For the love of flying: A day with the Mid-Coast Radio Control Club

By Louis Bettcher | Aug 10, 2017
Photo by: Louis Bettcher A variety of radio-controlled model airplanes owned by members of the Mid-Coast Radio Control Club are displayed in Union Aug. 6.

Union — Driving through Union on Route 17, passersby can often glimpse an array of colorful model airplanes taking off from a tightly clipped field on a grassy hillside.

Since the late 1970s, the Mid-Coast Radio Control Club has been devoted to building and flying planes, which vary in size, shape and engine type. Each weekend, weather permitting, club members from near and far gather, share information and carefully take their aircraft to the sky.

My curiosity had been piqued over the years, seeing the planes several times while traversing Route 17. The club's current president, Greg Morse, invited me to visit the “air field,” and Aug. 6 I met with him and a handful of other model plane enthusiasts, who shared with me their passion for the hobby and even let me try my hand at flying.

Upon my arrival, I was immediately struck by how large and detailed these planes were, having previously only seen them from afar. Most of the planes have a wingspan of 4 to 5 feet, with some members owning planes with wingspans as large as 8 feet.

Many of the planes were built by the members themselves, from metal, plastic, balsa wood or Styrofoam, and replicate everything from World War II fighter planes to modern-day gliders. Intricately painted, with automated wing flaps and even landing gear, some of the planes also feature to-scale pilot figures within their plexiglass cockpits.

An orange wind sock at the edge of the field shows the direction of the breeze, and planes are re-fueled and have their engines and motorized gear meticulously tested as the pilots prepare them for flight. This truly feels like a miniature airport, complete with a club house and benches for spectators to watch the planes or wait for their opportunity to taxi down the runway.

Morse, who has also served as an instructor to new radio control pilots, explained that all of the MCRCC members purchase annual memberships from the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA charters 2,400 clubs throughout the United States, and helps provide guidelines, insurance and lobbying support to members. In addition, the membership includes a subscription to Model Aviation magazine, which many of the MCRCC members read to stay abreast of current trends in model flying.

Morse, who travels to Union from Swanville each weekend with this planes, said the knowledge and support shared by members in the group is invaluable for someone picking up the hobby for the first time.

“You can teach yourself to fly, but it'll be expensive: if you don't know what you're doing, you'll crash your plane. It's good to get involved with a club and befriend someone — they can steer you in the right direction, and if you go to a swap meet together (to look for a plane), like bringing your mechanic to a car auction, they can tell you what to avoid and what would be a good buy,” said Morse.

The planes run on one of three power sources: gasoline, batteries, or “glow fuel,” a fuel specially blended for model plane engines and given its name because of its bright green color. A prospective pilot must choose a frame for the plane, an engine, servos (the mechanisms that control the wing flaps) and a remote and receiver before they are ready to fly. As a result, a plane can cost anywhere from around $300 or $400 to many thousands of dollars when all is said and done.

Having made that kind of investment, and created something so detailed, it seems that it would be heartbreaking to crash a plane, or lose it in the forest of tall trees that abuts the property.

“Never get too attached to your plane,” said Morse. “It's not a question of 'if' — it's 'when' you'll crash.” Nonetheless, MCRCC members have spent hours walking to help someone find a plane that took a turn into the woods, and have even called upon an arborist to help free a plane from branches. To reduce costs, many members attend model plane swap meets, where they can find good deals on used planes and parts.

The planes are controlled with a remote control that features two levers, one on either side. One lever controls the throttle, while the other moves the nose of the plane up or down, and makes it turn to either side by moving the flaps on either wing. Morse said in his experience, young pilots have proved quite adept with this setup, because of their background with video-game controllers.

Asked what the range of the controllers is, Morse said the distance between plane and controller is limitless “but you can only fly a plane if you can still see it.” This safety caveat was echoed by many of the other members, who said that concentration on the plane, keeping it out in front of you with your vision and concentration unwavering, is required for a safe and successful flight.

