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Radio Flyers

Remote-Control Model Planes Combine art and Engineering in Miniature Versions of The Real Thing
By Brian Beck | From 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."

Some of the competitors arrived the Monday prior to the official start of the weekend's flying just to practice. Dave Pinegar, who was flying teammate Mariano Alfafara's Clipped Wing Cub, was one of these dedicated souls. Sure, the lure of a warm Florida spring might tempt anyone from, say, still thawing Michigan in late April, but Pinegar was here to prepare.

The extra effort was apparent during his first official flight. While many of his competitors were still not completely oriented to flying from an unfamiliar field, by the first round it was just another routine flight for Pinegar; routine except for the judges seated behind him and the thousands of spectators watching from the stands. The Cub taxied out to the secondary runway; being a replica of a "lightplane," he could take advantage of using a short takeoff run into the wind. As he effortlessly joined the others in the flight pattern, the extra days of preparation became apparent. The builder, Alfafara, stood by his side calling to the judges what maneuver to expect next. Pinegar, chomping furiously on a wad of gum, performed his flight plan: a loop, a slow barrel roll, a stall turn and three turn spins, while all the time expertly compensating for the gusts blowing across the aircraft's flight path.

He set the Cub down on the left wheel, left wing tip down to compensate for the crosswind, as a yellow-nosed SNJ-5 "heavy metal" warbird entered by the Bolivian team of Ed Gutierrez and Pedro Serco rocketed by on its high-speed pass, underscoring the difference in speed of the various aircraft. As Alfafara congratulates him on his performance, Pinegar characteristically shrugs his shoulders; it may be a hobby, but everyone wants to do well.

More importantly, they want it to look real. "I think the best part of Top Gun," says Pinegar, "is making it look as realistic as possible and having a little ol' guy that flew back in WWII come up to you with a big smile on his face, with almost tears in his eyes, because it's the way he saw it happen."

Of course, complex details also abound here. One of the most technologically advanced and functionally accurate designs is Nick Ziroli Jr.'s Avenger, which is modeled after a torpedo bomber from the Second World War. As the Avenger taxies to the runway, the wings still folded against the side of the fuselage, the outboard panels begin the slow contortions needed to unfold and ready the bird for flight. Like other carrier-based aircraft, the original Avenger kept its wings folded for storage in the ship's confined hanger decks. At this level of competition, distinctions that exist on the plane being duplicated are expected to be on the model, and so Ziroli duplicated them.

The intricate mechanics needed to operate a detail like folding wings, not to mention the fail-safe locking mechanism to make them stay put in flight, had eluded modelers for years. Some tried it in the past, but Ziroli perfected it. As he turns onto the runway, the Avenger's wings are fully extended and locked into position. After a brief check of the controls, the throttle is applied slowly until it reaches full speed. The 4.2-cubic-inch engine accelerates the 50-pound model quickly to flying speed, first lifting the tail, then pulling the model convincingly into the air. As the wheels disappear into the airframe and the flaps are raised, the Avenger joins up with a similar-sized, twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber flown by Greg Hahn.

As the two pilots perform their selected maneuvers for the judges, the crowd enjoys two spectacular examples of the scale modeler's art, 1997 style. Following its mandatory slow flyby--with wheels, flaps and carrier arrestor hook deployed--the Avenger pulls up and prepares for its simulated torpedo run. As the diving model approaches the field from the north, it releases the mock torpedo. It lands directly in front of Ziroli and, with the help of the wind, it rolls practically back to his feet, accompanied by the applause of the large crowd. Bull's-eye.


There's certainly little comparison between today's R/C aircraft and the pioneering efforts in the hobby that began more than 50 years ago. While today's electronic equipment is replete with computerization and miniaturization, modelers in the early years had to be inventive (and persistent) to perform even the most basic radio control functions. One of the earliest efforts by R/C pioneers used radio control equipment with a rotary telephone dialer to send the signals to the onboard control systems. Because of the unavoidable crudeness of these early systems--flights were often described as controlled crashes--aircraft designs that could be expected to meet with any flying success were limited. Most were modified "free flight" designs, which were designed to literally fly free, without the benefit of any control other than the carefully designed trim. These inherently stable aircraft, while providing a relatively reliable platform for early R/C experiments, bore little or no resemblance to full-size aircraft even from that era. Making a workable model of a Second World War four-engine bomber that actually flew was pretty much out of the question.

