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Lehighton's 'small-scale Lindbergh'

  • TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO Former Lehighton resident Maynard Hill inspects model aircraft, which he called the "Spirit of Butts Farm" before flying it across the Atlantic Ocean and setting at least two international flying records in 2003. The plane had…
    TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO Former Lehighton resident Maynard Hill inspects model aircraft, which he called the "Spirit of Butts Farm" before flying it across the Atlantic Ocean and setting at least two international flying records in 2003. The plane had a wing span of six feet and weighed under 11 pounds. Hill, who resided in Silver Spring Maryland, died on June 6.
Published July 02. 2011 09:02AM

Most Lehighton residents probably never heard of Maynard Hill, a 1943 graduate of Lehighton High School.

Yet his death at the age of 85 on June 7 resulted in long, by-lined obituaries in such distinguished newspapers as the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, and even the London Telegraph.

The Washington Post carried the large headline - a size reserved for major political or entertainment figures - over his obit:

"Model airplane history-maker Maynard Hill dies at the age of 85."

The New York Times referred to him in their obituary headline as "small-scale Lindburgh."

The Washington Post stated that "Maynard Luther Hill was born Feb. 21, 1926, in the Pennsylvania coal town of Lehighton."

The Times reported, "Maynard Luther Hill was born on Feb. 21, 1926 - a year before Charles Lindbergh's historic flight - in Lehighton, Pa., north of Allentown, where his father, Claude, was a blacksmith and his mother, Esther, worked in a mill."

Both publications state that at age 9, in an autobiographical essay, Hill had written, "I had acquired a fairly serious addiction to balsa wood and glue."

So who was Maynard Luther Hill?

The Times described him as "an inveterate tinkerer who enjoyed, above all, pushing the limits of model planes."

He had set 25 world records in the 1960s for speed, duration, and altitude for both powered flights and gliders. His radio-controlled aircraft flew as high as 26,990 feet, as long as 38 hours, and as fast as 151 miles per hour.

His greatest achievement came in August 2003 when he flew a balsa-and-Mylar plane with less than a gallon of fuel across the Atlantic Ocean. He accomplished this even though he was legally blind as a result of macular degeneration and mostly deaf. His eyesight was so bad he couldn't read a newspaper.

The flight took 33 hours and 33 minutes.

Hill had resided most of his adult life in Silver Spring, Md. In an interview in September 2003 with the TIMES NEWS, Hill said he started building planes when he was just 7, "and I've been building them ever since."

The 1930s was considered the Golden Age of Aviation. Hill said his heroes were people like Charles Lindberg and Wiley Post.

A model airplane club was formed in Lehighton High School while he was a student. The club created scale models of military planes during World War II.

"We did American and enemy planes," he said during the TIMES NEWS interview. "If they were good enough, they were used as silhouette models for pilots. They were used for training during the war. We (the students) carved them."

After graduating from high school he joined the Navy while World War II was still going on. He had three brothers and a sister who also served in the war. Two of his brothers fought in the Battle of the Bulge while the other brother and his sister were in the South Pacific.

Afterward, he studied on the G.I. Bill at Pennsylvania State University, when he earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in metallurgy.

At the university, he was singing on the choir when he met his wife, Gay Brunner, a fellow singer. They married in 1951.

After serving in the military, Hill was hired as a researcher in the applied physics lab of Johns Hopkins University, retiring in 1987.

At Johns Hopkins, he convinced his supervisors to allow him to indulge in his hobby at work. As a result, he became a pioneer in developing unmanned aerial vehicles - drones - for the military, reports The Washington Post.

He never tired of his model plane hobby. If anything, he became more intense with it.

"Never a month has gone by in 70 years that I didn't have balsa wood and glue. I was addicted to it," he said in the 2003 interview.

When his sight began failing him, he started adding red dye to his glue so he could still see it. He made special fixtures so that he could still fit the pieces together on his plane with less reliance on his eyes.

Between 1978 and 2003, he constructed 25 model planes.

It was the flight across the Atlantic in 2003 that epitomized his personal success.

He had tried to do the flight in August 2002 but four planes he used all fell short of their goal. He worked diligently trying to find flaws in plane designs and their small engines to see why the 2002 goal wasn't achieved. Finally, he discovered the reason.

"The weather over the North Atlantic was pretty much out of kilter all the time during our August 2002 attempts," he wrote in his progress report. "Things were worse in Ireland heavy rain and winds. Normally during August, there is a high-pressure system over the Azores much of the time. This system results in tailwinds of 15 to 30 mph over our great circle route and reasonably fair weather in Ireland. We hope El Niño or whatever dumped us last August will go away this coming August."

In August 2004, he was again ready for the trans-Atlantic effort.

There were many skeptics. International rules said the plane must weigh less than 11 pounds - including fuel - to qualify as a model.

Until then, no such plane had flown a third of the distance that Hill said his would fly.

On Aug. 10, 2003, Hill, then 77, stood on the rocky spit known as Cape Spear in Nova Scotia. Four planes fell short of their mark.

The fifth, named the "Spirit of Butts Farm" for the Maryland site where many of his tests took place, reached an Irish field in a time of 28 hours and 23 minutes. At least two international records were shattered and the lifetime dream of Hill was fulfilled.

Hill became the first member of the Hall of Fame established by the Academy of Model Aeronomics, serving as president of the organization in 1964.

Besides his wife of 59 years, Hill is survived by a sister, Geraldine Serfas of Nazareth; a brother, Lamont Hill of Chester, N.J.; two sons, Christopher Hill of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Maynard Scott Hill of Hurlock, Md.; a daughter, Vivian Snipes of Lexington, Ky., and 10 grandchildren.

A reader of the London Telegraph writes what many others who saw last month's obituary notice might have thought or said about the Lehighton native:

"What a great achievement. I never knew about this."

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