- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

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.

Clubs hold competitions throughout the year for everything from speed to distance to combat to aerobatics, on any field they can.

“The biggest thing we have to deal with is finding a place to fly,” says Andy Kane, president of the District of Columbia Radio Control Club, chartered in 1953 and the oldest in the area.

DCRC, with more than 200 members, currently flies out of Walt Good Flying Field in Germantown, named for the storied pioneer who in 1934 became the first person to fly a model plane by radio control.

The field is the latest in a long line of flying fields for DCRC. Most clubs have had to move more than once, to keep a few steps ahead of the region’s sprawl. The Loudoun County Aeromodelers’ field at Banshee Reeks Park in booming Leesburg, Va., for example, is the club’s seventh since its founding in 1989.

A guy thing

A day spent with one of the area’s RC aeromodelers’ clubs can put to rest any talk that the American landscape is becoming increasingly segregated by class and political persuasion.

“We get people from all walks of life,” says Freestate’s safety officer, Lee Harris. “It’s a hobby that crosses all sectors and allows people to come in and talk to each other.”

Just don’t expect to see a lot of women, except for the few wives and girlfriends who cluster on the sidelines with folding chairs and hampers during a fly-in or other special event. RC aeromodelers are a predominantly male bunch.

There’s as much buzz on the ground as there is in the skies, as club members review their building techniques, extol the virtues of a particular product, or parse the latest mishap.

“One of the reasons to join a club is that it can be so helpful, whether you are learning to fly or just want some expertise,” says Freestate’s Tom Saloman, who designs swimming pools.

One point to remember: Those specks you see in the sky or idling on the field are actual planes. They are just smaller than the ones at Washington Dulles International Airport or Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.

“We don’t say that these are just like real aircraft,” says Freestate President Kirk Adams. “These are real aircraft. We fly by the same laws of physics as they do.”

Keeping them aloft

So how do these things work? This is when it can be helpful to recall the high school lessons no one ever thought would have value in the real world.

Basically, here are the laws of aerodynamics in action, as force operates on the wings of the model aircraft and lets it fly. As the speed of the craft increases, pressure decreases and the plane actually becomes more difficult to fly. Lift pulls the plane up and weight pulls it down. Thrust pulls the aircraft forward and drag pulls it backward.

“This is a hobby that sparks a lot of interest in math and science and technology,” Mr. Adams says. “You learn as you go.”

Model aircraft can employ different types of fuel and power sources. Among the more popular is Glow, a combination of methanol and castor oil. Racers will add nitromethane for more speed. Other modelers may use kerosene with some other additive, regular gasoline, or even jet fuel.

Electric engines are increasingly popular, thanks to technological improvements that enable them to do just about anything a modeler could desire. Plus, they’re quieter.

The sky’s the limit

Whatever method or model a novice chooses, the price range and time commitment can be as steep as he needs it to be.

“You have people who are very frugal, and people who can spend up to $10,000 for a plane,” says Mr. Turner of PGRC.

“You’ve got people who will spend months building a model, and people who just want to get out there and fly and don’t really care what their plane looks like.”

And whether a ground-based pilot can actually keep them in the air has a lot to do with his skills, which should generally include good eye-hand coordination, a light touch and an ability to visualize himself in the cockpit, even if the whole plane is only 2 feet long.

Of course, there can be the occasional pitfall.

“We tell people not to fall in love with their planes,” says Mr. Turner. “There’s always a chance that you’ll end up with a garbage bag full of airplane pieces.”

Building them right

Model size is extremely varied. Wing spans can range from about 30 inches to around 16 feet. Weight varies, too, from about 1 pound to the weight limit of 55 pounds set by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the official national body for model aviation in the United States.

And as advances in technology have made possible better batteries and engines for electric planes, these have become more popular.

“You can now do just about anything with an electric plane that you can with Glow-powered model,” Mr. Adams says.

Builders still use balsa wood, along with Styrofoam and plastic. But the construction is high-tech, with particular types of glues and adhesives, sophisticated “skins” or coverings, and, of course, different types of fuel.

Some modelers insist on building their planes from scratch, using scaled-down blueprints of full-size planes. Others rely on ARFs, or “almost ready to fly” planes that require just a few basic connections. Some planes are even sold RTF, or “ready to fly,” complete with everything a pilot needs.

Whether home-built or RTF, some touches are unique. Mr. Turner has been known to chop the hair off his daughters’ discarded Barbie dolls for use on the pilot figures he inserts into his planes, which are known for their level of detail and (nonfunctional) guns and bombs.

Across the Atlantic

The modelers’ own model is Maynard Hill of Silver Spring, the 81-year-old “godfather of model aeroplaning” who in 2003 was the first to fly a model 1,900 miles across the Atlantic.

Mr. Hill’s craft, about 6½ feet long, had a 6-foot wing span and was made mostly of balsa wood, with a skin of Monokote, or plastic film. With a fueled weight of 11 pounds, it carried only about 5½ pounds of fuel.

