Model airplane pilots remotely rule the skies

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Young Max Goron’s fingers, clutching the levers on a control box about the size of a video-game console, are shaking — just a bit.”Oops, you’re upside down,” an instructor in the art of radio-controlled aircraft guidance tells him as they stand together at the Konterra Model Airpark in Laurel, where the Freestate Aeromodelers club is holding its “Airplanes of the World” fly-in.

“Don’t worry — I got you,” the instructor says.

Look up and you’ll see the cause of the 8-year-old’s consternation: It’s a model plane, now a small speck against the sky hundreds of feet above him, and he’s trying to maneuver it using only these levers and buttons.

Luckily for Max, and for his aircraft, his instructor wields a “buddy box” — a set of identical controls connected to a student’s that allows the coach to override the young pilot as easily as a driving teacher takes over from a nervous teenager about to hit the curb.

“I think I did pretty good,” says the youngster from Laurel once his aircraft, a basic version of a model airplane called a “trainer,” is safely on the ground. “It was really fun — I’ve never really flown before.”

A unique hobby

The chance to work with a qualified instructor is a big draw for the fans of radio-controlled aircraft who come to fly-ins such as this, Freestate’s third annual event. By taking up a trainer as Max did, they can practice some of the same maneuvers the pros do.

And with the added reassurance of the buddy box, they needn’t fear crippling the small planes they pilot — a key factor in today’s world of remote-controlled model aircraft, where most models start at about $300.

It’s true: Model airplanes have come a long way since the days of balsa wood and rubber bands. Increasingly sophisticated technologies and new fuel sources have allowed the hobby to capture a range of enthusiasts from truck drivers to three-star generals.

And those fans see the remote piloting of scale-model aircraft as a hobby that’s unique, even within the small world of radio-controlled miniatures.

“There are other radio-control clubs around, for cars and trains and that sort of thing, but we’re the only people who tempt fate by challenging gravity,” says Dave Turner, a woodworker who is president of the Prince George's Radio Control Club (PGRC).

“It’s hard to express the feeling you get when you fly. It’s one of the few things that adults can do that gets your heart beating faster.”

And that’s just when flying a model. Alan Goodman, safety officer of the PGRC — to which Air Force Lt. Gen. Raymond Johns Jr. belongs — estimates that “maybe” five to six percent of his club’s members are also licensed pilots of full-scale aircraft. He believes that percentage would probably hold true across all the clubs in the area.

Finding a home

The hobby is particularly popular in the Greater Washington area, where RC — for “remote control” — clubs dot the region and weekends are filled with the buzz of airborne engines.

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