The saying goes that if you love what you do, you wouldn’t have to work a day in your life. Johnny Yong, owner of Singapore Hobby Supplies Pte Ltd and member of Radio Modellers Singapore (RMS), is just one of these lucky few who has never had to work a day throughout his 50-year relationship with aeromodelling.

Flying a model aircraft is not as easy as one might think. According to Mr Johnny Yong, 72, even experienced pilots of commercial airplanes would need to learn how to operate these models from scratch. Many people expect to be able to fly a model aircraft successfully on their first try. But to Johnny, learning how to fly a model aircraft is like learning how to ride a bike.

“If anyone hasn’t [ridden] a bicycle before, what would happen? Most likely they would fall, because you need coordination, time to learn, and time to react. Flying models is the same,” he explained.

Johnny Yong, 72, has been practising the hobby of aeromodelling for half a century. Photo by LY Kang

From electronics to aeromodelling

Before he discovered aeromodelling, Johnny was first interested in electronics as a child.

“In my younger days, I loved electronics. I used to build radios and hi-fi amplifiers, all by myself,” he beamed.

Johnny worked at his parent’s company, Shing Fatt Radio, located at Changi Village. He fondly remembered the first time he encountered an aeromodeller.

“One day in 1965, a customer approached me and said, pointing to a magazine, ‘Johnny, can you get me these items?’ It was a list of components and drawings for a transmitter,” he recalled.

At that time, photocopy machines weren’t readily available, so Johnny had to borrow the magazine from the customer and copy the five pages about the remote control transmitter by hand.

Instead of merely procuring the components for the customer, Johnny tried his hand at building the transmitter as well. Parts were not always available in the 1960s. Still, Johnny managed to locate all the parts to build the transmitter except for one – a crystal.

“A crystal is a little glass that stabilises the frequency transmission [of the transmitter]. I tried all methods to build [a crystal] but I couldn’t. Eventually I had to write to England for it.”

“Now that I had [the crystal], and built the transmitter, it made a beep sound when a button was pressed, I thought, what do I do with it?”

His interest piqued, Johnny visited bookshops in search of instructions for a receiver – a device that is attached to the plane and receives the signal sent by the transmitter, telling the plane how and when to manoeuvre.

Likewise, a transmitter is a handheld controller that sends the pilots’ inputs into the plane. Eventually his search proved fruitful and he successfully built a receiver.

“So now I’ve got a transmitter, and a receiver that is clicking. What do you do with it? Use it to fly a model airplane of course. That’s how [my hobby] started,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Still, it took about a year before Johnny was ready to learn to fly his model plane. In the 1960s, there was no such thing as a ready-made model plane. “You couldn’t walk into a shop and say I want to start this hobby, sell me a plane. No. You only got a box of wood and drawings and you literally had to build it from scratch, piece by piece,” he shared.

Even then, without any prior experience, he had to learn how to fly the aircraft, which was no easy feat.

“There were a lot of crashes in the beginning because at that time, radio equipment was not so sophisticated. It wasn’t until the mid-70s when the Japanese started to come up with almost ready to fly model aircrafts. Even then, they still required a lot of work,” Johnny explained.

A wobbly take-off

As his interest in flying model airplanes grew, Johnny decided to find like-minded individuals also interested in this hobby – Radio Modellers Singapore was where Johnny found his community.

Formed in 1954, Radio Modellers Singapore was officially registered with the Registry of Societies in 1962. Johnny joined the club in 1968.

“In those earlier days, there weren’t many practising this hobby as it wasn’t really accessible to everybody. In the late 60s to 70s, the club had about 30 to 40 members.”

At that time, not many were interested in aeromodelling as it cost more than what the average person was able to afford, or willing to spend on a hobby.

“A simple remote control to fly a plane in the 70s and 80s cost in the region of $400. Today, the same control costs $100. If you pay $400 today, you’re getting something that’s equivalent to $1200 in those days. It’s really a big difference,” Johnny explained.

Another reason why the hobby was not popular at the time was the scarcity of parts for the plane and other equipment. Johnny had often encountered difficulty acquiring parts. However, instead of waiting for shops to start supplying the parts, Johnny decided to take matters into his own hands.

“At the time, a lot of components were not available in Singapore. As someone who has an interest in this hobby, with no internet [access] at the time, the only way to get news about this hobby was through magazine reports and reviews.”

“What we then had to do when we come across equipment we wanted to try was to write to the manufacturer and ask if we can buy from them. So that’s how I got in touch with them.”

By writing to the manufacturers to purchase parts directly, Johnny built up a valuable list of contacts of aeromodelling equipment suppliers and subsequently decided to open his own shop dedicated to the hobby.

It was in 1972 that Singapore Hobby Supplies first opened along North Bridge Road. Besides Johnny’s own passion for aeromodelling, it was also his desire to see fellow modellers succeed in this hobby that led him to open his own store.

