Guiding Light: Colin Chapman and Aeromodelling

The Guiding Light: Colin Chapman and Aeromodelling

[Chapman Man and Boy Series]


The editors believe Colin Chapman was interested in and gained practical experience of basic aviation from his teens through aeromodelling.

He would further advance this when he flew in the RAF and obtained his private pilot’s licence.

We further believe that those early experiences and learning remained with Chapman throughout his career and that they deeply influenced his design mantra.

Many of Chapman’s engineering /design colleagues were from aviation background [ eg. DeHavilland].

In this article we explore what might have been the primary sources of his early inspiration in aviation.

We would suggest too many of the magazines and books he read would have contained advertisements for materials and design in the cutting edge of aviation technology.

Many of these companies became the specialist suppliers to Lotus.

Subscribers might like to see the directly relevant and integrated A&R pieces that complement and help structure this article:-

  • Chapman: Man and Boy-Reach for the Sky.
  • British aviation themed articles
  • Frank Costin
  • Lotus individual Types
  • Sponsors and Specialist Suppliers Series [many individual companies that provided components to Lotus advertised in works like “Aircraft of Fighting Powers”]

Facets of Colin Chapman’s character

Chapman was a polymath and gifted across a range of disciplines. What makes him special his is ability to integrate these in design and particularly use expert skills of others more advanced than his own. He possessed the following: –

  • Engineer, scientist, designer
  • Innovator, inventor, improvisor, entrepreneur
  • F1 Team owner strategist
  • Racing and road car manufacturer
  • Manager and developer of human talent
  • Cultivated aesthetic
  • Family man
  • Pilot and aviation enthusiast

Of these we believe aviation informed and inspired his engineering design discipline.

From a teenager Colin Chapman was involved in building and flying model aircraft.

By his late teens he was a pilot.



“Around the age of 12 [1940] {Second world War 1939-1945}; Colin Chapman was building model aircraft”. Haskell also makes reference to Chapman and his achievements in the Scouting movement and to the air Scouts.

This was an important hobby and, in many cases, helped participants to careers in either the RAF, civilian flying or aviation.

Many of Colin’s colleagues and peers were directly involved in aviation, notably Frank Costin.

Model aircraft building taught a basket of skills which included: –

  • Patience
  • Discipline
  • Attention to detail
  • An appreciation of materials and their structural properties
  • Light weight
  • Basic principles of aerodynamics
  • Basic early feedback experience through flying models
  • Participation in competitions and networking
  • Structural appreciation
  • Use of tools
  • working and interpreting scale drawings
  • Aesthetic awareness and appreciation
  • Reading theory and understanding British aviation design particularly with regard to military aircraft of second world war. Books like those we highlight contained advertisements for specialist suppliers and materials etc.

Figure 1.From Aircraft of the Fighting Powers

Figure 2.Source as above

Figure 3a.From the net.Harborough Publishing.*

Figure 4.Beechcraft Bonanza balsa model aeroplane

Crombac makes reference to Chapman, the University Air Squadron, the acquiring of his private pilot’s licence and RAF career including his “Wings”.

We explore these in more detail below.

London Aviation links/connectivity

During Colin’s youth and growing up in London the following aviation institutions existed: –

  • Manufactureres
  • Publishers [see above illustration]
  • Book Shops [see above illustration]
  • Airfields
  • Conduct of Battle of Britain

University Air Squadron -from the net :-

“The University Air Squadron (UAS) concept was originally conceived by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Hugh Trenchard in the 1920s, with the first units being formed at Oxford and Cambridge in 1925. They were set up to provide preliminary flying training to students studying at those universities, and to promote the Royal Air Force to those high flying students lucky enough to secure a place there.

During the 1930s, events on the world stage brought about a massive increase in the number of required pilot and officer recruits. As a result, many more UAS were formed throughout the country before, and during, the war years to help increase the number of aircrew going to the front line.

Throughout the period of the Second World War, most university Squadrons were flying the de Havilland Tiger Moth. These were also supplemented with North American Harvards, a type that was to remain in UAS service to the end of the 1950s.

The post-war years saw the new Squadrons being largely maintained, with some rationalisation and reorganisation. The value of the UAS had been fully recognised during the war, proving to be an excellent source of high calibre recruits to the RAF. As an outcome of this, the UAS were less affected by the post-war reduction in manpower than other areas of the Royal Air Force.”

Private Pilots Licence from the net :-

“The course requires a minimum of forty-five hours flying time – including ten hours solo – ending with a skills test with an examiner. The skills test will examine your general handling and navigation skills.

