TOP FLITE CONTENDER
by Vic Macaluso
You've all heard of "Back to the Future"; well doing this review was like going "Ahead to the Past"! This design is older than many of the people in R/C today, yet it still retains a contemporary look that is really timeless. Compared to many of the "prefab, precovered, pre just about everything" models out today, in my opinion, this model blows them away in looks, and as you will read later on, very much so in performance.
I built my first Contender at the beginning of the eighth decade of the last century (1970), and if it wasn't for my growing interest in model boat racing at the time, I would probably still be flying it today (sold it to finance a new boat motor). The Contender is the kind of model that no matter what your interest is, it's like meeting a longtime friend every time you haul it out to fly it. It's about the friendliest plane I've ever owned.
What really got my attention with this plane back in the last century was the fact that it looked so much like the control line Flite Streak of the same era. I was having so much success in the Slow Combat control line event with that plane. The fact that that model was also produced by Top Flite wasn't much of a coincidence. Like the Flite Streak, the Contender was designed to be a minimum platform with maximum performance. But enough about control line models (they are still very dominant in my modeling life!), let's get onto this review!
The photos on the box alone get you thinking about how cool a trim scheme you can come up with. The jet like looks just screams military. Opening the box is no less impressive. My first impression was that the wood quality, while not contest grade, is probably lighter than it has to be and the final ready to fly weight bears this out. There were no "throwaway" parts in this kit. All of the wood was very adequate for its intended use and of very clear grain. There were no warped parts in the kit.
One thing you will notice about this kit is that it may seem to be "over engineered" (read that too many parts) but once you get on a building roll, that impression quickly dissipates. All of the parts in this kit seem to be "engineered" rather than just put there to support something else. A good example of this is that there isn't one substructure on this model that doesn't have as many lightening holes as possible. At the same time the strength of the structure is in o way compromised.
Again, because many of you who have or will build this model are younger than the design itself, I feel I must pass on a brief word about its designer, Dave Platt. While I've never met Mr Platt personally, at the time he designed this model he was and still is today a world class builder and designer in just about every discipline in model aviation. I've seen much of his work and can only wish that my best work will equal his "throwaways"!
The builder will also notice there are quite a few balsa blocks. Again, when this model was designed, ARF was a sound that dogs made rather than a type of model. Yes, this can be called a builder's model but it certainly will not tax the abilities of even the most inexperienced builder and will even give him some practice in building light, strong, "engineered" structures. He will quickly and effectively see and feel the difference between a built-up surface and one hacked out of a balsa slab! To summarize, the wood quality in this kit is about the best I've seen in a "sport flyer" kit.
Moving on to the other "goodies" in this kit we find the hardware supplied is typical of most kits of this type and is entirely adequate for this model. Also included are CA type hinges which have to be cut from a large strip, but as with the rest of the construction, "no big deal". Also supplied is an adjustable engine mount that will handle anything from a .40 to .60 sized engine.
This mount appears to be molded fiber reinforced plastic, and again is well designed for its intended use. The tricycle gear is 5/32 inch wire and is very well designed into the wing and fuselage. I've had several rough landings without any indication of stress on any structure. The clear plastic canopy appears to be vacuum formed and its jet style blends very well with the overall look of this plane.
Moving on to the decal sheet I encountered my first and what was to be my only real criticism of the quality of this kit. When I first saw it, I thought there were two sheets. The sheet I saw had only enough insignia/nomenclature to do only the top/left side of the aircraft or the top/right, which ever side you want to photograph from! All kidding aside, this is a serious departure from the overall quality of this kit. In order for the builder to present a model that is symmetrically trimmed he will either have to purchase another decal sheet from Top Flite, or as I did, rummage through his leftover decal sheets to find what he needs to complete the job. I'm still baffled by this, considering the otherwise excellent quality of this kit. Not to completely pan the decals, as with the rest of the kit the quality of what is there is excellent!
Going deeper into the box we come to the lavishly illustrated and photographed 32 page instruction manual. Even If you don't know how to read, it would be almost impossible to not be able to build this model from the plans and this manual. In it you will find complete step by step instructions on constructing this plane. While there is nothing difficult about this kit, the photos and illustrations will eliminate any confusion in construction. I've tried to imagine where the average builder would have difficulty with this model and the only area I can see is in carving the nose area. Hey guys! The manufacturer can't do everything for you!
In conjunction with the manual, the kit includes just as high a quality plan set. These are on two sheets and have all necessary views to build this model over the plans. The only joining on these plans was the wing halves. The wing is build in one piece so you'll find it necessary to join the plan halves at the center line. Again, no big deal! The rest of the model is built for the most part over the plans. The stab, elevator, fin rudder, ailerons, and flap are all built up over the plans with 1/4 by 3/8 inch balsa stock. This may sound like it's very time consuming, but believe me it's not! The plans, by the way, are printed in black lines on high quality paper, I saved the best of the plan description for last. Included is what appears to be a one third size copy of the plan set. This is a single sheet printed on both sides and came in very handy many times when handling the full sized plans wasn't practical or necessary. This is a really slick idea.
