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TOP FLITE CONTENDER
FIELD & BENCH REVIEW

by Vic Olivett


Contender Photo

SPECIFICATIONS
Model: Contender
Manufacturer: Top Flite
Type: advanced trainer
Wingspan: 53 1/4 in.
Wing area: 660 sq. in.
Weight: 6 to 6 1/2 lb. (5 lb., 11 oz., as tested)
Length: 49.58 in.
Engine req'd: .40 to .60 2-stroke or .52 to .70 4-stroke
Engine used: Tower Hobbies Pro .46
Radio req'd: 4-channel (5-channel with flaps)
Radio used: Futaba 6-channel with 5 servos
Features: all-wood construction with CAD-designed parts; full hardware package including rod-in-tub pushrods, wire landing gear and engine mount; decal sheet; excellent, illustrated instructions.
Comments: everything that made the original Contender a favorite, plus modern advances in technology and construction that make it easier to assemble and more exciting to fly. This updated version will remind you of the good old days without making you long for them—the new Contender gives up nothing to the old version, and it gains quite a bit.

Hits

  • Easy to build.
  • Great die cutting.
  • Well-executed plans and instruction manual.
  • Excellent flyer.

Misses

  • On my kit, the nose ring was smaller in diameter than shown in the plans.
  • Flap has to be cut to fit the rear of the fuselage.

The Comeback Kid looks like a champ

Back in the early '70s, the Top Flite Contender was one of the most popular Sunday sport-flyer kits. You could stroll onto almost any RC field and find a Contender or two. One of the great things about this design was that it was very easy to bash; we saw Contenders done up in just about every format imaginable. Variations on the basic model included high-powered singles, standoff warbirds and hot little twins—I even saw one done as a bipe. The Contender was such a successful design that when Top Flite stopped producing it, we started to build them from scratch. Later, when the Internet caught on, ads for "Contenders wanted" were a constant reminder of just how highly regarded this design was, even after all those years.

That enduring popularity has not gone unnoticed by Top Flite, and in response it has reintroduced a new Gold Edition of the famous Contender. The finished product may look the same as the original plane, but many changes have been made. The new Contender is lighter, stronger and easier to build, thanks to modern technology. But even so, much about the Contender remains the same. Most important, the character and performance of the classic design have been preserved, providing a new generation of modelers the chance to experience the virtues that made us love the Contender the first time around.

Like the old, the new Contender uses balsa and ply construction, and Top Flite has included a very complete hardware package that contains pushrods, clevises, landing-gear hardware, control horns, nuts, bolts and even the adjustable motor mount. As usual, Top Flite has done a great job on both the plan and the instruction manual. The 32-page instruction manual contains more than 90 pictures to illustrate the construction process. The plan is full size and well detailed, and construction is done over it. A quick note: if you want to save the plan and keep it in good shape, use the clear backing from MonoKote to protect it; this material is resistant to CA.

WING AND TAIL FEATHERS

Construction begins with the tail surfaces. Builders of earlier Contenders will notice that the newer version has built-up tail feathers instead of the solid plank construction of the original. Both the horizontal stab and vertical fin use 1/4x3/8-inch stick construction. The elevators are coupled with a joiner wire and then hinged using CA hinges that are included in the kit.

The 53-inch wing is built directly over the plan, and the construction begins with the sub-assemblies. Six of the ribs use ply doublers to help support the landing-gear blocks. Be careful on this step; it's easy to confuse the right from the left. All of the wing ribs have jigs that are later cut off; this works well to ensure a straight, flat, finished wing. The new Contender has the option of working flaps (it's actually one big flap). However, I found that I did have to trim the flap to get it to fit properly in the "up" position. The new wing design now uses two aileron servos; the old-style wing used torque rods or flexible pushrods running off one servo.

