Radio Controlled airplanes circle the skies for Charm City Memorial Fly-In

(A high wing monoplane. Photo by Anthony C. Hayes.)

Flight. Almost nothing will make a little boy’s eyes light up faster than the sight of a model airplane.

Ever since Daedalus strapped a set of wax wings on his son Icarus, boys of all ages have been fascinated with flight. But for many, the dream of flying is stalled by the high cost of piloting lessons and the expense of owning or renting an airplane.

Fortunately, for those with a yen to reach for the sun, one local group is offering would-be fliers a rare chance to get a real-life feel for the sport of flying. Starting today, the Southwest Area Park Modelers club (SWAP) is sponsoring the Charm City Memorial Fly-In.

Billed as Baltimore’s largest celebration of radio controlled (R/C) airplanes, the Charm City Memorial Fly-In will honor the memory of past members of the club while hosting more than two dozen local hobbyists as they zip their R/C planes, helicopters and jets hundreds of feet into the air, performing high-soaring stunts in over 100 freestyle flights. Flights are continuous with take-offs from both a 600-foot grass strip and a 275-foot paved runway. Other clubs from Bowie, Germantown, Westminster, Eldersburg and Parkton have also been invited to share in this event.

Bob Pollokoff makes a final adjustment to his Sbach 342.
Bob Pollokoff makes a final adjustment to his Sbach 342. (Anthony C. Hayes)

In addition to watching the flights, first-time flyers can experience the thrill of piloting an R/C aircraft under the guidance of SWAP members. Both the event and the training sessions are completely free and open to the public.

Last year’s event drew over 500 people with more than 100 participating in the hands-on flying experience. The club has about 135 members (including two women) who range in ages from 14 – 87. SWAP started about 30 years ago using whatever open areas the model airplane pilots could find. Today, home is an old landfill in Linthicum Heights that is now pristine park land.

Club member Art Vail, a 55-year-old dentist from Arbutus, has been flying for 25 years. “I picked up a model airplane magazine in a hobby shop and that’s what drew me in.”

Vail said he was fascinated with flight as a youth but couldn’t afford to get into the hobby. “I’m kind of a throwback in that I enjoy making my own planes from blueprints. A lot of people these days will buy pre-made or ready-to-assemble kits. If you have any love of aircraft, they are really cool toys; but they’re more than that – they are fully functioning miniature airplanes.”

How serious is Vail about his hobby? Very serious. So serious that he recently added a garage to his home just for building and repairing planes.

“I started with the little rubber band and balsa wood kit planes. Guillow’s and Comet were two of the better makers. Today I have a variety of planes – a scale aerobatic model, war planes, little trainers and bi-planes to name a few. I just finished building “Dusty” from the new Disney movie “Planes.” Kids should be happy to know I will be flying “Dusty” at this weekend’s fly-in event.”

Vail notes that the hobby has really taken off in the past 10 years. He credits advances in avionics with part of that growth (a GPS feature with a compass/auto return system will actually fly the plane back in the case of  an electronics error), along with the sheer thrill people get from flying their own airplane.

"Digger" Drury's prized Red Bull flyer. (Anthony C. Hayes)
“Digger” Drury’s prized Red Bull flyer. (Anthony C. Hayes)

“Once they fly one of these planes, most people want to do it again.”

Bob Pollokoff, another club member, got the bug nearly 12 years ago and credits his wife with first suggesting the engaging hobby.

“We were in a toy store where she spotted the model planes and thought I might have fun with this as a pastime. Now I fly as much as possible.”

Pollokoff has a number of planes in his arsenal: a stunning mid-winged gas model with a nine foot wingspan; a 40-60 size nitro fuel number and a small electric jet that can get moving at up to 70 miles per hour.

Pollokoff explained that the hobby store kits come in several stages of completion. Some are ready to fly with less than an hour’s worth of assembly. Others simply consist of the finished air frame. The hobbyist must procure and fit everything else, from the engine and command receiver to the servos which control the moving parts.

A 7-channel Spektrum R/C transmitter. (Anthony C. Hayes)
A 7-channel Spektrum R/C transmitter (Anthony C. Hayes)

Essential to the sport are the radio control transmitters. Transmitters can run from $70 – $500 dollars, depending on the make and the bells and whistles. A transmitter allows the pilot to control the throttle, choke and moving parts from his spot on the ground. Units may come with anywhere from 6-18 channels, though club members agree 8 channels are really all that the average pilot will ever need.

In the hands of a skilled pilot, the models are capable of a full array of aerobatic maneuvers. Pollokoff demonstrated a controlled stall called the “hammerhead” by tweaking the throttle stick on his transmitter, then applying full rudder and full throttle at the moment of the stall.

