Taking flight with model airplanes

by | Apr 6, 2018 | Alumni Profiles, Spring 2018 | 0 comments

When Eugene McMahan ’49 was seven years old, he spent his time building 10-cent model airplanes from tissue paper. It took him about a month to build each plane, and then he would throw them out his second-story bedroom window. Only a few would actually fly, but that never discouraged him. 

McMahan bought his first model airplane engine as a teenager. His father was a pharmacist who owned a drug store, and McMahan was tasked with cleaning the shelves after class at Wheat Ridge High School. 

“I spent a week cleaning shelves, and when I was finished, [my father] took me to the cash register and handed me a $10 bill,” McMahan said. “I took that $10 down to the hobby shop on Welton Street in Denver, and I saw this model airplane engine for $10. I bought it, eventually putting it in an airplane I built, and didn’t fly it until years later.”

After graduating from Mines with a professional degree in geology, McMahan spent his entire career with Shell Oil Company’s seismic crew. Even while working in Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Dakota and Texas, McMahan carried his love for model airplanes from state to state. 

One of McMahan’s favorite moments took place in the 1960s as he flew his first radio-controlled airplane near a forest in the New Orleans swampland. The engine stopped midflight and the plane disappeared into the woods. 

“I went out to look for it, but the forest was so thick that you couldn’t see five or 10 feet this way or that way” McMahan said. 

He went to a local airport and asked a pilot to fly him above the forest. “I told him we might be able to see from up above,” McMahan explained. “We looked and looked and looked. We didn’t find it.”

McMahan considered the plane a loss until a month later when he received a telephone call. A man hunting squirrels had spotted McMahan’s airplane in the treetops of the same forest where it had gone missing weeks earlier. The airplane had landed without crashing, and the man climbed up the tree to retrieve it. Because McMahan’s contact information was written inside the plane, the man was able to track him down. McMahan was reunited with the plane and continued to fly it for years. He still has the radio today.

McMahan also has a few free-flight model airplanes. He sparks the engine and throws them into the air with some fuel, and they fly all by themselves without any external control after launch. 

A couple of years ago, he built an ambitious four-engine airplane with a 14-foot wingspan, which he says is very easy to fly despite the fact it is so complicated. 

Today, McMahan is an active member of the Arvada Modelers Association, an organization of over 300 members that owns a field off Highway 93, between Boulder and Golden. They fly their model airplanes from a concrete runway on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the summer.

“The concrete runway is just a beautiful place to fly,” McMahan said. “Much better than the forest back in
New Orleans.”


McMahan goes to a jeweler in downtown Golden once a year—not to purchase anything for himself, but to order a silver coin for the most recent recipient of the Eugene C. McMahan Endowed Scholarship.

McMahan had the first silver coin made in memory of his oldest daughter, Teresa, who died of lupus-related complications in 1994. He gave the coin to his first scholarship recipient at CU’s School of Pharmacy. Since then, his scholarship fund at Mines has provided a four-year award for an entering freshman who was a top high school graduate. First preference is given to graduates of Wheat Ridge High School.

Currently, four students benefit from McMahan’s scholarship, and a total of 21 students have benefited from the fund over the years. The first scholarship was awarded in 1999, and $354,037 has been given since the fund was created.

McMahan supports his alma mater regularly, and after 39 years of giving, he is now Mines’ longest-living continuous donor.