Flying with Feet on the Ground
Radio control airplanes buzz overhead at Somerset fly-in as pilots hone their skills at flying and aircraft design
In the sky above the Cooper Power Station in Burnside, a World War II-era B-17 aircraft bearing Flying Tigers insignia makes lazy loops in the afternoon sun, then makes a final swoop before approaching the asphalt runway below. But neither the runway—nestled in a field adjoining the power plant—nor the aircraft are what they seem at first glance. The plane is an authentic replica of a vintage aircraft, built exactly to scale and put through its paces by a radio control-wielding pilot on the ground. Likewise, the runway—at 526 feet long and 40 feet wide—is a downsized version of its jet-accommodating cousins at major airports worldwide.
The plane is just one of more than a dozen assembled in August 2004 in Burnside to inaugurate the Somerset Model Airplane Club’s “flying field with a fly-in”—a gathering of radio-control model aircraft pilots who come together to swap airplane parts, display their latest aircraft construction and design projects, and show off their aviation skills.
Modeling gives people a way to get into aviation without leaving the ground, say members of the Somerset club.
Members of the Somerset Model Airplane Club meet regularly to compare aircraft design notes and hone their flying skills at the club’s airport. Often, members travel to similar fields belonging to clubs elsewhere in Kentucky and the U.S. to fly, view aircraft designs, and hunt for aircraft-building parts and plans.
“Really, these planes are exact replicas of the real thing,” says Gary Todd, who became involved in model aviation after searching for a hobby he and 16-year-old Justin could enjoy together. “Some people can spend as much as $15,000 for an aircraft that looks and sounds just like a commercial jet and travels as fast as 300 miles per hour.”
According to Todd, who along with Justin builds the radio-controlled aircraft they fly, modelers come by their planes in different ways. Most, he says, purchase almost-ready-to-fly (ARF) kits requiring minor assembly—such as the attachment of wings and tails and mounting of motors—to become flight-ready.
Others build their planes from the drawing board up, purchasing plans, cutting patterns, and entirely assembling and customizing the aircraft. Others purchase ready-to-fly aircraft that require no assembly at all.
“Still,” he says, “what people spend on aircraft is up to them. People can get into the sport by spending as little as between $100 and $375.”
No matter which aircraft the pilot chooses, actually flying the plane takes some practice, says club member Dave Phelps, who makes his living as an aviation mechanics instructor at Somerset Community College.
Some novice fliers use flight simulator computer software to get a feel for controlling the plane, he says.
Most often, though, newcomers to radio-controlled flying take their initial flights linked to a seasoned flier’s controls via a “buddy cord.”
“That means the experienced flier is actually taking off and landing the plane,” Phelps says, “but lets the ‘buddy’ fly once the plane is in the air. It takes some practice to get the feel for it. But usually a new flier can be up and flying in a couple of hours.
“It can be tricky,” he says, “because going out, everything is going forward. Coming back, though, the direction, and the way to work the controls, looks like it is reversed.”
What’s more, says Phelps, manipulating the controls takes good depth perception and plenty of dexterity. For adults, the learning curve can be steep. But youngsters, he says, catch on quickly.
“The kids are so used to playing video games that they have no trouble getting accustomed to the controls,” Phelps says. “Lots of them can fly rings around the adults.”
Even so, in contests of skill, young people and adults of both genders compete on an even playing field. And the fact that skill, not strength, is necessary to be competitive is what attracted Jean Genton to the hobby.
“Model aviation can be very competitive,” says Genton, who has been flying for four years and is the Somerset club’s first female solo pilot. “But being a good pilot has nothing to do with gender. Either way, every takeoff is optional and every landing is mandatory.”
According to Jay Mealy, program director for the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), a Muncie, Indiana-based organization that promotes model aviation as a sport, some 176,000 men and women—26,000 are younger than 19 years of age—hold membership in the AMA and fly regularly, either competitively or for pleasure. And the hobby’s popularity is still gaining.
“This is an activity families can do together, that allows fliers of all ages and genders to compete equally. It’s a natural for people who are fascinated with flying,” Mealy says.
For C.R. Fowler, a former private pilot, that means continuing a lifelong love affair with flight.
“When I couldn’t fly airplanes anymore for health reasons, I became involved in modeling,” says Fowler, one of the Somerset Model Airplane Club’s founding members. “It gives me a chance to continue to do what I always loved to do. You can’t beat that.”
INTERESTED IN MODEL AIRPLANES?
The next fly-in for the Somerset Model Airplane Club is Saturday, August 26. Go to the club’s Web site at www.smac-ky.com for more information.
For more information about model aeronautics, or for a list of model airplane clubs, visit the Academy of Model Aeronautics official Web site at www.modelaircraft.org or call (800)-IFLYAMA (435-9262).
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: SOMERSET’S FLYING FIELD
To learn more about Somerset’s flying field, click here: flying field.