Meet entrepreneur and scale helicopter builder Peter Wales

treeline-peter-wales

Written by Rachelle Haughn
The Other Side of the Tree Line
As seen in the Winter 2021 issue of Park Pilot

In 1983, Peter Wales got started in aeromodeling by accident. After doing a favor for a friend, his friend returned his favor by sending him a model helicopter that he had been eyeing. And with that, his love for scale helicopters was born. Today, Peter has retired from the competition scene and instead finds the same joy in teaching his grandson how to fly.

Rachelle Haughn: How and when did you get started with aeromodeling?

Peter Wales: It’s a bit of a long story. In 1983, I was the engine management director on a racing team sponsored by Mitsubishi. We were racing in England and had ambitions to race in Europe. To test whether we were capable of racing away from home, they decided to ask us to race in the Fuji 500 Japan and the Macau Grand Prix. While I was in Japan, I met a young man, Michael Lieu, who was the local Mitsubishi dealer in Hong Kong, and he was driving the same car we were, so we were in competition. We became good friends and I stayed in touch with him after we returned to England. As it happened, egos got in the way of racing and we lost our sponsorship, and I lost my job. So, I started a company to reprogram engine management systems and Michael became my dealer in Hong Kong. He was also into rallying and he needed some special wheels manufactured in England but the local dealer in Hong Kong sponsored another driver and would not sell him any, so he asked me for a set. I had them shipped out to him. He won his race and asked me what I wanted in return, so I asked him for one of those model helicopters I had seen in Hong Kong. As it happens, he was the local champion also in model helicopters and he sent me a Hirobo Shuttle, an O.S. .32 engine, and a JR 347 radio all set up to fly.

RH: What do you like about model helicopters?

PW: As an engineer, I like complex mechanical devices. I enjoy building as much as flying, and in the days at the beginning, getting them to fly was harder than building them.

RH: Do you prefer scale or aerobatic helicopters?

PW: Like most helicopter pilots, I learned to fly on pod-and-boom helicopters and tried a few basic maneuvers. At the time, a loop and a roll without a crash was significant. Then I saw a scale BK 117 all kitted out with a full interior and that got me interested in making a scale model. Since then, I have built only scale models, unless they were for training my grandson to fly. All of his models were set up to be scale models, not 3D models. Personally, I abhor 3D models. They are noisy to the point of annoyance, even when electrically powered, and it is difficult to fly near them, as you have no idea which way they are going.
Peter Wales is shown in his workshop with his Bell 47G3 scale helicopter.

Peter Wales is shown in his workshop with his Bell 47G3 scale helicopter.


Peter’s Hirobo EC120

Peter’s Hirobo EC120.


RH: How long did you compete in the helicopter Nats?

PW: I competed for three years and won each year, and then I decided that it was time for me to retire from competition. There were two reasons. One was I had too much time on my hands and that was a big advantage over a man with a family and/or a job. The other reason was that I could afford to buy anything I wanted to make my model better than anybody else’s. So rather than compete on what was not a level field, I then started to run the Scale Helicopter Nats, which I did for several more years. This was an 1,100-mile drive each way to spend three days watching other guys fly helicopters. At the time, I enjoyed it, but the driving was tedious.

RH: Did you compete in any other categories?

PW: I competed in a local [AMA Class] 518 competition and was completely unaware that there was even a set of rules. I had a nice Bell 212, which I had spent many hours on, and was soundly beaten by a young man flying a Shuttle with a Funkey Bodies kit. That made me decide that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it properly, and a trip to Switzerland gave me lots of good documentation and a selection of very nicely made parts for a Lama helicopter. I entered this in the first helicopter competition in the Top Gun contest in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2001. As this was a trial, we did not fly; it was static only. I won in several categories. I think the only one I did not win was best military helicopter, but my helicopter was not built to fly. My main competition was Len Mount, who brought a beautiful Dolphin helicopter that I was sure would win. I was surprised to beat him, and it became a friendly competition between us. During the course of the next year, I spent a lot of time making the helicopter into a flying machine and got it finished only a week before the next Top Gun. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated the gear ratio and when it [came] off the ground, the engine was running too slow. The clutch started to slip and eventually burned out. That meant I would have to change the gear ratio, which was not a simple thing at the time, and it put me out of the flying part of the competition. I did score some static points, so I was happy, but Len was at the competition as well. Curiously, he had crashed his entry the week before and arrived without it, so I beat him again. I might add that I competed against him in England and he showed me how to do it. He is a modeler [whom] I admire greatly. One thing that only a couple of people know is that I sponsored the second Top Gun and the 2016 Top Gun through my businesses, so that nobody knew I was involved financially. Had I won, I would not have been accused of cheating. As it happened, in the second Top Gun in 2002, I couldn’t even fly.

