Piloting Pint-size Planes

Across the country, weekend aviators are sending their remote-controlled model aircraft soaring

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"I hear a buzz, like an irritated hornet," writes Richard Wolkomir. "Slowing my car, I watch three men in a pasture, hunched over a knee-high yellow airplane. One man, Gulliver-like, straddles the plane to keep it from taxiing. The plane has only the wingspan of a bald eagle."

This glimpse of a model aircraft set Wolkomir on a quest to investigate the appeal of this fast-growing pastime. According to the Academy of Model Aeronautics, in Muncie, Indiana (chartered in 1936), its 150,000 members belong to 2,500 academy-chartered clubs nationwide. Besides providing liability insurance, the academy annually sanctions more than 2,000 competitions — and it sets safety rules. Mini-airplane hobbyists, according to the academy's programs director, Jay Mealy, tend to follow a pattern: after flying model airplanes as kids, they often abandon the sport during their high school years for "cars or dating. But by age 30, they start coming back to modeling."

For some hobbyists, the actual crafting of the models is an equally absorbing aspect of their avocation. Vintage replicas — of World War I planes, or 1930s and '40s models, all reproduced to the exact wing strut, rudder and distinctive identifying markings — are the passion of many a modeler.

But whether they are flying a miniature Sopwith Baby or state-of-the-art model helicopters and jets, these enthusiasts are hooked on the sight of a small-scale aircraft taking off and soaring into the sunlit sky. At heart, they are all pilots.

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