Balsa Wood – the tragedy and the ecstacy

The engineering curriculum began with Introduction to Engineering. It’s part of the weeding out plan, you either love it and stay or hate it and leave, similar to my experience with math. The semester project seemed innocent enough: construct a model airplane out of balsa wood and putty provided by the school. The project culminated in a demonstration to see whose aircraft flew, as in remained airborne, the longest. Simple, right?

My professor taught basic engineering principles of flight, but I soon found out that there were other principles we were expected to have experienced in our younger years to bring to our design. What in the heck is balsa wood? I’m in trouble right away. Boys typically were exposed to a plethora of opportunities to build models, planes, trains, automobiles, and ships during their upbringing. For one thing, it was acceptable and expected of a boy to have built and flown a couple of those things during childhood. The females? Girl scouts were so focused on home making badges, cooking, sewing, and birthing babies, airplane modeling didn’t make the list.

My dad did teach me how to hit a baseball, drive a go-cart, ride a bike, and change the oil in my car, but we never did the model airplane thing. The closest thing to flight at that point in my life had been flying a kite. Make that ‘attempt’ to fly a kite. I don’t have good memories of ever getting one to fly. Even the Oklahoma wind wasn’t able to coax my kite above head level.

I never did sports until college intramurals. Here I was about to enter a true man’s world of engineering with no skills and no game. The professors, or at least the male ‘intro’ professor, didn’t recognize this gender gap existed. Everyone had an equal opportunity to pass this project, regardless of their past history.

I took my pieces of balsa wood, which by the way is a really light, thin wood, almost paper like. The fuselage (as I would later learn it was called) had a rectangular cross-section and was about a foot long. I cut a slice through the fuselage at an area I thought would be great for the wings to fit. Sliding the balsa wood wing ever so carefully through this slot, I next fashioned a tail for the airplane. You see, I did have the basics for what I thought was important for a flying machine. Body, wings, tail. Match it against a chicken sometime and you’ll get it.

The putty was supposed to be used for counterweight. I think it was thrown in there to confuse the novices; and it worked. I tried putting the putty in different areas of my model, but nothing seemed to keep it aloft for more than a second. I did get the farthest flight distance by sticking the putty on the nose of the airplane and so I went off to class, knowing mine wasn’t the best, convinced it certainly couldn’t be the worst.

Not my plane

If the term ‘it dropped like a rock’ hadn’t already been invented, it would have been created following my plane’s performance. I can still hear the snickering after my plane hit the ground. The putty nose did help to absorb the impact and it stayed in one piece. It logged a grand total of five seconds in flight, including the time it was in my hands during launch. I wondered if it was an omen. I felt I was at rock bottom on the engineering scale. I had nowhere to go but up. I was undeterred; I wanted to know why it didn’t work and I wanted to know how it could work.

Redemption for this feat of aerospace weakness came many years later. I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, after a divorce, raising my two young sons alone. As soon as my oldest reached first grade, I signed him up for cub scouts. First graders enter the Boy Scout organization as Tiger cubs and are required to have a parent partner. It’s a trial run for both the boy and the parent before entering as a ‘real’ cub scout the next year. The cub scout pack is a group of boys in the first through fifth grades.

While most of the cub scout packs conduct annual pinewood derbies, which is a race of non-motorized cars built by the boys and their parents, in Huntsville, its history steeped in the United States’ space program, our cub pack conducted space derbies. We purchased a kit, much like the pinewood cars, from which we assembled a rubber band powered rocket.

The space derby ‘track’ consists of pairs of heavy monofilament fishing line strung across a room. The spacecraft races down the line like a string racer. Speed is the goal as the rockets race against a competitor, the first one to hit the wall at the end of the run is declared the winner and advances to the next round.

The base of the rocket was a rough-hewn tube out of, you guessed it, my old nemesis balsa wood. A couple of plastic parts for wings, tail and the ‘motor’ were also included. My son and I worked to sand, glue and decorate our space ship.

Not our space derby entry, but you get the idea

We had no place to test it, so we took it to the pack meeting to try our best as the Cub Scout creed states. The pack meeting included first through fifth grades of eager cub scouts and their parents. We patiently waited our turn and soon my son was at the starting line for the first time against another scout. The rubber band motor was twisted with a drill and set in place with a pin; the competitor’s rocket was similarly readied. In unison, pins were removed from the propellers on each rocket, the rocket was released and the little motors thrust the rockets down the string track.

Thrust is probably not the right term. Our little spacecraft literally shot down the string and slammed into the padding at the end of the race. The other rocket came dragging in behind ours. We were stunned. The dads and the older boys were stunned. We had created a real, no-kidding contender for the throne of space derby winner.

We advanced to the finals, soundly beating the rest of the boy’s models. We beat a fifth grader in the final race; I was amazed at the resiliency of that tiny wooden ship.

My little first grader stood in the winner’s circle and took his first place prize. Our spacecraft, built and assembled by a single mother and a first grader, beat the snot out of those older kids and their dads. Take that Intro to Engineering! Balsa wood and I became the best of friends!


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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3 Responses to Balsa Wood – the tragedy and the ecstacy

  1. Vicki says:

    I grew up with 3 brothers so balsa wood planes were a common thing at our house, along with folding paper airplanes at which my dad excelled. The Pinewood Derby however was a real fiasco where my son and I were competing against a stinking woman engineer and her son. Just spoke with my grown son. We both agreed we are glad those days are behind us. Your redemption, my bad dream.

  2. Kim says:


    In Orlando last November, I had a brief conversation with an official for the Girl Scouts. She said that they had been promoting STEM for over 100 years. But, like you, most of my experiences with Girl Scouts were focused on domestic and camping things. I am glad I learned to cross-stitch in scouts, but playing with balsa wood would have been nice.

    I’m beginning to wonder if the domestic things we did was what the adult leaders of our troops knew?

    • You’ve got a point, Kim. We learned what the adult leaders knew to teach. Of course, it also was on the Girl Scouts organization to put more interesting hobby-like badges together. Glad times have changed. Turns out all of us need home and mechanical skills just to survive any more! Thanks for the comment!

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