How Expert Builders Compete with Ultra-Realistic RC Models

By Terry Dunn

The top tier of scale competition is the expert class. These modelers build and pilot their own flying creations.

Many modelers get into the RC hobby with dreams of flying a replica of their favorite full-scale airplane. Whether you want a blazing red Fokker triplane, a shiny P-51 Mustang, or even a F-16 powered by a real jet engine, there are models to scratch that itch. For some, the need for scale accuracy goes deeper…much, much deeper. These detail-oriented hobbyists spend countless hours making their model appear as close as possible to the real thing. No nuance is too small to replicate. They also gather for competitions where their creations are judged by how realistic they appear on the ground and in flight.

Rules for RC scale competition are specifically tailored to include modelers with widely varying skill levels, budgets, and interests. (Dunn photo)

Something for Everyone

Many scale competitions in the US are governed by the U.S. Scale Masters Association (USSMA). The event rules are specifically tailored to include modelers with varying skill levels, budgets, and interests. If you love to build, but you're not the best pilot, you can partner with an ace flyer to compete in one of the team categories. Or maybe you just want to test the competitive waters. There are novice classes that allow you to compete with off-the-shelf factory-built models.

Expert class scale competition modelers build and pilot their own flying replicas.

The top tier of scale competition is the expert class. These modelers build and pilot their own flying creations. They must be equally skilled in both areas to be a serious contender.

At any given event, you are likely to find a mix of military and civilian models spanning all eras of aviation. The USSMA rulebook states that competitors can use "any scale model of a heavier-than-air, man-carrying, fixed-wing aircraft that was actually built and flown". Other than blimps, helicopters, and drones, it's essentially wide open.

USSMA holds regional events all over the US. Participants who score well enough at a regional are invited to attend the annual U.S. Scale Masters Championships…a Super Bowl of scale modeling. The winner of the expert class at this national event is named "Grand Champion". To gain some insight into the realm of RC scale events, I spoke with the current US Scale Masters Grand Champion, Chris Wolfe.

Chris Wolfe and his father, Larry Wolfe, celebrate Chris becoming the 2016 U.S. Scale Masters Grand Champion.

Tested– Can you provide a rundown on how the static scoring works at a USSMA competition?

Chris Wolfe – Sure. In the expert, team, and advanced categories, your model is judged statically for 'accuracy of outline', 'color and markings', and 'craftsmanship'. You provide documentation to the judges for all of those items. You are limited to 8 pages. That includes drawings, pictures of the airplane, proof of the color and markings…I like to refer to plastic model decals for that stuff. The judges compare your model to the documentation that you provide. Outline and 'color and markings' are judged from 10 feet away. Craftsmanship is judged from 4 feet. You can receive a maximum of 100 points for the static judging.

How do you provide proof of accurate colors if you're modeling a really old airplane where only black and white photographs exist?

You have to show that you've researched the colors and provide proof that supports what you think the colors should be. In the case of World War I airplanes, there are plastic models, but you can also refer to artist renderings. Ultimately, you have to be able to document it in some form. With a competition model, it's best to ensure that you have sufficient documentation before you even start the project. It's really important to have very good documentation.

Are there certain scale deviations that are acceptable because of the specific needs of an RC model?

There are some acceptable deviations. But is there a means to try to hide or blend that detail? Most of the time, guys are trying to make things look as real as possible. The big one that you might run into is an engine cylinder. If you've got a big, fat cylinder just hanging out the bottom, you can tell there's been no effort to try and conceal that in any way.

Scale competitors must be able to consistently fly their models in a way that replicates the full-scale counterpart. (Phil Todd photo)

How is the flying portion judged?

You do five flight rounds. They take the top three flight scores [100 possible points per flight] and average those together. That score, added to your static score, is your total score for the event. The maximum possible score is 200.

In terms of the flying, there are five required maneuvers: takeoff, landing, fly past, figure-8, and the fifth one is 'flight realism'. Flight realism is a score of your flight as a whole. How realistic and convincing was it?