RH: What made you decide to move to the US from England?

PW: My business in England was virtually running itself. We were getting calls from America for chips for their cars, so I decided to come over here, have a look, see what the market was like, what facilities I could have, and what I would need. I moved to Florida because it was possible to get a cheap flight, hotel, and hire a car [for] one week. I made several trips exploring my options. In the summer of 1991, I moved to the US and set up shop. My house in England was mortgaged to the hilt. I cleaned out the business account there and moved. It was a big financial risk.
Mil Mi-8 models
Mil Mi-8 models 2

Mil Mi-8 models that Peter owns.


RH: What have you been doing to pass the time during retirement?

PW: Building, flying, crashing, and rebuilding model helicopters became an obsession, which pleased my wife because it kept me out of bars and away from other women.

RH: What is currently on your workbench?  

PW:Unfortunately, I am now starting to suffer from arthritis. I have difficulty lifting helicopters, no matter how small they are, so I am concentrating on keeping my fleet flying. I am just finishing a new cabin for an Align T-Rex-based Lama. Two years ago, it would have taken two or three days—now I have spent two or three months on it. A few minor medical problems have taken the passion out of the hobby and now I spend more time encouraging my grandson to fly, but he is in his final two years of high school and does not have much time. We manage to fly most Saturday mornings in the pasture I have outside my back door.

RH: Do you still fly?

PW: I managed to dri ve my RV to Dalton, Georgia, this year. I got several flights in and saw a lot of friends, probably many of them for the last time. We managed to have a small event at Hinesville, Georgia, in October, but by the time I got home after a five-hour drive, I was physically incapable of getting out of the driver’s seat and into my wheelchair. I concluded [that] it was time to stop driving around the countryside in an RV, so I sold it. I still have the trailer and I can put the helicopters in it and pull them around with my minivan, but I can’t get helicopters in the minivan, so it has to be an event or I just fly behind my house. I am fortunate to have 53 acres to fly on.
Peter’s Seasprite

The scale rivets on Peter’s Seasprite are stunning. He calls this heli his “masterpiece.”


Peter is teaching his grandson

Peter is teaching his grandson how to fly the Seasprite.


RH: What about model helicopters intrigues you?

PW: It is the aim to make a scale model of museum quality, and then make it fly like the real thing. Flying fast is not real, has to be scale, and if your model is 1/10 scale and the full-size aircraft flies at 150 mph, you should not be flying more than 15 mph. That is harder than it looks and takes practice. I have gotten rather stuck in my ways and there are lots of new technology advances that I have not kept up with. The last two models I built were 1980s Hirobo kits—one with a flybar and the other with a three-blade head with stabilization. The turbine Lama I have from Hirobo, I fly with no stabilization. My challenge these days is to make a helicopter from the parts I have collected over the years. The turbine Lama is a mishmash of several helicopters, and it is very close to scale.

RH: What is your favorite part of the hobby?

PW: I now very much enjoy watching my grandson fly one of his models and trying new maneuvers. If one of them is not successful, then I get to strip his models for parts and I will give him one of mine. Because of failing eyesight, he is a better pilot than I am and is very smooth. It’s a delight to watch him fly.

RH: Did having a background in aeromodeling help your career in any way?

PW: No, in fact, if anything, it hindered it, as I kept sneaking off work to go flying, but because I was the boss, nobody could say anything. Fortunately, I had a very good staff in America, and I could happily leave them to go flying while they earned me lots of money. I learned very early on in my business life that the way to keep good people was to pay them too much so they could not leave [to] get another job, and to give them all [of] the benefits they deserved.
Peter poses with some of his scale models

Peter poses with some of his scale models.


Written by Rachelle Haughn

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4 comments

I met Peter when I first started in the hobby back in 1998...we used to fly out of Sanford Fl. behind the R/R tracks. Great guy and always willing to help. The Heli stuff he used to fly back then was first class. I fly out of Sanford Aero Modelers (SAM) now, he should stop by and check us out, be nice to see him again.

Very well written, I’ve known Peter for many years and learned some new things about him that I did not previously know.

I think I first met peter when ircha was still being held in hebron ohio back in the 90's... He is a great builder and has lots of knowledge if you are willing to pay attention. Around 2009 he signed off on my turbine rating at ircha that year although Ive never been able to afford one yet lol.

The Coast Guard Station here in Detroit asked for a scale heli in Coast Guard colors. Been involved with RC for 50 years. Are you able to help me out with the project in finding the correct airframe?

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