Radio-controlled aircraft give aviation enthusiasts chance to fly

Saturday, June 23, 2012 | 8:02 p.m. CDT; updated 8:54 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 24, 2012
Members from the Mid-Missouri Radio Control Association take their hobby to the skies as they enjoy a cheaper, alternative way to experience aviation through radio-controlled planes and helicopters.

COLUMBIA — A constant humming and occasional laughing can be heard coming from the grassy fields behind the warehouses on Lemone Industrial Boulevard.

Three men holding silver boxes adorned with buttons, controls and screens are watching model aircraft cut through the cloudless Friday afternoon sky. The group swaps stories about their radio-controlled planes and helicopters as they buzz past.

Donna Hills, who accompanied her husband, says she approves of his hobby, joking that it keeps him out of the bars.

Roger Hills, who started flying when he bought a plastic Cox radio-controlled plane with his best friend when he was 13, is a member of the Mid-Missouri Radio Control Association.

“I know where he is, I know it's a safe thing, I know it's something he enjoys,” Donna Hills said as she sat in her husband’s truck reading a Kindle, occasionally looking up as the bright helicopters whizzed by. “We’ve been married for 39 years.”

She says her husband has a passion for the hobby.

"We had 11 helicopters at one time,” Donna Hills said. "I said, ‘How many helicopters can you fly at one time?'"

Many people have always wanted to pilot a plane. The MMRCA offers a cheaper alternative for fulfilling that dream.

MMRCA treasurer Mark Johnston says the club is a good way for those interested in aviation to explore the subject without having to put in a large investment.

"It allows kids to get into aviation and allows the older people to continue their aviation interests," Johnston said. "People have always had an interest in flight, whether it's birds or planes."

To fly a plane, one must go through hours of training, and when they get through that, they must spend hundreds of dollars just for an hour of flight time. Johnston, who also has a private pilot’s license, says that flying model planes provides similar gratification to flying a full-sized airplane.

Model airplane pilots have a variety of different aircraft to choose from. They have the choice of flying small planes built out of balsa wood, which cost around $100, or invest in jet planes that can cost more than $10,000 with actual scaled down jet engines and computer electronics. Premium model jets can run as much as $30,000.

"In electric models, when you charge up your batteries, you won’t even see a bump in your electric bills,” said MMRCA member Bob Ackerman said. "I’ve seen people 30 to 40 (years old) who come out for the first time. Many of them wanted to fly when they were younger but didn’t know how or couldn’t afford it."

For 36-year-old MMRCA member Nick Wagner, flying a model aircraft is a way for him to live out his aviation dreams.

"My favorite vacation as a kid was to the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio, where they have every aircraft the air force would admit to," Wagner said. "It's a hobby that an average person who enjoys aviation can do."

Wagner picked up radio-controlled helicopters after purchasing a $35 Havoc Helicopter from Wal-Mart one day.

"I’ve always wanted to fly a toy helicopter as a kid," Wagner said. "Back then expensive, big helicopters were the only option."

Wagner’s been hooked ever since, upgrading to more sophisticated helicopters.

"In my first year, I spent Monday through Friday at the (flying) field after work," Wagner said.

The joy Ackerman and Wagner got out of flying model aircraft propelled them to go out and fly when the visibility permitted and when the wind was calm.

"You’ll find pictures of us flying in 32 degree weather and 19 inches of snow," Ackerman said. "We cleared the fields and others put skis on their planes."

The learning curve is also less steep than learning how to fly a full-sized plane. After prospective model pilots get their certification from the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which gives them their insurance, the prospective pilots can learn from more experienced pilots in the club like Ackerman. Ackerman trains many of the new airplane pilots using a buddy box, where he can take over a pilot’s control when necessary. With helicopters, he trains them using a simulator.

“Radio-controlled airplanes are not hard to learn,” Ackerman said. “Some can do loops and rolls in a couple of small, short flights.”

The physics and mechanics of model aircraft flight are similar to full-scale flying, but the orientation of the model aircraft changes everything. Pilots have to adjust to different controls depending on the direction of the aircraft.

"In a full-sized helicopter you feel how it moves," Wagner said. "In a model you have to see it."

The hobby has come a long way since Ackerman started flying. When he was first starting, radios were much more basic and the stabilizing motors weren’t as capable as they are now. Radios have more computer parts in them that can fine-tune an aircraft’s movement and can be programmed to pilot many different aircraft.

“Nowadays, pilots are spoiled,” Ackerman said. “When I went to the field (in the past), if I left the field without buying new parts, it would be a good day.”

Roger Hills said that with the newer pilots, video games help with the hand-eye coordination aspect of the hobby. He also said the hobby is starting to gain momentum among younger people.

"When I went to the International Radio Control Helicopter Association (gathering), the amount of people under 20 has grown leaps and bounds in the last few years," Roger Hills said.

Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.

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Bob Ackerman June 23, 2012 | 9:01 p.m.

Dana Corporation allowed us to fly on their property for the purpose of a photo session for this article. The field we used behind Dana Corporation is not a temporary field for the club. Currently the club has no place to fly.

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