Modelers' `Spirit,' record flight hopes sink

Seniors' planes fall shy of trans-Atlantic goal

August 22, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

The geezers have given up -- for now.

A team of mostly retired Maryland engineers has abandoned its historic attempt to pilot an 11-pound balsa wood model airplane from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Roughly 500 miles into the trans-Atlantic attempt, The Spirit of Butts Farm, as the plucky plane is dubbed, ceased communicating with the engineers early yesterday.

The team, a jocular group whose members include a retired NASA project manager and Johns Hopkins engineer who aren't afraid to admit they're long in the tooth, said there's a remote chance the model experienced an electronics glitch and is still gunning toward the Emerald Isle.

"Our optimistic crew in Ireland are going to stand by," Maynard Hill, the 76-year-old project leader from Silver Spring, said by telephone yesterday from St. Johns, Newfoundland.

If the plane did survive, it would likely appear off the coast of Ireland this morning.

"My guess is it's floating somewhere around the 50th parallel," said Hill, who once built unmanned drones at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

This was the team's third attempt to enter the record books since arriving in Newfoundland two weeks ago with four identical airplanes.

The first Spirit of Butts Farm lasted about eight minutes before spiraling into the icy Atlantic. Likely cause of death: a faulty steering mechanism, the team said.

The second plane fared a bit better, soaring for 17 minutes before dropping into the drink. Cause of death: engine failure.

Bad weather forced the team to wait more than a week before making its third -- and now it turns out final -- try.

The team assembled at Cape Spear, its rocky launch site, Tuesday at 6 p.m. Newfoundland time. The weather was excellent. The team steered the radio-controlled plane to its 800-foot cruising altitude then flipped on the computerized guidance system.

"Everything was going almost perfect," said Les Hamilton, 67, a retired programmer.

Excitement built as the first telemetry reports -- transmitted from the model airplane via satellite -- showed the plane was following its preprogrammed flight plan toward Roundstone Bog in Western Ireland.

Besides being the shortest path across the sea, the route was chosen to mark the 1919 flight of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, two little-known British pilots who made the first nonstop trans-Atlantic crossing taking the same path.

But at 12:28 a.m. Eastern time yesterday The Spirit of Butts Farm suddenly went mute. Before it disappeared, telemetry data showed the plane was buzzing along at about 60 mph.

Hill, who suffers from macular degeneration and hearing loss, said he is discouraged -- but has encountered tough engineering challenges before. Over the years, his models have set several world records -- flying as high as 26,990 feet, as long as 33 hours, 39 minutes and as fast as 167 mph on a closed loop.

Hill said he and the other modelers will have to talk about whether to try again next year. They've spent four years and more than $15,000 on the project -- a good bit from their own pockets. For now, they're taking their remaining airplane and heading back to Maryland.

"With other records there's been as many as seven failures before we succeeded," said Hill.

But crossing the Atlantic is a record that would surpass them all. "This is really a pretty big bite we've taken," he said.

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