If Dale Cordes could go back in time, he would have liked to have flown one of his favorite planes, a German Fokker DR 1 triplane made famous by the great Red Baron flying ace of WW I.
This replica model of a Fokker DR 1 triplane flown by the Red Baron in WW I was built by Dale Cordes (pictured with plane) and will be part of an exhibit of war artifacts displayed next year at the Brown County Historical Museum in New Ulm. Contributed photo.
Instead, the 78-year-old model plane hobbyist from New Ulm flies one of the half dozen Fokker scale models he’s built during the past 70 years, ever since his dad Herb took him to the airport and introduced him to the marvels of flight.
“I was probably 8 years old then and have been building and flying model airplanes for decades,” Dale said. “I think I had my first airplane ride when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I’ve been hooked on planes for as long as I can remember.”
His interest in model planes came from the ones he watched his father build. “My first planes were the stick and paper tissue model kits of the day that I’d buy for 10 cents apiece at the old Brown Music Store in downtown New Ulm,” he said.
By the time he was 13 years old, Dale said he already had about 20 wind-up, rubber band-powered, balsa wood free flight plane models that he would display in the armory building during the Little Crow District Boy Scouts show. Then he read about some of the first radio controlled airplanes in a hobby magazine in the early ‘50s.
“That article really got me going with the hobby, and I went to work for my high school shop teacher who also owned a hobby store in town,” Dale recalled. “I was about 15-17 years old and since I was such a good customer of his he thought I’d be good working with the model plane stuff in his store.”
Cordes graduated from New Ulm High School in 1955 and served in the Air Force for four years working in armament electronic supply for the 509th Bomb Wing that featured the massive six engine, jet-powered high altitude long range B-47 bomber based at Roswell, N.M.
Naturally, Cordes joined a serviceman’s club that flew models out in the desert on days when they were off duty. And he got to be good at it too, winning a radio-controlled free flight gas championship which turned out to be the first of many contests he would win in following years.
“Of course Roswell is famous for its reported UFO sightings, and one night while out in the desert with some of the guys, we actually thought we saw one until we realized it was a beer can flying by,” Dale laughed.
While in the Air Force at Roswell Dale obtained a student pilot’s license and his first flying lesson turned into an adventure. “The instructor made me do what’s called a slow flight, and everything was going pretty good with me at the controls until the engine quit,” he recalled. “There was an abrupt bang, the cabin got a little smoky and then there was complete silence until the instructor said ‘maybe I should take over.’”
The disabled plane landed on a ribbon of highway running through the desert and near the only ranch house they could find. But with no telephone at the ranch house, the pair of men ended up hitchhiking 30 to 40 miles back to town.
The incident didn’t stop Dale from obtaining his private pilot’s license after his service in the Air Force ended. What followed were many years of flying Piper Cubs and ultralights while all the time sharing his knowledge of aviation with others and building models with his children.
After retiring in 1999 from a 26-year quality assurance career with 3M at New Ulm, his hobby kicked into another gear as he built numerous models and entered radio-controlled contests over a wide area.
Accompanied by his wife Jean, he participated in scale model competitions all across the country, from California to Colorado, Louisiana to Virginia and places in between. Once he placed second in the radio-controlled model airplane nationals held at Lake Charles, La.
“We did that for several years and I probably won about 100 trophies, but I had to put them in the dumpster when we recently moved from our house to a smaller place to live,” he said.
Dale Cordes stands next to some of his larger radio-controlled model airplanes stored in a garage at his New Ulm residence. Photo by Steve Palmer
With a downsized residence new accommodations had to be made for storing his numerous large model plane collection at his son Wade’s residence.
Before he built the Red Baron’s Fokker DR 1 triplane model, Cordes traveled to Rhinebeck, N.Y., in 2001 to visit the Aerodome Museum to examine the details of the full-sized Fokker and copy the exact paint scheme to get the model to look just right. It took him nearly a year to finish building it. He insists that all of his planes are built in true-to-life detail.
He considers the multi-wing WW I plane models as more challenging to build and more difficult to land since the planes are equipped only with a skid for the trail wheel. Ask him and he’ll tell you the Fokker Eindecker was Germany’s first WWI plane to have a mounted machine gun synchronized to fire bullets through the whirring propeller blade.
Dale’s Fokker DR 1 will become part of a WW I exhibit next year at the Brown County Historical Museum in New Ulm when it displays local artifacts collected from area participants in the war 100 years ago. “America had no combat planes of their own when we entered WWI, and our pilots ended up flying English or French planes,” he said.
Another one of his favorite models is the WW II trainer Ryan PT 20 which has appeared as the cover photo on Scale RC Modeler Magazine.
It’s a good day when he can go out to the rural airstrip located next to farm fields near the small town of Evan with other members of the Wingnuts model airplane club and fly planes.
“That’s the most fun you can have with this hobby when you’re with a group of guys that share the same interests that you do,” he said.
During the winter months, usually on a Saturday, Dale and other model enthusiasts fly 40 gram lightweight electronic powered models indoors for a couple of hours at the community fieldhouse in New Ulm.
“We can have as many as 20 guys there sometimes with all getting their planes in the air at the same time in the area of two basketball courts that we rent for flying,” Dale explained.
One of the benefits of traveling to shows are the people he meets from all different walks of life. A few years ago he met Blue Angels pilot John Hiltz at the Mankato Air Show.
“He signed the wing on one of my planes after I gave him a radio-controlled model airplane training flight. I told him he did a pretty good job for being a student pilot…that got a rise out of him,” Dale joked.
Dale commented that his experience with flying drones actually started over 30 years ago, long before the government and military started doing it. “I used my ham radio transmitter and receiver technology to fly them and operated fast scan video way before digital cameras came along,” he stated.
Cordes said the hobby has changed some in recent years as any radio-controlled model airplane or drone is now considered a small unmanned aerial system. “You can’t buy anything that flies without registering it with the FAA or you could get fined,” he noted.