Sky's The Limit For Award-winning Pilot

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

November 22, 1992|By PATRICK MCGUIRE

Maynard Hill, a 66-year-old retiree from Silver Spring, has been flying radio-controlled airplanes since he was 7 years old. He was one of those lucky people who converted his hobby into a full-time career -- for years he was part of the design and engineering team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, where he became a recognized expert in remotely controlled flight. This summer he set his 19th world record with model airplanes, this one for piloting the longest continuous flight of just over 24 hours. He did it with the help of a volunteer support crew -- Paul Howey and Tien-Seng Chiu and his son, M. Scott Hill -- at a Hagerstown field. We met in a hobby shop near Burtonsville where his world-record plane was being displayed.

Q: What was the hardest part of setting this record?

A: Staying awake. There's a rule that says one man must fly the airplane the entire time. So we built a microprocessor into the plane and it sensed the engine's rpms and altitude and sent down a data stream to a laptop computer. It told me all the stuff I needed to make sure the airplane was working right. It meant I could walk away to go to the bathroom. Or I could drop horizontal on a chaise longue and close my eyes a bit. But I never did really fall asleep. I kept listening for engine noises.

Q: It sounds more like work than fun.

A: I worked a full year on this plane. I wouldn't do it if it weren't fun, although it gets to be an obsession sometimes. On this one we made seven attempts. We had three crashes, two engine failures. After the sixth try your friends start to say, 'Hey Maynard, you really know what you're doing here?' But it's fascinating what you can learn about yourself when you do these things.

Q: Such as?

A: Patience is a wonderful virtue. If you struggle hard enough or long enough, any question or problem will be understandable. There have been times when I worked on one little problem for a month and think I've found the solution, but then something goes wrong with the theory. You keep going and going until you finally do find it. It's always a joy.

Q: You hold all these world records. How did that get started?

A: In the early '60s I was chief judge of an international competition where a Soviet team established seven world records. I said I don't see why we shouldn't have world records here in the U.S. So I set out to get some.

Q: What are your favorites?

A: I hold the cross-country distance record, where I flew a model plane from Greencastle, Pa., almost to the border of Tennessee. We drove down Interstate 81 in a convertible following the plane. For the last 10 years or so I've held all the main categories of duration and altitude and distance.

Q: What does it feel like to have somebody break one of your records?

A: That's what they're there for. It gives me a reason to go out and try to build something better. I think this duration mark is a pretty tough one for people to beat, though.

Q: You must be one of the pioneers of this hobby.

A: I've been in radio control since 1947 when there were only 200 people in the entire country doing it. Now there's literally a million people involved.

Q: Is it still enjoyable?

A: When I fly, I always go out to learn something. I'm going to put a TV camera in a plane pretty soon so we can fly overhead and look down. The military has always wanted such things and they cost a fortune. I just decided I should make one that's real cheap and easy and hand-launchable.

Q: I thought hobbies were supposed to be relaxing.

A: Well, I do make it demanding in trying to do this kind of thing. If you just want to fly and have fun, yes, it can be very relaxing. You can get a kit and put it together fairly easily. You go out with a couple guys and it usually takes three to four hours of practice before you can land or take off. It's a lot of fun to go out on a Sunday afternoon and bore holes in the sky.

Q: I understand you're going to try to fly a model plane across the ocean?

A: It's one of my dreams. It's never been done because it's a tough one. I have a rich friend who said, 'You build the airplane and I'll get you the boat.' We'll take 30 to 40 friends to Newfoundland and launch the plane and follow it on a yacht to Cork, Ireland.

Q: Expensive?

A: Yes. It would take 60,000 gallons of fuel to get a ship to go across the ocean. I keep telling people I think I could raise enough money to get a boat and pay for the fuel, but what I'd really have a problem with is all those friends who are going to be sitting on the fantail of this boat. Who can afford the beer?

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