Aug. 4, 2018 — “Okay, let’s fire it up,” Lou Morales said as we walked toward the radio-controlled aircraft.
We were standing at the north end of the Florence Municipal Airport with the Florence Area Radio Control Aircraft Association (FARCAA). About a dozen members had a variety of tiny planes spread out across the grassy field, representing aircraft from all eras from aviation.
I was going to be piloting a trainer plane — cheap, made of foam and easily repairable if things went south on my first flying attempt.
“Maybe you’re a ringer and have been doing this for years,” Morales optimistically told me.
In fact, I knew nothing about the hobby of RC aircraft.
“My plane is going down,” I told him.
Morales, the president of the association, had my back.
“Everybody says, ‘I’m going to crash it,’ but I’ll be able to take over whenever there’s a problem.” he said.
There were two remote controls, one I would be using to steer the plane, and another that Morales would use to bail me out when things got dicey.
“These two radios are linked together,” he said. “There’s a master and a slave. You’ll be the slave.”
He stopped for a moment, laughed.
“Well, let’s say there’s an instructor and a student, that’s probably better. If you get yourself up there and things go crazy, I’ll take over and pull out of the dive, or the tree, or whatever you did. We find that we can teach people without the cost of constantly crashing a plane.”
Even with the assurances, I was nervous.
I wasn’t expecting to be flying a plane that morning. There were only a few facts I knew about FARCAA: Members of the club meet and fly at the airport early on Sunday and Monday morn-ings all year, and Wednesdays and Fridays during the summer. They also periodically meet at Woahink Lake to fly their model seaplanes.
I had seen their exhibitions at the annual Wings and Wheels showcase, and always thought the hobby looked fascinating, but I had never actually tried it myself.
I didn’t think this day would change that. My assignment was to show up, take some pictures, and talk about why people liked the hobby.
“Well, you’re actually going to fly a plane,” Morales told me as I arrived at the airport.
He smiled and assured me it would be okay. Half-hour later, I was standing in the airfield holding my remote control.
Just before that moment, I asked Morales how long RCs stay in the air. Generally, a standard battery will hold anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes of battery time, though that depends greatly on the build of the plane. One member of the team had a plane that stayed up for an hour. In 2013, a legally blind and mostly deaf man from Maryland flew a model plane across the Atlantic, but for the most part, flyers stick to around 10 minutes.
“That’s it, just 10?” I asked. Sounded like a rip-off.
“Wait ‘till you try it,” Morales said. “Your brain is tired in about three minutes. You’re up there, concentrating, and you think, ‘When is it time for me to land because I’m getting tired.’ You don’t need these long amounts of time.”
Yeah, whatever pal. I’ve been playing eight-hour, high octane marathons of Pac-Man since I was knee high. I think I got this.
But then I looked at the RC controls. Everything was controllable: Flaps, rudders, elevator, rim. It even had an autopilot.
“It has everything that you would find in a full-scale airplane, except there’s nobody in it,” Morales said.
Well, there were the three yellow Minions Morales had in his own model plane. He said that counted.
The trainer plane was placed on the tiny runway, the small electric motor “roared” to life. Morales slowly turned the plane to the north, picked up speed, and soon the plane was in the air.
“Okay, so I’m going to bring it around,” he said. The plan was for me to make simple circles in the air. I watched nervously has the plane worked its way just in front of us, which is when I was to take over.
“Just a second here, are you ready?” he asked, just before switching the plane to my controller. “You got it!”
I took over piloting.
“Okay, start taking a left turn,” he instructed.
I started to take my left turn.
“No, your other left,” he calmly said.
I grimaced in embarrassment, trying to turn to my other left. The plane took a nosedive instead. “Okay, I’m going to bail you out,” Morales cheerfully said as he took over with his controller, piloting the plane around so I could get another crack at it.
Thirty seconds in and my brain hurt. This was not Pac-Man, and I had no confidence this was going to end well.
