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I have been in the RC hobby for a long time and one thing that has
always bothered me was that it has been next to impossible to find
realistic looking pilot figures. I had always thought that many
of the pilot figures available simply weren't molded in a manner
that made them look like real-life humans or the painting on them
wasn't realistic. Many of the figures out there would be painted
with a uniform "flesh" color which is far from realistic.
If you stop and take some time to study what a human face looks
like you will see that it is far from being a uniform color, so
why would having a pilot figure with a single color be realistic?
This just drove me crazy to the point that I went on a search to
try and find more realistic looking pilot figures. Then a few years
ago I was covering Top Gun for RC Universe when I spotted a pilot
figure (the figure was Pappy Boyington pictured to the right) in
one of the planes competing and it was so realistic looking that
I just couldn't take my eyes off of it. The colors in the face were
painted so realistic that the pilot looked very lifelike, and the
details of the rest of the pilots uniform and gear just looked like
the builder of a the plane had taken a real person and "shrunk"
him to the size to fit into his cockpit. I had to know where this
pilot came from. When I finally got to talk to the owner of the
plane I asked him where the pilot came from. Since I had never seen
one so lifelike I was expecting to hear that he had hand carved
the pilot and it wouldn't be available on the market, but to my
surprise he informed me that it came from a company called Best
Pilots. Fast forward to later that year when I was covering
Over the Rockies and I saw a banner hanging for Best Pilots,
so I went looking for the source of the banner. To my surprise I
found that the owner of that company, Lyle Vasser, was actually
at the Warbird event flying and was also there selling his pilots.
Since I was so impressed with his pilots I had to find out more
about them, more about Best Pilots, and more about Lyle. I discovered
that Lyle actually lived not far from where my mom lives in Missouri
so we had a lot in common. Since that time Lyle and I have started
up a friendship that goes beyond a professional interest that both
of us have in the hobby. As I set out to do this series of Industry
Profiles I immediately thought of Lyle. I think that he has a fantastic
product and I wanted to let the world know about it. So, with no
further ado let's take a look at Lyle and Best Pilots and what they
have to offer the hobby.
Pilots Product Spotlight
Please check out Best Pilots newest product Saburo Sakai 1/5 Scale WWII Japanese
This pilot would be the perfect addition for Top Flite's
newest plane, the
Top Flite A6M Zero
To me the perfect first question to ask Lyle was why he named
his company "Best Pilots"? What's behind that name?
Lyle's answer was that he wanted to do exactly what the name implies.
e wants to produce the best pilot figures available on the market
today. He got his start when Lyle and his father were building
a Ziroli B-25 from plans and they looked around for pilot figures
for the plane. Like many scale builders out there Lyle felt that
it's simply a crime to have a great looking scale airplane model
and not have pilot figures that look realistic in it. And like
I mentioned earlier, most of what is out there on the market just
doesn't look realistic. So Lyle told his dad that he thought that
he could come up with pilot figures that would be better than
what was on the market at that time. Lyle has a background in
art, which included a stint as a courtroom sketch artist, and
he was pretty sure that he could make the figures for their bomber.
After a few tries Lyle finally produced a pilot and co-pilot figure
that he felt were realistic enough to go into his B-25 and looked
good in the cockpit. As Lyle started traveling around events the
country to fly in Warbird events people started to take notice
of his pilots, and of course one of the first questions asked
was "where can I get pilots that look like that?" Of
course those questions turned to disappointment when they found
out that they weren't available anywhere because Lyle had made
them himself. But the more that Lyle answered those questions
the more it got the gears in his head turning that there was a
need out there that he could possibly fill, so he set out to see
if he could turn what was a need for a couple of pilot figures
in a B-25 into a business for pilot figures for everybody in need
of high quality scale pilot figures. Lyle quickly saw a need in
the hobby that has been unmet for a long time and he felt that
he could fill that need with his skills, and with those skills
Bests Pilots was born.
Lyle had started down the road of coming up with a way of producing
pilot/crew figures that looked realistic and were up to his standards,
but this led up to his next bump in the road. The first figures
that he produced were turning out to be very heavy. Now those of
us out there that have ever built a warbird will know that more
often than not our planes are going to be on the heavy side to start
with, and the last thing we want to do is add in a heavy pilot figure.
So Lyle turned to his dad and they tackled the problem together
to try to solve the weight issue and see if they could come up with
a solution that would let them get all the details Lyle wanted in
his figures but not all the added weight. Now I'm a HUGE fan of
the show Modern Marvels and I love some of their shows where they
show manufacturing processes for name brands of foods, products,
cars, and various other items. They get to the point where they
show the manufacturing processes and then they said "We can't
show you how we do this because it's 'Proprietary Information'!"
Well, unfortunately I've been sworn to secrecy by Lyle on his manufacturing
process and I can't reveal it here, but he say he would allow me
to say it's similar to how chocolate easter bunnies are made. Other
than that I can't say more about what goes into making Best Pilot
figures other than the fact that they are very light weight and
they will not add a lot of extra dead weight to your aircraft!
