Treeline with Keith Sparks


By Rachelle Haughn. Park Pilot's Rachelle Haughn interviews Keith Sparks. Summer 2015 Park Pilot.

A ready-to-fly aircraft is rarely found in Keith “Sparky” Sparks’ workshop. If it is, it’s been modified in some way—a paint scheme overhaul here, a motor change there. If he hasn’t scratch-built an airplane from foam or balsa, Keith has rescued it from a trashcan or found it in a pile of junk at a yard sale. Through his successes and failures, he has learned a few things about model aircraft since he began building at age 12. Keith documented most of them in an RCGroups forum, and even wrote a book about building with foam. If you haven’t read his book or spotted his name online, you may have seen some of his fun Cartoon Scale models or unique canopies in the air at a park near you. Read on to learn more about this upbeat, creative park pilot and be sure to check out his forum (www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=483613). Rachelle Haughn: What inspired you to create your forum and what did it teach you? Keith Sparks: It was meant to be a trip down memory lane for me and my flying buddies. It turned into one for many more people. I realized that each plane had hidden lessons and why some models make poor RC subjects. Another lesson is you can’t participate in this hobby without help, and the AMA has created an environment where help is easy to find. RH: Why did you decide to start taking photos of every plane you built, starting with the first one? KS: This was a habit formed from my plastic model-building days. At 12 years old, I had no idea I was building dioramas—just copying what was in the magazines.
Keith rocked a mullet in the 1980s.

RH: What is your favorite material to build with and why? KS: I prefer Styrofoam, but return to balsa and plywood to touch base with my roots. Foam-based models take their shape much faster at about a third the cost of other building mediums. The real advantage is that they weigh less, making them fly better. RH: You seem to take any building or flying failure with a grain of salt (mixed in with a little humor). Do you have any tips for how other modelers can do the same? KS: [I’m] not meaning to scare anyone away, but every flying model has an expiration date—they are just not marked. Most crashes I’ve seen or have been a part of were caused by making a change to the model or trying something different in the air. Keep in mind, flying models are experiments because conditions are forever changing and that makes every flight a test flight. If you approach a crash as a learning opportunity, then the loss becomes progress. RH: What was the first model you designed that was sold by a manufacturer? KS: That would be the OV-1 Mohawk, a balsa-and-plywood model with a 59-inch wingspan. It is a rarely kitted model of a Vietnam-era observation/attack plane. Black Horse Model had a good run [but] it has been discontinued. RH: I saw that you made pilot busts of your dogs, and your company currently sells pilot busts. Have you considered selling any unusual busts, such as animals? KS: The “dog fighter” pilot figure was created for the cartoon plane series as part of the gag—something else to get a smile when you realize the racing plane has a greyhound in the cockpit. The Me 109 has a German shepherd, the Spitfire a British bulldog, and the L-19, naturally, has a bird dog. There are other fun figures coming though like a hellcat and a razorback.
A close-up of the Jack pilot bust.

RH: Tell us what inspired you to start your business, Park Flyer Plastics (parkflyerplastics.com), and how it was formed. KS: Originally, my plastic-forming machine was intended for personal use because of the limited availability of unusual plastic parts for RC models. This hole in the industry led to Dare Design contacting me to make parts for them. As the years passed, other manufacturers became my customers and my tooling skills improved. Before I went online, I created a variety of parts a modeler could choose from.
This Testors Cessna was Keith’s first airplane design. The fuselage was made from ABS plastic and the wing was foam. Keith said it lasted roughly four flights because his instructor was too far away when he got in trouble.

Keith hand launches a B-58. During the design process, the aircraft had eight “incidents” while he was determining the model’s center of gravity. The B-58 is now sold as a kit through Park Flyer Plastics.

RH: Is there anything you do in your day job that you have learned and applied to your models? KS: As an A&P (airframe and powerplant) mechanic, everything I do at work has a modeling equivalent. All airplanes require proper maintenance and repair—a discipline than has prevented me from losing several planes. RH: How difficult is it to maintain a full-time job while running your own business? KS: The company takes about three hours out of every day, if you average it out. This does not include the time my wife puts into shipping and tracking the books. We have evenings that get hectic, but I wouldn’t call it difficult though, since we are spending time together with a common goal. RH: Why did you decide to write a book about building with foam and how has it been received? KS: I would find myself at the flying field explaining how a model was made and at one point I found myself in my shop conducting classes. I decided it would be easier to put it all in a book. I couldn’t be happier with how it has been received, and I consider the feedback as the real payoff. Modelers from all over the world have sent me photos of their creations. Making even a small difference is pure gold.
Keith taxis a foam aircraft he designed in August 2006.