Morales started flying RC’s back when they weren’t RC’s. They were gas powered model planes, attached by wires to the controllers. Pilots had a handle which controlled the up and down, and just turned around in circles as they watched the plane go.
Fellow RC pilot Gene Wobbe’s passion for the hobby also started when he was young.
“I grew up around airports,” he said. “No matter where we lived, it was near an airport. For the biggest part of my life, it was around the Eugene Airport. You saw the airplanes flying, and it was just a natural attraction. It was my fascination with airplanes as a youngster.”
But then life got in the way for Wobbe and Morales, work, family. No time for the hobby.
“I got back into it when radio control became readily available and the price came down when the early research and technology development was out of it,” Wobbe said. “Now it’s affordable. I can order a p-51 or a p-47 and don’t have to worry about the costs.”
A lot of the attraction of the hobby comes from the intricacies of building the planes. There are many different styles around, ready to go trainer planes that go for as little as $300. Then there are the ARFs.
“That stands for Almost Ready to Fly,” Morales said. “They’re halfway built, which will cost a little bit more because it cost someone to halfway build it. I don’t have the patience to build it from scratch, Gene does. I have to start when it’s halfway built because I know, in five hours, I’m in the air.”
“The planes I have a connection to are the ones I built from a kit,” Wobbe said. “The little pieces built from the ground up. Those I cherish.”
This isn’t to say that ARFs are ready to go out of the box. There’s still a lot of work that goes into building them, which Morales, a retired dentist, loves.
“I guess a lot of us like tinkering with our fingers,” he said. “We like building and playing. It’s kind of carried on with me being a dentist. This is good for the mind. You have to figure out how you’re going to hook it up, balance the weight properly so it flies right.
“You don’t have to be an athlete and lift 300 pounds. This is a fun hobby to get into.”
And tinkering is also helpful in crashes.
“How many bad spills do you take in a month?” I asked.
“Ugh,” Wobbe asked. “You had to ask.
Morales said that he and Wobbe hadn’t had a bad spill for a long time, though Wobbe said he over-shot the runway once.
“That doesn’t count,” Morales said.
Morales turned to fellow flyer Ron Hokanson, saying, “Okay Ron, time for some honesty.”
“I crashed three planes in one day one time,” he said, laughing at himself. “It was terrible.”
He pointed to a grove of trees across the field, saying that around eight planes have been trapped in the branches over the years.
“The wind blows them out, usually,” he said. “One guy hired a tree trimmer to climb up and get one from him.”
And then there’s the dreaded windsock at the end of the runway. Hokanson said everybody’s hit that at least once.
“I have,” Morales said.
“I haven’t,” Wobbe said.
“Well I have,” Hokanson laughed. “You said honesty.”
“Well, that’s enough honesty for today,” Morales said.
There were a bunch of phrases thrown out. “Sooner or later gravity wins.” “Takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory.” My favorite excuse was, “There’s no such thing as gravity, it’s the air that sucks.”
Whatever the excuse, planes will crash, which is where the tinkering comes in.
“Gorilla glue is your best friend,” Hokanson said.
I didn’t see any planes crash and burn that day, and the group is very proud of their safety rec-ord, both with RC planes and the real deal.
Safety is broken up into three areas. First, they always have someone sitting in a chair, looking for problems with RC fliers, or full-size planes come in. Second, they have someone listening on a radio for pilots coming in. If an airplane signals they’re coming in for a landing, down go the RCs.
“And the third thing, which has never been used, is called the fly-away procedure,” Morales said. “If a plane shows up and nobody knew it was coming, everybody flies toward those trees and circles around, off property. It’s never been done, but everybody knows about it.”
Safety is of utmost importance for the group, but in the days of drones, the friendly skies are becoming the wild west.
“The FAA is starting to play around with requirements because of drones and quads,” Morales said. “They put in cameras, go into people’s back yards, and all sorts of terrible things.”
