Annual event gives wings to dreams of would-be pilots

The Charm City Fly-In takes off Sept. 25

A lot has changed in the 20 or so years since Dr. Stanley Blum started flying radio-controlled model aircraft.

The popularity of pre-made and almost ready-to-fly planes has pushed homemade planes out and the emergence of drone technology has created some suspicion within law enforcement and others regarding remote-controlled aircraft, said Blum, now 77.

But one thing that has stayed the same — the Southwest Area Park Modelers club.

On any given day, so long as the weather's decent, several members can be found at the southernmost parking lot of the park in Baltimore Highlands, launching model planes that range in size from three feet to 14 feet and wingspans of six to seven feet from the park's 275-foot paved runway or the 600-foot grass runway.

Usually, the crowd consists only of modelers.

But this weekend, anyone interested in watching the planes in the sky or learning more about the planes will be encouraged to join the group as the pilots celebrate their annual Charm City Fly-In.

Hundreds of radio-controlled aircraft enthusiasts from all over the region will sending their aircraft into the sky above Southwest Area Park for the annual event.

The event begins Friday from noon to 5p.m. and continues through Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will feature model aircraft displays, flying shows with planes, helicopters and drones as well as other activities.

It has been going on since 1995, or for as long as Blum said he's been a member.

But a lot has changed in two decades.

When the event began, it was a competition, complete with judges and awards, said Blum. a Catonsville resident. It drew pilots from all over the country, who would spend the weekend performing their best tricks and techniques.

This month's event is a little more relaxed and focused on fun, Blum said.

Although he's attended competitions all over the mid-Atlantic region before, Blum said he's since switched to a more behind-the-scenes role in the annual event.

"Now I'm just kind of sitting back and watching," Blum said, though he still takes his planes out on a regular basis to fly around at the park.

The fly-in, he said, is a chance for those not currently involved in the hobby to try their hand at the controls of the planes.

One of the highlights of this year's fly-in, said Art Vail, organizer of the event, will be a new plane flown by SWAP Modelers member and Glen Burnie resident Bob Kelliher.

The plane is almost twice the size of the average radio-controlled aircraft and is modeled after a bomber, Vail said. It will do a number candy drops for kids throughout the course of the weekend, he said..

"It's impressive to watch it fly," he said.

Kelliher said he build the trap doors that will release the candy himself. Operating usually from kits, he said he likes to find ways to customize his planes to make them distinctively his and to give himself a challenge.

Around the Southwest Area Park, Kelliher, used to be known as "Dangerous Bob," a tribute to his willingness to take chances with his planes and never letting the fear of crashing stop him from trying a new trick.

But in recent years, he said, laughing, the nickname that's been used more often is "Bob Kil-a-plane."

"It was 'Dangerous Bob' until I crashed about four of them in a week," he said.

The fly-in will also be a little longer this year. In the past, the club has used Friday to set up for Saturday and Sunday, Vail said. But after last year, when some attendees showed up at the park on Friday expecting to see an air show, Vail said the club decided to begin the events on Friday evening in order to take full advantage of the weekend.

Vail said he expects between 350 and 500 people will attend the event. Many, have no clue what to expect from the fly-in.

"When people come, they're kind of surprised," Vail said, noting that most people who hear "model aircraft" don't think of the 6-foot-long planes the group will operate at the fly-in.

It's much more realistic and gives people an idea of what's involved in flying an aircraft, he said.

The transition away from the competition format and into more of a fair atmosphere has taken some of the pressure away from the event, Vail said, even if it has meant fewer people traveling from out of town to visit the group's home field.

"It's a somewhat stress-free, relaxed event," he said, adding that the fly-in will be free to both spectators and participants.

In addition to the chance to talk with model aircraft pilots and watch the planes and helicopters fly, attendees will also be invited to try their hand at running the controls themselves.

"It's kind of like drivers' ed for model airplanes," he said.

This year's event will be the latest in a long line of the Charm City Fly-Ins for club member Bryan Green, an Arbutus resident.

"I've always liked airplanes, ever since I was a kid," said the former Delta Airlines employee.

This year, he won't be flying any of his planes at the event, but said he plans to bring an almost-finished model Corsair he's been working on for about three years for display.

"I'm not as active as I'd like to be," he said, adding that he and his wife spend a lot of their time caring for their granddaughter.

But he tries to use any downtime he has to work on his planes, he said.

Unlike cars, which are one-dimensional, there are a number of different aspects of radio-controlled aircraft to like, he said. In addition to the details and mechanics of the planes themselves, he said, the radio operating systems are a whole hobby onto themselves.

Green said he prefers to work with planes he built from scratch. When he first got interested in radio-controlled aircraft, he didn't know anyone who was building or flying the planes, so, using videos and instructions he found online, he said he taught himself.

"It was a lot of trial and error," he said, but mostly a lot of error.

Then he joined the Southwest Area Park Modelers. Since then, he said, the advice from the other members has drastically improved his skill in both building and flying.

He's never been interested in the competition side of the hobby, he said, but likes working on his planes whenever he can and spending time at the field, when he gets the chance.

"I just do it for the camaraderie," he said.

The Charm City Fly-In runs from Sept. 25 to Sept. 27. at the modeler club's field, located to the right of the park entrance. Entrance is free and there will be food available for purchase.

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