RH: You named a P-40 Warhawk after your wife, Patrice. What did she think of the tribute? KS: I named the plane The Patty C. because her family calls her Patty and her maiden name is Cavallo. Since the model didn’t make the [February 2012 Model Aviation] magazine cover, I put it on the Building With Foam book cover. Now she sees my appreciation of her support every day. Given her modest personality, I believe she was pleased with it and how it is slightly hidden.
This P-40 Warhawk, named after Keith’s wife, was featured in a build article in the February 2012 issue of Model Aviation. If you want to try your hand at building an aircraft that weighs more than 2 pounds, plans for this 17-pound model can be purchased from AMA Plans Service.

Lanier Shrike plans were converted to make this Depron foam model that Keith loaded with LED lights. Someone has to launch it for him at night because it’s too bright. The night flier is small enough to easily fit in a car.

RH: Please tell us what’s currently on your building bench. KS: I’m feeling a craving to build a C-124 Globemaster. I’m still in the research steps but “Old Shaky” looks like one of those unusual subjects I would love. RH: When you first started building and flying airplanes, did you ever think you would be where you are today? KS: Absolutely not. I knew I would design and fly models, but I had no idea anyone would pay attention. RH: How did you get your nickname? KS: With my last name being Sparks, it comes up natural—all you have to do is answer to it. Working with avionics only sets it in stone. RH: How did you come up with your company’s name? KS: I went with Park Flyer Plastics to attract modelers [who] fly medium-size planes since my forming machine was limited to that size [of] model. The name is somewhat outdated now. I have modified the machine to accept larger tooling that puts me within reach of 1/5-scale parts and smaller 1/4-scale parts. RH: Was it scary to start your own business? KS: Our hobby has always had the need for individuals to make their models unique, so it was not scary at all. Everything just seemed to fall into place. RH: Who taught you how to fly? KS: I had three instructors before I became proficient, and it took three planes before I soloed. Robert Muller was the guy [who] had enough patience to see me through. I do have to credit Ron Singer for teaching the art of landing, though. RH: During the day, you work as an A&P (airframe and powerplant) mechanic for full-scale aircraft. How did you get that job? KS: Three years of aviation trade school, four years with the U.S. Air Force, then a four-year degree. [I’m] a bit overtrained, but turning in an application was all I needed to do.
The similarity between this 3-foot-long MD-80 and its full-scale counterpart is striking. The aircraft weighs only 2 pounds and was damaged while Keith was testing its wing loading and center of gravity.

RH: How did you come up with the idea for your Cartoon Scale airplanes? KS: Dave Deal and the Revell model company had a series of plastic models in the early ’70s that was caricatures of scale planes. I built them all and wished they could really fly. Finally, the technology reached the point that it could, and had to be, done.
Keith Sparks has enjoyed designing his line of Cartoon Scale aircraft, which includes this 28-inch Spitfire that weighs 11 ounces and is piloted by a British bulldog. Keith noted that the aircraft’s markings say BONZ. He said he knows it’s silly, but it makes them fun.

This Cartoon Miss America Mustang is “piloted” by Keith’s dog, Jack. He said it just seemed right to have his greyhound in the cockpit of this 11-ounce racing plane.

Keith loves flying the Cartoon Scale P-51 B with Good Boy painted on the nose. He said it makes him smile every time it’s in the air. The 28-inch aircraft is sold as a kit.

RH: How much fun are they to build and fly? They look like a blast! KS: I kept the design as simplistic as I could by limiting myself to working with flat panels of sheet foam. The parts that form the shape of the planes are formed plastic panels. They are a 10-hour project done 20 minutes at a time. They are a blast to fly and still draw a chuckle out of me when they fly by.

Glow Dog Flight Video


Keith designed this L19 Glow Dog with 150 LED lights throughout the airframe that changed colors during flight. It had a 4-foot wingspan and weighed 3 pounds. The aircraft met its demise in 2008 after its propeller stopped spinning while in flight. Keith built another version of the aircraft. Watch a video of the original slow night flier in the Park Pilot Digital edition.

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2 comments

It's possible to make this plane ( B-58) with foam for making more easy than balza and ply?

Thanks..

Hi Norm! Here is the response to your question that we received from Keith Sparks: The model is made with foam, balsa and plywood only makes up about 7% of the model needed for strength in key spots. We hope this answers your question. Happy flying!

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