Once all the ribs and struts are in place and everything has been checked, install the webbing and glue the front and aft sheeting into place. Then turn the wing over and sheet the top. Top Flite has made the wing's construction very simple and straightforward. There are two styles of wingtip to choose from: the standard or the optional nostalgia tip. I chose to go with the standard. Build the center flap and ailerons, and set the wing off to one side for now.

FUSELAGE

The fuselage is built upside-down over the plan and is constructed of balsa and plywood, and like the previous steps, this construction is very simple. After gluing the fuselage side-doublers into place, the fit of the parts is such that the rest of the fuselage can be fully assembled before any of the parts are glued. This allows you to check for proper alignment before permanently affixing the pieces. The formers have punch-marks for pushrod location, and the rods are glued into position before the top and bottom balsa is glued to the fuse. The firewall has punch-marks for drilling the holes for the motor mount and nose gear.

Top Flite recommends a .40 to .61 engine for the Contender, so I chose to use the new Tower Hobbies Pro .46. Once the engine has been attached to the motor mount and everything is secure, the fun begins. Glue four large balsa blocks into place, and shape them to the desired contour of the front end and to fit the plywood nose ring. Double-check the size of the ring to make sure it matches the plan; mine was a bit undersize for the recommended spinner. This process is no different from the old kit's, and I have to tell you that it requires some work with a rotary tool and a sanding block. But after all is said and done, the Contender does have a unique look.

Final assembly of the Contender is fairly simple. With the wing centered and in position, drill the holes for the 1/4-20 nylon bolts. With the wing secure, align the horizontal stab and epoxy it into place. The elevators are joined using a preformed wire and are hinged with CA hinges, as are the rest of the control surfaces. The Great Planes Slot Machine works great for installing these hinges. Now glue the top and bottom dorsal fins to the fuse. After some final sanding, your Contender is ready to cover.

The radio installation is laid out on the plan. The throttle, elevator and rudder servos are installed in the fuse; the single flap and two aileron-servos go in the wing. A simple Y-harness is used for the ailerons, and the die-cut plate in the fuselage is for the receiver and switch.

FINISHING

I used Top Flite blue and yellow MonoKote for the covering. If you follow the recommended sequence in the manual, you will find that the project goes quite well, and covering-material waste is limited. When the Contender is covered, the control surfaces can be installed and the hinges CA'd into place. Included in the kit are decals for dressing up the Contender, and I used a Great Planes polished aluminum spinner to better match the size of the plywood nose ring. Since the Contender is not heavy and all of the control surfaces are fairly small, standard servos are adequate for everyday flying. My Contender balanced out with the battery pack just behind the fuselage servos.

CONCLUSION

While building the Contender, I found myself reflecting on years past—this was the plane to own back in the early '70s. It was fun in its stock form, and it was a great kit to bash. It developed a reputation and a following that few other kits can match. To live up to that reputation, the people at Top Flite had to do a great job with the new Contender, and they have pulled it off. With all of the new construction techniques and improved quality, the new plane is easier to build than the original, and it meets or exceeds the performance levels of its predecessor across the board. As it does with all of its kits, Top Flite has done its homework and has produced a great-looking and very good flying model in the new Contender. It will make a very good choice for both novice and experienced fliers.

FLIGHT PERFORMANCE

Takeoff and Landing
The Contender tracks straight down the runway. With a little up-elevator, the climb-out is very smooth and crisp. With the Tower Hobbies Pro .46, this airplane will climb out of sight very fast. Once the Contender is in level flight, the power can be reduced back to half. With the controls set to Top Flite's specs, the Contender flies like a trainer, and all of the controls are very positive. Landing the Con-tender requires only a good final approach and a smooth descent with slight up-elevator to make a picture-perfect touchdown.

Slow Flight
Slow flight with the Contender is just plain fun. With the flap fully deployed, the Contender will just about hang still in the air with a little headwind. The flap will cause the nose to pitch up slightly. With a little power, the plane is as responsive as ever and has no bad habits. I found it very difficult to get the Contender to stall at any speed other than just about stopped in the air.

