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Model Behavior

Mall revenge, remote control and high-flying wings of desire

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

THE AIRPORT SITS FAR DOWN in South County just outside of Morgan Hill, out where the old agricultural valley still lives, out where Monterey Road, the railway, the Guadalupe River, the fields and the surrounding hillsides converge into one straight line, making the countryside seem like it's narrowing up and widening out at the same time. Here the land is covered not with housing tracts or office buildings but with acres of blue-green cornfields or apricot orchards.

The neighbors do not complain about the noise of the airplanes out here because the flight path only travels over the homes of hawks, snakes, squirrels and feral pigs. And there's not much noise to complain about, even if the neighbors could talk. This is the Santa Clara County Model Aircraft Skypark, and these are scaled-down model planes buzzing around in the late weekday afternoon summer sky.

Pat Ross of Sunnyvale is sending his five-pound model through loops and dives over the 520-foot paved runway. It's a two-cylinder engine model that he built himself from a kit, and its flight is controlled by a radio that Rose expertly manipulates like a video-game joystick. Back and forth the yellow-and-blue model races in the windy, cloudless sky, some 80 or 90 miles per hour, outpacing the cars on Highway 101 near the eastern hills, keeping the hovering hawks at the edge of the airfield at bay. Rose looks like a big kid out there--well over 6 feet tall, white hair tucked under a white cowboy hat, eyes intent on the sky, grinning all the time. When he comes back to the benches in the spectator area lugging the plane in one hand, he can barely catch his breath for the excitement.

"When you first get out there and put your plane up, it's a rush," he says.

Another flyer, who identifies himself only as Terry, comes out on the field after Ross vacates it. Terry's blue-and-white plane has a four-cylinder engine (similar to an automobile engine, he says, rather than the two-cylinder models which more closely resemble a lawn mower). Ross sits on a bench and fiddles with his plane, adding fuel, checking the gauges and making sure everything's working right. Hauling around wooden toolboxes almost as large as the planes themselves, the pilots seem to take more time working on their models than they do flying.

Ross stops his work as Terry guides his plane up in the air, watching in some awe the ascent to some 800 feet above the ground and then a series of dizzying turns and dives. "I've got a sports plane, but he's got what they call a pattern plane," Ross says. "It's made for precision aerobatics." He pauses as we watch a particularly spectacular maneuver, the plane rising until it turns on its back and then begins a free-fall upside down, as if there is a little pilot inside who has passed out.

"Listen to him throttling back so he can keep an even speed all around," Ross says, seeming to enjoy Terry's run almost as much as he did his own. "He's a good pilot."

Ross is not bad himself, but of course he's been at this most of his life. He says he "got hooked" on model airplanes while he was still a kid, watching his father chase free-flight planes across a field. He says he's been working with radio-controlled models for some 20 years.

A third flyer, a novice, brings his plane back in after only a few passes. "Too windy," he says. "I've only got one model. I've got to be careful."

In regard to crashes, Terry says he's been flying model planes for 10 years and has had only one midair collision. "But these things happen to everybody," he continues. "Equipment goes bad. Somebody gets in the way. But mostly you just have near misses up there." Every once in a while an accident occurs when one pilot uses another pilot's radio frequency, sending the wrong signals to the wrong plane. Terry says that is rare, since individual frequencies are assigned out.

Both Terry and Ross say a visitor should come around on weekends, when some of the bigger-plane operators come out and show off their stuff. Some are as heavy as 25 pounds. "There are racing planes out here that can go 200 mph," Terry says. "They've even got turbo-jet model planes now. It takes them a couple of hours just to prepare them to fly."

Weekends, too, are when families come out. "This is a family sport," Terry says with a smile. "This is the time we get our wives back for making us go to the mall shopping with them."

The Skypark is leased from the county and operated by the Tomcats Radio Control Club (www.sccmas.org), a private 20-year-old organization. It is open every day of the year.

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From the September 2-8, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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