Singapore Hobby Supplies sells all manner of aeromodelling equipment, from radios, to motors and even paint to keep the plane exterior looking fresh. Today, there are even technicians in the store that will help to repair models that need fixing, or give advice on anything aeromodelling related. The store is now located at Fook Hai Building along South Bridge Road.

Johnny’s shop, Singapore Hobby Supplies Pte Ltd has been open since 1972. It is now located along South Bridge Road, in the basement level of Fook Hai Building. Photo by LY Kang

Going the extra mile

Throughout the years, Johnny has always been willing to go the extra mile to help customers who are interested in the hobby.

He recalled an encounter with a Pakistan Airlines pilot who had visited his shop in the late 1960s with an interest to pick up aeromodelling. Since the pilot had never flown a model aircraft before, Johnny suggested that he purchase a beginners’ model aircraft.

“He told me, ‘do you know that I’m a captain of a Boeing 707?’ I told him that [flying a model airplane is different] because you’re not sitting in the plane. He wouldn’t accept what I was saying so he bought [a non-beginners plane],” Johnny shared.

What happened next?

“He crashed it on the first flight.”

“Subsequently he came back and said ‘You know, it doesn’t fly.’ I told him no, you don’t know how to fly it. I said that I was sure, so he bought another plane and I told him that I would show him how to fly it.”

Johnny made good his promise to show the pilot how to fly the model airplane. “After I showed him how it was flown, he finally understood that it is quite different [from flying an actual plane].”

Taking the hobby to greater heights

As the years passed and with more experience accumulated under their belt, Radio Modellers Singapore began participating in regional competitions in the 1980s. In 1985, Radio Modellers Singapore organised its first regional aerobatic competition held in Singapore. After joining the World Air Sports Federation (FAI) in 1985, the club started to join the world championships held every two years. Their first was in 1991 in Melbourne, Australia.

Johnny recounted his first time participating in the World Championships in 1991. To him, it was his most memorable competition.

“Before the world competition, we knew the rules. You fly, I watch. I tell you where your mistake is, vice versa. That’s how we learn from each other.”

“There were three of us participating in the world competition. For one particular manoeuvre we performed [a stunt] called a stall turn, all three of us got a score of zero.”

Instead of getting upset with the score, Johnny approached the judges to ask what they did wrong. It turned out that Johnny and his teammates were actually performing the wrong manoeuvre. They were doing what was known as a wing over instead of a stall turn. They would not have known what they had done wrong if they hadn’t ventured into the world championships. In Johnny’s own words, “we went to the world to understand.”

“When you participate in a competition it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about experience.”

These experiences helped the team to learn and grow, as well as impart the knowledge to their fellow club mates. Following this, he participated in other world championships that took him to Austria, Japan, Poland and Argentina.

Johnny (right), with a RMS teammate at Combine Asia Oceania Aerobatic Competition (CAOCC) in Taiwan in 1998. Photo courtesy of Johnny Yong

Aeromodelling today

It is now a lot easier to afford the hobby than before. “If a person wishes to start this hobby, they don’t have to spend a lot. With less than 500 dollars you get everything. And even if you crash the plane, it doesn’t cost you 500 dollars. All you need is another new plane which costs around 100 to 150 dollars. Everything else can be reused,” Johnny explained.

Even today, there are still people who expect to master the hobby easily. “Multi rotor aircrafts like drones are almost guaranteed to fly. You don’t need to learn. Model airplanes are different.” “There are people who are not familiar with what the hobby entails and think that by spending the most money they‘d know what to do. They buy the most expensive equipment without learning first. Subsequently when they encounter problems and when they crash, they come back and say that the products aren’t good, and ask for a refund.”

“They don’t understand that this is something that you will not be able to take it out, buy, go to the field and fly. It doesn’t work that way. They need to take time to learn. You have to have the interest and patience to learn.”

For those interested in the hobby, they can learn from instructors from RMS. “After a few months of lessons, if you are able to take off, do certain simple aerobatic manoeuvres for safety and landing, and able to land well, you take a proficiency test. So once you have gone through the test and passed the test, you are allowed to fly solo on your own,” Johnny shared.

Learning to fly safely is important to RMS, so it is a strict requirement that an interested hobbyist has to first master a few basics and pass the proficiency test before being allowed to fly on their own.

Today, the club has about 80 members and they hold regular practices every weekend at a designated area in Labrador. Besides RMS, there are now others practising this hobby in Singapore, who belong to other clubs, or those who practise solo.

For Johnny, the most valuable thing is the sense of accomplishment that comes when one puts effort into building and completing something from scratch. “When you build a model, you don’t know what it’s going to be like. The good feeling about it is when it flies successfully.”

Written by: Catherine Nicholas

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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