Aerobatics
OK; time to kick the tires and light the fires, and you better hang on because this ain't your father's Contender. With the Tower Hobbies Pro .46 screaming at 13,700rpm, this thing will go vertical. On high rates, the Contender will roll with the best of today's high-performance planes. Loops can be done as tightly as you wish, and this model will do a very nice spin. Inverted, the Contender flies like its forebear; just remember that up is down and down is up.All in all, this new Contender performs as well as or better than the old model in every category. Isn't progress wonderful?


RC Survivor: $30 and 30 years

by Chris Chianelli

Back in 1971, when I belonged to the Kingston Aeromodelers, my flying buddy Vic (the ugly one with the hat) taught me to fly on a Sterling Mambo and an Andrew H-Ray. A month or so later, I acquired my very first low-winger: the Contender you see here. I purchased it used—but in good condition—from Vic's dad, Nick Olivett, for $30. I remember Mr. Olivett saying, "Son," (I was about 17), "the Tatone double-strut nose-gear/motor-mount unit alone is worth 25 bucks!" I love horse-trading. Anyway, the model was in much better condition when I first took possession of it from Vic's dad. This photo was taken after two and a half seasons of novice-pilot, "rough-duty" service and just before its final mission: the summer of '74's club fun-fly.

Does my club nickname, emblazoned in red letters, give you an idea of what this poor model lived through in my hands? The photo doesn't show the extra 1/2-pound of epoxy payload—built up from two years of "emergency repairs"—that the model was being asked to lift skyward, but trust me; it's there! (We didn't have CA in those days.) The black electrical tape holding the antenna wire should, however, serve as evidence of just how close the old Contender was to forced retirement: immediately following the 1974 Kingston Aeromodelers' Summer Fun-Fly event, to be exact.

This photo proves that, after years of limbo events and green-pilot hotshot blunders, the Contender survived. Why? Because—excellent maneuverability notwithstanding—it's so forgiving. Thanks to that fat wing, I never did crash it really hard; I just "flew it stupid," as the expression goes. My favorite stunt was the "carrier landing." You know; power up, nose high, tail in the grass. Often, the plane slammed down hard—so hard, the canopy popped off. Or was that the pilot ejecting? Once, while refueling, I thought I heard the Contender whisper, "Hey, Chris; in case you haven't noticed, I'm not a helicopter, you complete moron." I even flat-spun it (yes, it will spin if you move the CG far enough aft) into a cornfield many times—so often that I ran out of white MonoKote to repair the shredded wing bottom. As you can see in the photo, I did find some red floating around on the shop floor for the repair.

Because of all this "dumb and fun flying" abuse, most of the rib bottoms had been crushed and repaired, some several times, with scrap balsa. In the end, I bet every single rib in the entire wing had a different Eppler value—a very desirable feature, I told Murray, the fellow club member I gave it to just before I left for college, just so he wouldn't charge me to haul it away. Abuse notwithstanding, the Contender just kept flying and flying and flying. The following year, on summer break, I visited the club field—and there was Murray flying my re-covered Contender. Who knows? Maybe retirement never was in the cards, and it's still in service somewhere to this day. The point is, the Contender is an awesome low-wing model for the novice pilot. And if you're feeling cocky, as we guys so often do, and you think you're the best pilot in the whole world, just increase the throws, move the CG slowly aft, and you, too, can join Crash Chianelli's Flying Circus. The Contender was great back then; it's even better today.

Futaba Corp. of America, exclusively distributed by Great Planes Model Distributors
Great Planes Model Distributors Co., P.O. Box 9021, Champaign, IL 61826-9021; (800) 682-8948; fax (217) 398-0008.
MonoKote; distributed by Great Planes.
Top Flite; distributed by Great Planes.
Tower Hobbies, P.O. Box 9078, Champaign, IL 61826-9078; (800) 637-4989; fax (800) 637-7303

Reprinted with permission.
May, 2001 Model Airplane News
Editor: Gerry Yarrish


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