They fly, feet never leaving the ground. Soar into the blue with only their imaginations in the cockpit. For those few minutes, there is nothing else. No thought of work or life’s worries. Just the airplane and the invisible thread that keeps it aloft – and will guide it back to earth in one piece – they hope. To the radio control pilots, model aircraft are labors of love. They’re embodiments of history, sacrifices of the wallet, and a test of craftsmanship and skills – all risked with the rev of a tiny throttle. And you thought those little airplanes were just toys.
When the weather blesses a weekend and the wind is agreeable, the men of the Tidewater Radio Control club make a beeline for the Wild Horse Flying Field, a strip of manicured grass off Ballahack Road in the croplands of southern Chesapeake.
TRC, the largest flying club in Hampton Roads, used to have more members, double the current 70 or so. Once, it even had a female flier, a rarity, in the ranks. But the economy and transfers – most members are current or former military – have taken a toll. Those who remain are eager to nurture newcomers.
“We’ll coach you,” says Mark Ward, a crane operator who lives in South Norfolk. “Otherwise, you’ll tear up too many aircraft and get frustrated.”
RC flying rarely takes hold without some help. The aircraft – at least the ones these guys fly – are expensive, in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. Quadruple that for a top-of-the-line, turbine-powered jet. But club members are quick to point out that it doesn’t have to cost anywhere near that much. A decent, ready-to-fly trainer can be had for around $200.
Most of the TRC men, though, have graduated to the big time, into large-scale replicas of real airplanes they build from kits or scratch. Or rescue and restore, like the Stearman PT-17 that Scott Vickery, the club’s president, counts as his favorite.
With a wingspan of 10 feet, it’s one-third the scale of the original biplane, a 1930s war bird. Weighing in at 40 pounds, powered by a 17-horsepower engine, it can scoot along at 120 mph, a yellow and black streak that buzzes like a weed wacker on steroids. Countless hours in Vickery’s garage went into rebuilding it – a meticulous process that calls for know-how in carpentry, electronics and aerodynamics, not to mention the historical research that helps get the look just right. At shows held across the country, models are judged on the smallest details, right down to the authentic number of rivets on a single wing.
“I like the building part more than flying,” says Vickery, a retired Coast Guard chief. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve lost my patience and thrown a few against the wall. But I’m the kind of guy who likes to keep his hands busy.” Those hands look plenty busy when he’s flying, too – or at least his thumbs do. They work tiny twin joysticks on a transmitter, sending signals to throttle, ailerons, elevators and rudder while his eyes never leave the airborne plane. Subtle adjustments make the Stearman roll, loop, dive and whistle by for a pass just off the grass before climbing, a speck against the clouds. Once, he coaxed the model to an altitude of 4,300 feet – a just-for-the-heck-of-it pinnacle recorded by an attached GPS.
“Real pilots come to the RC world all cocky, and then they crash,” he says. “Flying from outside the cockpit is a lot different than inside.” To be sure, RC pilots “come to grief” as well, as club members put it. A patch handed out at meetings is their only consolation – a SAD (Society of Aircraft Demolishers) tongue-in-cheek award.
Ruperto “Pert” Asiatico, retired Navy, has his share of SAD patches. “There are two kinds of RC fliers,” he says. “Those who have crashed and those who will crash. Or those who sit and BS and never leave the ground.” Not that anyone minds the socializing. Camaraderie is part of the appeal. “We sit around a campfire, drink beer and tell lies,” Vickery says. “Our wives put up with it. It keeps us out of the bars.”
There’s also an element of danger. Bigger models can weigh 60 pounds or more, so a loss of control can lead to serious injuries. Vickery remembers a time when one got away from him. It bounced off a car and skimmed a fellow flier, slicing open his scalp. Vickery grabbed a towel, applying pressure to the wound until an ambulance arrived – first aid the medics later said had kept the man from bleeding to death.
“I was flying something that was out of my league,” Vickery says. “Good thing the guy was a flier. He understood it was just an accident. Just part of the deal.”
Operator error aside, planes can suffer all sorts of airborne troubles. With a range of up to a mile, most planes are equipped with a cut-off switch that automatically kicks in if radio contact fails, or that can be triggered by the pilot if an engine sputters or a strut collapses. The switch kills the engine and adjusts flaps to help avoid the model’s ultimate enemy – a nose-down, full-throttle impact with the ground. It’s a heartbreaker every flier knows, when there’s nothing left to do but track down the wreckage in the hopes of salvaging parts. Motors can run $700. A set of miniature tires and rims? About $600.
Clubs like TRC provide much-needed open airspace. Annual dues of $100 help cover the cost of the field – upkeep, insurance and rent to the landowner – and membership in the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a national sanctioning body with 150,000 members in 2,500 clubs, six of them in this corner of Virginia.
The academy sponsors events and keeps an eye on legislation that could threaten the sport. Drone laws are the latest hot topic. RC aircraft could be swept up in concerns about UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles – and their use for unwanted surveillance or worse. Club member Andy Hellmann works for a UAV outfit based in Tennessee. “The feds are worried about the use of RC as a weapon,” he says. “When the president comes to town, we get the same notice as other aviators. No flying within a 30-mile range.” Hellmann lives in Virginia Beach and owns at least a dozen RC aircraft: “I’ve been drawing pictures of planes since I was a kid. Aviation just gets in your blood, and this is a way to fly without a real plane or a license.”
Competitions and expos are held across the globe, events chock full of categories and niches for performance or display. Aerial skills are graded on a list of maneuvers accomplished within the boundaries of “the box” – a defined flying space. Please don’t make the mistake of calling that Ken-sized pilot in the replica cockpit a doll. Asiatico’s eyebrows shoot skyward at the slip-up. “This ain’t no doll,” he firmly corrects.
Like a lot of military retirees, Asiatico is on a second career with the service, as a civilian systems engineer at Dam Neck. “During the day, you’re dreaming about time in your shed, thinking about what you’re going to work on that night. I don’t worry about what I’ll do when I really retire. I already know.”
After all that labor, a typical flight lasts only 10 minutes, and a stiff cross-wind at the field will cancel even that, keeping a favorite plane cowering in its trailer. Advanced fliers usually have those, too – tow-behinds that can accommodate carefully packed bigger models.
It’s a scale that’s growing all the time, thanks to rapidly improving electronics and materials. Models are now pushing the envelope on weight limits set by the Federal Aviation Administration, requiring waivers. A video on YouTube shows a 463-pound replica of the B-29 Superfortress with a wingspan of nearly 30 feet.
War birds do enjoy special status at TRC. The club sponsors the annual Mid-Atlantic World War I Dawn Patrol scheduled this year for Oct. 3 through 6 at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. Past patrols have featured dogfights, complete with the rat-a-tat sound of guns and the smoke of death spirals.
But even among war bird fans, fliers have their druthers. Some shun models of enemy planes. Vickery stays away from replicas of individual aircraft that met bad fates. “If the pilot died, I don’t build them,” he says. “It’s just my thing.” Ward isn’t beholden to such notions. A swastika brands the tail of his Stuka, as it did on the real German fighter of World War II. “My other hobby is restoring old cars, but I got bored with car shows,” he says. “Nothing ever moves. Flying – now that’s entertaining. And the crashes? We rate ’em. They’re all spectacular to watch.”