When does a guy get too old to enjoy new toys? Happily, I can't answer that question yet.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a very cool belated birthday present from my future in-laws - an Airhawk remote-controlled minihelicopter.
You've probably seen these on TV - they're a hoot. You can learn to fly one (sort of) in a few minutes. They bounce back from crashes with aplomb, and they're so light that they don't do any damage when they hit something - which happens quite often when I'm flying. Better yet, this helicopter is meant to be flown indoors.
Intrigued by a toy that seemed to have checked into the world sometime between my kids' first childhood and my second, I searched the Web and sure enough, found enough RC helicopters to stock an air force.
They ranged from my little Airhawk, which sells for about $25 and is strictly regarded as a toy, to large scale, super-hot gas-powered machines like the JR Vibe 90 3D model, which sells for $1,100 and features "an upgraded High Cyclic Swashplate, one-piece CNC 3D center hub with O-ring dampeners, composite blade holders, control arms and a brand new adjustable flybar/blade ratio system."
I have no idea what that means, but it sounds impressive. I just don't know if I'd have the guts to buy a toy that expensive and smash it into a tree.
That is exactly what happened in my only other experience with RC flying - four decades ago - when I helped my friend, Bob, build a beautiful scale model of a Piper Cub from a balsa kit.
On its maiden flight, Bob discovered that controlling a model plane was much harder than assembling one. The little craft soared into the sky, picked up a thermal current and sailed out of radio range - smashing into the top of 50-foot oak in Valley Forge National Park. My buddy gave up the hobby on the spot.
Years later, as a father, I bought my kids a couple of RC cars, which they raced around our cul-de-sac for a few months before they got bored. Since then, I haven't paid much attention to matters RC.
But sometime during that period, RC choppers came out of the geek's closet and made their way onto the toy shelves, which required some interesting technology because helicopters are far more complicated than fixed-wing airplanes. In fact, the features that make helicopters so cool - vertical takeoff and landing, hovering, and the ability to turn on a dime and fly in any direction - also make them much harder to build and control than regular airplanes.
That's one reason why gas-powered helicopter kits for serious hobbyists didn't show up until the 1980s - decades after fixed-wing models - and they required almost as much skill as a real helicopter to fly.
In recent years, the same lightweight materials, electric motors and lithium polymer batteries that made remote-controlled ParkFlyer airplanes so popular for casual hobbyists began to show up in RC helicopters.
At the entry level to this world is the Airhawk, which fits in the palm of my hand. It comes with an infrared controller that runs on six AA batteries, and the package includes a set of replacement rotors - a nice feature in an inexpensive model.
The helicopter, made mostly of lightweight plastic and foam, weighs almost nothing. It's charged by a cord from the controller - 20 minutes of charging give you 5 to 10 minutes of flight, depending on how stingy you are with the throttle. This isn't a whole lot of time, but if you can keep your helicopter aloft that long without hitting anything, you're probably ready for a better model.
The controls are basic. One stick controls the main rotor speed. This is a fixed-pitch model, which means the faster the engine runs, the higher the helicopter goes. Fancier models have variable collective pitch rotors like real helicopters. The engine speed remains relatively constant while the pitch of the rotor - the angle of the bite it takes out of the air - determines the altitude. Fixed-pitch models are less responsive: if you release the stick too quickly, the Airhawk plummets to the ground.
The second stick controls the tail rotor, which serves two functions. It keeps the helicopter from spinning wildly in the direction opposite the main rotor and points the helicopter in the direction you want it to go - sort of.
Two trim buttons - which adjust to keep the nose pointed in a single direction (sort of) - round out the controller.
Making even these simple controls work takes a bit of practice - the Airhawk by nature wants to spin in circles - and anything resembling forward flight requires a lot of right-and-left juggling. Then again, flying forward was one of the hardest problems that pioneering real world helicopter engineers had to solve.
Still, my son (who has his own Airhawk) was able to get the chopper to take off from our living room coffee table, circle the chandelier in our dining area and land again. I haven't got that far yet, but I've had a lot of fun trying.
One fascinating thing I found was that our townhouse - which has a cathedral ceiling that peaks at 16 feet in the living room - is a great place to fly a helicopter because it has so much headroom. But it's also awash with air currents, including what appears to be a thermal that shoots the Airhawk up near the staircase until it hits a downdraft from a vent in the loft at the top of the stairs.
More sophisticated models have radio controls instead of infrared, with four or six channels instead of two, which makes them better at simulating real helicopter flight.
You can also find accessories such as gyros to help keep the chopper stable. This is one of those hobbies where you can have some real fun for a few bucks (with the Airhawk or a similar model) or easily spend $300 to $500 on a fancy, hot-shot flier.
What amazed me is how much sophisticated technology has made its way onto the toy shelves, so that klutzes like me can pretend we're real pilots - with no assembly required.
Thanks for a great birthday present, Wanda!
For a good primer on how helicopters fly (real ones and toys), as well as an introduction to the hobby, visit www.rc-airplane-world.com/how-helicopter s-fly.html.