Club takes hobby to lofty heights

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2003

"Reverse Cuban eight."

The terse words carry over Lenny Perry's shoulders from behind as a sharp buzz penetrates the air of the cotton-clouded blue Sunday morning sky from above. That buzz is created by a canary yellow, red-and-blue-striped aircraft that twists and dances overhead following Perry's every whim, and in time to the commands he is given from a caller Mark Carr who stands just to the left and behind Perry.

Above, the brightly painted plane goes through its paces, pointing 45 degrees upward and flipping upside down before nosing toward the ground and leveling out to repeat the maneuver and complete a sideways figure eight.

"Stall turn," Carr calls.

Perry fingers the metal rods protruding from the black radio box he partly holds it also is suspended from a black cord and hook hung around his neck as he gazes skyward at his prized possession executing the next command.

Meanwhile, the plane zooms across the stratosphere level with the earth, then suddenly aims straight up. It climbs for several hundred feet before the sound of the engine suddenly dissipates. Gravity and the absence of thrust turn the plane earthward and it plummets down before finally pulling out of the dive and level to the ground when the engine hums back to life.


Field's plane, a Hanger 9 Ultra Stick, approaches the tarmac on its way to a landing.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

He doesn't seem to acknowledge Carr's instructions, but Perry hears them. He just keeps his eyes skyward, focusing attention on a passion for model airplanes he's had since childhood. His gaze remains transfixed on the current darting embodiment of his passion, his SIG CAP 231 EX a 30 percent scale, fully functioning model of a real CAP single propeller airplane while it carves out patterns in the air overhead as he commands it from below with the hand-held radio control box. On the ground, the plane is almost 3-feet long from nose to tail with about a 90-inch wingspan. In the air it is a miniature extension of Perry's will and concentration, zipping to and fro on Perry's guidance.

Perry is one of a handful of Kenai Peninsula's miniature airplane pilots who share a love for flying models and devote time and resources to crafting working models that replicate the actions of life-sized avionics.

Perry is the third in what is now four generations of Perry men who build and fly model airplanes. His father, Ed Perry, got him started at age 5, and Perry says his grandfather introduced Ed to the hobby. Now Perry's two oldest children, 14- and 12-year-old boys, are getting involved.

"I had no choice in the matter," Perry says while taking a break from flying. "Since their dad is in it, they'll want to be, too. Either I got them airplanes or they'd take mine out."

Recalling his first unauthorized outing with his father's remote-controlled plane, Perry thought letting his sons take his planes out could be hazardous.

"He was out on the platform working when I went to try to fly his plane," Perry said. "And I wrecked it. That's when my dad knew I had to have my own."

Getting his own first model did not come without a price, however.

"I still keep parts of that plane to remind me of the abuse I took for wrecking his," he jokes.

Now, at age 31, the Soldotna husband and father of three spends much of his free time away from his job on the North Slope working on model planes either building, repairing or updating them in his garage at home.


Dave Unruh's Model Tech scale model CAP 21 mimics a full-size plane.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I probably spend 85 percent of my time doing this," Perry says, joking that his wife sometimes levies threats about the remaining 15 percent his family might get. "She said if I don't get my ass out of the garage "

On any given Saturday or Sunday morning, it is not rare to find at least a handful of men out at the east end of the Soldotna Municipal Airport, eyes aimed at the heavens, tracing the movement of one or more RC planes darting across the stratosphere or prancing just above the airport real estate. And like Perry, they are inspired by their passion for model airplanes.

"I like to see them fly," said Bill Egbert, a 15-year model enthusiast who lives in Nikiski. "I usually can't wait for the weather to clear so I can get out with the planes."

Egbert, Perry and Carr are members of the Peninsula Modelers Association, a nearly 30-year-old chapter of the national organization for model aircraft enthusiasts, the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Both the local and national organization offer fellowship for those with like interests in airplane modeling, as well as a source for building and repair help and ideas. Along with general networking, affiliation with the national organization through either the local group or the statewide Alaska Radio Control Society also affords benefits like insurance, contest awards, safety training, assistance with acquiring flight locations, directing modelers to appropriate radio control frequencies and group discounts on the expensive methanol fuel that many of the model planes use (often as much as $25 per gallon).

