Story by Catharine Lo
Photos by Chris McDonough
“Watch this!” Scott Halstead hollers from the treeless lawn at Kawai Nui Airfield, the east side playground for Oahu’s radio control (RC) model aviators. The self-taught flying guru nods at amateur Chris Sullivan, who hits the throttle on his transmitter. Ten feet in front of them, a miniature blue plane rolls, accelerates and darts into the air with the buzz of ten thousand angry mosquitoes.
Chris sends the plane into a wide flight pattern two hundred feet overhead. Spectators—yes, spectators, in lawn chairs, on tailgates, at picnic tables—follow its course over the head-high reeds of Kawai Nui Marsh, which surrounds the field on three sides. In the distance, thin clouds sweep across the ‘öhia-covered peaks of the Ko‘olau, but everyone’s eyes are on the plane ripping through the sky at 100 miles an hour.
Suddenly it hitches, then falls in a wobbly corkscrew like a frantic bird whose wing got clipped midair.
“You’re doing circles!” a fellow pilot yells.
“I lost control!” Chris shouts, watching helplessly as his plane crashes into a swampy ditch, throwing up four spectacular blasts of dirt. Scott lets out a laugh while the distressed pilot retrieves his downed aircraft.
“This hobby? Extreme frustration,” Scott pronounces, peering through his glasses to diagnose a different plane’s broken engine. When pilots have technical difficulties, they go to Scott. For the past fifteen years, the comedic owner of Aloha Hobbies has been teaching people to fly RC planes. He learned the hard way, before the advent of flight simulators: “splatter after splatter.”
Scott is also the former head of the Aloha State Radio Control Club, Hawaii’s oldest RC club, established in the ’60s and sanctioned by the AMA (not that AMA, but the Academy of Model Aeronautics). The AMA oversees 2,500 US clubs and boasts a membership of 150,000 enthusiasts. Locally, nine AMA-certified groups on Hawaii, Maui and Oahu have established dedicated flying fields from the slopes of Kilauea to the defunct WWII naval air station at Puunene, Maui.
At Kawai Nui Airfield, Chris inspects his semi-waterlogged plane, a scratch model that he and Scott fashioned from coroplast (the plastic version of corrugated cardboard often used for signage) in nine hours the night before, using free plans found online. The materials for the forty-five-inch plane—bound by rubber bands and reinforced by two halves of a wooden ruler—cost $12. A battery-powered engine runs about $85, but these can usually be salvaged after a crash.
Using a juice-box-size straw, Scott blows streams of swamp water out of the fuselage. The moisture, he says, won’t bother the motor, but it might screw up the electronics. The plane doesn’t restart.
“Back to the drawing board,” Chris concedes. Last January, his attraction to RC flying overtook his interest in model cars. With an associate’s degree in electrical installation and a knowledge of aerodynamics from flying life-size gliders, the hobby suits him. But successful flying takes months or often years of trial and error to become proficient, and not everyone can tolerate the learning curve. While ARTF (almost-ready-to-fly) or RTF (ready-to-fly) kits have opened up the hobby even to the mechanically challenged, remote-controlled aviation remains the dominion of the avid (and slightly masochistic) gearhead. “You can buy out-of-the-box kits where you simply charge the plane and you’re up and flying,” offers Aloha Hobbies employee Leo Campos. “Of course, that doesn’t mean you can just fly.” He says it takes a beginning RC helicopter pilot an average of three weeks just to learn how to hover, during which they’ll sustain upward of $400, on average, in damage.
So is it fair to say that RC flying is a sport that requires great patience and extensive training? “Oh, God, no,” Leo snickers. “These are toys. Expensive—but still toys. … Grown men, expensive toys. What do they want to do? Crash them into each other.”
Well, at least the “combat guys” do. Scott and most of his friends fall into this category; they engage in dogfights using model WWII fighter planes, and destruction is part of their MO. As Chris explains, “I like the action. I like the crashes. That’s why I come here.”
The rules are straightforward. Tethered to each war bird is a thirty-foot-long ribbon, the kind surveyors use. The object: to slash the others’ ribbons before they cut yours. When less than six feet of ribbon remains, the pilot must land. National combat events award giant trophies and thousands of dollars; the winner of Scott’s unofficial dogfights will gladly settle for bragging rights and a plastic crown.
Scott, being one of the island’s most accomplished dogfighters, introduces me to his quarry.
“This is Ray, my buddy. I’m going to destroy him.” Scott, piloting a white Swiss C-3603, starts trash-talking his competitor before their planes are airborne. Ray, a quiet guy in a hard hat (you never know what might come dropping out of the sky) stands a few feet away behind the controls of a yellow Soviet MiG-7. They launch their aircraft into separate orbits, occasionally intersecting each other’s trajectory at 85 to 100 mph. Within a minute the self-declared “combat king” slices off twenty feet of Ray’s fluttering ribbon. It gets stuck on Scott’s wing, slowing the plane.
“Come on, honey!” Scott taunts in a high-pitched voice. “Free shot, baby!” Ray’s MiG takes a swipe and misses. For the next several minutes, the cat-and-mouse chase continues. Ray never utters a word. At the seven-minute mark the MiG runs out of fuel. It pile-drives into the marsh. All the spectators cheer.