Working from Newfoundland, the closest point on this continent to Europe, Mr. Hill used radio control to guide the plane to its cruising altitude of 1,000 feet, then switched to autopilot and GPS navigation for the journey to Mannin Beach, Ireland. There a colleague resumed radio control and landed the plane after 38 hours, 52 minutes and 14 seconds in the air.

“I’ve built models all my life,” says Mr. Hill, who in 1986 retired from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where he began as a metallurgist but went on to work on the designs of some of the earliest unmanned aircraft.

Despite being “legally blind and then some,” Mr. Hill still builds models in his Silver Spring basement with some of the same ingredients — balsa and glue — that he used as youngster newly inspired by stories of Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight.

Mr. Hill holds 25 world records in long-distance flying. Several of his planes are on display at the National Model Aviation Museum in Muncie, Ind.

He was attracted to the Washington area by the legendary Walter Good, for whom the Germantown field is named. Both Mr. Hill and Mr. Good were heavily involved in DCRC.

“He became my mentor and my hero,” Mr. Hill says of Mr. Good.

Workshops in the bedroom

Then there’s Garrie Taylor, from Landover. Mr. Taylor, who started building models in the early 1940s using stick models from 5-and-10-cent stores, converted an extra bedroom in his apartment into a workshop.

“I learned a lot from Maynard Hill and Dr. Good,” says Mr. Taylor, who joined the DCRC when the two were members. “Before that, I was more or less on my own.”

He recently built a model of a Hawker Sea Fury, a British carrier fighter plane that came out toward the end of World War II. The model, which weighs about 28 pounds, has operating flaps and retractable landing gear, just like the full-scale model.

“You’re basically flying this like a full-scale airplane,” Mr. Taylor says. “Unlike trainers, these planes don’t fly themselves.”

Bringing in the young

Inspiring the next generation is important to aeromodelers, who routinely sponsor Scout troops and boys’ and girls’ clubs in organized practices, and guide youngsters like Max Goron at fly-ins. And it pays off.

“Flying is such a rush,” says PGRC’s Jonathan Baker, 22, who learned to fly at the PGRC with his father, a club regular, and routinely races his planes at speeds topping 200 mph.

“I’m out there every weekend,” he says.

Mr. Baker has set several records for speed and is considered one of the hot shots of the industry. He’s also managed to parlay his interest in flying into a full-time job: He now works building unmanned aerial vehicles for Intellitech Microsystems in Bowie.

Of course, adults can try their hand at the buddy box, too. For anyone used to flying on a computer simulator, such an experience can be a revelation.

“It’s just so cool,” says Freestate’s Mr. Harris, who recently took up RC helicoptering. “There’s nothing like being able to fly.”

Plane hobbyists can join a club

Ready to fly? First bone up on the local clubs and their national organization, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The AMA is the official national body for model aviation in the United States.

The AMA sets guidelines for safety and aircraft specification and charters more than 2,500 clubs around the country. It provides clubs with liability insurance, and clubs then require AMA membership and certification for pilots. See modelaircraft.org.

Some Washington-area clubs specialize in aerobatics, others in distance, others in pylon racing (for which the Prince George’s County Radio Control Club is especially known). There’s a group that flies helicopters, another that flies electric aircraft only.

But few clubs confine themselves exclusively to one type of activity. And they all have experts with thousands of hours of flying time who are willing to help out a novice.

If you want to take a closer look at radio-controlled flight, most area clubs have events throughout the summer that are open to the public. Here’s a sampling. Keep in mind that clubs usually require AMA membership for pilots and they all offer flight training programs.

{bullet} Chesapeake Bay Radio Control Club: Field on Evergreen Road, Crownsville, Md. In operation since the mid-1950s. Primarily sport-flying. Flight training available. International Miniature Aerobatic Club Contest, 11 a.m. Aug. 25; 9 a.m. Aug. 26. See crabrag.com.

{bullet} District of Columbia Radio Control Club: Walt Good Flying Field, Schaeffer Road, Germantown. Chartered in 1953; more than 200 members. Training program for members. Model aviation flying camp for pilots 10 to 17, 8 a.m.-noon Aug. 13-17. See dc-rc.org.

{bullet} Freestate Aeromodelers: Konterra Model Airpark, Laurel. Chartered in 1980; more than 250 active members. Flight training for club members, Tuesday afternoons and evenings. World War I Fly In, 7 a.m-1 p.m. Aug. 4. See freestateaeromodelers.org.

{bullet} Frederick Model Aircraft Club: Warner Field, 5747 Elmer Derr Road, Frederick. Flight training available to members. FMAC Fun Fly, Aug. 4. See frederickmodelaircraftclub.org.

{bullet} Loudoun County Aeromodelers Association: Banshee Reeks Park, Leesburg, Va. Chartered 1989. Pilot training for club members. Electric Fly-in, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. July 28. Must be an AMA member to fly. See lcaa.org.

{bullet} Prince George’s Radio Control Club: Joe Solko Flying Field, Swanson Road, Bowie. Chartered 1964; about 200 members. Flight training program available. See pgrcclub.com.

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