Flying remote-control planes provides a sense of community

For many, Southwest Area Park in Baltimore Highlands is a place to ride bikes, take walks, and enjoy a bit of green grass and open space just outside the city .

For those piloting remote-control airplanes, the park is a place to explore a different part of nature: the sky.

The 130 members of the club are the proud owners of dozens of model aircraft, ranging from small battery-powered planes with 12-inch wingspans to those with 14-foot wingspans powered by jet fuel.

This weekend, many of those planes will be airborne above the park as the club hosts its annual Charm City Memorial Fly-In Sept. 27, 28 and 29 at the park.

The event will also provide visitors with an opportunity to try their hand at flying.

"Basically fly all day and let people see what we do and just have fun," said Arbutus resident Art Vail, the club's event organizer, on the attraction of the event for club members.

While flying is free, the group will be selling food and drinks, and raffle tickets to win a Super Cub plane valued at $1,500 and a trainer plane package that includes a one-year Southwest Area Modelers Club membership.

"It's our biggest fundraiser of the year," Vail said. "We're hoping to make this the big shebang."

Visitors of all ages are invited to try flying on a "buddy-box" system, where, similar to the extra brake pedal in driving instruction cars, new fliers plug their remote controls into the box of an experienced flier or instructor, who can then take control should anything start to go wrong.

The park's 275-foot paved runway and 600-foot grass runway can be utilized by pilots of all ages and experience.

Ed Dalhame is one of the club's newest members, but his knowledge of planes goes back more than 40 years. The 67-year-old got his pilot's license in 1966.

After flying 747s for Pan American World Airways, he flew privately contracted flights with American Airlines before retiring.

He recently moved to Columbia from Virginia and was looking for a place to fly when he came across the Southwest Area Park Modelers.

"I wanted to come back to RC [remote controlled flying]," Dalhame said. "I did it when I was 12."

He said he looked at many clubs in Maryland — there are other RC air fields in Westminster, Germantown, Parkton, Bowie, and more — but wound up in Baltimore Highlands because of the great atmosphere and the excellent facility.

"I've checked out about six or seven clubs, and I wound up with this group," Dalhame said. "[They are a] very nice bunch of people, very helpful."

He said re-learning to fly RC planes after flying regular airplanes was much harder than he thought it would be.

"When I'm flying a regular jet, I have a whole panel of instruments to tell me what to do and where to go," Dalhame said. "But when you get this airplane, you don't know where you're going."

The group was very supportive, he said, and as he progressed, it assisted him with not only advice but mechanical work as well.

"I bought an airplane and the engine wasn't working right, and everyone jumped in and said, 'Don't buy an engine. We'll give you one,' " he said.

"They'll extend every kind of help you want," he said. "There's a friendliness here."

Justin Reel, joined the group because he saw the same friendly atmosphere Dalhame did when he attended a Fly-In to take photographs about two years ago.

"I came up for the fun fly and decided I had to join, because they had all these cool planes and everybody was really nice," said Reel, a 41-year-old Riviera Beach resident.

"It was really cool," he said of the event. "There were just a whole bunch of guys with a whole bunch of planes.

"They spent about half the day teaching kids how to fly on the buddy box, which was really cool to see that — how the club was reaching out to everybody," Reel said. "And then, they had some really impressive pilots flying."

This year's Fly-In will feature similar shows, during which the club's experienced pilots, who range in age from 19 to those who are in their late 80s, will show off some of their best tricks with some of their best planes.

"I now have a lot of planes," Reel said of his 12 models. "I'll be bringing out a couple planes to do some tricks and stuff."

The Fly-In is noon to 5 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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