Flying Colors with the Airmasters RC Club

Remote-controlled airplanes have evolved beyond mere toys

12
Conway Bolt, president of the Airmasters RC club, works on one of his remote-controlled planes. Photo by Steven Martine
Conway Bolt, president of the Airmasters RC club, works on one of his remote-controlled planes. Photo by Steven Martine

On a bright, breezy day, a group of hobbyists gather at a grassy airfield adjacent to the Sebastian Buffer Preserve. These wide-open spaces are perfect for the Airmasters, a 160-member remote control flying club. I expect to see small planes that look like toys buzzing about just over my head, but I have vastly underestimated the scale and complexity of the planes and what it takes to fly them.

Zaiden Roth is flying his Cirrus SR 22 T, with a 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) wingspan, at about 300 feet of altitude. He lands it expertly, pulls the hot battery and swaps it for a fresh one to prepare for a new flight.

Conway Bolt's remote-controlled planes. Photo by Steven Martine
Conway Bolt’s remote-controlled planes. Photo by Steven Martine

“This is the most advanced Cirrus model,” he says. “I like level flight, but this plane can do some rolls, too.” Zaiden has a built-in advantage that helped him learn quickly how to control his plane: he is 12 years old, which means he is experienced with video game technology. “You can’t be constantly looking at your keyboard when you’re playing a game, so you need to know the controls and buttons and what they do,” he explains.

Zaiden apologizes for the scratches on his propeller: “I accidentally ran it into a rock while it was taxiing.” He loves the sport and comes to the airfield with his grandfather. “It is very satisfying when you have a good flight and your plane doesn’t end up in a million pieces,” Zaiden says.

At 12, Zaiden Roth has an advantage over his elders video gaming skills help with RC plane control. Photo by Amy Robinson
At 12, Zaiden Roth has an advantage over his elders video gaming skills help with RC plane control. Photo by Amy Robinson

Paul Jacobs is an instructor at Airmasters. “All kinds of people come into this sport,” he says. “We have professionals, retired people, commercial and private plane pilots. Teenagers are the easiest to teach because of their video game literacy. I can teach a kid like that in a couple of days.”

Jacobs has offered me a lesson on the club’s training plane. Zaiden has some advice for me: “Make sure you are three mistakes high,” he grins, referring to allowing sufficient time to correct your control before your plane ends up, as he would say, “in a million pieces.”

Horizon Hobby is a major distributor of RC planes such as this lightweight model. Photo by Steven Martine
Horizon Hobby is a major distributor of RC planes such as this lightweight model. Photo by Steven Martine

Fortunately, Jacobs has a “buddy box,” which serves the same purpose as the auxiliary brake your driver’s education teacher had to keep student drivers from crashing. The buddy box allows Jacobs to control the plane, then switch the controls over to my receiver so I can fly. He shows me the mini-joysticks and their functions. One is for turning and the other is the throttle. This seems simple enough, but Jacobs warns, “Don’t touch the throttle.” It seems I will have enough to do with just the one control.

My instructor gets the plane into the air swiftly. He orients it in a straight line and flips the buddy box switch. The plane is now mine, but as I begin a slow turn, it has other ideas, making for a tall copse of pine trees. My eyes are locked on the impending disaster, but Jacobs takes over and steers it in a straight line again.

The plane this B-52 bomber is modeled after now sits in the Palm Springs Air Museum. Photo by Steven Martine
The plane this B-52 bomber is modeled after now sits in the Palm Springs Air Museum. Photo by Steven Martine

It takes several attempts for me to make turns without having the plane lose altitude, but once this happens, it feels fantastic and I can’t wait to do it again. Jacobs tells me not to feel bad that I’m not an immediate ace. He has taught some real pilots, and it doesn’t always work out for them either. “They are so used to thinking from behind the controls, they can’t transition their minds because if it is coming at you, right is left and left is right.”

Conway Bolt is the president of the Airmasters club. “I have always been a geek,” he laughs. “I started with model rockets as a kid, then got into rocket-launched gliders called ‘boost gliders.’” Now, he owns a number of remote-controlled planes that he flies at the airfield leased and maintained by Airmasters.

