While planes soar, pilots indulge in flights of fancy


October 25, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

Sunlight winked off the silver skin of the P-51 Mustang fighter as it screamed in low over the clipped-grass airstrip as though on a strafing run, then spun upward in a series of snap rolls, grabbing for altitude before reversing to swoop in for a neat landing.

John A. Kirk was reliving the adventures of his youth.

In 1944, he was a 20-year-old fighter jockey who got a double kill in his first taste of combat in a P-47 Thunderbolt, shooting down two German fighters, a Messerschmitt 109 and a Focke-Wulf 190, on one mission over Europe.

On 70 sorties from England in a newer and more powerful P-51D Mustang he called "Small Boy Here," Lieutenant Kirk bagged eight more enemy planes, including a Messerschmitt 262, one of the first jet fighters.

Today, 66-year-old Mr. Kirk still considers himself a hot pilot, but from a different perspective.

He is one of the area's leading radio-controlled model airplane enthusiasts -- pilots they call themselves -- and watching him and dozens of others put their brightly colored aircraft through aerobatic paces gives appreciation for the skill involved.

Patience and skill is required not only to build accurate, airworthy models -- from high-tech materials a lifetime away from the old tissue-paper-covered, rubber-band-powered models of Mr. Kirk's childhood -- but also in guiding them by radio beacon through stunts that would be tricky in a full-size plane.

"Hand-to-eye coordination is the key," said Mr. Kirk of Towson, a past president of the Remote Controlled Modelers of Baltimore, which has 130 members ranging in age from the early teens to over 70.

Even experienced pilots have to start fresh with model planes and learn to fly all over again in the new environment, Mr. Kirk said during a get-together at Kirk Field, the new model-plane airstrip at the old Parkton Landfill that is named for him.

Most flights last no longer than 10 minutes, Mr. Kirk said, because of the intense concentration required: keeping both eyes on the aircraft while manipulating the tiny controls.

"It's easier to fly full-size planes because when you're in the cockpit there's always the same relationshipbetween you and the aircraft," said John Bauer, 43, of Cockeysville, who has a private pilot's license.

"This way, when the model plane is up there, there are all different relationships that you have to deal with," said Mr. Bauer, a computer engineer who recently spent a day flying his slow, wide-winged training model at Kirk Field.

Some club members, particularly those who are retired, fly nearly every day, weather permitting, he said. "You just can't get


Mr. Bauer said he is working toward the skill required for the kind of aerobatics Mr. Kirk puts his plane through easily: snap rolls and barrel rolls, twists and turns and loops that would strain a full-size aircraft.

"These models can do everything a real plane can do and then some," Mr. Kirk said. "And there are models of everything that flies, including jets, gliders, helicopters, modern and vintage aircraft" in sizes up to one-quarter scale with wingspans of 7 or 8 feet.

Of Mr. Kirk's dozens of models, the scale replica of the Mustang he flew in combat remains a favorite, not only because it is so airworthy but because every time it takes off it's a trip down memory lane.

Once the models are aloft, the change in perspective gives them the appearance of real aircraft; when a real plane passes overhead, the impression becomes even stronger.

Radio-controlled modeling -- aircraft of all types, vehicles and boats -- is an expanding hobby, said Mr. Kirk, now retired as a supervisor at Bethlehem Steel. It has been revolutionized by rapid, dramatic improvements in technology that has become more widely available and less expensive.

"You used to have to build your own radios," he said.

Some modelers buy pre-built plane kits because they are more interested in developing flying skills than building models. But most still want to produce their own aircraft, and some even construct original designs, Mr. Kirk said.

The transmitters, which operate on frequencies in the 72-microhertz band assigned by the Federal Communications Commission, are the most expensive pieces of equipment. Cheap basic models cost about $100, while sophisticated models, containing minicomputers, run hundreds of dollars more.

Crashing planes is all part of the hobby, but unlike real crashes, "every single time you walk away from it," said Ron Stahl, 31, current president of the modelers club.

Having planes to repair occupies dark winter weekends when the pilots can't fly.

"It's very relaxing work," he said. "This hobby helps relieve a lot of tension."

For Don Stricker, 56, of Parkville, a telephone company technician, flying model planes was responsible for a change to a career a lot less stressful than the job he held as an insurance sales manager in Virginia in the early 1950s.

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