Left: Keith’s Bugatti was built in 2003. The exotic 1939 racer is a
1/5-scale tri-tail model with a swept-forward wing and retracts.
Keith Shaw, with his trademark beard, displays the Folkerts SK- 2 1938
racer that he built in 2000. The 19-inch wingspan aircraft weighs 10
ounces and is powered by an Astro Flight 010 brushless motor.
of electric flight
Ihave known of Keith Shaw since I first got started in the hobby. It wasn’t his long white beard that set him apart from the crowd—it was his airplanes! They were
always different and always mind-blowing, but the defining
difference back then was that they were electric powered!
In the early days, making an electric-powered airplane
actually fly was a bit of a trick. Keith was a research
physicist at University of Michigan and was one of the
people who took electric flight seriously. Much of what
you and I fly today has everything to do with the work that
Keith Shaw and a few others did in the 1970s.
Jim Graham: Keith, I like to think of you as the man who
invented electric flight.
Keith Shaw: There were maybe a dozen of us who helped
start all of this. Along with my work, there were Bob and
Roland Boucher, Mitch Poling, Bob Kopski, Jim Zarembski,
and a few others. We started working on electric flight in
the early 1970s.
JG: So in the ’70s, everything was underpowered. You had
brushed motors and not-so-great batteries.
KS: Correct. Back then we rewound or even made our own
JG: Fast forward to today’s electric power systems. Did you ever
envision in the early days that electric flight would be what it is
KS: I always thought electrics would be a good niche
market. It was a great way to do multimotor planes, pushers,
sailplanes, and planes with large propellers and large cowls
that didn’t need huge amounts of horsepower.
I had never imagined it going as far as it has—that almost
everything out there would be electric. I thought that maybe
at any flying field, a third of the people might fly electrics.
The reality, of course, is these days it’s pretty much all
electric, some gas, and no glow. It’s been years since I’ve seen
more than one glow plane at any meet or flying field.
JG: A lot of new pilots don’t even have knowledge of how glow
fuel-powered airplanes work.
KS: It used to be that people felt glow power was easy and
electric was hard. If you think of everything you have to do
to get a glow plane flying, like getting your fuel tank set up
properly, tuning your carburetor, how the weather affects
your settings, finding the right glow plug, etc.—I always
found glow to be vastly more challenging than setting up an
electric power system.
In the early days, the hardest thing was to learn how to
solder. Now everything is pretty straightforward and easy.
And the weather doesn’t affect your setup.
84 Model Aviation SEP TEMBER 2015 www.ModelAviation.com
BORN TO FLY