Paul Jacobs uses a “buddy box” that allows him to take over if a trainee’s plane gets into trouble. Photo by Steven Martine
Paul Jacobs uses a “buddy box” that allows him to take over if a trainee’s plane gets into trouble. Photo by Steven Martine

Bolt explains that planes can be purchased ready to fly—set to go right out of the box once the wings are attached—or almost ready to fly, with a bit more assembly time. Or hobbyists can get the kits that include dye-cut pieces that are then glued together over a full-size blueprint.

Bolt’s two-story shop behind his home in Grant is a study in the different types and sizes of remote-controlled planes, their accompanying parts, and multiple spares of everything. A fully assembled A-10 hangs from the ceiling; it is modeled after a military plane called the Warthog, designed by the U.S. Air Force specifically to kill tanks. “I probably spend about 25 hours a week in my shop,” he says. His most recent acquisition is a 3D printer used for making some of his own parts.

Instructor Tim Persky inspects a plane prior to flight. Photo by Steven Martine
Instructor Tim Persky inspects a plane prior to flight. Photo by Steven Martine

Most of the airplanes flown by the Airmasters are electric, but some RC planes are powered by glow-fuel (comprised of methanol, nitromethane, and oil), gas, or even jet fuel. Electric planes use a large battery pack. In the case of a prop plane, it powers the motor that drives the propeller; with jets, it powers an electric ducted fan (EDF) motor that simulates a jet engine.

The computer-controlled motors that move the control surfaces are called servos. The operator controls those using the handheld transmitter that communicates with the receiver. Ailerons work the roll, and the pitch is adjusted by the elevator, which bisects the rudder and influences up and down motions. The throttle controls the speed.

This impressive model flies on jet fuel. Photo by Steven Martine
This impressive model flies on jet fuel. Photo by Steven Martine

A trainer plane can be acquired for about $200, and the transmitter is about the same cost.

Cal Schmidt graduated from the trainer plane a long time ago. He has several larger planes, including a German World War II replica called a Focke-Wulf. Today, he has brought his vintage T-33 Shooting Star Korean warplane replica. It has four batteries: two for the engine and two that run the electronics. Weighing in at 20 pounds, this plane uses 24 volts and 120 amps to fly, eating battery time in exchange for power, so the flight time is just a couple of minutes.

Collier Yarish with his General Dynamics F-16XL. Photo by Steven Martine
Collier Yarish with his General Dynamics F-16XL. Photo by Steven Martine

Schmidt gets a lot of mileage out of those precious minutes, performing loops and knife-edge moves, pushing the throttle until it makes about 100 mph and screams like a fighter jet. After it lands, I spot some dents and scratches that tell me the plane has led an interesting life. “Every dent tells a story,” Schmidt says. “The body is Styrofoam, so it’s easy to repair.”

Now it is Mark Bowman’s turn to take up his high-performance Yak 54. This plane boasts more than 3 meters (9.8 feet) of wingspan and runs on a 100-cc gas engine. His brand of aerobatic flying is called 3D flying, in which the power is outsize for the plane’s modest weight. The moves are complex; he can touch the tail to the ground vertically and go straight up again like a rocket. He starts a steep ascent, seems to stall, and executes what looks like a cartwheel, à la Top Gun. “The propeller tips rotate at just over the speed of sound,” he says. “You can actually hear a crack as that happens.”

Rechargeable batteries power the motor that drives the propellers. Photo by Steven Martine
Rechargeable batteries power the motor that drives the propellers. Photo by Steven Martine

A visit to the airfield is like visiting a friend. You will be welcomed and entertained. The Airmasters members are happy to explain all aspects of their planes and how they fly. Anyone at any age can start, with a modest investment. Paul Jacobs enjoys seeing people get hooked on the sport. “When I first started, I wanted it so badly,” he says. “When I get a student who wants the same thing, it’s fun to see them fall in love with it too.”

Facebook Comments