The peninsula club was founded in 1974 as the North Kenai Model Airplane club by a handful of modelers, including Ed Perry. The group got together frequently at the large field next to what is now the Agrium Kenai Nitrogen Operations facility. Eventually, the group moved to the Soldotna airport and adopted its current name, as well as two other flying locations the latest one behind Wildwood Correctional Facility in Kenai. Annual dues are $40 to support the capital expenses the group has, such as paying for the space they use for flying, snow plowing runway space in the winter and purchasing methanol fuel at a bulk rate of $15 per gallon.

This particular Sunday, the Peninsula Modelers are hosting their first pattern competition of the year and a handful of participants showed up from Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley area. Also present are several members of the peninsula group. A maximum of 10 points is possible for each maneuver, including takeoff and landing. Carr says aside from those two moves, it is difficult to get 10's on any other maneuvers. He continues to dictate Aresti instructions, maneuvers originated from World War I flyers, off the small card he holds in his hand.

"Bunt with half roll out," Carr says. Perry's SIG flies out of its bee-line pattern and turns toward the ground in an arc that swings it back into a straight path going the opposite direction, before righting itself from upside-down flight.

The aircraft modelers work with include the scaled, gas-powered IMACs (International Miniature Aerobatic Club), like ones both Perry and Carr own smaller, pattern planes with narrower bodies and lighter engines and fun-fly planes that have shorter wingspans and can perform more elaborate tricks and maneuvers like hovering and close spiral loop-de-loops. Modelers also work with model rockets, gliders and helicopters.


Dave Unruh's Berkeley Brigadier controls the sky during a flight last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"There's kind of something for everyone," said Egbert, the local president. "Some people like to build them and don't care much for flying. Some people like to fly and don't care much for building. "Putting together the model planes can be a labor of love, often costing tremendous time or money. Plane kits can come completely disassembled, requiring upwards of 40 hours to complete, or they can be bought from hobby shops or on-line in "almost ready to fly" kits that may take between eight and 10 hours to assemble. And the kits can cost between a few hundred dollars to more than $6,000 for a model like Perry's.

But there are other ways to get into modeling. Aaron Casebeer, of Kenai, who's been flying for a little over two years, says he bought his plane at a garage sale nearly nine years ago. Looking less like a uniformed model of an airplane and more like a patchwork assortment of mitch-match salvaged parts, Casebeer's flying machine is made mostly from fiber glass material generally used for plumbing.

Carr is a pilot and says flying model planes, particularly the scaled designs, has an important application to true-life aviation. He says full-size plane designers work around IMACs to build planes that are safer and more weather responsive.

"Being able to see the planes on the outside is helpful to pilots," Carr says while away from his duties as a caller. "You see what happens when you stall it. You can watch it and think about left to right and what happens to it in the wind."

Carr suggests learning to fly model planes before learning to fly a real one.

"People I've told that to were able to get their pilot's license quicker," he said. "Most of the guys out here are pilots or aspiring pilots. It definitely helps."


Photo by M. Scott Moon

Gary Miller, right, helps his grandson Kevin Oelrich navigate Miller's remote control plane across the tarmac as Doug Field watches. Miller said he expected to have Oelrich flying before the summer was complete.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Winding down Perry's competition run, Carr calls out the final instructions for execution.

"Push-pull-pull Humpty-Bump," he calls.

Perry's aircraft motors across the sky and turns up in a right angle, scaling the atmosphere before banking into a topside arc over the earth, then returning to the ground to complete another right-angle turn out of the dive, back level with the earth and moving in the same direction it began.

"Avalanche, upright," Mark continues.

The model noses up into a circular loop, executing a quick 360-degree snap turn at the highest, center-most peak of the loop, before returning to earth to complete the maneuver.

Several more moves are ordered and completed before Carr calls for a landing. The SIG drifts toward the tarmac until it is two meters from the ground. There, the model flares to a nose-high attitude, dissipating flying speed, then smoothly touches the ground within the 30-meter landing zone with the main two wheels first, and the trailing wheel touching down behind it.


Doug Field uses an 8-channel radio to control different functions of his plane. Some planes have just a few flight controls while others are much more complex.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Once the plane has slowed below flying speed and has rolled straight for 15 meters, the maneuver, and the exercise, is over.

"I guess we can give you a 10 on that landing," one of the judges jokes from behind Carr and Perry.

Knowing that he is the only IMAC competitor this day and thus, the winner by default, Perry responds.

"Any landing that isn't a crash is perfect in my book."

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