The sky's the limitAug 30, 2016 02:16PM ● By Steven Hoffman
1. Andrew King and Bill Netta with their aerobatic planes.
By Lisa Fieldman
A nondescript “R/C Flying Field” sign marks a gravel lane off Howell School Road in Middletown.
Situated in Lums Pond State Park, the flying field is home to the Delaware Radio Control Club. Seven days a week, you can find men, women and kids here, piloting their model airplanes. The hobby draws people from all walks of life, but they share a common love of flying.
The field has two large grass runways for use by fixed-wing aircraft and rotary-wing aircraft. Everyone from beginners to expert pilots is welcome to join the club, and registration with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is needed to fly at the field. Visitors are always welcome to spend the day learning about the hobby.
On a recent sunny Sunday, Bill Netta, Andrew King and Nate Peterson were flying and talking about planes. Laughingly calling themselves the three most important men in the club, they shared their passion about the hobby.
Netta has been a member of the club for 25 years. “I joined right out of college,” he said. He always loved airplanes and came down to the flying field one day. “I was hooked. The next day, I bought a trainer plane. There is a lot I love about the sport,” he said, noting both the creativity and the technical aspects of R/C aircraft. “When you are flying, you are in the moment. You don’t think about anything else in those 10 minutes except flying,” he said.
That day, he and King were piloting large aerobatic planes. “They are considered 35 percent planes because they are 35 percent of the size of real planes,” King said. More specifically, Netta was flying his Yak 54 and King was deftly maneuvering his Extra 300. With wingspans of 110 inches and 104 inches, they may be a bit larger than what you consider a model airplane.
“I joke and say I play with toy airplanes, but then when people see what I do, they realize it’s not a toy,” Netta said.
King, at 27, is one of the younger members of the club. He has been flying model aircraft for several years and comes from a background of model car racing. When asked about the challenges of learning to fly R/C model planes, he said, “The learning curve is pretty steep, but it’s getting easier as new technology makes the planes easier to fly.”
Peterson summed up the learning curve succinctly: “Take-offs are optional, landings are mandatory!”
Netta added, “If something goes wrong, you can easily end up with a pile of kindling.”
Humor is a big part of the camaraderie found among the pilots. New arrivals are greeted with waves and shouts. “A bad day at the flying field is still better than an excellent day at work,” Netta said.
According to his buddies, King is quite an accomplished pilot. “He’s one of the best aerobatic pilots around,” Peterson said while watching King execute moves called crankshafts, flat spins and ratchet rolls. “Most people will never get to his level,” he said with admiration.
King deftly positioned his plane so that it hangs vertically in the air -- a trick called hovering. “Sometimes we ask Andrew how he just did something and he can’t tell us -- he doesn’t think about it,” Netta said.
King subtly worked the controls of the transmitter, sending his Extra 300 swooping, diving and rolling through the air. “A lot of it is muscle memory,” he said. “You develop an understanding of what you want the plane to do, and it just kind of happens.”
Vinnie Damiani was flying his plane in lazy circles. “I fly around and do my loop-de-loops. When I go home and don’t have any equipment to fix, I’m happy,” he said, chuckling. Damiani's love affair with planes started when he was a mechanic in the Delaware Air National Guard. “I found the flying field 30 years ago and have been here ever since,” he said.
He enjoys building his planes from kits. “You basically get a box of wood and put it together,” he said, downplaying the skill. Some of his planes have taken more than a year to build. While he has not crashed too many planes over the years, he admitted to putting a few through the trees. “One bad move and your plane is in 1,000 pieces. Live by the sword, die by the sword,” he said, laughing.
Although Damiani has built all kinds of aircraft, and owns about 25 planes, his favorites are are warbirds such as his P47 Thunderbolt. Warbirds are scale model replicas of military aircraft. These planes are usually painstakingly recreated, down to the smallest details, to duplicate the original military plane.
Warbirds have a huge following in the hobby, and the Delaware R/C club hosts one of the largest events in the country, Warbirds Over Delaware. Pete and Dave Malchione, brothers with a shared passion for R/C model military aircraft, run the show. The event celebrated its 25th anniversary last July.
“We’ve been running Warbirds Over Delaware for 17 or 18 years; we’ve lost track,” Dave Malchione said. The show features scale models of military aircraft. Dave explained that only aircraft with an 80-inch wingspan or larger can participate. The event draws pilots and spectators from all over the count, the UK and Canada. They come to fly, connect with old friends, make new friends, and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts.
Dave explained, “Most of them are pretty talented guys. They are not a bunch of old men, playing a kids game. It’s extremely sophisticated.”
The show runs for four days, Wednesday through Saturday, but people often show up a week early to get a good camping site. Vendors set up shop and everything model plane related can be found for purchase.
“This show generates business for the whole area,” Pete said. “It’s a lot of work, but we love it.”
The event allows the club to give back to the park. “Our club is here as a guest of the state park, and we appreciate having a place to fly,” Dave said. Many flying fields are being lost as land is developed. The park gets most of the money raised by the event, with a small percentage going to charity. In addition, the Boy Scouts earn about $10,000 each year by running the food concessions.
Dave and Pete Malchione are well known in the hobby, according to Damiani. “They put our club on the map,” he said, referring to their success with Warbirds Over Delaware. The brothers are field reps for Horizon Hobby, a supply company that is a leader in the R/C hobby field, and have brought the company in as a sponsor of the show.
The Malchione brothers learned flying from their dad. “He got us started in 1968,” Pete said.
“Dad always loved aviation,” Dave added. “I think it was an excuse for my dad to fly model planes.”
When World War II started, their father, Tony Malchione, enlisted in the Army Air Corps “He said, 'If I have to go in, I might as well fly,'” Pete said. Two weeks after he enlisted, the Air Corps was terminated, and he was put in the Infantry. His sons still have the tiny airplanes their father constructed out of matchsticks while in the Army.
The Malchione family flying tradition continues with Dave’s son, Dave, Jr. Recognized as one of the best pilots in the country, Dave, Jr. started flying R/C model planes at age 4. “I never really taught him. He picked it up on his own,” Dave said. “It’s kind of a family thing.”
A real concern for the club is how to attract younger members. “We’re all gray here,” said an older pilot. “It’s vital to bring in a younger generation of pilots to keep the hobby going.”
It can be an expensive pastime for a young person, especially flying the aerobatic planes. However, drones and small electric planes can make it more affordable for a beginner. The hobby is evolving constantly, and the new technology is FPV, or First Person View. Flying an aircraft with a video camera feeds the first-person perspective to goggles worn by the operator. It’s very much like playing a video game. FPV is a relatively inexpensive technology, and has the potential to attract more young people to the hobby.
Besides the common interest in aviation, it is clear that there's a certain esprit de corps among the Delaware R/C club members. Netta said, “When I’m at the field, I may only fly five or six flights, but I’m here for seven hours. Eighty percent of the time, I’m just talking with other people.”
It seems to be a level playing field, regardless of experience. “We help each other out,” Damiani said. “It’s not a competitive atmosphere.”
On this day, Peterson's plane never made it out of the trailer. “It’s broken right now,” he said, “but I’m here to hang out with my friends.”