There are also nine written exams to be completed covering important topics including:

      • Aviation Law
      • Human Performance
      • Meteorology
      • Communications
      • Principles of Flight
      • Operational Procedures
      • Flight Performance & Planning
      • Aircraft General Knowledge, and
      • Navigation
  • Ground training and exams in nine different subjects
  • Dual flying lessons with an instructor
  • Solo flying training
  • A flight test

RAF “Wings” from the net :-

“All RAF aircrew were volunteers.

After selection student pilots progressed through several stages of training. Tests and examinations had to be successfully passed before the next level of instruction could be undertaken.

Initial training provided an induction for cadets to RAF service. Ground instruction also formed the basis for flying training. Topics included mathematics, navigation, and the principles of flying.

During basic training at Elementary Training Schools pupils learnt the basics of how to fly in aircraft such as the de Havilland Tiger Moth and flew their first solo flight.

Advanced training at Service Flying Training Schools introduced pupils to more powerful aircraft such as the North American Harvard. At both elementary and advanced level, classroom based lessons continued in various subjects. Simulation flying or link trainer instruction was also undertaken.

Final tests and examinations completed advanced training. If successful the pupil received his flying brevet or Pilot’s Wings.

The time taken to qualify as a pilot could vary. At the start of the war it could be as little as six months (150 flying hours). On average it took between 18 months to two years (200-320 flying hours).”

Learning Opportunities

Our learning /educational opportunities are intended to be challenging thought provoking and requiring additional research and/or analysis.

These opportunities are particularly designed for a museum/education centre location where visitors would be able to enjoy access to all the structured resources available in conjunction with any concurrent exhibition.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate:-

  • Build and fly typical period balsa wood model, what skills are required?
  • How would building such a model assist and inform Chapman as: pilot and racing car designer?
  • Which magazines, books and publishers supported aviation subjects during the second world war?
  • List other automobile engineers or manufacturers with aviation background or discipline
  • Examine Lotus road and race cars note each for aviation design principle/content
  • What skills and aptitudes do pilots and racing car drivers share?
  • Examine Lotus and other British specialist sports car manufacturers advertisements/marketing material, how and why do you think aviation connectivity established?

Exhibitions, Education and Economics

In the museum context the editors believe that commercial considerations are both necessary and complementary with its educational objectives.

For these reasons our suggested outline Business Plan includes provision for promoting products and services which share Chapman’s ideals of mechanical efficiency and sustainability. In addition we propose merchandising that explain and interprets the social and cultural context of Chapman’s designs in period. It’s suggested there will be catalogue for on line purchasing.

In this instance we suggest the following might be appropriate: –

  • In the Mould:Chapman makes models
  • Models and Messages in the air
  • Chapman Takes Flight
  • The Guiding Light: Chapman and Aeromodelling


In this piece we hope to have demonstrated the totality of Chapman’s engagement with aviation. The application of theory into practice.

Chapman experienced post war austerity and rationing. He had gained valuable practical experience in model making. This is likely to have taught him an appreciation of craft skills, work planning, the use of materials and their structural properties. We believe he would have read widely and from an early age would comprehend the theory of aerodynamics.

We are told he finished his models to high standard and aesthetic considerations were important to him.[ see typical period balsa example in illustrations above]

When we factor in that Chapman was a pilot from an early age and that his ability to control a plane flying faster than a racing car was source of his driving mastery.These provided a feedback loop.

What emerges is an engineer steeped in aviation technology; theory and practice. Chapman had the rare sense of insight to bring these to principles into his road and racing car design with increasing degrees of sophistication and advantage.

He was able to use and converse with aviation experts to improve and give performance advantage to his cars.

Model aircraft building was an important hobby during the Second World War. Participants were surrounded by the cuttingedge technology. Many aspired to careers in the industry. More recently this hobby has declined but it has often been noted by employeers that young engineers lack even basic practical skills and that over reliance on academic study has not equipped them properly. Chapman gifts were that he had a balanced and structured discipline across those elements required to bring a product to a performance led outcome.

Appendix: National Aeromodelling organisations

Chapman might have belonged to these and enjoyed the networking a competitions might have also introduced him to experts from a young age.

  • National Guild of Aeromodellists
  • Society of Aeronautical Engineers


Colin Chapman: Lotus Engineering. Haskell.


Colin Chapman.Crombac


Aircraft of the Fighting Powers.Cooper&Thetford.Vol.1. Aircraft[Technical] Publications.1940.

*Simple Aerodynamics for the Aeromodeller.Smith.Harborough.

Please note the editors of the A&R attempt to give the broadest spectrum of references but not all are available for consultation in an article. However by noting their existence it may assist students in their research.

*Items in italics non A&R library books.