- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

HAMMOND, La. (AP) - Planes dipped, soared and looped through the air over a field along C.M. Fagan Drive. Their pilots stood with eyes skyward, thumbs deftly maneuvering joysticks on boxy controllers.

A dozen more people sat on tailgates and camping chairs watching the machines zip through the air on a recent Saturday, while a small group of children played in the clover-covered field.

The remote-controlled crafts ranged from simple Styrofoam jets to nitro-powered helicopters and the pilots from children to seniors.

Chris “Fawlks” Fox, Hammond Park Flyers Club safety officer, said he and Wayne “Bulldog” Hill, started the 30-person group. They met through a private model club, the Tangi RC Flyers Association, but wanted to get more people interested in the science and fun of flying.

“We’ve been in the works since Sept. 8,” said Fox, who started his flying career by jumping out of a tree with a parachute at 5 years old. “The Tangi Flyers is an excellent expert club, but they’re a members-only organization. We’re a teaching club that’s community-oriented. It’s a way for us to give something back to the community - something that’s unique.”

Located on 30 acres of city property, the four-acre park is free and open to the public. Mayor Mayson Foster gave the club permission to use it. The club maintains the land and has divided it into four zones - a rocket park, helicopter and quad airspace, three runways and fixed wing airspace, and a no-fly zone for a model car track.

They have dubbed it the “Helen Ricketts Rownd Model Airfield” after a local World War II veteran who served for four years as a military pilot in the Women’s Army Air Corps. She returned to Hammond and was one of the founding members of the Civil Air Patrol while teaching math in the Hammond School System for 23 years.

“We picked her because she’s an aviator and an educator, and we hope to contribute as much as she did,” Fox said. “She’s 94, a double amputee and a really wonderful person.”

Anyone can try out a beginner plane, which has a second remote control operated by an expert club pilot for safety. The public is also welcome to come out as spectators and ask the pilots about their aircraft.

Fox says the pilots are very friendly and are always happy to talk about their hobby.

Club members pay $25 a year dues and must log at least four hours of community service to remain active, but membership is required only for adults who want to fly their own planes at the park.

Anyone under the age of 20 can join for free, and may use their own planes or the club’s.

“There’s a joy in flight, something we all experience when we watch birds or clouds,” Fox said. “There’s a joy in a child’s face the first time they put an aircraft up and they’re in control. It’s such a wonderful toy. It’s fuel for the imagination, and it’s reaching up to a higher level both spiritually and scientifically.”

Members of the club have a handful of Firebird Delta Rays, a Styrofoam plane with a computer-assisted flight envelope that allows the plane to “sense” where the ground is and level itself out, Fox said.

The Firebird also has three levels of computer assistance: beginning, intermediate and expert, the last of which has no computer assistance for the pilot. Beginners partner with a club member so control can be passed back and forth for safety and training.

Children as young as 5 years old can operate these planes with the help of a parent and club member partner.

“We want it to be a family experience, so we have a parent or older sibling sit in the chair and assist them in the operation and share in the experience,” he said.

The park flyers generally pilot planes that weigh under 2 pounds, have a 24- to 36-inch wingspan and can fly up to 35 mph.

“They’re easy to maneuver and control,” Fox said.

Once children have flown alone or “soloed,” usually at about 10 years of age, they can get certified by the flight safety instructor to operate any qualifying aircraft that has passed the club safety inspection.

The only restrictions are that the aircraft must be electric-powered and operate within the 2.4-gigahertz frequency range.

“The most advanced aircraft we have out there right now are in the electric helicopter class,” Fox said. “It includes rotary wing aircraft, which can be a single or co-axial main rotor as well as the new class of quad-copters, which uses four small propellers to fly, just like a drone.”

The club is starting to accept new members of any age. Interested people can show up on any flight day at the park to get started. “We’re curious beings,” Fox said. “Humans are curious. We reach out. Flight is the ultimate extension of man’s dreams.”

Flight days and times are usually every weekend, weather permitting, but the schedule is posted at Hammond Park Flyers Club on Facebook.

“There are only three W’s that keep us from flying,” Fox joked. “Work, wives and wrecks.”

___

Information from: The Daily Star, https://www.hammondstar.com


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