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Gathering for model plane fans helps friendships take wing

About 60 who enjoy radio-controlled model planes come together for a weekend fun-fly.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001

Between them is a bond forged at a workbench and strengthened 250 feet in the air.

Rudy Heinkel and his 11-year-old grandson, Nick, squinted into the noon sky Sunday at the bright green, remote-controlled plane whirling and diving above.

For the last year, Nick has flown model airplanes using a trainer box -- a set of controls connected to a master unit that allows a more experienced pilot to take over if there is trouble.

But the pair are tethered by more than the cord that connects their control boxes.

"I started doing this for him," said Heinkel, who lives in Timber Pines. "But it's been good for both of us."

Heinkel and Nick joined about 60 other fans of small-scale aeronautics at the Sand Hill Scout Reservation for a fun-fly for vintage, radio-controlled model planes that was sponsored by the Hernando Aero Modelers.

Sunday's first attempt was not so successful for the pair.

"It dead-sticked," said Nick with a solemn shake of his head. "The engine just shut off."

Nick and his grandfather built the trainer-style plane, inherently stable thanks to its wide wings and stabilizers, using balsa wood and a plastic covering. Nick helped put the engine in and attached the propeller, he notes.

On the next try, after a few turns of the Allen wrench, the plane was airborne.

"That was all it took," said Nick, eyes focused beneath the bill of his red cap. "It's working fine now."

As far as retired Air Force Maj. Otto Mueller is concerned, a handful of decades are all that separate Nick and him.

"I see so much of myself in young ones like him," said Mueller, who joined the aero modelers two years ago. "This is why these events mean so much to me."

An aerospace education officer with the Hernando County Composite Squadron of the Florida Civil Air Patrol, Mueller works with about 25 cadets.

"There is nothing like working alongside young people to teach them how things work -- how it should work," he said.

The show featured vintage aircraft models from kits that were made or plans that were published before 1970. Originally, this type of model was intended for free flight, where modelers threw the plane into the air and the flight time was limited by gas restrictions to 15 to 20 seconds.

Now radio controlled and rudder equipped, the models can remain aloft for up to 15 minutes.

The two-day event was dedicated to Harold DeBolt, a man credited with designing the first radio-controlled model airplane shortly after World War II.

In 1927, at the age of 9, DeBolt tossed his first attempt at a model airplane from the second-story window of a barn. Within seconds, it crashed to the ground.

"It didn't show any signs of flying," said DeBolt, who now lives in Sun City. "Things have come a very long way."

As newcomers came forward to try their hand at guiding a plane, they received quiet instruction from Bob Anderson, the group's instructor.

"I was 11 years old when I built my first airplane," said Anderson, a 40-year veteran of small-scale aeronautics. Anderson of Brooksville remembers spending much of his time as a child watching airplanes take off and land at California's Moffet Field Air Force Base.

"I would disappear early in the morning and be gone all day long," he said. "But my mom always knew where I was."

For retired pilot Don Bellis, radio-controlled planes are a far cry from flying a C-130 for the Coast Guard.

"I flew solo in a real plane after eight flights," he said with a grin. "If you want to fly a model, it takes about 200."

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