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Free Flight Color and Visibility Chart
August 1954 Air Trails Hobbies for Young Men

August 1954 Air Trails
August 1954 Air Trails Cover - Airplanes and RocketsTable of Contents

These pages from vintage modeling magazines like Flying Aces, Air Trails, American Modeler, American Aircraft Modeler, Young Men, Flying Models, Model Airplane News, R/C Modeler, captured the era. All copyrights acknowledged.

Much has been written about colors and trim patterns that assist in preventing our model airplanes from being lost from flying out of sight against a blue sky or against a background of white, puffy clouds. Free flighters are particularly concerned about such things since their models are at the mercy of air currents. Even dethermalized models can be whisked away, never to be seen again, when a boomer of a thermal or a strong gust of wind asserts its influence. As a flier of radio controlled sailplanes, I can attest to the tense moments when suddenly a model at great altitude transitions from visible to invisible. Down elevator and rudder trim is the best action to set up a spiraling dive until eye contact is made once again. This article from a 1954 edition of Air Trails takes a very scientific approach that includes empirical data to assist you in selecting colors and trim schemes. Of course the individual characteristics of the pilot's eyesight is a major factor that needs to be factored into the data. As with most things, you try suggestions and test the results to see what works best for you. At lest this is a good place to start.

For Model Airplane Flyers:

Free Flight Color and Visibility Chart

By Dr. Stanley D. Hill

Member 1953 U.S. F.A.I. Gas Team

Free Flight Color and Visibility Chart, from August 1954 Air Trails - Airplanes and Rockets

This chart is presented to emphasize and clarify the most neglected phase of free flight contest model design - Visibility. Proper use of color for maximum visibility is as much a part of the design of a high-performance job as selection of engine or airfoil. To make a model of outstanding design and construction and then fail to use its full contest potentialities because it is difficult for the timer to see it for a maximum flight is as. pointless as flying with the prop on backwards.

As an example, Ted Evans of the '53 British Wakefield team had one of the best built and certainly one of the best flying models at the international Cranfield meeting. Yet on his first flight the ship was timed for only 4:32 o.o.s. (out of sight) directly overhead simply because it was mostly white. His second and third flights were both "maximums," so he would have been a co-winner of the Wakefield Trophy except for this poor color choice.

So use a color scheme that enables the model to be seen as long as possible by the timer, and one that aids prompt retrieving. Let's analyze the problem point by point.

Color Contrast

Two factors concerned with the model itself are contrast with background and image size. Taking contrast first, we find that it presents itself in two forms: brightness contrast and color contrast. Brightness contrast may be either light on dark or dark on light. To be seen as separate from its background an object must present a 1% brightness difference within the eye of the viewer.

For our purposes light on dark provides the most usable combination since, with sufficient brightness, an object of any size however small or distant can bring about the required 1% difference. For example, the nearest star subtends an arc of only .056 seconds, while a dark object on a light background requires from .44 to 6 seconds of arc for detection, depending on color. It follows from this that to be just visible a dark model on light background must be larger or closer than a light model on dark surroundings.

Control of color contrast is the thing most easily achieved in finishing a model for high visibility. The colors used must contrast with the natural backgrounds of blue or gray sky, white clouds; and the greens and browns of the earth. The reds, oranges and yellows are the only ones that possess effective brightness and any reasonable contrast with all probable natural backgrounds.

The disadvantage of blues, greens, etc. is obvious. To contrast a model with itself by means of stripes or different colors on various parts of the ship defeats its own purpose, since visibility is a problem only when the model is very far away and distinguishable as just a spot - a spot of diluted color due to blending of these patterns at a distance and therefore of lowered contrast. Also, less area is available for the one color that actually does the job.

Image Size

Image size as related to visibility is simply a matter of "the bigger it is the farther away it may be seen." The model may be made to appear larger at a distance and therefore more visible if the whole ship is of one color rather than smaller areas of different colors. Models with deep slab-sided fuselages present a bigger target to the timer, making his job an easier one when the model is near the ground.

We may achieve the best contrasts by the following methods. Pigmented dope for the fuselage and rudder gives best visibility against the ground, buildings, and vegetation. The color giving best possible contrast here is orange. Reds, unless very light, are poor in conditions of dim light, and yellows fade into hazy backgrounds easily. Transparent dyed dope for the wing and stab allow the plane to "light up" when overhead in direct sunlight, giving excellent light-on-dark visibility.

Orange, light red and also dark yellow do about equally well here, but since these surfaces are also the ones seen when searching for the model by air, orange again takes preference.

If transparent dyed dope is not available in your "locality it can be made by dissolving ordinary household dye in acetone and adding it to clear dope. Fluorescent dyed dope is many times as bright as any other finish and if used on the entire ship nothing could be better, but the cost is prohibitive and it fades readily. It may be used on leading edges to increase visibility when a small front profile is presented to the viewer, but if the model's circling rate is high enough the 10-second o.o.s. rule makes up for low visibility in this position.

Metal foil with high gloss finishes can give occasional flashes of very high brightness for almost unlimited visibility, but it is not reliable due to the narrow "beams" of light reflected and of course .is good only in direct sunlight. A high gloss also improves the brightness of colored finishes and should always be used.

Visual Acuity

There are a few factors that are concerned with the viewer and not the model that are of considerable help. If the size of the viewer's pupil is less than about 2.3 mm. due to a bright day, visual acuity will decrease due to diffraction of the light entering. the eye. Dark glasses of good quality will allow the pupil to become larger, resulting in better ability to see objects on the threshold of visibility. You may find that it will pay dividends in longer flights recorded before o.o.s. to loan the timer your sunglasses. A visored cap can also increase visual acuity for the same reason, and in addition reduce glare from dust on one's glasses, and to a lesser degree, glare from scattered light within the eye itself.

Summing up, then, we find that orange is the best all-around color for good visibility. It should be used in opaque pigmented form for the fuselage and rudder and in a transparent deeply dyed form for the wing and stab. A glossy waxed finish on both will increase "flash" visibility and apparent brightness of the color.

Proper use of color can make a very real difference in the flight times recorded for your ships. Try it and see how it will. help bring you into the winner's circle!



Posted April 5, 2014

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Even during the busiest times of my life I have endeavored to maintain some form of model building activity. This site has been created to help me chronicle my journey through a lifelong involvement in model aviation, which all began in Mayo, MD ...

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