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Radio Flyers

Remote-Control Model Planes Combine art and Engineering in Miniature Versions of The Real Thing
Brian Beck
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Looking through the video camera viewfinder, there's a clear shot of the 1940s vintage yellow Piper Cub passing leisurely over the center of the runway. Despite the stiff crosswind, which continuously tries to push it off course, the Cub carefully maneuvers to stay out of the way of a fast-approaching Second World War era Corsair fighter, closing quickly from behind. On the short-cropped grass field, a sparkling aluminum TV-1 Korean War era fighter jet, trimmed in brilliant red paint, is taxiing back after returning to the field. Even from this distance you can clearly hear the turbine engine winding down and see the aircraft's landing lights still blazing so brightly they almost hurt your eyes. The camera captures some great moments of realism in aviation--that is, until a large hand reaches in from the corner of the frame, grabs the aircraft by the tail, and turns the recorded footage into something out of a sci-fi flick. The TV-1 is dragged backwards past some guy who is visible only from the knees down; sagging green socks just partially covering tell-tale winter whitened legs.

It's practice day at Top Gun.

No, not the U.S. Navy's fighter pilot training program in California, but rather a gathering of the very best radio control model aircraft builders and pilots at a more idyllic West Palm Beach, Florida, setting. Each year, this by-invitation-only event brings a select group of modelers from around the world to the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club field, which for four days is turned into a miniature airport hosting an eclectic mix of everything from First World War era fighters to modern-day military jets.

If your last encounter with model airplanes was some time ago, then you're in for a surprise. Far from fragile craft built from thin balsa sticks and covered with tissue paper, these state-of-the-art miniatures are absolute marvels of engineering and craftsmanship. Whether the competitor chooses to model a simple classic light plane such as Mariano Alfafara's colorful Clipped Wing Piper Cub, or an A-4 Skyhawk, complete with a functioning jet turbine engine like the one campaigned by Rei Gonzalez and Albert Araujo, the attention here is on realism.

Sixty-four competitors brought their best replicas--an air force that included P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightnings, F-4 Phantoms and even a trio of four-engine Boeing B-29s--to south Florida to find out who was truly "Top Gun." Just getting a miniature version of these complex aircraft into the air, while keeping all the mechanical systems operating perfectly and then bringing them back down again--in one piece--is highly challenging. But there's an even more daunting hurdle: before the models are flown, they must pass before the cold eyes of the static judges.

During this initial phase of competition, the modelers must document that their creation is identical in appearance to the real thing, only smaller. Not only must the model look exactly the same as the full-scale version in outline, color and markings, but the modeler must also conceal the radio control equipment within the structure and operate the control surfaces in a realistic manner without the "model" equipment being visible.

[deep cut and possible move][what does this mean?--tf] Frank Tiano, a veteran of Radio Control (R/C) modeling and the owner of a model plane company, Frank Tiano Enterprises, has been the driving force behind this world-class gathering since its inception in 1989. "There are many events for modeling throughout the country, every weekend of the year," he says. "Well, with all the events called scale events--which is what this is; it means that they are events for model airplanes that are models of real airplanes--there was never a well-organized big one where the competitor had some prestige. People still think [of] model airplanes [as having] little strings on them, they go round and round; they don't have a concept of what's going on here. So, I sat down and I said, with a couple friends of mine, 'This is what I want to do,' and I did it in 1989."

As the Top Gun event and its prestige have grown over the years, so has the sophistication, and cost, of the models competing. "Oh, about $10,000 with all of the radio equipment" was the response of one of the participants when asked by a spectator how much he had tied up in his modern jet fighter miniature. With a few exceptions, this is the high end of the price spectrum in the modeling world. Compared with most any other sport requiring a motor, however, it's practically a bargain. Of course, none of these dedicated competitors is going to make a living, even at this level, from hitting the contest circuit, regardless how much he invests. "We now give away a purse totaling 25 grand," says Tiano. "Now $25,000 is not a lot compared to motor sports. At the Indy 500 in one lap, I think, you can make 20 grand." Contrast that with what the Top Gun winner will take home: $1,500 as well as valuable equipment, such as engines or R/C systems, that are donated by manufacturers. Four-time Top Gun competitor Richard Uravitch sums it up when he says, "It's the camaraderie more than anything. We come here to socialize and share thoughts and interests, and all of that is interrupted by four rounds of flying."

While this is a just a hobby for most of the competitors, many still prepare as if it were a professional motor sports event. Under dozens of multicolored canopys--erected as much for the protection of the models as their owners--pilots and pit crews work, determined to sort out the problems that always seem to wait until it's time to fly before showing up.

This year modelers from as far away as Bolivia came to Florida to socialize and share their experience and love for the hobby--and yes, to fly. "People are invited to this event," Tiano points out. "You don't just show up." Considering there are tens of thousands of serious modelers around the world, it would seem quite a difficult task to determine who competes and who stays home, but Tiano says, "Its really simple. When you're in this, just like any other sport, you get to know who's good and who's not. Where we do need help is out of the country, because I don't compete in Europe, I don't compete in South America; we rely on those countries' version of the A.M.A. (Academy of Model Aeronautics--America's major sanctioning body for events) to send us the winners of their national events. We then contact those winners and say, 'Would you like to represent your country and come to this event?' As a result we have about 12 to 14 out-of-the-country folks here."


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