Is flying a plane no different than riding a bicycle?*
"There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot," says Chuck Yeager (aka Mr. Supersonic), noted test pilot of ‘Glamorous Glennis’. He wasn’t kidding. Flying isn’t easy. Last weekend, Lowcountry RC Flyers (LCRC) presented its annual Fall Fly-In to the greater Charleston area where I went with my fiance Jonathan, an LCRC club member. I joined RC enthusiasts of all ages ranging from WWII veterans to high school students and enjoyed an afternoon of food, prizes, and flying demos including aerobatic routines, a self-guided quadcopter, and a special candy drop from Jonathan’s foam UAV.
Fly-Ins are open to the public and occur at clubs chartered by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) all around the world. However, you have to be a card-carrying AMA member in order to fly. This membership sets you up with liability protection and insurance in the unlikely event of an ‘incident’. AMA pilots are trained in a myriad of safety codes outlined by its manual. Beginner pilots, on the other hand, must learn to fly through an AMA-certified instructor and the “buddy box” system.
Buddy-boxing is similar to driver’s ed, although your ‘steering wheel’ is a radio-controlled transmitter connected by a cord to the instructor’s transmitter. You essentially “drive” or fly with joysticks. Using the buddy box let’s you get a handle on maneuvering the plane, although the instructor can take over at any time if you go out of control. Flying a plane from the ground is tricky because as it changes direction, so do the left and right controls. And there’s all sorts of things you need to learn including flight basics, equipment, engines, and radio control channels.
I’m a pilot in training so my adventures into RC planes are few and far between. I’ve only buddy-boxed twice. Luckily, Jonathan has a flight simulator installed on his computer that I can play around with. It also helps having an aviator-engineer for a dad who can teach you how airplanes work in tandem with all of the parts (ailerons, elevators, rudder, etc.). Flying model aircraft develops excellent precision, hand-eye coordination, motor skills, and the ability to quickly adjust your trajectory. Chuck Yeager wrote in his autobiography:
You can’t watch yourself fly. But you know when you’re in sync with the machine, so plugged into its instruments and controls that your mind and your hand become the heart of its operating system. You can make that airplane talk, and like a good horse, the machine knows when it’s in competent hands. You know what you can get away with. And you can only be wrong once.
Ain’t that the truth! It’s certainly a fun hobby if not a little nerdy. If you spend time listening to RC enthusiasts you’ll find that everyone has a story connecting them with aviation. Whether it’s the first time they saw an airplane in person or that they have a pilot in the family, tinkering with and flying RC airplanes is both for sport and for thrill. (Jonathan sometimes says it’s for stress relief.)
These guys (and rarely gals) are builders, makers, and doers. I met a guy named Charlie, part of “Team Kaputt,” who hand-built a trailer for carrying his planes and equipment to the field (see photo above). Another Team Kaputt member has a company for installing custom LED lights on model aircraft. There are other guys who take months and even years to scratch-build biplanes like the one above and warbirds such as the F4U Corsair. RC planes can become a life-long hobby, but thankfully you can choose your level of involvement. For now, I’ll stick with simulated flight and riding my bicycle, which is far easier than flying.
To close this post, here’s a video of Jonathan’s candy drop.
* Playing off of Rex Kramer’s line in the movie Airplane.