There are also five optional maneuvers. Those can be anything of your choosing that are prototypical of the real airplane [examples: touch-and-go, dirty pass, spot landing].

Are certain types of models advantageous, flight-wise, over others?

Not really. The judges are supposed take flying conditions into account. Certain airplanes do get bounced around more than others. My opinion is that jets are the best for competition. They're heavily loaded [high wing loading] and they just cut through the air. So they are much less affected by the atmospherics. Biplanes are probably the worst subjects, because they get bounced around like crazy.

Note the panel lines and rivet accents on the Mirage. These types of details help a model stand out and appear more realistic.

Your Mirage IIIRS is powered by an Electric Ducted Fan (EDF). Do many other scale competitors use EDF-powered models?

There was one other EDF model at the 2016 championship event, but all of the other jet models were turbine-powered. They have even more advantage over an EDF because they can fly longer. A lot of the WWI and WWII warbirds use gasoline engines.

You're about to start work on a new competition model. Can you estimate how much time it will take before you call it competition-ready?

Hundreds of hours. Most of the models that I start with are a semi-kit. The Mirage for started out as a [molded fiberglass] fuselage and wings, but I did a lot of scratch-building too.

I build slowly. Whether I was building a 'stick and tissue' model or a full-composite kit, it would just take me forever. So much of the time isn't in the physical construction. It's in the detailing and the finishing. The last 20% takes forever.

A large percentage of the time invested in a competition model is spent focusing on small details.

Is a competition model ever really finished, or can you always find something else to add to it?

You get to a point where you just stop working on it. With my Mirage, I did a bunch of improvements for the 2013 championships. Then I crashed the airplane and I found even more things to improve on. But I'm done working on it now.

You've adopted 3D printing to create many of the scale details on your models. Is that becoming a popular trend in the hobby?

I think it's being leveraged quite a bit now. It's just easier for most folks. We used to have to have a lot of that craftiness and creativity to do some of the detailing. Crafting certain things is more difficult for some folks than others. Now that we have 3D printing, it sort of evens out the playing field.

More and more hobbyists are using 3D-printed parts, such as these jet nozzle "turkey feathers" to accentuate their models.

So 3D printing has opened up scale competition to people with different, less-traditional modeling skills?


With any type of judged event, there is typically some controversy about the scoring. Is there much of a problem with that at scale competitions?

The judging is subjective, so there are always issues of people not being happy with something. But my experience with Scale Masters has been that they're just a great group of guys that compete. As a whole, it's a really supportive community. The guys are there to have a good time and get some flying in.

Does it require a lot of practice and fine tuning to get the flight maneuvers nailed down?

When it's the competition season, I'll bring the [competition] model with me every time I go fly. Initially, I'll go through the whole flight routine and see how long it takes me. If there's a maneuver that I feel just isn't happening very well, then I'll take a flight to get more comfortable with it. I try to end each session by going through the whole routine at least once. I like to be able to know the whole routine by memory.

Chris' Mirage IIIRS rests beside the documentation book that he provided to judges for the static evaluation of his model.

And you use your competition plane for all of your flight practice?

If you want to practice with precision, you need to use the airplane or something that flies very similarly, if not the same. Back in the day, guys had a practice airplane and they had their competition airplane. They built two at the same time. Part of it was the risk of losing the airplane because of equipment failure. There was a higher attrition rate back then [1980's] than there seems to be now. Truthfully, radio technology is so good now, that you can just use your competition airplane for practice.

Of all the different aspects of scale competition, what is your favorite part?

This is probably going to sound totally cliché, but I like all aspects of it. I get way too-into the research. I really enjoy that. Being at the competitions – I enjoy that as well. The part I struggle with the most is building. It just takes so much time.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and best of luck competing this year!

All photos courtesy of Chris Wolfe unless otherwise noted

References and further reading:

  1. U.S. Scale Masters Association website

  2. Top Gun (an annual invitational RC scale competition)

  3. National Association of Scale Aeromodelers

  4. The World Air Sports Federation - Scale Models

  5. Chris Wolfe's Blog – The RC Geek

  6. Chris Wolfe's YouTube channel

Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.