'Dangerous Bob' flies again, and again

The Baltimore Sun

Bob Kelliher loves radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters so much that once, when he sliced his finger to the bone on a propeller, he wrapped it up and - as soon as the throbbing subsided - went back to flying. He visits the hobby shop near his Glen Burnie home just about every day and the UPS man, who is forever dropping off some new piece of equipment, knows him all too well. He bought a trailer to store the 30 miniature aircraft he owns - a reduction in his fleet, mind you - because they couldn't comfortably fit in his house.

"Damn diehard," said Kelliher, 60, also known as "Dangerous Bob" and "Bob Killaplane" for the daredevil flying style that can leave his club mates slack-jawed and his latest love - sometimes a multithousand-dollar model the size of a prehistoric bird - in pieces in the cattails surrounding the flying field.

Some of the other club members, he allows, are almost as fanatical as he is. "But I don't know about more," he said. "You can only go so far."

That's Kelliher for you: A 60-year-old retired Amtrak conductor, a Vietnam veteran, an accomplished woodworker, a Harley Davidson fan and a man of extremes. He smoked four packs a day until he quit suddenly 25 years ago and never went back. He divorced his second wife, then remarried her a year later. He's seen his share of sadness in this life, but still has an ever-ready laugh.

"He's not normal, I'll tell you that," said Chuck Hager, the manager of Hobbytown USA, who describes Kelliher as generous and outgoing - and one of his very best customers. He estimated that since 2003, Kelliher has spent around $23,000 in his shop.

So it's a lot, but he looks at it this way: His friend bought a $47,000 boat that he used twice a year. He's spent considerably less than that for everything - especially once you consider all the selling and trading - and he gets to enjoy his planes every day.

The insatiable drive for new aircraft is partially fueled by his infamous propensity for crashing.

"The first couple years flying with us, when he was in the air no one else could fly because he would terrify us all," said his friend, Stanley Blum, a fellow hobbyist who helped coach Kelliher, when he was getting his navigation thumbs in shape. "He pushes the limit."

Usually, it's a matter of doing a high-speed pass or some kind of twirly stunt too close to the ground. And, kaboom - the plane will go down and he'll be back in the weeds chasing down the wreckage. His biggest plane ended up in plane heaven six weeks ago after a stunt went horribly wrong. He calls it "dumb thumbs."

Yeah, yeah, he should fly higher when he's trying out an elaborate maneuver, but he's not a man to linger on regrets. "I figure if you ain't gonna do the stunts, you're not going to learn them," he said.

The big plane wasn't salvageable, alas, but a lot of the time, he hauls his mangled models back to his garage workshop and happily sets about rehabilitating them.

The garage, which he insulated so he can fiddle year-round, has a faux leather chair and a television, and it's where he started a tour of his "toys." He has two small Magnums that can fly at speeds up to 200 miles an hour. He has a few World War II replicas including a P-51 Mustang, a fighter plane with retractable landing gear. He has a Yak-54 - his favorite plane - that is yellow, white and pearl violet and measures 89 inches from wing tip to wing tip. He has little planes and big ones, patched ones and brand new kits sitting in boxes in the attic. He has cheap ones he threw together for a couple of hundred dollars and ones that cost him thousands of dollars.

He pointed to a model of a counter-insurgency plane, just like one he flew in once during the year he spent in Vietnam. That's about all he will say on that topic - he earned a Bronze Star while he was there, but doesn't like to talk about any of that much.

"It wasn't a happy time. I did some things I'm not proud of," he said. "I'd like to forget about it, but I can't."

He got into radio-controlled planes after Vietnam, when his first father-in-law bought him a kit for his birthday. He liked the speed and the technology, but you know how it is: The kids were young, he was working hard, he often had to take long rail trips and he drifted away from the hobby.

Then about a decade ago, he got the bug again. He joined the local club - the South West Area Park Modelers Airplane Club - and a couple of members helped him re-learn to fly at the dedicated flying park in Baltimore County.

The modelers often use metaphors when trying to explain the deep pleasures of sending some balsa, plywood and fiberglass zipping into the sky.

"How do you feel when you're watching a movie and the guy gets the girl in the end and they live happily ever after? It's ten times that," Kelliher said.

Blum, a retired surgeon, put it this way: "It's very thrilling to see a model of a plane that no longer is in existence or flown only in air shows flying around," he said. "It brings back memories of childhood and your younger years; a lot of nostalgia."

It's like watching ballet, Blum said, or a John Wayne movie: "You're kind of role-playing the heroes with your fighter planes and whatnot."

Now that he's retired - after 41 years, 7 months, two weeks and one day working for Amtrak - Kelliher can go to the park during the week, so on a recent afternoon, he hauled out his Yak-54 for a demonstration. It was sunny but windy - enough so that the usual weekday crowd wasn't there.

But since when could a little wind stop Kelliher?

He pulled on a wide-brim hat, attached the plane's wings, filled the tank and snapped the canopy - where a pilot would sit - into place. With a little groan, he set it on the ground, started the engine and moved it into the long take-off field. Then, suddenly, the plane was whipping upward toward the clouds, humming like a distant lawn mower.

Kelliher, in his jean jacket and Harley Davidson shirt, squinted behind his sunglasses at the black shape high above him. The plane rose and dipped. It skittered low across the field, then swooped back up. It slowed in the air, before tipping back and forth. It barrel-rolled, looped around and inverted.

And then, before the wind could send it to an untimely death, he brought the plane in for a landing. It wobbled and bounced, then came to a stop facing Kelliher. Not the best landing, but so be it.

He wheeled it back toward his truck, as if herding a wayward goat.

"That's what we do," he said.

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