Several remote control pilots gathered to fly their planes at this weekend's Charm City Memorial fly-in festival. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
The aircraft whipped through the air high above Lansdowne, spiraled down to the ground in a manic corkscrew, then stood up on its tail in midair, its engine pulling it up faster than gravity could drag it down.
They're stunts a real plane could not perform, explained Art Vail, an official with the Southwest Area Park Modelers radio control club.
But as hundreds of thousands of drones take to the sky, competing for space with passenger airliners, cargo planes and other manned aircraft, the federal government has been moving to regulate models more like real planes.
That effort has turned the Baltimore County runway where Vail's club is hosting an air show this weekend — and venues like it across the state and nation — into a battleground.
On one side are the modelers, fighting to preserve their decades-old hobby. On the other are aviation authorities, who are charged with keeping the nation's skies safe amid the coming of swarms of drones.
The hobbyists, relying on broad protections for model aircraft in a 2012 law regulating drones, have enjoyed the upper hand. By law, they can do some of the most advanced unmanned flying — including going up at night, piloting planes using goggles that give them the view from the cockpit and flying larger aircraft than is otherwise allowed.
But the Federal Aviation Administration has periodically sought to impose new rules. And a trade group for airline pilots wants Congress to rewrite the 2012 law to give the FAA more authority to regulate the hobbyists.
Model aircraft that can be much larger than drones — planes with wingspans of 10 or more feet, some weighing upward of 50 pounds.
"It is imperative that the FAA is able to consistently promote the safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems for all airspace users," said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Air Line Pilots Association.
Vail said the potential for tighter restrictions has left members of the Baltimore County club "much more guarded."
For a time, it looked as if the air show Saturday and Sunday might not happen. The FAA issued an advisory last Christmas outlining the limits of the controlled airspace around the District of Columbia — a zone that includes Southwest Area Park.
The FAA says the advisory was simply a reminder of post-9/11 rules restricting flying around the nation's capital. But to the modeling club, it looked like a new order not to fly.
Club official Bob Pollokoff said word spread among the club's 130 or so members that it could be shut down.
"Between an email and the numerous websites that are related to radio-controlled flying, the word was quickly disseminated," Pollokoff said. "There was nothing we could do on our own."
The Baltimore County modelers didn't have to fight by themselves. They and a dozen other clubs that fall within the restricted airspace called on their parent organization, the Academy of Model Aeronautics.
The academy, based in the struggling industrial city of Muncie, Ind., doesn't have the look of a Washington lobbying powerhouse. But as the FAA has rolled out rules for unmanned aircraft, the organization has used a mixture of cajoling, collaboration and confrontation — it has gone to court in one case — to protect its members' ability to fly freely.
Dan Gettinger, director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said the academy has been a consistent voice in the debate over drone regulation, and has succeeded in carving out a privileged position in the law for its members.
"Their overriding concern is to maintain that position," he said.
Chad Budreau, a spokesman for the academy, put a diplomatic spin on its relationship with the FAA: "We don't always see eye to eye, but I think we're working to the same end goal, which is safety in the airspace."
Before drones came to U.S. airspace, modelers were largely left to themselves, able to fly their aircraft at low altitudes, away from airports.
But with the use of unmanned aircraft growing — their proliferation is expected to transform law enforcement, shipping, agriculture and many other fields — authorities have stepped in to direct traffic.
The FAA published regulations this year to control the commercial use of drones. But because the 2012 law limited the rules the FAA could impose on hobbyists who flew as part of organized clubs, the academy has largely been able to write its own rules.
When the no-fly order came down, the modelers' academy swung into action — and within two months, the FAA had issued another advisory. The association announced its victory to its members in a blog post: "We successfully worked with the FAA to roll back these unnecessary flying restrictions."
Pollokoff said he was just thankful that the dispute occurred in the winter, when fewer people were out flying.
Pickup trucks and trailers lined the runway at Southwest Area Park on Friday. Model planes were strewn across the field in various states of disassembly.
Placards reminded people that they had to be association members and registered with the FAA to fly. Pilots with controls in hand took turns to head up into the air.
The park is 4 miles from BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport, and the occasional airliner drifted overhead. The club says it has a relationship with the BWI authorities to avoid any problems.
Club members said flying model airplanes is the kind of hobby that quickly takes over your life and your basement. Planes start at $200 but can run to $40,000.
As rotors whirred, members chatted about aircraft designs they particularly admired and memorable crashes they had witnessed.
Most popular drones come with four rotors to keep them stable, making them fairly easy to fly. Controlling a fixed wing model plane is another matter. Even a small nudge of the hand-held control sticks can send an aircraft wildly off course. So the club trains new pilots using a "buddy box," which lets a more experienced person take over at a moment's notice.
Bob Kelliher said there was a period when he was "losing one a week," as he pushed his models too hard, or tried to fly beyond the limits of his own skills. He said that crash rate has dropped off. He showed off a trailer full of aircraft parts.
One plane has a 12-foot wingspan and weighs more than 50 pounds. It has a special feature: During the air show, it will shower children with candy.