Andy Woerner revs up the engine of his Eurofighter Typhoon. The fighter jet quickly gains speed as it rumbles down the runway. It lifts gracefully into the air, and Woerner banks the jet left before turning again to streak at low altitude over the field where it has just taken off.
Woerner manages all of this without ever leaving the ground himself. His hands firmly grasp a radio controller for the scale model of the aircraft used by NATO air forces in Europe. Capable of exceeding 200 mph, the Eurofighter Typhoon is one of several model jets Woerner owns.
“It’s got everything the real ones have, retractable landing gear, all of that,” Woerner said.
Well, there are no AMRAAM missiles or 20 mm Gatling gun cannons. But it does have a jet engine that runs on jet fuel. And with price tags ranging from $8,000 to $12,000, these model jets are anything but toys.
Woerner is president of the South Alabama Radio Controlled Modeler’s Club in Foley. Members have flown out of a field in Foley just a quarter-mile off State Highway 59 since the 1970s.
“We’re very lucky to have this field as convenient as it is,” said Tommy Patterson, the club’s vice president.
Model airplane enthusiasts have been in the news lately after becoming caught up with drone owners and forced to register with the Federal Aviation Administration. Basically, if it can be controlled from the ground and weighs more than half a pound, it must be registered.
While the government intrusion might rankle members, Patterson didn’t seem to think it would have much impact. Model fliers are not required to pass any kind of test or become certified for most models. Modelers are required to be certified to fly a model jet but that requirement was already in place.
Not all members are as serious about their hobby as Woerner. For about $400, a beginner can jump into model flying with a trainer powered by an electric engine fueled by rechargeable batteries. That will buy you a model airplane, a couple of batteries, a charger and a radio controller.
“You can’t go to Wal-Mart and buy something you are going to be successful with,” Patterson said. “Usually the smaller and the cheaper it is, the more difficult it is to fly.”
Novices can get help from experienced club members. Several club members serve as de facto instructors, and many club members are happy to help new people learn to fly and assist with equipment problems.
A gasoline-engine model would cost a minimum of $1,300 to $1,400, Patterson said. They come in several types including “scales,” with are scale models of actual aircraft and 3-D models designed for stunts and aerobatics.
For $60 a year and a $50 membership in the Academy of Model Aeronautics, members can use the 422-foot Bermuda grass field in Foley for takeoffs and landings. The club has about 50 members and its open to anyone who wants to join.
On a typical Saturday with good weather, 10-15 members will show up. Multiple members can fly simultaneously but doing so requires them to cooperate and communicate while flying.
“We’re a blue-collar club,” Patterson said. “We do all of our own grass-cutting and maintenance.”
Patterson, 65, stares into the splotchy sky with a look of intense concentration as he remotely pilots a 3-D model. He began flying radio-controlled model airplanes with his father 50 years ago. He flies a variety of aircraft powered by everything from electric motors to gasoline and glow plug engines. On this day, he’s also tinkering with a balky scale model of a World War II fighter plane called a P-47 Thunderbolt that’s had some engine trouble.
He tests the Thunderbolt thoroughly before putting it in the air. The last thing radio controlled airplane enthusiasts want to do is put one of their expensive models into flight with an unreliable engine. But crashes are a fact of life for even the best pilots and damaged and destroyed models are just part of the hobby.
“It’s inevitable,” club member Loren Henry of Fairhope said. “They all have a life expectancy. You just don’t know what it is.”
Members with the more complex models spend as much or more time with their airplanes on the ground, prepping them for flight, as they do flying. The ground next to the parking lot is covered with models of different sizes, shapes and colors. A bright silver model of a P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter, sits near a yellow and white 3-D plane. There are electric models, helicopters and quad copters commonly associated with drones.
Weather is a major limiting factor. This day is nearly perfect with puffy clouds blowing through a blue sky and an 8-10 mph wind from the south. Most members won’t fly in winds of more than 15 mph but Henry notes he has flown in winds of up to 20 mph.
Both model airplanes and radio controllers have come a long way. Technology enabling the use of electric engines and rechargeable batteries has made it much easier to get into the sport.
“Almost everybody is learning on an electric trainer,” Patterson said. “The technology for electric flight has gotten affordable and dependable in the last seven or eight years.
And they’re not just for beginners; experienced modelers fly them as well. But purists still gravitate toward gasoline and glow plug models, Patterson said.
“It has more to do with the noise,” Patterson said with a laugh. “An electric P-51 doesn’t make the roar we all want to hear.”
The reliable, easy-to-fly electric models are a far cry from the models Patterson flew when he was introduced to the sport.
“When I was growing up, you had to build your own planes,” Patterson said. “You had to build the frame out of wood and cover it. Cheap labor has allowed you to buy what they call an ‘ARF’ — almost ready to fly.”
Glow plug engines, which function somewhat like diesel engines, were originally the standard. But the specialized fuel became expensive, at about $20 per gallon. That prompted the development of gasoline engines that are more expensive but use cheaper fuel.
Likewise, radio controllers have become more reliable. In the past all of the modelers had to be on different radio frequencies. If a modeler was flying and another modeler turned a controller to the same frequency, the plane in the air would crash.
Today’s controller transmitters can be synced to the individual receiver in an aircraft. Multiple fliers can use the same frequency at the same time without interfering with each other. And the same controller can be used for multiple models.
Flight times vary with the type of model. Woerner’s jets have enough fuel to stay aloft eight to 10 minutes, depending on the maneuvers performed. Most of the electric and gasoline models can stay in the air between five and 10 minutes.
Insurance limits model speeds to 200 mph. The acrobatic 3-D planes fly around 50 mph while the scales can fly anywhere from 50 mph to 180 mph.
Members have different tastes. Henry prefers to fly the 3-D aircraft.
“It adds some excitement,” Henry said. “I like the excitement of different maneuvers and aerobatics.”
Eighty-four-year-old Ed Mundt returned to the hobby about five years ago after an almost 60-year absence. He enjoys electric 3-D planes, particularly those he pieces together himself out of Styrofoam and Monocoat finish.
“It’s a good hobby,” he said. “I enjoy building, too. It keeps my mind-eye-hand coordination together.”
Mundt is a certified firearms instructor and said he sees a similarity between shooting and flying. Both are distractions from the daily grind and ultimately serve as stress relievers.
“Shooting or flying a model airplane, you can’t do either one and think about a single one of your problems while you’re doing it,” Mundt said.
Woerner says support from his wife is one reason he can take the hobby to the high level he has. She bought him an enclosed trailer so he can transport his models safely. And when one of his expensive jets flamed out with an engine problem, she replaced it for him.
For Patterson, the flying is fun. But the people make the hobby enjoyable.
“You enjoy it because of the people you’re around,” Patterson said. “I’ve made friends all over the country because of that common interest, a lot of people I’d probably have never crossed paths with.”