There used to be a time when airworthy model planes came in only a few types: There was the rubber-band-powered dimestore model that came in a plastic sleeve; you would assemble it by popping the wings, fuselage and tail out of a die-cut sheet of foam or balsa and inserting Tab A into Slot B. It would last for a flight or two, if you were lucky, and probably had a pronounced tendency to veer in one unplanned direction, depending on which side was weighed down with more Scotch tape. Then, for the big boys, there were the noisy, smoky, heavyweight gas-powered models that could only be flown in parks (until parks began outlawing their use on account of accidents). These typically were bought prebuilt or as expensive kits.
Serious modelers have always built their own from scratch, of course — preferably to exact scale and with painstaking historical authenticity of detail — and that aspect of the hobby at least has not changed. But the design and materials sure have, in the past ten years or so, with the result that the fun of flying model aircraft is becoming much more affordable, accessible and appealing to a whole new generation. They have also created novel legal and privacy issues that transcend any noise ordinance violations known to the sport in earlier decades.
“The technology in electronic aircraft has gotten so much better,” said Bob Santora, president of the Mid-Hudson Model Masters, as the Pleasant Valley-based club held its January meet-up with the Sawyers Remote Control Flyers inside the SUNY Ulster gym. “The components are much smaller — the motors, the batteries.” Rechargeable 3.7-volt lithium ion cells, smaller than a computer memory stick, are the fuel of choice for most recreational fliers these days, each one with a capacity of 150 milliamp hours that can power a small model for seven to ten minutes on a single charge, according to Santora.
The construction materials used in ready-to-fly model planes have become much more lightweight as well, and yet sturdier, with the development of carbon-fiber polymers and tougher types of foam plastic. Thus it takes less energy to keep your craft in the air longer, as hobbyists gathered at the gym demonstrated by hovering tiny four-propeller quadcopters, also known as drones, in one place for minutes at a time. More traditionally shaped fighter planes pirouetted upright on their tails in midair like ballerinas en pointe, showing off the precision aerobatics made possible by computerized controllers. All this capacity for fun comes at a lower pricetag than in decades past, with small indoor ready-to-fly craft available for as little as $29, radio controller included.
Some of the most modern drone models even have GPS systems and built-in cameras, said Santora, raising the ire of the Federal Aviation Administration when “people were reckless with the way they flew them, invading people’s privacy.” Flying model planes is tightly regulated, he explained, and anyone who wishes to join a local club like the Model Masters is also required to become a member of the national association, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which provides ample liability insurance coverage in case an accident should occur. Unlike the sort of drones contemplated for use in such commercial applications as package delivery, model aircraft used by hobbyists can only be flown within sight distance of the operator. They also may never be flown more than 400 feet above the ground within two miles of an airport.
But by and large, the technological innovations have injected new life, youth and diversity into a hobby whose demographic profile has hitherto consisted mainly of male retirees. The Sawyers club now has one young girl among its members, said its president, John Sohm. And middle school and high school students are being drawn into the sport as these local clubs hold demonstrations and workshops at science fairs and the increasingly popular “Maker Faires.” “We participated in a mini-Maker Faire at the Poughkeepsie Day School last month,” Santora said. “We had simulators set up there,” with which the students could try their hands at navigating virtual model planes on a computer screen. The Model Masters also plan to participate in the regional aeronautics competition of the 2015 Science Olympiad to be held at SUNY Ulster on February 7.
Longtime hobbyists are finding to their surprise that youngsters who grew up playing videogames have a knack for mastering model aircraft controllers, according to Santora. “The kids getting into it pick it up so fast. They become proficient very quickly, surpass the adults very quickly and become some of our best fliers. Then they move on to wanting to learn to fix and to build models. Before long they’re really hooked; they love to fly.”
The sport has changed in other ways as well, with miniaturized electronic components making it possible to fly indoor models year-round. “We used to go in, hunker down and build models all winter,” Santora recalled. “Now we’re using our time in the wintertime to fly indoors, rather than build.”
There are exceptions, of course; some Sawyers members still favor engines powered by gasoline or nitromethane that can only be flown outdoors, and old hands like Sohm still feel that those who limit themselves to model aircraft sold ready-to-fly are “missing out. These planes don’t have a soul. The ones you build have a soul.” Santora agreed that “Some would rather build than fly,” with a nod to the dean of the craft in our region, 92-year-old Don Peters, who eschews even kit-built models and makes his historical airplane replicas all from scratch and to scale. Such an institution is Peters in the sport that the aerodrome in Saugerties where the Sawyers regularly meet to fly is named after him. “Only because I mowed the lawn for 20 years,” he joked.
Building to scale within 1/16th of an inch is essential if you’re serious about entering your homemade aircraft in many competitions, Santora said, though “Any Plane” contests also exist. There are even Warbird competitions in which the object is to sever streamers tied to your opponent’s aircraft with your plane’s propeller. But mostly the fun lies in making your craft go where you want it to go, keeping it in the air as long as possible and landing it without a spill.
With members coming from Dutchess, Ulster and Orange Counties, the Model Masters meet monthly in the off-season at SUNY Ulster and any morning that weather permits outdoors at Redl Park on Van Wagner Road in Pleasant Valley. Business meetings (which invariably evolve into flying practice) are held monthly at the Highland Middle School. Membership costs $25 a year for adults age 19 and up, plus $58 a year for mandatory membership in the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Kids’ memberships in both organizations are free. For more information, visit the website at www.modelmasters.us.