"Bantem Ben" and his Pioneer Powerplants

This text appeared in American Modeler, January-February, 1966.

Many modelers have heard of Ben Shereshaw and his famed Bantam model plane engines. Few realize that Ben pioneered in many other phases of model (and full scale) plane activity besides engine development and manufacture. How many know, for example, that he designed and helped market the very first gas model plane kit? Or that he was involved with R/C models in 1933? That he tried to persuade the FCC to set up a special license category for model R/C plane work? That he pioneered powered model structural ideas we still use today? That he designed a full-size plane that was very successful; that he is a longtime pilot and instructor? And, finally, that Ben was one of the developers of model glow plug ignition?

Ben started this airplane activity in Brooklyn, N.Y., built his first plane from an Ideal Model Aeroplane Co. "Everyboy's Kit" in the late '20's. He was 13 at the time, did his early flying in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. As his planes got better, he had to travel by subway to V an Cortland Park, a long journey even today. But he points out time wasn't so important then and the planes were not too large (says his school work was rather adversely affected by these trips, however).

His early planes were mostly twin pushers, rubber powered, of course. There were a fair number of model plane contests (many sponsored by the N.Y. Evening Graphic, some brought out 50 to 60 contestants) at which he was an avid and successful entrant. There were only two events in those days, Rubber Duration and Rubber Speed. A few modelers broke away from twin pushers to build single motored tractors, Ben among them. But he went farther than most, entered what he now calls his "giant ROG phase"; these planes spanned almost 6 feet. There was no contest category for them; Shereshaw stuck 'to their development for the same reason he has stuck to other model developments, they were a "real challenge." About this time he also started building model sailplanes. The modelers called them "dynamic slope soarers," strove to duplicate full-size sailplane performance in model size. Problems of wind penetration were solved by high aspect ratio wings, low frontal area, and the gliders had very fine performance. Unfortunately, there was no contest category for these models either. Some of his cohorts in this. work were Joe Kovel (a standout modeler even then), Tom Boland, Hy Kessler.

By this time Ben had worked up several designs for magazine presentation; he recalls a giant ROG and a smaller rubber scale job among them.

In the early '30's, Ben teamed up with Pete Loutrel to develop a practical gas model plane. Loutrel had been making a l/6-hp model marine engine, and it wasn't much work to change this to an air-cooled design. Experience in making those giant ROG's helped Ben design a 7' model for Loutrel. It was so successful. that the pair soon marketed a kit version; official name was the Loutrel Sportster but Ben still refers to it as the "Mudhen!" Early ads show it to be a very clean and attractive parasol monoplane, with neat V-type landing gear, fuselage rounded top and bottom. It weighed 4-1/2 lb ready to fly; the makers claimed ROG within 15', 35-mph top speed, 9 to 1 glide ratio. The kit cost $8, the engine considerably more. Some of Ben's pioneering structural features showed up in this plane: 1beam wing spars; music wire landing gear (other builders of the time utilized heavy hinged landing gear, sprung in various complex manners) ; beam mounted engine just as we have today. This all-balsa plane was the very first kit gassie, as far as can be ascertained.

While still at the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, Ben designed his first full-size plane. One of his teachers was Carl Schneider, mechanic for John Hay Whitney. Ben learned of a wrecked plane in the Whitney hangar, designed a biplane around the few usable parts left, rebuilt the engine completely. As part of his college work, he did a full stress analysis on his design, which looked strikingly like the much later Stearman PT-17 and was a fine flyer. During these days at Roosevelt Field Ben got his Private Pilot License, then a Limited Commercial.

Leaving college, he went out to Wright Field to work with a group headed by Major James Doolittle and Lt. Heggenberger on the first blind landing system. Ben was only a very small cog in the group and the only one who hadn't graduated from M.I.T. This was in 1932.

Back home again, he became intrigued with the possibilities of model R/C, designed a huge plane (15' span) for such use. The 5-lb radio system was built by a group of local hams and the problem of obtaining a light but powerful enough engine for this plane prompted Ben to purchase a lathe and start teaching himself machine tool work. Since the aircraft builders had no radio license, they felt the FCC could be persuaded to set up a special category for R/C modeling (the long forerunner of our present R/C spots and the Citizen's Band). With a mockup of the radio gear they made the trek to Washington full of hope. But the FCC turned them down cold. This dampened enthusiasms considerably, so much so that while they completed the plane they never tried to fly it, but sold it to a radio amateur who could operate the R/C transmitter with the blessings of the FCC. By this time Ben had given up the idea of making a large single engine and the plane was fitted with two Brown Juniors (the first high quality large-production engine had just reached the hobby market). The two Browns were mounted tandem-fashion atop the wing.

The new owner of this huge model was Clinton DeSoto, a staff member of QST magazine. The acquisition probably started the QST staff on a line of R/C development that continued for several years, resulted in much worthwhile equipment (the R/C "gas tube" was developed by this group in cooperation with Raytheon). Ben's plane went up to Connecticut. DeSoto left QST shortly before WW -II to set up Radio Control Headquarters, the first concern devoted exclusively to marketing model R/C gear. Ben also designed a twin-boom pusher for RCH; it was flown at the 1938 Nats R/C event, but defective radio gear brought this competition entry to disaster. The pusher was later kitted by RCH, probably the very first R/C plane kit.

Having got nowhere with the FCC, Ben turned back to rubber and gas FF models, designed the Cavalier, worked with Berkeley Bill Effinger on the Buccaneer, also designed a line of $1 rubber Scale kit models for Berkeley.