Freelance photographer Michael Northrup has been flying for seven years. So apt has he become in that time, he has even used a four prop quadcopter to take video of events in the square at Fells Point. Northrup demonstrated his transmitter skill, first by doing a hover and torque roll with a high-wing model monoplane, and then by flying his quadcopter through the covered picnic pavilions.

“Falling and keeping (the monoplane) upright is a pretty difficult thing to do,” Northrup said. It can also be dangerous and that makes concentration and communication a key element to R/C flying.

Even a model airplane can be miniaturized. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Even a model airplane can be miniaturized. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Watching two or more models soaring simultaneously in flight, you notice a fine choreography between both the planes and their pilots. Each pilot keeps his fellow flyers abreast of any maneuver he may want to execute, from rapid climbs and rolls to pulse quickening take-offs and gentle landings. While this verbal interplay is necessary to avoid mid-air collisions, it clearly adds to the comradery of the sport.

Bob “Digger” Drury is one of the pilots who clearly enjoys the fellowship of R/C flying. Digger got started with the hobby when he was 12. Now 57, he has traveled from Maine to Virginia for fly-in events and hauls a full compliment of model planes in his well stocked trailer; everything from a tried and true bi-plane to a turbine powered shock jet. His pride is a plane originally designed as a promotional flyer for Red Bull. Digger and this plane were recently featured on the cover of Model Aviation magazine.

Digger says the tarmac at the Southwest airstrip is a good size for aerobatic planes but a little short for the more powerful jets. “The jets,” he says, “are real turbines – just miniaturized.”

The jets may be miniaturized, but they still sound like the real thing. Especially to someone who has logged 17,000 hours as a military and commercial jet captain.

Art Vail's version of "Dusty." (Anthony C. Hayes)
Art Vail’s version of “Dusty.” (Anthony C. Hayes)

D.C. area resident Nir Schweizer began as a hobbyist at seven in his native Israel. His love of the air led him into an aviation career. But even then he continued to build and fly model airplanes. Now retired, Schweizer maintains his own fleet of R/C aircraft. And he offers professional building services for other R/C pilots.

“Over the last 10 years, I’ve built more than 115 prop and 75 jet model aircraft. I provide services from frame-up to complete turn-key aircraft.”

Schweizer presents enthusiasts with an assortment of standard and custom building and fabricating options, including constructing models to a buyer’s specifications; conducting test flights and trim; and programming transmitters to match the needs of both pilot and airplane.

Because of his unique perspective, the Baltimore Post-Examiner asked Schweizer to compare R/C model airplane flying with real-world aviation.

A  well stocked airplane "hangar." (Anthony C. Hayes)
A well stocked airplane “hangar.” (Anthony C. Hayes)

“In some ways, flying a model is better,” Schweizer said. “You can choose what you’d like to fly; what you enjoy best – an aerobatic model, a classic jet or a warbird – or fly them all on any given day. Whatever you like. As a commercial pilot, you fly one plane. You can qualify for another after 8-12 weeks of training, but that doesn’t mean you can fly anything any day that you’d like. Right now my favorite model is a Yak-55. Where else could I fly a high performance Russian airplane?”

We also asked Schweizer about a decidedly hot-button topic: military drones. Some equate R/C aircraft with drones, but Schweizer doesn’t see the correlation.

“People sometimes compare R/C flying to military drones, but there really is no comparison. While the idea behind drones is similar to R/C flying, most of the actual time in the air is controlled by computers through a satellite. The only human interaction is done with the take-off and a possible landing. In R/C flying, if you can’t see it, you can’t fly it.”

While Schweizer’s point is well made, that doesn’t assuage fears among some government officials. From time-to-time, the Federal Aviation Administration will issue restriction bulletins in areas where high profile figures are (or will be) present. Luckily, to date no dignitary has ever been strafed by a styrofoam fighter or bombed by a model of the Memphis Belle.

Admittedly, the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus is simply a myth. But Icarus may have been on to something when, in a moment of rapture, he flew too close to the sun. As Bob Pollokoff explains,

“For the 10-15 minutes that my plane is in the air, I’m not thinking about life. All I’m thinking about is flying. And that’s a good thing.”

The Charm City Memorial Fly-In will take place at the South West Area Park, Friday, September 27 through Sunday, September 29, 2013 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. South West Area Park is located in Baltimore Highlands, about 3 miles south of downtown Baltimore off of Rt 648. The park is just a short walk from the Baltimore Highlands light rail stop. If you choose to drive, travel east on the south end of Baltimore I-695 beltway, take Rt. 648 (Old Annapolis Blvd) north about 2 miles. Turn right on Georgia Ave. Drive several blocks to the end of Georgia Ave and cross the Light Rail tracks into the park to the end of the road. Turn right and go through the gate to the top of the hill and you are there. Additional details may be found here.