wood. Their usual practice was either to buy or design the plan of a model and then to build up component parts by pinning the tiny sections of wood to the blueprint. These were then joined together by a special cement.
For his kits Frank cut the balsa wood into convenient lengths, and the designs for the various sections were stamped on the wood and numbered to correspond with the plan. This simplified the builder’s work. All he had to do, was to cut out the sections with a razor blade, finish them off with fine sandpaper, and assemble with the special “goo.” A keen craftsman could make the framework of his plane, with each rib and strut gleamingly perfect, a thing of beauty in itself.
Continued on page 30
Continued from page 24 -.
The builders, Frank found, did their best to improve on his basic designs—with j considerable success. It was the inventive! ness of boys which stepped up the duration of flight for a rubber-driven model from a few seconds to the present Canadian record of over twelve minutes.
! O TILL cannilv holding onto his job with ^ the lumber broker, Lucas began to manufacture kits in the back kitchen at home. He had two people in that home who firmly believed in him—his mother ! and his sister—so they helped to cut the balsa wood into strips, whittle out the propellers and pack the boxes. As a final magnificent gesture he had colored labels printed which bore, beneath the picture of a plane, words with magic in them: Manufactured by the Ontario Model Aircraft Company, Toronto.
In ten years those words have appeared on over five million boxes.
But I am ahead of the story.
There was no trouble, at the beginning, about production—the trouble was to find a place for the accumulating stock, because merchants didn’t want to handle it. They were afraid to take on a new line, and all Frank’s enthusiasm wouldn’t budge them. Model airplane kits? Never heard tell of them. You’re just wasting your time, m’lad.
Pretty soon the back kitchen was stovehigh with boxes.
“All the money I could raise was tied up in materials,” Frank explained, “and I didn’t have a nickel to spend on advertising. For a while it looked as if I was on the spot.”
He didn’t give up, though. He spent his lunch hours trying to drum up business, and one day, a little fearfully, he called on a buyer in one of the big department stores. The buyer proved both wise and understanding.
“You’ve got something.” he said. ‘This is just the sort of thing boys will want.”
He ordered a thousand kits.
This first order gave Frank Lucas his start, but it wasn’t easy going even after that. The hobby was taking hold, largely through his own work with the Y.M.C.A. club; but it was moving slowly. And still there was no money available for advertising.
Somehow he did raise enough to exhibit his wares at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto and at various fairs throughout Ontario. The displays were a complete flop, and the expense of them nearly shipwrecked the struggling business. He began to see that he must educate boys I to appreciate what he had to offer. Just I showing them wasn’t enough.
With a touch of genius he decided to get out a paper of his own which would popularize model building; so he issued the Bulletin, a mimeographed sheet which was distributed from time to time as funds permitted. It did the trick. Boys began enquiring at the stores for model airplane kits. When merchants showed abysmal ignorance as to where the kits could be obtained, the boys were more than glad to enlighten them. Frank began to receive enquiries, and the enquiries were followed, more often than not, by orders.
Undaunted by his first failure, he exhibited a second year at the Canadian National Exhibition, and this time boys crowded round his booth. His product had won acceptance.
From Cellar to Modern Factory
VOU COULDN’T run a big business indefinitely with Mum and the kid sister for help, so the youthful manufacturer started looking around for more pretentious premises. He finally located a cellar under a barber’s shop, which was offered to him at a low rental, and to this dismal place he transferred his stock and equipment. For help he called in two schoolboys who were both experienced model builders, and they worked evenings from four to nine. Greatly daring, he himself quit his job with the lumber broker,
Frank Lucas was still in his teens when he moved to the cellar, but he had ideas that a seasoned executive might have envied. He saw his job clean-cut: it was to promote model building. If he did that, he knew' his own sales would take care of themselves. With this in mind he established model airplane clubs—dozens of them—and he organized race meets which were duly reported, with photographs, in the newspapers. Boys everywhere began to hear about the absorbing hobby, and business prospered.
Business prospered to such an extent that within a year the cellar was far too small for the expanding plant. Frank had plowed back most of his profits into laborsaving equipment which was wedged in so tightly that it became a problem for the operators to reach their machines. In between starting clubs, publishing a paper, designing new models and selling kits, he began to look for a building which would give him elbow room.
He found the ideal place—or, at least, it seemed ideal to him then. It was a threestory house with a store front and plenty of space for machines, assembly lines and stock. He signed a lease and moved in.
The move was followed by a splurge of machinery buying. Additional circular Continued on page 32
Continued from page 30 saws were purchased for cutting the balsa, and with the saws came planers, sanders, drills and presses. A printing department was set up on the ground floor, additional help was taken on, and the place buzzed with activity. The business was over the hump.
The two boys who had worked in the cellar after school became permanent employees, and one of them—not much more than a lad still, but possessing the poise which comes from quiet self-confidence—is Frank’s right-hand man.
“Mr. Smith—” Frank introduced him, “my factory manager and chief designer.”
R. T. Smith, like Frank Lucas himself, will be heard from in the years to come. He is a tall fellow with the smoldering eyes of a dreamer, and the chin of a man who makes his dreams come true. At high school he was a champion model builder and today his designs are famous, not only in Canada, but throughout the world.
Frank Lucas’ employees are all young fellows not far removed from high school. He chooses only those who have shown special aptitude in designing, building and flying models, so that to secure a job with him is considered almost the equivalent of winning a scholarship.
When I interviewed Lucas in the preparation of this article, he was again in the process of enlarging his factory. He had taken over the neighboring building, and workmen were tearing down walls so that once again he could have elbow room. The original factory was jammed with boys in shirt sleeves working at a tempo which would have cheered the heart of an efficiency expert. Some of them were tending the machines, others were working on the assembly lines, still others were packing the kits and piling them by the hundreds in the stockroom. Downstairs the presses clanked.
“It’s fun,” Frank Lucas said, looking at his handiwork. “It’s been fun all the way along.”
Recently Lucas sent out a questionnaire to Canadian boys, and on the basis of the returns he was able to estimate that a quarter of a million youngsters in Canada are regularly building model planes. This is a higher percentage of model builders in proportion to the population, than that obtaining in the United States—which seems fair proof that Lucas has done his part in making young Canada air-mmded.
“For,” said Air Marshal W. A. Bishop, V.C., recently, “the builders of scale models will make tomorrow’s airmen.”
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