“For me, this is a hobby, and is something to do in my spare time. I've always loved airplanes, but the cost to get a pilot's license was prohibitive. I also like building things, and I get a lot of satisfaction from putting a plane together myself,” said Morse, who also constructed a number of customized wooden stands for use by the club, which cradle the planes while they are refueled and prepared for takeoff.

I watched the other men fly their planes, performing acrobatic acts in the air, complete with on-demand smoke trails, creating loops and patterns in the sky. Although excited to try to fly one of them, I was nervous that I would ruin someone's plane within seconds of handling the controller.

Fortunately for me, Morse had brought with him a “trainer plane,” which was bright red and appeared to have a wingspan of about 5 feet. The trainer is different from the other model planes because it can receive signals from two remote controls: one held by the novice, and one by a more experienced person, who can flip a switch and take control of the aircraft at any time.

The club meets early in the morning on weekends, because the wind is generally the calmest at this time. On the morning I attended, however, an ominous breeze was present, and some MCRCC members were waiting to fly their more specialized planes, not wanting to risk the turbulent conditions.

Morse was undeterred by the wind, and was gracious enough to let me partake in the experience (and risk his plane in the process). Once the plane was up in the sky, Morse made a couple of laps back and forth above the property so that I had an opportunity to familiarize myself with the controls.

“OK, are you ready?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster, not revealing the fact that my palms were sweating.

With the flick of a switch, the plane came under my control. Morse had warned me that the levers on the controller were very sensitive, and the slightest push in one direction or the other would yield a big change in the sky. Apparently I had to see this for myself, because within moments I was heading dangerously close to a nearby house. I attempted to turn the plane around, and it began a swift jaunt toward the forest.

“OK, back to me,” Morse said, and was able to bring the plane back under control, averting any risk of incident and doing so effortlessly. Once it was flying level and smoothly, he switched it back over to me. This interlude continued for several minutes, during which time I enjoyed some relaxing flying, primarily because I let the plane fly straight on its course once Morse had handed it over to me. When it came time for me to turn or adjust altitude, however, I had more difficulty, and at one point it looked as if the plane was going to dive-bomb some of the members who had taken a seat beneath a nearby tree in relative safety as I attempted to fly.

All accidents deterred, thanks to Morse's skillful hand, he landed the plane and I was left with an adrenaline rush and a greater appreciation for the hobby. It is truly a delicate dance the MCRCC pilots perform with these aircraft, using what Morse referred to as “muscle memory” to instinctively know how to handle their planes and adjust their navigation movements in accordance with the wind.

As I was unwinding from my brief term as a pilot, MCRCC member Lloyd Roberts showed me his battery-powered model glider. Fashioned from Styrofoam, the glider is so light that Roberts launched it into the air with one hand, and then controlled it with his remote as it climbed smoothly through the sky.

“Sometimes you'll see hawks fly next to your plane. They'll think that maybe you've found a good pocket of air, and then will follow you. It's a pretty terrific sight. Of course, they'll leave if they notice after a while that you don't know what you're doing,” said Roberts with a laugh.

The MCRCC meets at the airfield in Union early on most Saturdays and Sundays if the weather is conducive to flying, and planes can often be seen taking to the skies throughout the seasons. In winters past, Morse said, he has even placed “skis” on the bottom of a plane or taken off from floats to enjoy a flight during the months that the ground is blanketed with snow. In inclement weather, members have also flown their planes indoors at The Pitch recreation center in Warren.

Courier Publications reporter Louis Bettcher can be reached at 594-4401 or by email at lbettcher@villagesoup.com.

Greg Morse, president of the Mid-Coast Radio Control Club, prepares the trainer plane for flight. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
MCRCC members Carl Ingerson, left, and Roger Shaw work on a plane. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
A model airplane takes flight Aug. 6. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
A view of the model airplane airfield in Union used by the Mid-Coast Radio Control Club. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
A trail of smoke follows a plane as it prepares to perform a roll in the sky. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
Many of the planes feature miniature pilots in their cockpits. (Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
(Photo by: Louis Bettcher)
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