[Headline: Michael Richter, Slope Soaring model designer]
I interviewed Michael Richter—Slope sailplane designer and owner of Dream-Flight model kit company.
Dave Garwood: At what age did you begin flying RC?
Michael Richter: I started building a Sig Riser before I actually learned how to fly. That was 1991, and I was 12. I thought the flying part would fall into place and I would just “figure it out.”
I remember saving up the money to buy the kit and then laying down the cork, the plans, and getting organized. Those are good memories for sure. Fortunately, I was able to get some basic flying instruction from Ken Chalfant, now owner of California Hobbies in Santa Barbara.
DG: You are a renowned sailplane designer—known for the excellence of your airplane designs and the quality of your sailplane kits. How did you get started in model design?
MR: When I was maybe nine or 10, I got the book Jet-Age Jamboree from a box of things that our neighbor was throwing out. That was Yasuaki Ninomiya’s precursor to his popular Whitewings series of cutout paper airplane books. I remember looking over the last chapter about basic aircraft design principles and being mesmerized by the idea of designing something that flies.
I spent a lot of time making small FF gliders from paper and balsa and would make little airplane sketches alongside my father at his huge drafting table. My father’s love for designing and making things rubbed off on me.
Spending several summer vacations in Germany as a kid was also great. I already had this basic fascination with soaring and then I was thrown into a culture that widely embraced RC Soaring—not only as a as a hobby, but as a technology, sport, and business.
DG: What characteristics are important to glider design?
MR: Whether the design is for Slope or Hand Launch, it should look cool in the air! We are constantly looking at these aircraft, so we should be visually inspired by what we are flying.
A Slope Soaring design should be relatively uncomplicated, robust, maneuverable, and forgiving to fly. I like having a wide speed range because I often fly slow and close. Having large control surfaces for good maneuverability at these lower speeds is important.
Four words come to mind when I think of a Discus Launch Glider (DLG): sleek, elegant, buoyant, and lively. There is more function packed into the individual components of a hand-launched design than one might think. These gliders are hurled into the sky and then they have to hang in the air and practically do a pirouette without falling out of the sky.
DG: What are your glider design objectives and how do you prioritize or resolve conflicting objectives?
MR: The first objective is to design something that is exciting and fun. The second objective is to find a harmony between the flight character, control response, aesthetics, mechanical function, and manufacturing requirements. Accomplishing the second objective is most of the work. The general layout of the design—wing shape, airfoils, etc.—evolve during flight testing. I might have an inspiration for a design, but I will never get the results unless I just throw myself into it and start building and testing.
Before Dream-Flight, the objective was just to follow my inspirations and creativity. But it’s not only [about] me anymore, and I say that in a very positive sense. My new business partner, George Rodriguez, and I now have to be more methodical with our objectives given the needs of our customers, budget, manufacturing resources, and running a business. The Libelle was our first collaboration, and having George’s broad experience in modeling and product development in the mix has really enriched the design process for me.
DG: You are known for designing “knock-it-out-of-the-park” Slope Soaring designs, at least by those of us who know and love the Weasel and the Alula. During design and testing, how do you know when you have a winner—one that you will take to molded production?
MR: If a model continues to intrigue me, even after I’m done with the design and testing phase, that’s important. Bottom line, it’s got to bring a smile to my face.
It’s always a bonus when you can make something that is versatile in the air. Of course, the design also has to lend itself to manufacturing. If a design can combine these elements, then we usually feel compelled to explore production of the model. The design should also exude a purpose.
DG: What advice do you have for those considering selling model airplane kits?
MR: Don’t quit your day job! In all seriousness, having a passion for the aircraft is as important as the follow-through with the business side of things. I had so much personal time with the hobby growing up that I was ready to add the business facet to it. I realized that combining the cathartic process of designing and building model aircraft with work was a way to break up the other parts of the job.
Turning one’s hobby into a business is not for everyone. There will be some hairy moments along the way as you figure stuff out, but for me, the sense of accomplishment in the end and witnessing the enjoyment of customers has made it all worthwhile. If, during the journey, you are fortunate enough to have the support of your customers, family, and friends, that makes it a whole lot easier.
DG: Dream-Flight is known for its state-of-the-art molded foam models. Tell us a little about designing for the production of molded parts.
MR: One of my customers called these models “highly evolved beer-cooler technology.” I got a good laugh out of that, but it’s certainly true!
In a nutshell, we refine the flight performance and function of a design through building several prototype iterations. The Alula EVO took 11 prototypes before I sent the CAD files to the mold makers. These gliders must be lightweight, efficient, and fairly durable, so we are mindful of part thicknesses, reinforcement areas, spars, etc. Things can get heavy and clunky fast, and then the flight character quickly starts to deteriorate.
When we are finally happy with a design, we submit our CAD drawings and a final handmade prototype to the factory. A discussion ensues where we massage some of the finer details for manufacturing.
Typically, the entire process takes one year from concept to first production, if things go smoothly. Of course, there are many other aspects of the development process that are included in this time, such as manual writing, packaging design, marketing, etc. (all done in-house at Dream-Flight).
DG: What will we see next from Dream-Flight?
MR: We changed it up a little with the Libelle DLG, and next we are excited to rerelease the originals using our new manufacturing capabilities. After that, the sky’s the limit.
We have a few other glider concepts in the vault and are looking forward to exploring these and maybe even some other flight-related concepts.
League of Silent Flight (LSF)