I spent time with Lyle learning about his pilots it quickly became
clear to me that all of the pilot figures, with the exception of
his first two bomber pilot figures, are all based off of real life
pilots. "Pappy" Boyington (1/5 scale, WWII American pilot
), Bob Sweeney (1/5 scale, WWII American pilot), "Sailor"
Malan (1/5 scale, WWII English pilot), Gunther Rall (1/5 scale,
WWII German pilot), Lother von Richtofen (1/4 scale, WWI German
pilot), an Lyle's newest pilot Saburo Sakai (1/4 scale, WWII Japanese
pilot). My question to Lyle was why he wanted to base his figures
on real life pilots, and Lyle's answer back to me was "why
not?" He went on to explain that basing the pilot figures on
real life people helps him bring them to life as he is working to
capture the "spirit" of the pilot when he carves the molds.
Lyle explained that first he will look at the needs of a figure.
For instance, he will want a pilot to go into a 1/5 scale P-47 or
a World War 1 1/4 scale pilot. After he finds the general area for
a pilot he will then start looking for a specific pilot to fill
those needs. He tries to find pilots that have history that is easy
to research and that there are more than one or two pictures of
in order to make carving the pilot figures easier.
thing that I discovered when I was talking to Lyle was that
Lyle has actually struck up a friendship with one of his subjects,
Bob Sweeney. Bob lives not far from Lyle so he got to meet
him as he was doing his research. Lyle tells me that Bob loves
the thought of having little figures of himself flying around
in RC planes all over the world. Lyle also tells me that Bob
is in his 90's and is still out on the roads driving his Corvette.
Well I guess you can never quite take the fighter pilot out
neat factoid that Lyle was telling me comes from his research
for his Lother von Richthofen figure. Lyle eventually got
in touch with the family of Lothar who now lives in the
United States. One day Lyle was opening up his email and
he looked at his inbox and saw the "From" address
said "von Ricthofen" and it dawned on him the
historic significance of it.
having a lifelike face on a pilot is a good first step, it's only
one part of many that makes up a good looking lifelike figure. The
pilot figures that go into the cockpits of our warbirds are also
made up of the clothing and equipment worn by the pilot when he
flew into combat. And that is also a huge part of what Lyle does
to "get it right" when he makes a pilot figure. He will
put literally hours upon hours into researching the clothing and
equipment worn and used by his pilots. He will use many different
sources to get correct what was used by the pilots and then carves
that into his figures. In fact, when doing research on his "Sailor"
Malan figure a historian looked at Lyle's figure and congratulated
him on getting it right. He was referring to the straps on the flying
helmet of the figure and that Lyle had molded it with the strap
of the flying goggles over the snaps that are on the helmet. Lyle
molded it this way because the pictures he was working from had
it that way, but at the time he didn't know why. The historian informed
him that they wore the goggles that way because if they needed to
bail out of the plane they would need to get rid of their goggles
in an hurry, and if they were strapped to the helmet they wouldn't
be able to get them off in a hurry. But this just goes to show the
amount of detail that goes into the carving of each figure. Lyle's
goal is to ensure his figures are wearing the same equipment that
the real life pilots wore when they went on their missions.
The saying goes "The devil is in the details", and that
is another part of what makes Best Pilots stand above everything
else out there on the market today. How many of us hasn't seen "cheaper"
pilot figures that has just a brown painted "bomber jacket"
that many times is more comical than anything else? Be honest with
me here, you all know what I'm talking about here, and we've all
been there before. There have been times that I've actually opted
out of even putting a figure in the cockpit of a plane simply because
I just couldn't find a pilot figure that even came close to looking
marginally lifelike. With Lyle having a background in Graphic Arts
and actually doing time as a Courtroom Artist I asked him what the
problem here is. He was quick with the answer, and if you really
stop to think about it the answer is really obvious. Nothing in
nature is one simple color. Back when I was a young kid I started
building plastic models and I had a bottle of paint called "Flesh",
and whenever I was painting figures that was what I used to paint
the faces and any skin. But as you can guess it always turned out
looking dreadful. That's because it's what I was just saying, nothing
in nature is one single monotone color. If you don't know what I'm
talking about try sitting in a mall, or any other area where a lot
of people gather, and watch the people and you will notice that
a persons face is far from a single color. Things such as shadows,
differing skin tones, beard stubble, and many other factors add
to making the human face a multi-color area that needs to be painted
with techniques designed to replicate those differing shades. As
I sat and watched Lyle work on the face of the pilot he was painting
it was obvious that he took a lot of pride in what he was doing,
and it was clear that he knew what he was doing. I've been building
one form of models myself for going on 40 some odd years now
and I'm here to tell you that my jaw was scraping the floor watching
what Lyle was doing with his paint brush. It was clear that he enjoyed
bringing lumps of clay to life in the cockpit of an airplane.
