Thursday, May 26, 2011
BIG BOY TOYS
Earthbound Jet Jockeys Caught in Dogfight With FAA
Hobbyists Flying Fastest Model Planes Resist Rules Aimed at Drones
LAKELAND, Fla.—Rod Snyder's Czech trainer jet executed several rolls and a high-speed pass at the Top Gun flying competition one recent sunny day at the airport here, but collapsed its landing gear on touchdown and skidded to a stop on its belly. The crowd gasped. Model-airplane buffs recently got together to show off their high-fliers at the Top Gun event in Lakeland, Fla.
"I just made a pilot error," said Mr. Snyder. "That should have been just a hard landing." He was unhurt in the crash, however, because he never left the ground. (click below to read more)
Mr. Snyder and others at this model air show flew their planes via radios, controlling altitude, speed, flaps and landing gear from small hand-held transmitter boxes resembling tricked-out Game Boys.
In recent years, model airplanes have evolved from balsa playthings into high-performance machines, thanks to new batteries, advanced propulsion, improved radio equipment and the same composite materials that are changing the design of full-scale jetliners.
Mr. Snyder's trainer, an L-39 Albatros, was powered by a small but real jet engine. Other planes at the competition had gasoline engines big enough for a motorcycle. Some can ascend thousands of feet, travel at 200 miles an hour and have wingspans of up to 20 feet.
With price tags reaching $50,000 for hand-built, scale models of actual aircraft, remote pilots take their hobby seriously. As Brian O'Meara, a 63-year-old owner of a Ford dealership in Denver, prepared for his flights at Top Gun, he insisted his F-84F Thunderstreak fighter jet model "is not a toy."
That's become a problem. After leaving this pastime alone for years, the Federal Aviation Administration is considering new regulations that could set strict limits on recreational model planes.
While the potential rules wouldn't affect most hobbyists, the uber-enthusiasts with the biggest, baddest planes are in a panic. Proposed rules could prohibit jet propulsion, set a 100 mph speed limit, maximum altitude of 400 feet and top weight of 55 pounds. If those standards were enacted, modelers who flouted them could face fines or other sanctions.
"We have a proven history of safe flying," said Andrew Levy, a Jupiter, Fla., surgeon who owns five model airplanes and three model helicopters. The government "shouldn't cut too wide of a swath and take away the fun."
Dr. Levy, 62, came to watch Top Gun, an annual invitation-only contest in which 120 pilots were judged on the historical veracity of their planes' appearance and style of flying. Realism is so prized that the planes carry pilot dolls wearing period uniforms in the cockpits, and some have wartime "pin-up girls" painted on the fuselage.
Pilots impressed judges and spectators with maneuvers like the split S or the half-reverse Cuban eight, while others dropped mock bombs on the field. Fliers came from as far away as Thailand, Brazil and Italy to compete for a top prize of $1,300.
The trouble for such enthusiasts started in 2008, when the FAA convened an expert panel of government agencies, academics, trade groups and full-scale airplane owners and pilots to look at how to integrate drones, or small unmanned aircraft, into the crowded U.S. airspace. Pioneered by the military, the drones are now showing promise for a host of uses from police surveillance to tracking forest fires to aerial photography.
Unexpectedly, some on the panel in 2009 recommended that the FAA extend drone rules to model airplanes—over the objections of a model-plane representative in the group. The two airborne vehicles aren't dissimilar, although models are flown within line-of-sight while the drones are guided by pilots at farther remove on the ground and have the potential for autonomous flight and navigation.
"We got dragged into the regulatory process, maybe unintentionally," says Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The Muncie, Ind., hobby group self-polices model flying and supplies liability insurance to its 140,000 members—99% men with an average age of 58.
Members joined in a letter-writing campaign earlier this year to persuade Congress to exempt model planes from new regulations.
The FAA said it expects to issue its proposed rules later this year. "Hobbyists who fly high-end radio-controlled planes will be able to comment" on the rules before final adoption, an FAA spokesman said.
The Academy says only four people in the U.S. have been killed since 1965 by out-of-control model aircraft. At Top Gun and other meets, spotters work with pilots and controllers give instructions to keep planes from crashing into each other. Indeed, this event took place on a large field at the far end of the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, whose tower closed one approach path to full-scale planes to keep them out of the way.
Model airplanes have a longer history than manned flight, and the idea has been around for centuries before that. Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century drawings are considered by some to be precursors of model building.
Flying today's advanced radio-controlled planes can challenge the best teams. At Top Gun, Michael Selby, head of the agency that manages wealth for the Thai royal family, brought in from Bangkok his scale F-111 Aardvark, a Vietnam-era fighter bomber he designed and built from scratch. Mr. Selby had his friend, Raymond Johns, a four-star U.S. Air Force general, pilot the plane.
On Team Aardvark's first flight, the plane performed a dizzying set of maneuvers, but came in to land hot and overshot the mark. "We lost the speed brake," Mr. Selby growled.
The prospect of FAA regulation was a turbocharged topic at the five-day event.
"We're being thrown in with the professional drone crowd and being regulated for what appears to me to be no good reason," said Dennis Crooks, a retired farm manager from Rockville, Ind. He griped that his C-123 Provider, a four-engine cargo plane model that weighs 97 pounds, might be relegated to a museum piece.
"It puts all of this out of business," said Bob Violett, whose Winter Springs, Fla., company, BVM Jets, makes and distributes pricey model kits and engines, of the potential regulations.
"This is my golf game," said Mr. Snyder, who lost the landing gear on his Czech trainer. Owner of a sign manufacturer in Johnson City, Tenn., the 52-year-old soon had the plane flying again after installing spare parts. "I practice," he said. "This is what I do."