As radio-control systems technology advanced through the 1950s and 1960s, the sport continued to grow and attract new modelers. Despite the improvements at the time, the equipment still lacked the smooth, reliable control necessary to guide complex or fast-moving aircraft, not to mention the fact that the airborne hardware was bulky and heavy. It was not until the introduction of "proportional" systems in the early 1970s that truly ambitious projects became feasible. These new R/C systems offered the pilot controls in which the output of the airborne servo motors (which are connected to the flying surfaces and engine controls) is "proportional" to the input on the control stick of the transmitter that the pilot holds. This type of control, which is still the basis of today's complex R/C systems, gave the modeler on the ground the same smooth, accurate movements that the pilot of the full-scale version would have.

Today's radio control equipment offer practically unlimited flexibility. While the basic components of the systems have not changed much since the 1970s, the available whistles and bells have evolved dramatically. The function of a modern R/C system is really quite simple. The transmitter sends signals to an airborne receiver that controls servo motors that, in turn, operate the flying surface and engine controls. A small, aircraft-mounted rechargeable battery pack provides at least an hour of flying time. The pilot holds a small transmitter, which usually has two joysticks. In the most common design, moving the right stick forward and backward controls the movement of the elevator, which regulates the up and down pitch of the aircraft. Moving the same stick side to side controls the roll of the aircraft via the wing-tip mounted ailerons. The further you move the stick, the further the aircraft's control surfaces are deflected and the quicker the aircraft performs that particular movement. The left stick controls the throttle and the left and right movements of the rudder, which controls the "yaw" of the aircraft, moving the nose to one side or the other. Additional switches and levers can control the operation of retractable landing gear, landing flaps, payload dropping mechanisms or whatever functions a creative modeler might dream up. It sounds pretty simple, and it is, once you get the feel for flying: move the sticks the proper amount in the correct direction at the right time and you're flying. Move them in the wrong combination, in the wrong direction, at the improper time and you crash.

Crashes do happen, even at high levels of piloting proficiency. This year, even the polo ground's clubhouse claimed a victim, a British-designed Hawker Seafury, which spun into the roof. The sound of the sickening, inevitable "smack" from the impact is delayed--like thunder following a distant lightning strike--for a moment after you see the pieces start to fly. The pond at the downwind end of the field claimed a couple models as well, as pilots occasionally found themselves with a dead engine and not enough speed to make it back. The almost instinctual reflex--to try to stretch the model back to the safety of the manicured grass field--combined with a relentless and stiff crosswind spells disaster.

One of these accidental seaplanes was Eddie Newman's KI-61 "Tony," a Second World War Japanese fighter replica. Tony, a product of many hundreds of hours of work, lay broken in half just aft of the cockpit--its left wing partially missing--as it was unceremoniously carted past in the back of a maintenance cart. Experienced modelers are all too aware that sometimes if you fly 'em, you break 'em. Fortunately, disaster caused by equipment failure is not all that common anymore. Due to the greatly improved level of control and reliability of modern equipment, more complex and larger models are practical now--even common.

Powering a 50-pound aircraft (there are four of them in the competition) requires some serious horsepower. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, engine development kept pace with electronics progress. It wasn't always that way, however. Through the 1970s, most models were usually limited to .60-cubic-inch, two-stroke engines, with an output of around one horsepower, that could only propel models with a six-foot or less wingspan. In the scale modeling world at that time, most replicas were usually no larger than one eighth the size of the original, in comparison to today's models, of which many are 1:6 to 1:3 scale designs. Three models at this year's Top Gun have wingspans of 12 feet.