Moving on to the actual construction of this model you will see that it has "quite a few parts". Don't let this affect your decision to build it. Not only does it build fast, but because of the "engineering", it builds extremely light. In the 20th century, when this model was designed - and even today - it was claimed that this plane can be built in eight hours. Without the use of CA glue back then I don't see how this could have been possible, but I do know that today the average builder can have this model ready to cover in 8 to 10 hours building time, including carving the nose area. Some ARF's take longer than that and there "ain't" a one that will perform like the Contender will on the same power!
Other than having all built up flying surfaces, there really isn't much difference between this 30 year old design and the more contemporary "semi high performance" designs that are popular today. What you will notice is the unusual use of "open bay" fuselage construction aft of the wing railing edge. This may concern the inexperienced modeler as far as the strength goes, but a careful look at the engineering will renewal that the fuselage is really just a box the these fins added to the top and bottom of the fuselage to give it a more jet like look. When these areas are covered they look like they are sheeted rather than covered with "whatever Cote". I personally think with the motor side mounted (the only kit bashing I did) this is very aggressive and capable looking plane!
The wing is very simple "D" tube construction with no great engineering taking place here. Between the sheeting top and bottom on the leading edge, and the balsa shear webs between the spars, this wing is extremely strong, rugged, and unbelievable light. The lightness and strength can be attributed to not only the design but the high quality of wood selection. The wing tips on this model can be configured two ways. The original design has the tops straight out from the wing (I did them this way) but someone decided to fix something that wasn't broken and offered the alternative of angling the tips up to "improve" the low speed handling! Between the flaps (I'll talk about them next) and the extremely light weight, if the plane landed any slower it would be a helicopter! The choice is yours, but I do admit that the upswept tips look cool. Whichever tip style you choose, be sure to pay close attention when you shrink the covering over them. You will warp them! Just be sure that when they are all covered you "wrap" them equally.
On the original design the flap was said to aid in carrier landings. I still haven't quite figured out what they meant by that but I do know that it definitely adds to the fun of flying this model. Talk about short field landings. With very little practice you can literally lower the flap all the way (approx. 40 degrees) fly over the runway threshold at altitude, point the nose almost straight down, and basically pick your landing spot.
About the only concern I had with the flap at first was that the plane would fall out of the sky because you could get it to fly so slowly, but this proved to be unfounded. At the first hint of a stall, application of power (not too much) will immediately stop the descent. At first, the flight characteristics might seem a little weird especially it you've never flown with flaps, but very little practice will have you doing those carrier landings all day long. Most flyers use the landing to end their flight, with the Contender you'll find that many of your flights will be mostly landings. This is really a fun to fly plane!
Okay, so it's a great slow flyer; what about the top end? Quite simply, it's fast, it's accurate, and most importantly, it's predictable. This plane really has no bad habits, and to the intermediate and better flyer there is nothing this model will do in any flight mode that will catch you off guard. I did notice that at sustained top speed there seemed to be a slight tail wiggle. I don't know if it's something I built into the plane or the design was reacting to the speed produced by an over abundance of power. In any case, backing off just slightly on the power eliminated the perceived condition.
Because this model has three relatively large wheels hanging in the breeze it bleeds off energy (speed) very quickly when you remove power. This, coupled with the flap, can make for some impressively slow landing approaches
As far as landing is concerned, there is no concern! It slows quickly, sinks predictable, and flares beautifully. There is only one condition to all of this modeling nirvana. You absolutely must be able to bring your motor back to a slow idle. At the light weight that the Contender can be built it doesn't want to stop flying with even minimal power.
Aerobatics? How's your imagination? The Contender is one of those models where precision is really not an issue (if precision is your bag you're way beyond this model anyway!)
Once you leave the ground, your fingers will have minds of their own and you'll almost be a bystander watching. This is really a fun airplane.
The power supplied for this review is the O.S. MAX .46 FX. Top Flite claims that this model can handle up to a "60". With the O.S. .46 Fx the performance was very spirited and the model would literally accelerate vertically. At a flying weight of 5 pounds 14 ounces, there isn't any maneuver this model can't do with power! Keep in mind, back in the 20th century, when this model was designed, the ".60s" of that era didn't have the power most sport .40s have today. In my opinion, the O.S. MAX .46FX supplied for this review just about hits the reasonable power limit for this airframe. Putting a contemporary .60 into this model may or may not overstress the airframe, but really, who needs it? The Contender's performance sparkles with the ".46" A .60, in my opinion, would be overkill! I finished my Contender in Navy Gray UltraCote and as you can see has a nice jet look to it. If you choose to go with this gray color scheme I hope you have good eyes!
As it was back in the last century, the Contender is still just that! Not only is it a contender, it's still a winner!
Safe flying - Vic
Reprinted with permission.
July, 2000 Flying Models
Editor: Frank Fanelli