Just last year, a Utah mother of six and her boyfriend were charged with using a drone to peep into the bathrooms and bedrooms of neighbors.
“Then there’s flying under the Golden Gate Bridge and around the Statue of Liberty,” Morales said.
This is not to say that all drone flyers are a bunch of jerks, but there certainly are a fair share of bad apples.
“People ignore the rules, and we end up worrying about our hobby because if the FAA really starts clamping down on everything, we’re in trouble,” Wobbe said.
Morales said that the best way to combat this is by having clubs like FARCAA, which can regulate how flyers navigate the air. Morales said it would be a good idea to have people sign up for clubs when they buy their RCs, but that leads into an entirely different problem: Hobby stores are becoming extinct.
“There’s less and less, but isn’t that the way of things?” Morales said. “It’s all online. We had one here, that’s closed down. There are good ones in Eugene and Corvallis, but they’re having issues. Online is taking over everything, like it did for clothes and shoes and everything else.”
There’s something lost in that personal exchange. You can’t chat with an expert like you could before, get hands on experience, ask detailed questions.
“There’s people behind the counter who have been flying for 30 years, and you can ask them anything,” Morales said.
“People give me information that is completely wrong,” he said.
Which is what makes clubs like FARCAA so important. It gives novices like myself a chance to learn from friends about the hobby. I felt like I was in good hands.
And they have insurance covering hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That made me feel better too.
“How fast do these go?” I asked Wobbe, preparing to start my first flight.
“Some of them will do up over 100 mph,” he answered.
“Wait, what? 100? Seriously?”
I had a vision of my editor writing the headline, “Reporter kills two with speeding RC plane.”
“Most of them are flying the 50 to 60 mph range,” Wobbe said.
That made me feel better, until I started taking the nose dive while flying.
“Okay, I’m going to bail you out now,” Morales said as he leveled out my plane.
I just kept repeating the words “Oh, jeez” over and over again.
“See, that’s what keeps you from crashing your first plane,” Morales said. “You have somebody helping you. So, I’m going to bring it around again, and I’m always going to bring it around to the same place until you make a successful turn, and then you’ll keep flying. You ready?”
No, but I said yes.
“Okay, you got it,” he said, handing over control to me again. “Gentle. That’s it. You’re making that turn. Level it out a little … Or just finish your turn, then ... Okay, I’m going to take it. We try not to fly over people.”
I took over again. There was no way I was going to crash it. I decided to go up. And up. And up some more.
“You know there’s a cloud up there, right?” Morales asked as everyone laughed.
“This is hard!” I yelled while laughing. But I leveled it out.
“You’ve got it!” Morales said. “That was a good recovery, level the wings. Excellent! Now fly straight for a while, then start turning. Turn, turn. Perfect! Now, level the wings. Perfect! Jared, I haven’t helped you for about 30 seconds.”
That 30 seconds seemed like a lifetime, but I was so proud when he said that. I was flying high.
“We’re getting low on battery, so I’m going to land it,” Morales said.
“Oh, thank God,” I quickly said. Seriously, this was nerve wracking.
“Your brain is already saying, ‘That’s enough,’ am I right?” Morales asked me.
“Oh, yes you are!” I replied.
I imagined what it would be like if there were actual people in the plane I was flying. The oxygen masks would have been deployed 20 seconds in, the vomit bags used up by minute three.
But when Morales gently landed the plane, it was as if the terrors in the sky never happened.
“Okay, you got it down in one piece!” Morales said. “Congratulations student pilot. Nice job! I’ll tell you, for your very first time, you did great.”
“Great” is debatable.
I would have crashed and burned if it wasn’t for their expertise and camaraderie. But to be honest, as I waved goodbye to Morales, Wobbe, Hokanson and the rest of the FARCAA fliers, all I could think about was turning right around again, picking up the remote control and getting ready for Morales to say again, “Okay, let’s fire it up.”