As miniature model aircraft engines evolved from gasoline- and oil-fired spark-ignition (with a coil, condenser, batteries and spark plug) through the original two-stroke castor oil and nitromethane fuel-burning forebears of today, the sophistication (and size) of the models that can be successfully flown has changed.

Modern engines offer not only exemplary power-to-weight ratios, but an exciting selection of designs. Simple two-stroke, .40- and .60-cubic-inch engines make up the bulk of the power plants (though they can be built as small as .010 cubic inches), including the types used in most trainers designed for beginning pilots. Competition events such as Top Gun have some of these simple, low-cost engines, though most modelers are using sizes and designs that were not available 20 years ago. Synthetic oil- and nitromethane-based four-stroke designs and large, gasoline-fueled electronic spark-ignition motors are the favorite choices. Developments have even led to mass-produced, four-stroke radial engines with five, seven and nine operating cylinders, which allow competitors such as Charlie Nelson (known as "Mr. Waco" to his friends) to power his gorgeous red Waco VKS 7F biplane with a seven-cylinder engine, similar in operation to the full-scale motor. These engines are complete even down to the functioning rocker arms and adjustable valve gear. Just bring along a couple thousand dollars and take one home.

Today, "turbine" is the hot word in power plant development. The technology, which started to appear in the 1990s, has enabled modelers to build miniature, functioning jet turbine engines. This year, four pilots chose to compete with model aircraft based on these power plants, and several more were flown in demonstration fights. These marvels of engineering and fabrication function just as the real thing and are fueled by either propane or kerosene. Twenty years ago, when modelers first started duplicating jet aircraft with any level of realism, they did it with ducted fan technology. Those models commonly used standard, high-performance engines designed for model aircraft racing, located inside a shroud (or duct), driving a multiblade impeller at very high rpm (compared to propeller speed).

Bob Violett, a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, is one of the pioneering modelers in ducted fan technology and he has developed many refinements to the basic concept. He is also a big player in the turbine field today, and his performance at Top Gun shows why. Despite the intermittent south Florida rain showers, even experienced modelers stopped in their tracks to watch, and especially to listen, as Violett and Jerry Caudle started Caudle's turbine-powered TV-1.

Ah, that sound.

That wonderful hushed whining is punctuated only by an initial high-speed "zip" as compressed air from a pit-side cylinder starts the turbine's fan blades spinning. As the electronics are powered up and the pressurized fuel injection starts, the engine literally lights to life. A small puff of smoke signals the startup, and the unmistakable sound, similar to a large welding torch, is clearly audible. Far from loud, the sound is almost pleasant.

The TV-1 is ready. Standing within 20 feet of the tail end of the model, you can feel the heat from the exhaust on your face. The air is tinged with the acrid odor of propane fuel, similar to the smell of burning plastic. Violett and his pit crew disconnect the coiled cords attaching the starting box's electronics to the engine's sensors and ignition system, then the engine compartment hatches are replaced. He brings the turbine--now idling at 30,000 rpm--to its full throttle fan speed of over 100,000 rpm and back down again. The crowd pays attention. Even those who have seen these jets before know something special is about to happen. As with full-size turbine-powered aircraft, the model sits on the taxiway motionless until the engine characteristically builds enough thrust against the muggy tropical air to slowly begin its taxi to the active runway. The sleek model starts to move, taking several seconds to respond to the pilot's throttle commands as it turns out onto the centerline. Bringing it to a complete stop and applying the brakes, Violett spools up the jet engine to an ungodly speed. Brakes released, the initial takeoff roll begins slowly, but quickly progresses to flying speed. As the aircraft realistically rotates back onto the main gear, it breaks ground and heads for the looming yellow polo grounds scoreboard marking the end of the field. The gear are retracted and the flaps are slowly raised. This sophisticated miniature is on its way to another 180 mile-per-hour flight, and a first-place trophy.

Brian Beck is a freelance writer living near Detroit who has written frequently on R/C modeling during his 20 years in the sport.