Lyle has spent a lot of time studying people and has many methods
to replicate that in his figures, and it shows when he delivers
a pilot figure to his customers. He offers his figures both painted
and unpainted. Many people prefer to paint their own figures so
they can buy them from Lyle unpainted. But for those many people
out there that don't have the ability to paint a figure to the
lifelike standard that Lyle uses they can always pay a little
bit more and have the figures painted for them by Lyle. The choice
is up to the end user and Lyle will give the same great customer
service either way. But with the building season in full tilt
right now it may take a bit longer to get a pilot in if you have
Lyle paint it for you. But Lyle promised me that he would stay
up all night and burn the midnight oil if he needed to in order
to get all his orders filled. Lyle's commitment to his customers
is probably one of the best that I have ever seen and he does
everything he can to make sure his customers are well taken care
The faces are just part of what goes into the painting of these
figures. The clothing and equipment are like faces in that they
aren't a single color. Shading, shadows, wear and tear, stains,
and many other factors need to be be replicated in the painting
of a figure. Lyle has developed many techniques for painting the
clothing and equipment to make it look as realistic as possible.
He uses many different materials ranging from paint to colored
pencils to powdered chalk that he applies in different techniques
that bring realism to the different parts of the figures.
we progressed in our talks I noticed that all of the World War
II figures were 1/5 scale and the World War I figures were 1/4
scale, so I asked Lyle about the sizes of his figures. His answer
was simple, that's where the market is right now. As far as the
WWI figures go, 1/4 scale birds are what's being flown the most
right now. Many of the Balsa USA 1/4 WWI planes are some of the
most popular planes at the moment, and that is the target audience
that Lyle is going for. The same thing goes for WWII planes, 1/5
scale are the largest segment of the planes available at the moment.
And that's where he is putting out pilots for that scale. When
I asked him about 1/4 scale WWII pilots his answer was that he
isn't ruling it out, but for right now the money just isn't there
to put out a pilot that size. His conservative estimate is that
it costs him $500-$1,000 to develop a pilot figure, and if the
sales aren't there to make it worthwhile he's simply not in a
position to do it. Another factor that goes into developing pilots
is the time involved with putting a figure out. There are only
so many hours in a day and he's got to prioritize what he's going
to do next. Now these factors don't mean that he will never put
out figures in different sizes, but he's got to look at it and
decide what's next. When I interviewed him Lyle was finishing
up his 1/5 scale Japanese pilot, which is out on the market now.
When I asked him what's next after that he shrugged and told me
he's not sure, maybe a 1/4 scale WWI American or British pilot.
But he wasn't sure what he was going to do next. One thing he
did say was that he's going to go where the market takes him,
so if people are looking for something they definitely need to
get in contact with Lyle. Lyle also let me know that he's planning
on moving into doing some civilian figures as an additional line.
So keep an eye out for those for sure.
Figures Mounted in Top Flite ARF's
we visited I got around to telling Lyle that I am planning 2
1/4 scale WWI builds that I need pilot figures for. I am planning
on building a Fokker D-VII and also an Eindecker E. III
and that I want to paint them both in the scheme that
Ernst Udet had. So I asked him if he would be able to produce
something that looked similar to what Udet looked like. Lyle
looked at me and said that not only could he get close to what
Ernst Udet looked like, he could get EXACTLY Udet's face on
the pilot figure. Actually, he told me that he could put anybody's
face on one of his figures. Using a 3D printer he is able to
print out a custom head for one of his figures. So for many
modelers like myself who have always imagined ourselves in the
cockpit of our planes we can now actually accomplish that.
Lyle can put anybody's face on a figure and that can go into
the cockpit! For anybody interested in getting a custom face
on a figure you will definitely need to contact Lyle in order
to make sure you know what he is going to need in order to do
it for you. Lyle will tell you exactly what he's going to need
so that he can replicate your (or somebody else's) face on a
pilot figure. Lyle has already sold quite a few of these custom
figures and he's sure to sell quite a few more as the word gets
really could sit here and write for pages and pages about Lyle
and his pilot figures, but in all honesty the best source for
all this information would be straight from Lyle himself. I
invite you to take the time to sit down and watch my interview
with him below to see what he has to offer the hobby. Lyle is
a true artist and once you see his pilot figures you'll never
look at a scale cockpit the same way again!
right in the middle of "The building season" right
now, so that makes it a perfect time for everybody to start
thinking about getting a pilot for that plane they plan on putting
in the air this summer. I know that many people may have already
made plans for a pilot figure to go into their plane, but having
seen Lyle's work, I can highly recommend that it would be well
worth it to rethink that choice and take a look at what Lyle
has to offer. The nice thing about Best Pilot's figures is that
they aren't limited to just those kit built planes out there.
Any plane could benefit, including many of the most popular
ARF's on the market today. Lyle's dedication to provide our
hobby with the "Best Pilot's" out there really does
benefit all of us out there flying and I can't urge everybody
enough to take a look at what he has to offer. Once you have
seen his pilots you'll never look at anything else again!
The comments, observations and conclusions made in this review are solely with respect to the particular item the editor reviewed and may not apply generally to similar products by the manufacturer. We cannot be responsible for any manufacturer defects in workmanship or other deficiencies in products like the one featured in the review.