Remote-controlled aircraft enthusiasts love to fly despite knowing disaster waits in the wings

photos by Clay Thorp

Amid the buzzing and whizzing of tiny propellers and some not-so-small helicopter blades, it’s a bit hard to hear a pilot tell the story of their latest, greatest miniature flyer. At the gathering of the Beaumont Radio Control Club on Folsom Drive each Saturday beginning at 9 a.m., some of the aircraft are small. Some are large. All are big fun.

Each plane or helicopter is customized to the pilot’s skill level and budget, with price tags ranging from a beginner’s $300 ready-to-fly plane to a GPS and gyro-enabled dual-rotor helicopter for $2,000, all the way up to a true jet turbine engine airplane for about $20,000.

“One of my helicopters, I put a camera like this on it and I do aerial photography,” said Chuck Nowell, the club’s president. “You’re not supposed to, but until they come tell me not to do it, I’m going to because Texas hasn’t passed a law saying you can’t.”

With a trailer full of airplanes and helicopters, both large and small, Nowell can put his decades behind a controller to good use. As he gasses up one of the larger, yellow aerobatic planes, he says the flier isn’t exactly the sedan of his numerous radio controlled aircraft.

“Meh, it’s kinda up there with the Ferraris and Lamborghinis,” he said.

As he stood maneuvering his helicopter, Carl Stewart donned a matching tan uniform and naval aviator hat he said was a gift.

“The reason I got this hat on is my son is a naval aviator,” Stewart said. “He left that at the house for me as a souvenir cause he knows I’m just so proud of him. So I thought today I’ll just wear it for some flying.”

But Stewart didn’t just dress the part.

As Stewart and other pilots stood in front of a custom runway at the Folsom Street airfield made specifically for radio controlled aircraft, each was intent on performing tricks for the small crowd that typically gathers during weekend meets. But the pilots are just as concerned with safety and not wrecking their expensive machines as they battle wind and the occasional malfunction.

“The wind is coming really to my face. I like to be going into the wind when I land, but it’s not letting me do that, so I’m just going to have to hover it to the ground,” Stewart said as he brought the helicopter down with a slight thud. “That’s enough of that.”

Others weren’t so lucky on Saturday, March 22.

As his red, white and blue “USA” airplane flew up and down, it was only a few minutes into Boyd Miers’ flight that the aerial acrobatics went awry. As he stood at the runway, help- less to stop it, his plane crashed straight into the ground as Miers quietly but disappointedly tried to work his controller and keep the plane in the air before it hit the ground.

Remote control aircraft pilots call this a “when” moment.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” said Mike Capo, the club’s vice president. “That’s exactly how it happens.”

When asked how the custom plane — now a mangled mess of parts and pieces — could have gone straight into the ground, Miers said his controller simply stopped working in the middle of a stunt.

“All four channels locked up,” he said. “I was at half, maybe three quarter throttle when I snapped it and when everything locked up, it just happened to be straight down, and that didn’t take long.”

The good thing about wrecking an airplane is, typically, owners can salvage important items such as batteries, servos and engines. Luckily, Miers was able to save much of the now destroyed plane’s important components.

“My son is already burning up my phone. I sent him a picture. He flies too. He asked me if I could rebuild it and I told him ,‘You can try. I’m not going to,’” Miers said, holding what was left of the plane’s engine and fuselage. “It was still turned on and the servos were still hooked up. I tried everything. I don’t know what happened. Everything still works. I don’t know. It just locked up completely.”

Brent Powell was sure to show off his Goblin 700 that day, and as he took off from the runway, the proud pilot held the controller out, demonstrating the aircraft’s ability to fly itself with the use of GPS. Not only can the helicopter fly itself, but the gyros attached to the craft also enable the lightweight but powerful helicopter to do loops, fly upside down and backward with ease — a feet largely impossible with a conventional helicopter. “It’s a fun sport, but it can be a very expensive sport. I’m only going on three years (flying),” Powell said. “One of the things that really helped me get my skills down was having a good gyro, and the GPS has helped a whole lot because if I get in an ‘Oh crap’ moment, I flip a switch and it’s level again or coming back to me. I’ve had it before where I was doing some tricks and I got it way over there and I lost orientation. I couldn’t tell if it was tail end, nose end, upside down or what. I flipped the switch, it went level and flew right back to me. That cost me just shy of $1,000.”

Powell and Miers, like every other pilot that day, said the wrecks and expense of piloting Beaumont’s radio controlled flyers are all part of the fun. They said the trick is just to accept that it will happen.

“It used to bother me a lot more,” Mier said.

“I’ve wrecked just about every- thing I’ve had,” Powell said.