PERRY —David Duarte put his first one in the air in 1964.
A 20-something Navy sailor, he was riding submarines then. With downtime to fill, he picked up a hobby.
“It took me about a month because I not only had to build the airplane, but I had to build the radio,” he said. “It was a Ken Willard Schoolboy, a popular model.”
Saturday, Duarte, who lives at Lake Tobesofkee, was among an estimated 4,000 model aircraft enthusiasts, or “modelers,” browsing the 2009 Southeastern Model Show, held Friday and Saturday at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter in Perry.
Like himself, many of the visitors had become fascinated with radio controlled and gas-powered versions decades ago as boys, teenagers and young men. Olden hobby shops sold kits with intricate plans that demanded time and patience — hours, weeks, even months spent grueling over a wooden “bird.”
And when it finally was made, the flight felt fantastic.
“It took me almost a year to build my first airplane,” said Norm Deputy, a member of the Georgia Aircraft Modelers Association. “Now they’re done in 18 hours. They call them ARFs: ‘almost ready to fly.’”
Deputy, whose Warner Robins-based group maintains an airfield on Vinson Road in Fort Valley, said model airplanes have become sharply more modern in recent years.
“The industry is really going electric,” he said, “and probably the largest portion of the planes run on nitro rather than gas.”
But it seems the reason people try their hand at the stock planes hasn’t changed.
“It’s a mechanical thing,” Deputy said. “It challenges you in your physical ability to fly these things without crashing them.”
The model show, reportedly the largest of its kind in the world, drew airplane hobbyists from across the country, including Ohio, Wyoming, California and Hawaii, and featured about 250 vendors at 1,024 tables in four showrooms.
Hodges Hobbies of Andersonville displayed the widest selection of airplane varieties, parts and accessories — 20 tables-worth.
“It’s the most amazing show I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Dr. Warren Chancey, an optometrist from Cordele. “Modelers are great people. Yes, most of them are pretty good guys.”
Chancey said he started attending a smaller version of the show in 1977 when it was at the Warner Robins Civic Center, and there were only eight tables.
He was happy to see some familiar faces Saturday.
“Another thing,” he said, “you’ll rarely find a modeler with Alzheimer’s. It’s great for the brain.”
Physicians also suggest building model airplanes as an activity for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, according to reports.
Planes sold at the show for $100 to thousands of dollars. There were vapors, or handhelds weighing less than a gram, and flying lawnmowers.
One man stood beside his feet-long, bright and shiny PT-22, proudly grinning.
“That’s a model of an airplane that taught a lot of World War II pilots as their basic trainer,” Duarte said.
Because hobbyists could bring in and trade or sell a used model, usually judged by its number of flights, the event was considered a swap meet and not a trade show.
Dave Thacker, who owns Radical RC in Dayton, Ohio, a model plane shop specializing in electricals, batteries and small parts, said he’s been coming to Perry for the last seven years.
“Most of the suppliers in this business are very small garage-size businesses,” he said. “By coming, I’m getting outside of my normal circle of customers because most of my business is online.”
A 25-year modeler, Thacker said he still finds the hobby challenging.
“You can never become an expert in every category. You’ll see kids and adults interact at a peer level,” he said.
“You’re not really judged by your age but by how well you fly.
There are about 2,500 model airplane clubs in the country, said Jim Cherry, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the model aviation association representing nearly 150,000 people.
“We have had a 70-plus-year history of great safety with our planes,” he said of the group, which is headquartered in Muncie, Ind.
Because of the success of unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, during combat in Iraq, Cherry said, the U.S. Government is considering using them more widely for civilian purposes, like fighting fires, in the United States. As a result, his organization is in talks with the FAA to determine how UAVs and model airplanes can share airspace, he said.
“We are working with them to establish those rules and regulations,” he said, “so that they don’t penalize us by restricting our flying.”
New on the plane front are helicopters, modelers say.
During one of the two flying demonstrations Saturday, the helicopter tricks seemed to draw the most gasps from the crowd.
“It’s the development of technical stuff, the hovering in space,” Cherry said. “You can fly them in your house and sit there in front of your television and see how the blades are tracking.
“The whole scenario has changed.”
To contact writer Ashley Tusan Joyner, call 744-4347.