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Today's word on

Friday, April 8, 2005

"Once you have learned how to ask questions, you have learned how to learn."

--Neil Postman, journalism scholar (1931-2003)

USU JCOM NEWS NOTE: THE JCOM Department celebrates the Class of 2005 Friday with JDay, showcasing the best of student work in print and broadcast journalism, the Web, photo, and public relations. Followed by the annual JCOM Awards Banquet--student awards, 2005-06 scholarship winner, speaker Robert Kirby of the Salt Lake Tribune, all with fine dining. For information or reservations, contact the USU JCOM Department at or 435-797-3292.

The sky's the limit at a hands-on hobby shop

By Brooke Nelson

March 29, 2005 | Planes painted glossy red and sunny yellow hang from the ceiling on stiff wire. The shop smells of a mixture of balsa wood, glue and paint. The vaulted, open gray ceiling is crisscrossed by gray metal beams, the perfect backdrop for miniature versions of propellers, wings and other airplane parts.

Model kits with prices marked on fluorescent yellow and bright pink sticky notes sit organized on the shelves. At the counter an employee is ringing up a customer and chatting about the sudden change in weather. Behind them another employee searches for an engine part. Outside, a radio controlled plane is undergoing a test flight.

L.R. Earl and his family have been helping Cache Valley hobby enthusiasts build, design and fly model airplanes since 1948. And the retired Army pilot and Logan police officer said he will continue to do so as long as building is fun.

"This is as close to a holiday as I can get," said the owner and manager of Earl's Hobby Hangar.

The Logan shop, located at 166 W. 1200 South, attracts business as far south as Salt Lake and as far north as Evanston, Wyo., and Twin Falls, Idaho.

"We have a selection that no one in the Intermountain Area can equal," he said. "But our prime product is service. People come for the knowledge, service and comparable pricing structure."

Earl began building airplanes out of balsa wood when he was 6 or 7 years old. His interest grew as his building expanded to plastic and line-controlled planes. Now he builds and flies free flight and radio controlled airplanes.

Earl is the owner of the only hobby shop in Cache Valley, he said hobby materials were first sold at his grandfather's general country store in Mendon, a store that sold everything from baking flour to hammers to gasoline.

In 1973, the selling of hobby materials expanded into a side business located in a garage on the side of the store. In 1985 shop was set up near a home in River Heights and in June of 2002, the shop moved to its current location just north of Macey's in Logan.

The move allowed the shop to expand and it now offers plastic kits and hobby supplies for cars, trains and rockets, in addition to airplanes.

Earl says typical customers are "happy with what they're doing." Happy to be building, operating or modeling, he said.

The Hobby Hangar supports several local and state model airplane clubs including the Bridgerland Radio Control Club. The club sports about 50-60 members who, for the past 30 years, have flown their airplanes at the runway of the Logan Cache Airport. These planes can have wingspans of up to 60 inches and take expertise and experience to fly properly.

"It takes about 10 lessons to be able to solo an airplane safely," he said.

Earl said he has seen a large drop in the numbers of people wanting to build over the last 10 years, especially among kids. Even in the Bridgerland club, Earl said some of the youngest members are in their 40s.

"People don't want to take the time to build anymore," he said. "They want it in a box ready to go."

Ten years ago the shop sold only one ready-made plane to 30 kits, but those numbers have reversed themselves now.

"People seem to have less time for building. Their recreation is provided through television and other things," he said. "They've gotten used to an instant gratification of needs."

While park fliers, slower remote-controlled planes, have become popular among teenagers, a cohesiveness and comradery that used to exist is still missing, Earl said.

"We've noticed a real difference," he said. "Every person should have something of a strong interest besides their vocation."

In addition to building models, Earl himself said he enjoys backpacking and camping. His favorite place to hike is in Escalante country. But modeling provides more than just passing of time, it provides skills – and rising generations are missing them.

"I think as a society we're losing the hands-on skills associated with building that we had 20 years ago," he said.

According to an excerpt from the National Science Board Commission on Pre-college Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, "A great deal of education takes place outside the classroom. The child who has regularly visited zoos, plantaria, and science museums, hiked along nature trails, and built model airplanes and telescopes is infinitely better prepared for, and more receptive to, the mathematics and science of the classroom.

"Modeling teaches someone to look at a plan and visualize a final product," Earl said. "They learn how the parts interrelate. They learn to follow instructions. As long as you know how to follow the blueprints, in the long run you'll do alright."

While the hobby of modeling is definitely one that takes a large amount of skill, it is a skill that can be learned. Earl suggests starting with a stick and stringer type of airplane. Store employees will be more than happy to offer assistance, he said.

"To start is a simple process. After you build one airplane, the sky's the limit." But Earl's Hobby Hangar is more than just airplanes. A good fourth of the store is dedicated solely to materials used in building model trains.

Several tracks are suspended from the ceiling in a back room and a few more are set up on display tables. The detail is impressive. Tracks have been painted to look rusty, rocks have been made to look like marble and material has been scored in a way to look like real mud. Wisps of stringy gray smoke emit from tiny smokestacks.

Richard Williams, a retired eighth grade teacher from Cache Valley, works with the trains at the store twice a week and will happily produce pictures of the intricate garden train he works on at home.

Even the sounds the trains make are meant to be authentic, Williams said. "That's what you would hear if you saw this in real life," Williams said as the brakes squeal on a train with a turbine engine he is warming up to run on a track that circumferences the ceiling.

Trains allow for creativity, Williams said. From the landscape your track sits in, to the way you arrange the cars on your train, "There is no one right way to do this," he said.

Modeling is generally a "boy" thing, Earl says, but the store does get a lot of female clientele from the architectural and design programs at Utah State University, proof of the quality products the store carries.

"They come here for the to-scale shapes and models they can't find anywhere else," he said. "The most recent project was students in here building chair [models]. We give them a lot of hints."

Those hints, including the best way to bend balsa wood without breaking it, or how to solder aluminum, are truly appreciated, said Liz Rich, a USU design student who frequents the shop.

"They always have odds and ends I can't find anywhere else," she said, including odd-shaped pieces of aluminum used for a refrigerator, or small plastic shrubbery used in landscape projects.

Still, the absence of female visitors is marked by a white-washed padded bench at the front of the store with a sign over it that reads "Ladies Lounge," but Rich says she's seen the Cache County sheriff sit there a few times.

"They deserve more business," said another student Haley Brady. "Some people in college need a hobby. Building and creating would be a lot more productive than watching TV. Brady said every time she has gone in there, the service has been exceptional.

"I went in there once and had three people offer to help me at once – even the customers," she said.

And the interaction with customers is by far his favorite part of owning the business, Earl said. "They've become close friends," he said.

From his office, Earl can call to customers by name and ask how a certain project is working out. Earl said he has found modeling to be a popular hobby wherever he has lived, but "Cache Valley is home."

Growing up in the valley, Earl graduated from USU with a bachelor's degree in sociology. Earl's love of airplanes carried over into a career as a pilot, and after retiring as a chief warren officer and pilot in the Army, stationed in both Texas and Washington, he returned to serve as a police officer with Logan Police Department for 27 years. Retiring just over four years ago, Earl said he can't think of a better way to spend his time.

"I enjoy the company [of the store]. In law enforcement there is a brotherhood, but here there's still comradery," he said. "That's the joy of it. When the fun goes out of this, so do I."


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