Up in the sky…

Published 10:02 pm Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ray Goodwin works to start the engine of his model airplane this spring at the Hampton Roads Radio Control Club's airstrip near Lone Star Lakes Park in Chuckatuck.

Chuckatuck airstrip is home to a fleet of fliers

A lofty love of flying binds members of an aviation group who meet to share their passion at an airfield near Chuckatuck on a regular basis.

Some are highly accomplished at aerobatics — loops, barrel rolls, spins — and many own considerably more than one aircraft.

When they fly, however, their feet remain firmly planted on the ground, while necks crane upward, eyes skirt the wide blue yonder, and thumbs never stop twiddling.


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According to club lore, Hampton Roads Radio Control, Inc., now with 90-odd members, came into existence when 14 radio-controlled airplane enthusiasts met at a local hobby shop on April 21, 1977.

They met with the intention of forming a group that would allow them pursue their hobby together.

On May 6, 1977, HRRC became a chartered club of the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

One recent Wednesday at the Pembroke Lane airfield, which the city of Suffolk helped the club establish a little over 20 years ago, members held a community outreach event with kids from the Lone Star Lakes youth camp.

“Probably for the last four or five years, they will come out here and we will do some demonstrations and put a couple of trainers up with a ‘buddy box,’” Club Vice President Mills Staylor says.

For many of the youngsters — even though an experienced pilot was also plugged into the buddy-box controls, at the ready to correct any abrupt nosedives or death spirals — it was their first time flying a radio-controlled plane.

“We let them do some loops, maybe a little roll,” Staylor adds. “Generally that’s determined on the age.”

Staylor says he built and flew model planes as a boy, but dropped the hobby for many years before rediscovering it as a father-son activity when his son, now a mechanical engineer, was 10 or 11.

“We started flying, then he went to college and I got out of it for eight to 10 years,” Staylor explains.

His love for radio-controlled aircraft was reignited again when he retired, and he hasn’t looked back (and rarely down).

HRRC members fly all manner of model planes — with internal combustion engines, glowplug engines feeding on nitro-methanol, and electric-powered ones.

The aircraft come ready to fly, almost ready to fly (some assembly required, like the furniture from Ikea), in balsa-and-hardwood kits, or are made from scratch.

Electric starter planes can be had for less than $200, but the more elaborate models can cost from $5,000 anywhere up to $20,000 and above.

“I build them from construction foam,” says Rick Parsons, a practitioner of the scratch-built method, looking more biker than aviator with silver ponytail and chain wallet.

“It comes from the days when I was on a social security check, so I built out of necessity.”

Parsons works out of his spare bedroom, and has “probably about 20” planes.

He was taken aback when one of his construction-foam creations recently beat out a field of more-sophisticated models to win an award for best military aircraft.

“This one it took me about a month and a half (to build),” he says, motioning with his chin toward a smart-looking foam aircraft on the grass beside him. “I usually put together a foam aircraft in a week or two.”

One of the club’s younger members is Josh McCreary, 12. Today he’s flying an electric Extra 300 and a nitro-powered Twist.

He joined the club about four months ago and earned his wings about three months later.

“It’s just fun,” McCreary says. But learning to fly takes “a little bit of time,” and “is kind of tedious at certain times, especially when you’ve got 15 mile-an-hour winds.”

Kenny Rodgers says learning to fly is a lot quicker for the steely nerved. “If a person’s got nerves of steel, they can get out there and go with it,” he says. “If you’ve got a little nerves in your system, it can take a little longer.”

Wes Baxter, 80, enjoyed flying as a kid, “and then took a break to raise a family, then started again,” he says.

Today, he devotes “probably 50 percent of the week” to his hobby. “Gives me something to do, and it’s good, clean fun,” Baxter adds.

Dom DePolo, a 30-year veteran of radio-controlled planes, learned to fly the real thing in the Navy. “When you can no longer fly full-scale planes, you look for something to keep yourself interested,” he says.

Club members share their hobby, such as with the youth camp kids, out of a sense of gratitude for the joy flying brings them, DePolo says.

“I think it’s my personal philosophy that we are blessed to be able to do what we do,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t have that ability, and we just like to share.”

He says the club is “not just a club, it’s more like a brother or sisterhood,” and it helps keep the spirit of aviation strong at a time when “general aviation in the community is in a little bit of a slump.”

“If you can keep that interest in a young child, who knows … maybe (they will be) a future transport pilot, or passenger pilot, or air traffic controller,” DePolo adds.

Proving that radio-controlled aircraft aren’t off limits to the ladies, Christina Achterhof has been flying with the club for three years.

“My husband got into it, and him and half a dozen of these guys talked me into flying,” she says. “It’s a little different. I have to put up with all these guys when I’m out here flying. I wouldn’t trade them for the world, though.”

Achterhof was flying a nitro-fuelled plane on this particular day. She has seven others at home, she says, plus another two still in boxes.

“It’s the freedom, and knowing that there’s a time to take it up and bring it down safely, or there’s a time to say, ‘I give up,’ and just crash,” she muses.

One of the club’s most enthusiastic radio-controlled aircraft builders and fliers — and that’s really saying something — is its president, Bob Howell, an earthbound aviator for 35 years.

“My brother came down from Michigan and brought an airplane,” Howell says, a whine starting up in the background as someone cranks a nitro engine.

“When I saw his, I said, ‘I’m going to get into it!’”

One of the founding 14, Howell explains that fellowship is “extremely important” to the club’s endurance.

As is the ever-present hunger for refinement that members all seem to thrive on. “We’re trying to improve on everything,” Howell says. “We like to accept challenges.”