FLIGHTS OF FANCY by David Barrow

 Learning to fly and then taking up flying as a hobby is a most expensive exercise. But it doesn’t have to be if you are prepared to trade the real thing for models where the thrills and challenges can be equally demanding and rewarding.

Take the Mudgee Radio Control Model Club as an example. This Australian club, located in the small central New South Wales town of Mudgee boasts a current membership of about fifteen and they fly models every Sunday, weather permitting from a dedicated purpose built airstrip.

Members come from all walks of life, both men and women, many are retirees eager to test their skills as model builders and pilots. The goal is not to crash the aircraft, but that reality is never far away.

Graeme speaks with experience about his latest calamity.  Flying the model, he recently repaired he was delighted by the performance as it neared the permissible altitude of 100 metres. Suddenly the entire wing structure broke away from the fuselage. While the wing began fluttering gently back to earth, the fuselage became a missile plummeting vertically at full power. Graeme could do nothing but watch aghast as the fuselage, driven ever faster by the unimpeded motor passed out of sight amid nearby trees. Meantime the wing had come to rest in a tree and was easily dislodged with minimal damage. Fearing the worst Graeme headed for the spot where the fuselage had crashed, and he was amazed to find the remains intact and floating in the small creek. Had the impact been upon hard ground, the motor would have been damaged and the fuselage reduced to matchwood.  But now, only two weeks later Graeme is flying the same aircraft albeit with some caution. Such is the spirit common among club members.

Alfred Saunders

Crashes are to be expected and as Gilbert, another member ironically put it, ‘every time we build a model aircraft we stuff a disposable bag into the fuselage so that we have something to bring the bits back home in.’  Gilbert, a migrant from Holland, has been flying model aircraft since he was a boy back in his homeland. ‘I flew large gliders then with wingspans up to 2 metres. I built five but only one came back. They were swept up in thermals and probably ended up in Spain! I now stick with powered models which I would like to make in the living room however my wife is not so keen on that and I have been banished to the kitchen.’

Building and flying model aircraft can be an engaging and rewarding pastime for anyone. So how much does it cost. For around AUD$1,000 a good quality aircraft kit and motor can be purchased. Added to this is the remote-control equipment and battery for around the same amount. AUD$2,000 will have you up and flying.

Models being prepared for flight

The members buy kits which require many hours of construction time or Almost Ready to Fly (ARF) aircraft which as the name implies require simple assembly.  Alf, a club member of 22 years standing prefers the more time-consuming kit form, ‘it’s good for old fellas like me. Gives me something to do!’  Alf’s collection of model aircraft which also includes ARF types, almost mirrors his years of membership. At last count he had 20 aircraft and as he reflects with great humour, ‘I should own the Araldite factory. Being in this club is a full-time job. I build ‘em, fly ‘em, smash ‘em and repair ‘em.’ Alf remains undaunted by the process and he recently gave a newcomer a plane to encourage engagement.  ‘We are all very supportive of one another’, says Alf, adding ‘and to share advice on building techniques, choice of engines and all the paraphernalia that makes this a fun hobby.’

Flight Controller

It is not at all uncommon for the passion of model aircraft flying to be passed from one generation to another.  Rob fits that mould. His enthusiasm for the sport was inculcated by his father. At the age of four, Rob flew his first model aircraft using the technology of the time; handles that controlled wires attached to the aircraft. Under dad’s watchful eye, Rob was barely able to hold the handles in his tiny hands but that experience and the enthusiasm for model aircraft has never left him.

Now aged around fifty, Rob became the State’s model aircraft aerobatic champion and is considered the club’s best flyer.

Competitive flying is a world away from the club environment. As Rob notes, ‘as with any other sport, the higher the level you compete at, the greater the level of commitment you must have in terms of time and money and dedication. For example, apart from aerobatics, there is pylon racing, flying around pylons at speeds up to 400kph only 5 or 8 metres above the ground. There is no room for error and your reflexes need to be ultra-sharp. And it’s so easy to get confused when you are flying inverted trying to impress the judges in other events. I was doing my best one day, flying inverted in front of the judges when the motor failed. I forgot to try and gain height before attempting a landing and the judges were treated to the sight of my aircraft being smashed to pieces in spectacular style as it cartwheeled along the airstrip. Despite mishaps like that, I love this sport but if you want to compete at the elite level you need to train at least once per week and ideally more often. For a more relaxed friendly way to enjoy the sport, the local club is a great way to meet fellow enthusiasts and swap tips and ‘war stories’.

A lot of time and effort goes into making a model aircraft and it is not something you want to see being reduced to ruins on the first outing. So how difficult is it to become a competent flyer?  It takes time and patience and the best way to learn is to have an experienced club member as an instructor. Rob is the instructor at the Mudgee club and the process of building confidence in novice flyers is not unlike that of learning to fly a real aircraft. A wireless remote control is used to fly the aircraft. In the training situation, the control unit operated by the novice is linked by a cable to a similar device held by the instructor standing alongside. As the beginner takes control, developing the skills and familiarity required to operate the engine power, rudder and elevator, the instructor is there ready to take over should there be any difficulty. At the flick of a switch, the instructor can assume control at any time.  As the pupil gains confidence, intervention becomes ever less and then as in real flying, the trainee eventually flies solo.

Graeme Anderson ready to fly

If no local model aero club exists, what is required to establish one? Firstly, comes the land. In many places farmers make available the land on a loan basis at no cost. One to two acres is sufficient and the Mudgee club operates on land that is part of a government owned stock route. The land needs to be flat, away from roads and power lines and away from neighbours who may be annoyed by the noise.  The chosen site must be gazetted for the purpose of flying model aircraft so that activities do not endanger private or commercial aircraft movements.  Then there are the facilities like a portable toilet,  benches where the aircraft can be prepared for flight and seating for onlookers. A secure shed, possibly a shipping container is handy to store materials safely. In Australia, clubs must also have Third Party Insurance.

The club structure can be further explored by going to local club websites.

Building model aircraft, learning how to fly them, the thrill of undertaking new manoeuvres and rebuilding after an accident are all part of what makes this hobby a pleasurable experience. And it is one that is easy to access. To embrace this enjoyable and relatively low-cost pastime, there are model aero clubs to be found in many parts of the world. The Mudgee club is located on the Castlereagh Highway approximately 10kms north of Mudgee and operates on Sundays 0930 to 12pm. Visitors are welcome. Contract Graeme Anderson on email

The following website gives information of what is on offer: