But, it’s all done from the safety of the ground, feet planted firmly on the grass of the club’s flying field near Otto, perhaps with a barbecue going on in the background and other plane enthusiasts cheering on the remote control pilot. The hobby allows them to try stuff that would be unthinkable in any real airplane.
“You can do a lot of acrobatics that a lot of real planes can’t do,” said club president Stan Penland. “There are a lot of maneuvers that’d kill a lot of pilots.”
Which is possibly why the club’s membership keeps growing rather than shrinking. Since starting out as a few acquaintances who came together more than a decade ago to fly around Macon County, the club’s ranks have blossomed to 50 or more. Pilots hail from all over, including Cashiers and Highlands and even Florida, where seasonal residents of Western North Carolina wait out the winter before they can reunite with their flying buddies back in Macon.
Some are retired airline pilots, and others just took a liking to the hobby of aero modeling.
It only took Penland, who is also a “real” pilot by training, a few visits to the aero modeling flying field to watch the club members tool around in the sky before he realized there was no turning back.
“I went down to watch them a time or two, and then, I got hooked,” Penland said.
Now, his growing model airplane collection has come to occupy all the spare space in his basement and storage trailers. It doesn’t help that he has taken an affinity to the larger model airplanes, either.
Penland owns five gas-powered planes, several nitro gas-powered models, electric planes and helicopters. The biggest plane he owns has a 148-inch wingspan, not much different in size than a small airplane.
Though the larger model aircraft can cost in the range of $8,000 to $13,000, a well placed few hundred dollars will get a beginner a pretty sweet setup. As model plane technology improves, the costs have come down quite a bit, Penland said.
“The big ones can get expensive in a hurry,” he said. “But you can make it as cheap or expensive as you like.”
The planes represented in the club are varied. Some of the planes are hand built with custom paint jobs — the result of hours of work and meticulous care invested by their owners. Others are prefabricated kits called ARA — or “almost ready to fly” — meant to cut down assembly time and get right to flying.
Some of the planes are aerobatic ones, made especially for midair stalls and high-speed loops, twists and turns. Other planes are replicas of old World War II bombers or use smoke systems to simulate real airplane trails.
Whatever the club members are flying during the weekend — at their club field near Otto or at a regular charity fundraiser — it’s sure to draw a crowd of enthralled children, patriotic veterans with nostalgia for the warplanes or plain old aeronautic nerds.
“It’s excitement; it’s camaraderie,” Penland said. “It’s just like golf to some people or bowling.”
The club is always looking for new members, too. Beginners can make use of dual remote control setup owned by the club while learning the ropes, meaning they can fly the plane while an experienced pilot stands by their side with another control mechanism that can take over during the more difficult takeoffs and landings, or if the new pilot runs into trouble.
What makes flying difficult in the beginning is that the orientation of the controls are always aligned with the plane. It’s intuitive while the plane is flying directly away form the pilot, but when the plane is heading toward the pilot the controls become reverse.
Anyone can pick it up, however, Penland said, it just takes a little practice and the right frame of mind.
“You have to be thinking that you’re inside the airplane at all times,” he said.
Aero modeling charity event
The Macon Aero Modelers is holding it’s 5th annual BBQ Charity Fun Fly starting at 9 a.m. Sept. 21-22 at the club’s flying field on Tessentee Road in Otto.
Each year, the club, made up of radio controlled airplane enthusiasts, hosts the Fun Fly to raise money for a good cause. This year, the club is raising money for REACH of Macon County. REACH is nonprofit organization that works with victims of domestic violence. It also has a court advocacy program, rape prevention education programs, youth advocacy programs, a 24-hour crisis hotline and provides emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence, among other services.
There is a $5 parking fee. BBQ plates are $7, and hot dog plates are $5. The rain dates for the event are Sept. 28-29.