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Flying with their feet on the ground Radio-controllers build model planes


Rick Rosenkilde remembers sending his airplane aloft, making high-speed loops and dives and other gravity-defying moves. But when the battery fell out of the plane, he knew that meant big trouble.

From the ground, observers watched as the plane spiraled out of sight.

Luckily for Mr. Rosenkilde, a homeowner saw the plane hit the ground in a field. He helped pick up the pilot's --ed hopes and crashed craft, then put the pieces in a small bag for Mr. Rosenkilde to take home to his Essex apartment to rebuild.

Mr. Rosenkilde and other radio-control model airplane pilots and buffs gather to swap favorite crash stories -- along with nose cones, miniature engines and whole planes -- just about any sunny day when the wind isn't strong enough to change flights in mid-course.

Many of the buffs are members of the Harford County Radio Control Modelers, a 130-member club that is a charter member of the national Academy of Model Aeronautics. Each Harford member pays annual dues of $40.

"You can spend a lot of money on this hobby," said enthusiast Lee Webb of Forest Hill, as he browsed through exhibitors' tables at a recent auction and flea market sponsored by the club at Bel Air Middle School. "But if you count it by the hour, it's cheap. As long as you don't crash."

Has he ever crashed?

"Oh, everybody crashes," he said. "We think every plane has an expiration date stamped on it somewhere, you just don't know where it is.

"It's a heartbreaking hobby. It's hard to watch something you've spent 500 to 1,000 hours building go to pieces in a few minutes."

A radio-controlled plane can crash for a multitude of reasons -- radio interference, bad weather, obstacles that seem to come from nowhere. Or, said Bel Air enthusiast Sal Sarcone, it's the plane's fault: "You might have a new plane, and you don't know how it's going to react."

Bill Compton, a Rumsey Island resident, serves as flight instructor for the Harford club. He's a former professional airline pilot, yet even he has had his share of memorable crashes.

"I have a plane with a $1,000 engine that I spent a year building," Mr. Compton recalls. "It got shot down at a fly-in and took me months to repair."

Getting "shot down" is model-plane lingo for radio interference. A "fly-in" is an event where a lot of pilots fly and, invariably, get shot down together.

"It's pretty bad," Mr. Rosenkilde said, when a pilot has to watch a plane built of balsa and glue drop out of the sky.

"Crashes are quite frequent. You see someone put one in the ground almost every day. Most blame it on the plane."

More often, Mr. Webb said, pilots just mess up.

Despite -- or maybe because of -- the need to constantly rebuild, the modelers say they can't get enough of their hobby.

Mr. Webb likes the fact that anyone can participate.

"You can just fool around on Sunday, or you can go to all kinds of contests all over the country," he said.

He likes to do a bit of both. Mr. Rosenkilde said he gets a thrill out ofsending something he built into the sky and watching it perform at his whim.

Bel Air resident Lee Reightler said he has been building model airplanes for decades. He got hooked in a big way after attending a model craft show at Harford Mall. He now serves as elected president of the Harford club.

Most members are men, though some avid pilots in the club are women.

"Most of the women on the field come with their husbands and boyfriends just so they can see them once in a while," said Ray Mack, an Aberdeen resident who is the Harford club's vice president.

Among the handful of women attending the auction and flea market was Missy Dicenso of Essex, who accompanied Mr. Rosenkilde. She said she just wanted to see what the fuss was about.

"She's seen all the stuff in my apartment. Maybe she'll fly eventually," Mr. Rosenkilde said hopefully of his friend, who remained smiling but silent.

Building and flying planes can be inexpensive, but it usually isn't. Mr. Mack said he knows enthusiasts who spend as little as a few dollars a year on one balsa wood kit. Others lay out as much as $7,000 for their aircraft.

Mr. Reightler said Harford club members spend an average of about $250 a year on the fragile planes, components and accessories. New airplane wheels that fit in the palm of the hand retail for about $6. A propeller goes for $200; model airplane fuel is $10.50 a gallon.

Mr. Rosenkilde said he spent about $3,000 last year on kits and parts, but he has resolved to taper off this year.

"My apartment has turned into an airport," he said. "I've got kits everywhere. I'm trying to cut down."

Enthusiasts can build their airplanes on the kitchen table. To fly the craft, however, radio-control model pilots need their own tarmac.

The Harford pilots lease about 3 acres on Route 543 next to a farm near Fountain Green for use as an airfield.

Mr. Mack said pilots are at the airfield almost any day when the wind isn't howling and it isn't raining. The ground-based pilots don't fly their planes in bad weather. But bad is a relative term.

"Rain gets in the transmitter so we don't fly then," he said.

"But we've tried, and we've flown in winds up to 30 miles per hour."

Even on a calm sunny day, no novice pilot is expected to take a shiny, just-built airplane aloft without help.

"You build the plane, and we'll teach you how to fly," Mr. Reightler said.

"The instructor takes you up, at least 100 feet high, far enough so if you get into trouble you just hand the transmitter back to the instructor, and they save the plane before it hits the ground."

Mr. Compton, the instructor, said he has six or seven students, all of whom he teaches for free.

"It's part of our creed," he explained.

"We take a beginner, help them build their airplane with advice and suggestions, help them test it, then teach them to fly it."

It doesn't take long to learn.

"You learn how to fly real quick," Mr. Mack said, "when you have to rebuild all the time."

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