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Dear Jef, the Wingo Works Great

After five years, I make good on my promise to Jef Raskin.

Jef Raskin is largely remembered as the father of the Macintosh. He started at Apple in January 1978 writing documentation for the Apple II, after a brief stint teaching computer science at the University of California, San Diego. In 1979 Raskin hired his former student Bill Atkinson to work on what was to become the Macintosh Project. But then Raskin left Apple in 1982–many people say he was thrown out–and started a new company that created another breakthrough computer called the Canon Cat. These days practically nobody remembers the Canon Cat, tens of millions of people use Macs, and Steve Jobs is typically given most of the credit. But inside Raskin’s home office was the millionth Macintosh to come off Apple’s production line. The Macintosh team had given it to Raskin in recognition that it was his creative vision that had brought the Mac into existence.

Plane parts: The Wingo, partially assembled. The foam plane has a wingspan of 43.25 inches and weighs 20 ounces.
Credit: Simson Garfinkel

I met Raskin in the 1990s at a party that Wired magazine threw to celebrate moving into its new offices. Like me, Raskin wrote for the magazine from time to time. We started talking about computers, and about Apple’s then-recent decision to purchase NeXT Computer. Raskin thought that putting Unix underneath the Mac was precisely the wrong thing to do, if your professed goal was creating a computer that is easy to use. Alas, he acknowledged that Apple probably didn’t have much of an alternative at that point. I said that I had been one of the coeditors of The Unix Hater’s Handbook a few years before and, as a result, agreed whole-heartedly.

It turned out that Raskin was a designer of all kinds of things, not just computers and software. He especially loved building and flying radio-controlled aircraft, which he did at his house in Pacifica. He invited me over; I ended up visiting his house a bunch of times over the following years. It was a large two-level house built into the side of a hill, with the kitchen, living room, and other formal rooms upstairs and the bedrooms down below. The hallways were lined with bookshelves. Go down the stairs and into one of the rooms and there was a hidden door in the wall that led to Raskin’s office. Although there were a few computers and laptops, the most prominent objects in the office were the aircraft. As I looked at them, I realized that something seemed odd: none of them had any propellers. They were all gliders.

I learned to fly in high school but stopped after a near-death experience between my second and third years of college. Once you learn to fly, though, it’s something you never forget. Raskin told me that flying an RC aircraft was harder than flying in the cockpit. I wanted to find out.

Sometime in the spring of 2002 Raskin took me out to a park that was a mile or so from his house. It was typical California: a road, a few parking spaces, and a cliff. He took a glider out of his trunk, took out the RC controller, and then threw the glider in the air. We spent the next two hours talking while he piloted the craft. It was too sensitive, he told me, for a first-time flyer. He told me that I should buy my own craft and crash it a few times before I tried my hand at one of his. The ideal beginner’s plane was the Wingo from Hobby Lobby, he said. I told him I would buy one, build it, and come back when I knew how to fly one of those little planes.

Of course, there are a lot of steps between buying a kit plane and flying an aircraft. When the Wingo showed up in its box, I was hard at work on another project, so the Wingo went into the basement. Then I started graduate school. Then I started working on my thesis. I was at a conference in Dominic when I heard on the radio that Raskin had died of cancer–I hadn’t even known that he was sick. Apparently the onset had been sudden, and the cancer had been very aggressive.

After I heard about Raskin’s death in 2005, the Wingo box in the basement started haunting me–but in a good kind of way. Every time I saw it I felt guilty that I was spending so much time working hard, not spending as much time with my children. Raskin had doted on his children. They all played musical instruments together. He taught his oldest son enough about aeronautics that his son designed a new wing. I wanted to learn to fly the plane and then take it out with my kids. Instead I was putting in long hours in a research lab at MIT and then Harvard.

A few months ago I was in the basement and noticed that the Wingo box had been water-damaged. I wasn’t sure if that would matter or not, but I realized that it was time to either build the kit or throw it out. Still, I procrastinated until last weekend, when I took the box out of the basement, showed it to my kids, and started building it.

For a person who is used to working with software, building the Wingo is a completely different experience. The kit came with the precise number of pieces that I needed–no extra. With software, you can always revert to a backup if you make a mistake; that’s not the case when working with a physical kit. Another difference was the directions: they were in German first, with a poor English translation underneath. With software, practically everything is in English.

Most of the model is assembled with five-minute epoxy. I was about 60 minutes into the project when I discovered that I had glued on the elevator upside down. Not good. The wings are all made of foam, so I cut it off and put it back on the correct way. After five or six more hours of work (with lots of time spent waiting for the epoxy to dry, then wandering off to tend to other projects), the aircraft was finished, more or less.

Like most beginners, I had used far too much glue. Then I looked at the aircraft and noticed that it wasn’t straight: the elevator was a good 20 degrees out of line with the wing. Nevertheless, I thought the thing would fly.

The Wingo’s instructions advise taking the plane for a drive around a parking lot before letting it into the air. On the ground you can make sure that the plane’s controls all work. Then you can roll to a takeoff. But I had no idea where to fly the thing. I took it to a nearby high school; I wasn’t sure if the football field was big enough. My kids and I tried driving it around on the parking lot. That worked, more or less. But I couldn’t get the thing to take off from the grass, or from the dirt of the baseball diamond. So finally I just gave the thing a toss and hand-launched it. It flew, then crashed. I tried again. Then a third time. This time it was flying pretty well when the engine quit.

Apparently the battery had run out of juice.

When I got home I went to the Hobby Lobby website. Sure enough, flying time for the kit is listed at 10 minutes. That’s a lot of time when you are a first-time RC flyer and you’ve got an aircraft you are desperately trying to keep in the air. It’s not a lot of time when you have an aircraft that you are taxiing around in a parking lot. I had used up my flying time without even realizing it.

I remember that Raskin had told me why he preferred gliders. It isn’t just that they are quiet–much more quiet than even an electric aircraft. The real reason, he told me, was that you can spend your time actually flying, rather than charging and changing batteries.

So now I’ve got a Wingo, an RC remote control, and a bunch of servos. I wonder if I can fit them into a glider.

Click here for images of the Wingo being assembled, completed and in flight.

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