Modern Model Airplanes Blend Art, Aviation And Grown-Up Toys Model airplanes have come a long way from the days when they whirred around on a string. Now, remote-controlled airplanes are often works of art the size of golf carts performing acrobatic tumbles.

Modern Model Airplanes Blend Art, Aviation And Grown-Up Toys

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/493949584/498219575" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's talk about model airplanes. They're not just for kids anymore. Model plane hobbyists are building huge flying works of art, piloted using radio remote controls. They are historic recreations worth thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars. Though, occasionally, they do fall out of the sky, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann went in search of a beautiful site.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I'm driving down a little rural highway one day past a grass runway airport in Westport, N.Y. And there's a plane buzzing in the blue sky, whirling and dipping. I realize it's a model plane. But it's big, like the size of a riding lawnmower, which I just have to see up close. So I pull in and find a crowd of people watching. And they tell me, you have to talk to Jerry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Jerry.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's fun to interrupt him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We got an interview. We want to do an interview.

MANN: Jerry Willette is with Champlain Valley Flyers, a model airplane club based here in northern New York. He owns a roofing business and says he's loved flight since he was a little boy.

JERRY WILLETTE: My dad used to take us to the airport when we were little kids because we didn't have a lot of money. We'd go to the airport and watch airplanes take off and land.

MANN: Curiosity blossomed into a decades-long obsession. Jerry takes me over and shows me a twin engine plane, a replica of a World War II fighter bomber called a P-38. It has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet.

WILLETTE: This we built right from scratch. You got to get the plans. And then you got to make all the pieces up. And then you just build it. This particular airplane right here is probably four or five years in the making.

MANN: It's beautiful, a work of loving folk art made of balsa wood and paint and wire, with the added complication that all the mechanics - the little servos, the wing flaps, the miniature engines - they have to actually work. And it's not cheap. The engines that power these model planes can cost 5,000 bucks apiece. Jerry is still prepping his plane. So he sends me over to talk to another club member, Mike Pecue.

MIKE PECUE: Can you hold on to the wing for me?

MANN: Sure.

PECUE: Just put you - stand right there.

MANN: OK.

Like a lot of hobbyists, Mike's an actual pilot. He owns an auto parts store and splits his spare time between flying real planes and these recreations. Today, he's prepping a model biplane the size of a golf cart. I hold it in place while he warms up the engine.

A lot of smaller model planes sounds sort of like weed whackers or coffee grinders. But on these big models, you can hear the power.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE)

MANN: The radio control systems for these planes can be tricky. Mike and Jerry tell me that flights can go really wrong. These soaring works of art sometimes crash to the earth.

PECUE: I've lost two.

MANN: That must be kind of painful.

WILLETTE: They come down like a manhole cover.

PECUE: They do (laughter). They do. That's a fact.

MANN: You've lost some?

WILLETTE: A few. I've been doing this about 45 years. I've lost my share.

MANN: Sometimes planes crash so hard, Mike says, you have to dig the engines out of the ground with a shovel. But on this day, everything's perfect. Fiddling the radio control knobs, he taxies his yellow and blue biplane out onto the grass runway.

PECUE: Throttle up slowly. Keep it straight. And then go.

MANN: Mike sends the plane through a choreography of acrobatic tumbles, then races it head height in front of the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE)

PECUE: Look at that. That is just awesome.

MANN: If there's one joyous place where art and aviation and grownups playing with their toys all come together, I think I've found it. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Westport, N.Y.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.