Issue 12.6: December 2009 / January 2010

Radio Flyers

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. 

Different pilots fly for different reasons, and of course, some are lovers, not fighters. Some are even comedians. Case in point: A rascally pilot launches a red, Frisbee-shaped UFO. (You can strap an engine to just about anything and send it soaring.) It’s rigged to leave a smoke trail for effect, but he’s replaced the smoke dispenser with a can of shaving cream. With its first “dump” into the crowd, everyone hoots wildly, indulging in loud and liberal toilet humor.

These days, state-of-the-art models with computerized radios costing from hundreds to thousands of dollars have upstaged old-school balsa planes. Not surprisingly, the flight capabilities of these modern machines are also pushing new limits.

The “glider guys” can ascend more than 500 feet and catch thermals off the Koolau range for excursions that last almost half an hour. They pull off aerobatic stunts that real glider pilots wouldn’t dare attempt. The “helicopter guys” are aeronautical experts whose keen understanding of pitch, roll and yaw allows them to maneuver their birds vertically, sideways or even inverted. High-end choppers can carry fifty-pound payloads, making it possible for pilots to rig them with cameras. They get hired to shoot weddings, real estate properties and even big-wave surfing.

The “jet guys” are big crowd pleasers. Like real jets, their nitro-powered craft have internal combustion engines and achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph. Watching a 1:5 scale model of the F16 Tomcat ignite its twin engines, burn down the runway and slice through the atmosphere is thrilling even for a non-enthusiast. (It looks and sounds so authentic that you half expect a Tom Cruise action figure to emerge from the cockpit.) These sleek planes are reserved for serious—or seriously rich—fliers. A single turbine costs anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000, and it takes only one miscalculated low pass to annihilate a winged masterpiece.

“Scale guys” are all about aesthetics. Jim Hein, who has been flying at Kawai Nui Field for ten years, owns a Curtiss JN4 “Jenny” with a 105-inch wingspan, a replica of the famous WWI biplane, accurate to the last detail. “If you were this tall,” Hein says, holding his hand six inches off the ground, “you’d go, ‘Oh, cool airplane!’ It looks gorgeous coming in.” An FAA safety inspector who also taught aviation history at UH, Hein made his first solo flight (in a life-size aircraft) on his sixteenth birthday. Whereas after WWI, civilians could buy a surplus Jenny for $500, he says, nowadays, private planes are prohibitively expensive and often used solely for commercial purposes. His Jenny, one-third the size and three times the cost (six times if you add the $1,700 shipping fee) of the original, pays homage to the golden era of flight—and it still puts him, vicariously, in the pilot’s seat. That’s the real draw for many RC aviators who miss flying real planes. “I’d call it nostalgia, the idea of getting in an airplane and playing with the wind and nature,” he says remembering the weekend joyrides he used to take with his older brother. “Those days are gone.”

When you walk into Aloha Hobbies, the Mapunapuna store Scott opened in 2001, a cherry-red triplane immediately catches your eye. It’s an unmistakable replica of the Fokker DR.-I, the WWI-era plane famously flown by Baron von Richtofen, a.k.a. “the Red Baron.” It’s in mint condition, the centerpiece among a fleet of used and refurbished boats, trucks, cars and planes that dangle from the ceiling. Scott built it with friends in 2001, intending, of course, to fly it. But when they hung it over the front counter, they were so pleased with its dramatic presence that it hasn’t moved since.      

A few months ago an elderly German man with a thick accent walked in, pointed at the plane and said, “I’ll take it right now.” Scott replied, “OK, it’s $900,” throwing out what he thought was an implausible figure. Without hesitation the man said, “OK, I’ll take it.” “It’s not for sale,” Scott countered, his bluff called.

It turns out that the man’s best friend was a German ace who flew a Fokker DR.-I in WWI, and he was instantly moved by the sight of the model. In terms of sentimental value, however, the plane is even more priceless to Scott (as is often the case with things you make yourself). This particular model, no longer in production, has become a permanent fixture in his store, and he can’t bear to let it go. 

Outsiders might arch their eyebrows, baffled by the obsession. In truth RC fliers are just grown-ups who haven’t forgotten how to play. “You’ve built something, you’ve spent a hell of a lot of time building it and you want to see if it will fly,” Scott says, describing the anxiety that first-time RC fliers experience. “Then when it does, it becomes an extension of you, like your arm is 400 feet long. … You know when you’re a kid and you shoot off fireworks and rockets? It’s the same fascination with RC planes. When you set them off, you go, ‘Holy moly, that thing went high!’”