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Model-plane building lifts Valley man’s spirits

Correspondent photo / John D. Bagnola Arthur Griffin of McDonald, 85, has built more than 400 model airplanes from scratch. He made his first one at the age of 8. Some of his models are made with plastic, but most are carved from wood.

McDONALD — Everyone is obsessed with something.

Whether it’s gardening, hot rod cars, collecting antiques, reality TV or traveling across the country in an RV to get up close and personal with nature, we all have a passion for something.

Arthur Griffin, 85, of McDonald has an unusual passion for building airplanes — not from a kit, but from scratch — for the past 77 years. He has built more than 400 different models of airplanes and occasionally will build other models for people such as a Volkswagen bus, a Ford Bronco, tractors, boats, the USS Enterprise, the space shuttle and even the Goodyear Blimp.

And he builds each one to exact scale. He built them all from scratch because his family didn’t have the money to buy kits. However, he said his finished projects were so much more intricate than the expensive model kits anyway.

Griffin, a 1955 graduate of Fowler High School, began making models at 8 years old with his nine brothers.

“We would make flying objects out of our own stick and tissue idea. We would then light them on fire and throw them out the upstairs window to see which one would fly the longest and farthest,” Griffin said.

He said he never met the Wright brothers because they were before his time but because of these shenanigans, his mother called her 10 boys the “Wrong Brothers.”

BUILDING SKILLS

Griffin later graduated to building a stronger type of lightweight structure built with balsa wood. And not long after that, he began to build with bass wood. He also has built models with plastic, but he prefers wood.

By the time he was 45, many people offered to purchase his exquisite workmanship. His biggest offer was $1,000 for the USS Star Trek Enterprise from a local hobby shop owner. However, Griffin refused to sell it because it was a gift for his son, Bill Griffin.

When asked if he was an engineer, he just laughed.

“I graduated from Fowler High and went right to work at General Fireproofing until I took a better job at Packard Electric as an artos cutter and inspector for the next 35 years. I cut and prepared the wiring harnesses for car electrical systems as well as radio and speaker systems,” Griffin said.

He taught himself how to build things. He learned at a young age how to operate a band and table saw and a belt sander. His many crafts are authentic because he uses intricate tools and a lot of time to cut panel lines, and will simulate rivets if needed by using a dress maker’s pattern wheel. For a fabric aircraft, he uses pinstriping tape to extemporize his work.

GROWING UP

Griffin said airplanes became an obsession for him while he grew up on state Route 193, about 3 miles from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna. He said United and Capital Airlines DC-3 twin engine commuter aircraft flew over their house every day, and he really wanted to become a pilot.

“I ran into the love of my life. I had to make a decision. Either spend money on flying lessons or plan a future with the most beautiful person I had ever met,” Griffin said. “Well, it was an easy decision. Annabelle and I tied the knot in November of 1955, the same year I graduated, and we had a wonderful marriage for 65 years before she passed away two years ago. We were good Christians and members of the United Methodist Church in Howland.”

He said they had four children: Janie, Robert, William and Heidi.

The whole family has a passion for aviation. His son Robert has taken his father’s ideas a few steps further and now rebuilds or restores and flies numerous planes and owns a 1946 Fairchild.

His other son, William, was also a pilot and founded the Ernie Hall Aviation Museum in Warren. Hall was notably America’s first flight instructor at 19 in the early 1900’s. Griffin’s grandson, Connor, is also a pilot and owns his own plane.

William “Bill” Griffin died in February of 2019.

When asked what his favorite model is, Arthur Griffin said “all of them.”

He did mention how fond he was of the life and times of Howard Hughes and read all of his books and biographies. So he decided to build Hughes’ famous Spruce Goose Aircraft along with his HR1. The HR1 was a record setting speed racing plane.

He also enjoyed creating the 785-foot long USS Akron dirigible to scale. He took the sideboards off his brother’s water bed to finish the project. He can create scale drawings 1/2-inch to the foot, 3/4-inch to the foot or 1/16 scale, or 1-inch to the foot and even 1/72 scale and 1/44 scale models.

Griffin recalled a very special moment in time when good friend Arnie Nashbar offered him a job working for Edward DeBartolo Sr.

“I built a model of Mr. DeBartolo’s Lear Jet and his Helio Courier. They thought it was an amazing reproduction. This was the time Mr. DeBartolo was building plazas and malls all over the country. Nashbar owned a bicycle business and was also a planner and builder for shopping plazas. Upon seeing my work, they realized I could build model buildings to scale and all changes could be made on the model before the actual building began. It would save a lot of time and money,” Griffin said.

He did not take the job and said he did not regret it. He said he was happy with his job at Packard Electric.

CHRONICLING HISTORY

“By making hundreds of model planes, I am chronicling the entire history of aviation. The shapes and sizes change constantly, but we will never ever forget what they looked like,” Griffin said.

He used as an example the aircraft from the 910th Airlift Wing at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

Do any of us remember any of the many wonders that have flown over our heads locally since 1953? Well, stop and see Griffin, because he has models of them all: The F-84 Thunder Jet, the F-86 Saber Jet, the F-102 Dagger, the C-119, A-37 Cessna Jet, and now C-130 and the C-17. Many of Griffin’s works are on display at the Ernie Hall Aviation Museum.

And these 3D models made exactly to scale may be all we have some day to remember our aviation history.

To suggest a Saturday profile, contact Features Editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or Metro Editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.

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