Fantasies of flight
August 3, 2005
It was early June when we sloshed across Tom Moore’s soggy, irrigated pasture on McClain Flats. Snow mantled the Elk Range in gleaming white against the deep blue of a classic Colorado sky. The air buzzed with excitement – literally – as an air show was in progress on Moore’s personal airstrip.
Moore, a rancher and avid radio-control flyer, shows the lengths to which model airplane enthusiasts will go to further their sport. Moore paved his own model airplane runway years ago and occasionally hosts fly-ins with other local pilots, who gather at the narrow strip of asphalt in the middle of his hay meadow.As my 12-year-old son, Tait, and I approached the field, we heard the growling whir of an electric-powered A-10 Warthog doing spins and rolls less than 20 feet off the ground. The plane flew directly at us, then rocketed straight up over our heads, climbing in tight corkscrew rolls. I felt like Gulliver in the militarized zone of Lilliput.
Later, Luke Murphy launched his huge, 10-foot-wingspan glider and soon had it soaring over Shale Bluffs. Then came a flyby from a real soaring plane piloted by Dieter Bibbig, who disappeared into the clouds. The show culminated with the spectacular crash of a balsa plane that shattered nose first into the ground and had to be picked up in several armloads. Such are the thrills and spills of radio-controlled flight, a hobby that melds model airplanes with sophisticated technology in a real, live fantasy.
Tait and I had received our first real exposure to radio-controlled (RC) airplanes at the Sunnyside Aviation Club. Based in Rifle and Glenwood Springs, the Sunnyside Club has a dirt strip high in a meadow near the Spring Valley campus of Colorado Mountain College. We arrived there unannounced as first-time flyers in May with our brand-new, gas-powered trainer and a serious case of the jitters.Our plane, with its 54-inch wingspan and half-horsepower nitro-fuel engine, was untested and untrimmed, so we needed help adjusting the flaps and getting it into the air. Tait and I had both flown on the computer flight simulator that came with the plane but lacked the confidence to get our plane airborne without the assistance of a pro. That’s when we met Jim McDonald, an accommodating Sunnyside Club member.”You want to get that thing up in the air?” he offered, taking time from his own squadron of gas-powered planes.”Yep,” we gulped.
After giving our trainer the once-over, Jim got the engine started, tested the elevator, rudder and ailerons, then taxied her across the rutted dirt strip. Once he had the plane in position, Jim gunned the motor, and our plane bounced perilously across the runway. We held our breath as it lifted off, climbed, banked, climbed higher and then roared overheard like Sky King.”Here, you take it,” said Jim, thrusting the radio controller into Tait’s hands. “Remember, subtle stick movements. No sudden jerks.”Tait’s hands were shaking visibly as he worked the controller. He circled the plane several times, eyes glued upward, his every nerve focused on that plane.”You take it, Dad,” he said, and suddenly I was flying, connected to the plane by a tenuous electronic thread. Jim coached me through some figure eights, but as I brought the plane around for my second pattern, a huge shadow clouded my periphery. A full-scale Cessna had taken off from the nearby Glenwood Springs airport and roared low over the ridge at about the same elevation as our trainer.
Jim cautioned me to bring it lower, which I somehow did without crashing it, and the Cessna passed. We swapped the controller again, and Tait flew a few more circles before Jim brought the plane down for a perfect landing. Tait and I had been as anxious as space shuttle commanders with loose protective tiles and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now we knew the fascination – that special blend of fear and elation – that makes radio-controlled flying such a high.
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Most RC pilots fly either gas or electric planes. There are jets, but they’re way too advanced for this novice to describe, let alone fly. The Sunnyside pilots we met – Jim, Paul and Joe – became our gas-powered role models (or is that roll models?). They fly big, heavy, powerful planes, highlighted by Jim’s huge quarter-scale model that could handle a house cat for a passenger.Electric planes are generally smaller, lighter, quieter and more sensitive to wind than the heavier gas jobs. Also known as “park flyers,” electrics frequent Tom Moore’s strip, the Marolt field in Aspen and practically any open space where there’s room to fly.Since that first flight three months ago, the Andersen Air Force now includes our gas trainer and three electrics. Craig Angus, an Aspen psychologist with a passion for RC planes, mentored us in serious electric flight with a remarkable plane called the Easy Star. Made of the same durable foam used in car dashboards, this light, forgiving plane soars like a hawk. Angus, who offers an experiential education course at Aspen High School called “Flying, Soaring and Paragliding,” has altered the power system to prolong flights for up to an hour.At Moore’s airstrip, Tait had his first flight with an Easy Star, owned by his friend Cooper Means. The plane climbed into a thermal over Star Mesa and just hung there. The boys swapped the controls as the plane rode an updraft 1,000 feet overhead, circling effortlessly for half an hour – without motor assist. Now, whenever Tait sees our resident golden eagle float, stall and dive for ground squirrels, he studies its every move. Flying has become a lesson in aviary acrobatics, where the envy is all ours.
Electrics predominate the Moore and Marolt fields, but at the Sunnyside’s CMC strip, it’s all big, gas-powered planes that beat the air with their props like a thousand angry hornets. Every Saturday is an impromptu air show, where local pilots show their stuff. One day, Tait and I watched Joe launch his trick plane. He knelt down and held it by the tail until the engine was fully revved, then let go. Suddenly, the plane was in the air, hovering vertically 10 feet off the ground like a giant hummingbird. Several stunts later, and Joe’s plane impacted the ground with a sickening crunch.”Well, I guess I’ll be gluing tonight,” Joe smirked, unfazed by the broken engine mount and twisted landing gear. “Almost anything can be fixed,” he reassured us, “and believe me, I’ve seen some bad crashes.”Good RC flying is a matter of calm nerves and movements of mere millimeters on the control sticks. The ideal recipe for disaster is a panicked pilot with a crude touch on the controller. Most planes are repairable with a specialty modeling glue that can bond your fingers together in a split second if you’re not careful. (I know – I’ve done it.) Foam planes are easier to fix than balsa-wood planes, so that’s what most novices fly.
When a high-performance plane – gas or electric – is flown by a seasoned veteran, it is a sight to behold. At the Moore strip we watched Luke Murphy navigate a flying wing with superb control. He flew the plane directly at his head, going 40 mph. Then, just before decapitation, Luke pulled up on the control stick and the scythelike wing suddenly swept skyward, looped back around and came at him again. “Wow!” said Tait. “When can I get one of those?”
And that’s what makes RC flying such an addiction. There is always that dream plane waiting in the wings, so to speak, a high-performance aircraft that will make your flying dreams come true. Totally bitten by the RC bug, Tait and I recently ordered a glider with a 71-inch wingspan and a six-channel radio system. That means several hundred dollars invested in a plane that we hope – palms sweating and hearts beating wildly – will somehow defy the most primal forces of all – fear and gravity.Tom Moore invites pilots to his strip as long as they are insured members of the Academy of Modal Aeronautics (kids can sign up for $1). The Marolt Field is open to the public, and the Sunnyside is a membership club for $35 a year, which includes use of airstrips near Glenwood and Rifle, and occasional club barbecues.Paul Andersen is a freelance magazine writer, book author and columnist for The Aspen Times. He lives and flies at his home in the Frying Pan Valley, 25 miles from Aspen.