By this time Ben had given up competition flying; he was too busy with model design, had become deeply involved in the Kresge (Newark N.J. department store) Aero Club, which sponsored the big Eastern States Meets each year. Ben C.D.'d all these meets. Meantime, he had become deeper involved in building model engines. The big engine for the R/C monster had never been finished, but he headed the other way, to engines just as small as he felt could possibly be made efficient. Says after many many tries he finally got one that would start. First of the really successful Bantam engines came about 1937, was a .15. Not having capital to purchase costly honing and lapping machinery, this engine used rings and was marketed from his cellar workshop. It won the Class A event at the 1939 Nats, was sold for about 2 years. In late '39 the famed rear-rotary Bantam .19 hit the market, was an immediate success. Ben could never sleep late those days, all the hot-shot competition flyers were beating on his door for parts, repairs, new powerplants.

Around this time Ben started teaching mechanical drawing, machine design and practice in the Newark high schools. Sometime in the late '30's he found time to design and build an extensive series of plane models for Air Trails (the A.T. Sportster and the Cloud Cruiser are examples). Also, with all these other activities, he was a flight instructor at the Jersey City airport.

With World War Two getting hotter, Ben faced a decision-continue teaching or go into full-time war work. The latter won out; he had by this time outgrown his cellar shop, so he set up a small local plant. Soon the plant was greatly expanded and he began development of what became his wartime specialty, co-axial connectors. The plant also produced precision gyro parts for Sperry.

No engines were built during the war. But just prior to this period Ben had turned out many commercial model plane designs, among them the Mercury, Ensign, Commodore and Baby Eaglet for Scientific Model (latter was one of' the first small Class A kit planes). Right after VE-Day, design was started on twin-cylinder engines to be used in "dynamically-similar" test work by Wright Field; quite a few of these twins powered R/C flying boats built by Consolidated. Some of these engines were produced by Ben's firm, still called Bantam Products, some by Herkimer Tool (the latter soon to start production of the OK line of model engines).

At war's end, Ben felt model engine manufacture would be more profitable than co-ax connector manufacture (and probably lots more fun), so he sold all his connector designs to firms which have since become giants in the electronics field. After just a few years the spark ignition engine field hit saturation. Plans to enlarge the Bantam to .24 cu. in. were shelved. Bantam Products designed several small industrial engines widely used by present lawnmower makers, but did not make them.

Ben co-operated with Ed Chamberlin on tests run with Bantam engines, using Ed's hot new "Liquid Dynamite" fuel. 'During one of these tests the spark plug wire became disconnected but the engine kept right on running. Thus came the modern glow plug. Champion spark plugs were converted to glow plugs by clipping the points and welding on tiny coils of nichrome wire. However, Ben feels the development of the platinum glow plug element by Ray Arden really made this style of ignition practical.

Not long after this Ben closed up Bantam Products and joined Ed Roberts at Junior Motors Corp. They had hoped to revive the famous pre-war engine line of this firm, developed among others' a tiny diesel called the Mini-Dee, one of the very first .049 engines. Around 1945 they designed a hot rotary disc valve Brown-Junior engine. But even up to 1950, Junior Motors was still tied up with military manufacture, and thus no new Brown Juniors ever reached the market. When Ben closed up Bantam, he sold his entire inventory of engines to Herkimer Tool, which continued to make the .19 engine along with their own OK designs.

Leaving Junior Motors in 1948, Ben and his brother-in-law formed the firm of Shereshaw & Swanson to develop and manufacture glow plugs; they turned out many millions, most of which went into OK engines. While helping to run S&S, Ben was also' engaged in other businesses devoted to military manufacture; some of this involved cryogenic (very low temperature) valve work for the X-15 rocket plane and the Fl Saturn-booster. cardfile/images/bantam_twin.jpg

Through the years 1962 and '63 Ben co-operated with Republic Aviation in developing the Bikini photographic drone, a small R/C reconnaissance plane for which his part was designing a twin-cylinder opposed engine. Final version weighed 4-lb, had 4 cu. in. displacement, produced 41 hp. Engine and plane designs were put into manufacture in early 1964. Ben credits his long model engine background for enabling him to develop the very light and successful Bikini engine. Along the way he dabbled in featherweight powerplants for hand-held garden tools, but never got beyond the early design and prototype stages.

The glow plug business continued right up into early 1964, at which time a new line of "heat-rated" plugs was introduced. Just after this, though, the partners split up and Ben joined Bronner Tool & Mfg. Co. in suburban N.J., a firm devoted entirely to military hardware manufacture. As might be imagined, though, there is a "model angle" to this firm. It is not surprising to learn that several of the higher-ups (including the president) are avid modelers. Ben will head the Bantam Division, has a nifty twin-cylinder .19 R/C engine ready to go, plans for several larger engines, plus a series of sleek R/C planes he hopes to kit. As plant manager of Bronner, he has a good chance of getting this program under way.

Also on the drawing board is a design for a scale-like model sailplane. Ben feels it would be very practical to build small glow-engined powered winches which could pull such a glider high into the air, if there were no good slope soaring sites nearby. With the precision R/C control we now have, it should be easy to keep the glider on the right heading during such a tow.

No longer an active model builder and flyer himself, Ben has passed his enthusiasm to son John (there are also two daughters in the family and a "model-compatible" wife), a 17-yearold who has had a good grounding in rubber flying, some microfilm, is now deep into multi R/C. What flying Ben does these days is in full-size planes; he has owned several. But he is full of model plane and engine ideas. Now if those military contractors would only leave him alone for a little while.