Houston & Peach

Hobbyists take to the skies with their addiction

FORT VALLEY -- Some pilots of remote-controlled airplanes readily admit they’re addicted to the hobby, but they also seem to think it’s just plane fun.

On Sunday afternoon, Dan Crews of Warner Robins found himself at Deputy Field near Fort Valley. That happens often; Dan Crews said he finds himself flying two or three times a week, every week, and expects he’ll never quit.

“If you get bored with everything, there’s always something new on the horizon,” said Crews, who can spend up to an hour flying a glider around, or take a few minutes with a small quadrocopter.

As dusk fell, Crews brought out a medium-sized airplane made of foam, with lights inside the hollow foam wings. The plane glowed white and showed off red and blue stripes, looking quite patriotic.

Asked if he was hooked, Dan Crews replied, “Yeah.” His wife, Nancy, took the time to stop painting and scoff at the level of his addiction: “Birthday shopping, Christmas shopping has gotten so much easier,” she said. She just tells him to buy something he wants. He now does much the same for her painting supplies.

But while Dan Crews enjoys the leisurely glider flights, on Sunday he was flying at the same time as Ryan Evans, who brought an airplane from Pennsylvania to fly while he was visiting his native Macon. Evans also admits he’s hooked -- but he turned it into a career that’s led him to train Navy sailors and Marines to fly unmanned aerial systems, as he calls what many people might call drones.

For fun, though, he flies remote-controlled airplanes that typically have a two-cylinder engine; one has a 124-inch wingspan, making it a bit more than 10 feet wide.

“Aerobatics is my passion. It’s been fun. I started when I was 9. (I’m) 34 now,” said Evans, who grew up flying from a long-gone field at Allied Industrial Park. With his hands at the control, his airplane took off from the ground, rolled and stopped in 45-degree increments until it was flying upside down, then zoomed up into the sky. On another flight, the airplane hung from its propeller, slowly twirling, until he nosed it over and took off for another high-speed flight. One flight came to an end when he ran out of fuel; the wind whistled along the wings as Evans brought it around for a perfect dead-stick landing.

Others have been less successful.

On Sunday, as other Georgia Aircraft Modelers Association pilots shouted out warnings, an airplane smacked into the ground well away from people with a curious sound. The back half of the plane appeared to be in perfect shape. The wings were broken in half, and the front half was shattered into pieces.

Tommy Grantham of Macon had done it again.

“I’ve crashed probably 50 or 60 planes,” said Grantham, who has been flying about 10 years. The plane he destroyed Sunday he’d bought, along with another airplane, two motors and parts, for just $25 from a Robins Air Force Base airman who was moving on.

“I crash pretty regularly so I don’t usually buy any new planes,” Grantham explained.

Glen McCardle of Warner Robins started in model airplanes in 1973, and once went a decade without flying, even though he kept reading magazines about the model airplanes.

Will he quit again?

“Never. Most of us out here are really just never going to grow up,” said McCardle, 63.

McCardle, who retired this year from a job in electronic warfare at Robins Air Force Base, said before he’d gotten into remote-controlled airplanes hobbyists would have had to build their own radios. Radios haven’t been a problem in decades, and few people assemble their own airplanes any more, he said. Hobbyists can simply buy ARFs -- almost-ready-to-fly packages -- that get them in the air in minutes. He likes building his own.

On Sunday, McCardle was flying a model airplane that resembled a real plane first built in the 1960s, though it was designed to look like it was built in the 1930s. He was assisted into the air several times by Johnnie Edwards of Macon, a maintenance electrician who kept his plane from moving into him as he started the engine and checked some settings.

Edwards, a 13-year flyer, isn’t likely to leave the hobby behind.

“I just fly every Sunday, whether I need to or not,” he declared.

He said he’s always glad to see his friends at the field, and there’s always something different to look at. Some hobbyists have made flying surfboards, flying dog houses, flying lawn mowers. He built a plane from scratch clocked at 122 mph; another pilot flies a nearly similar airplane but with almost twice as much engine.

On Sunday Edwards was also flying a small quadrocopter -- a four-rotored helicopter that can land in the palm of his hand. His machine sells for less than $100 and includes a video camera, he said. It’s also tough to damage, unlike some other aircraft.

“You know you had a good day flying,” he said, “when you take all your planes home in one piece.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.