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Model planes creating quite a buzz

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

The steady buzz coming from the fields just off County Park Road in Paducah on Saturday may have been nothing but noise to most passers-by.

But to those gathered on the fields, that buzz has long been a thing of thrilling beauty.

Saturday morning members of the Paducah Aero Modelers Club welcomed aviation enthusiasts from the Purchase area and far beyond for the 2014 Western Kentucky/Southern Illinois Stunt Championships. The championships are for control-line planes only and will continue today.

For each competition category, pilots are watched closely and judged on maneuvers ranging from level take-offs and landings to four-leaf clovers. The buzz and hum of handcrafted model aircraft worth thousands of dollars, and an immeasurable amount of care filled the air. If ever a moment came without a plane in flight, the fields fell silent and felt entirely too calm.

In Saturday's four competition categories, each participant stood in one of three flight circles to fly their craft, controlling and keeping it within the circle using a braided stainless steel cable attached to its wing. Today will be the same, but with intermediate, advanced and expert competition categories.

Each participant has three chances to get two flights encompassing up to 15 maneuvers, each potentially worth 40 points. Often competitions will offer up to 20 extra points for the plane's appearance, but this competition was all about flight.

One maneuver that seemed especially difficult was the "horizontal square eight." At one point the plane speeds at about 50 mph straight for the ground. Once it's about four to six feet from crashing, it should turn and level out to continue in the square formation. If it straightens out too soon - at eight or nine feet from the ground, for example - points are deducted. Along with other parameters, "bottoms" of flight patterns are closely judged and should consist of about five feet of space between the ground and plane.

"It's an adrenaline rush," said Phillip Rudd, a former pilot and longtime member of PAM. Rudd's model aircraft of choice are  radio-control planes, but he is a contest director for this weekend's control-line event. He and fellow member Dougles Vasseur talked about the thrill and joy of flying and building planes as they watched a new flier compete in the beginners circle Saturday.

"It teaches discipline, engineering skills, building skills, design skills and focus," Rudd said of the craft. "About the only thing it doesn't do is teach you English!"

Sometimes it can take the better part of a year to design and build a plane. The majority of PAM members build and fly radio-control aircraft, though a few prefer control-line craft like those in this weekend's competition. Even fewer hold free-flight models as their aircraft of choice. Most of the club members and out-of-town visitors at the McCracken County Model Air Park this weekend started building and flying planes when they were young and have been in love with the craft ever since.

"I've stayed with it through all these years," Vasseur said. "The only time I wasn't flying a plane was when I was in the Army. My house, I don't even call my house a house. It's actually an air hangar. There are 140 airplanes in it. They're hanging on every wall, on every ceiling, from everywhere."

Though the air park is owned by the McCracken County Parks Department, every PAM member has a key. The park is available to anyone interested in flying who has the proper liability insurance, and a handful of PAM members are certified through the Academy of Model Aeronautics to offer instruction at the fields to anyone interested. All a hopeful flyer has to do is contact the club and ask about the Introductory Pilot Program.

Even a brief talk with a modeler will shatter any perceptions of model aircraft as "toys." Flying them is a serious and challenging endeavor, and flying them well is an art. The modelers' reverence for their planes is evident in the syringes used to fill up their tiny tanks with a precise amount of fuel, and the collective breath held when a plane gets too close to crashing.

Their respect and love for one another is just as evident. This weekend's control-line competition serves as a memorial for club member Allen Brickhaus, who passed away shortly after Christmas in 2013. The control-line competition was his competition, several people said, making this the perfect opportunity to honor his memory. The club and the nationwide model aeronautics community includes people of all cuts and colors, and the love of the craft forms a deep bond.

"It's a brotherhood," Rudd said.

"I don't care who you are or if you build model trains," Robert Storick added. Storick came to Paducah from St. Louis this weekend, just for the competition. "I want to see what you can do with your hands."

Sept. 13 and 14 PAM will host a Fun Fly event at the park that will be open to the public and feature demonstrations and instruction. For more information on the club or the Introductory Pilot Program, visit paducahaeromodelers.com.

Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or at gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com.

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