Bill Compton has been bringing airplanes safely to the ground for nearly all of his life.
The 67-year-old pilot flew commercially for Martin Marietta Corp. Now he owns his own plane -- 12 actually. He pilots them with Harford County Radio Control Modelers Inc., a club with about 80 members founded in 1975 for flying and model airplane enthusiasts.
The group became Mr. Compton's forum for flying four years later when he was given parts for a radio-controlled -- or RC -- model airplane for Christmas. He was introduced to the hobby by a friend who was in the aeronautics industry.
"I was a chief pilot, and one of my buddy chief pilots got me into it," Mr. Compton said. "He said, 'Bill, this is our withdrawal' [aid]."
The airplanes flown by members usually are propeller-driven, single-engine aircraft run on a combination of alcohol, other fuels and synthetic oil or a gasoline-oil mixture similar to fuel used for chain saws and lawn mowers.
They can reach speeds of more than 100 mph and weigh up to 30 pounds, with wingspans reaching 10 feet. Most enthusiasts fly models weighing 10 to 12 pounds with wingspans of about 6 feet, club President Dave Marquis said.
"It is limitless as to how far you can take it," Mr. Marquis said. "In six years, I've gone from training to national competitions."
Mr. Marquis, who has a license to fly full-scale aircraft, is part of the club's racing team, which travels around the country trying ,, to earn recognition and money for the club. Teams, usually sponsored by companies that make modeling-related products, can spend a lot of money trying to win competitions.
"One of my race planes cost $5,000," Mr. Marquis of Churchville said. "And one of the race planes we are currently building is close to $15,000."
Most model airplane clubs and their members belong to the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which provides insurance coverage and field flying rules. The academy also deals with the Federal Aviation Administration on flying regulations and with the Federal Communications Commission concerning radio signals used to control planes.
The RC Modelers club leases a portion of a farm field east of Bel Air, on Fountain Green Road.
In accordance with AMA rules, the club has set up no-fly zones near the road and nearby homes. Losing the use of a flying field is always a danger to clubs, Mr. Compton said, so it is imperative that the rules be followed.
Another club, Harford County Miniature Aircraft Operators Association, which works in conjunction with the Havre de Grace Recreation Council, knows what it is like not to have a permanent flying field.
Vice President Richard Hodges said that since the 32-member club began 11 years ago, it has moved to several different addresses. The county recently gave it a 15-acre plot at 401 Oakington Road, and members are working to clear the land and plant grass for use as a runway.
Members of the two clubs tend to be adults because of the costs involved in owning a plane. Beginners typically buy and build a "trainer," costing about $400. More experienced club members instruct them.
The trainer aircraft's cost is roughly $100 for the radio, transmitter and receiver; $100 for the plane's body; $100 to $150 for the engine; and an additional $50 for miscellaneous items.
There are many kinds of planes to buy. Most trainer planes, however, consist of a boxy body with wings that are designed to be easy to fly. But you can buy biplanes; World War II replica bombers; and aerobatic planes that will spin and fly upside-down. Some modelers are even experimenting with jet engines.
Al Bridges of Havre de Grace was reintroduced recently to the hobby after a 19-year absence. Mr. Compton, who lives near Joppatowne, is helping him "get off of training wheels."
Mr. Bridges is relearning how to control a plane that is in the correct perspective only when it is heading away from him -- that is, the plane's right and left and his right and left match.
Operation of the plane is a little more difficult as it heads toward him, and the plane's left and right are opposite his.
"You have to look and react with the model," Mr. Bridges said. "If you don't react with it, it's coming down."
A few months ago, after seeing model planes soar through the sky as he passed by the RC Modeler Club's field, Mr. Bridges talked himself into "stopping in to see what kinds of planes they had."
A few days later, he was hooked.
SEE MODEL PLANES FLY
The Harford County Radio Control Modelers Inc. will conduct an open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the club's flying field on Route 543, three miles south of Route 22, in Bel Air.
Demonstration flights will be featured. Club members will also describe the intricacies involved in building the radio- controlled model airplanes.
Food will be available.
9- Information: Achille Silvestri, 838-6261.