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Originally published September 1, 2010 at 7:00 PM | Page modified September 1, 2010 at 9:01 PM

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Radio-controlled planes are a tinkering geek's dream

Whether you fly them or just watch, radio-controlled airplanes combine engineering, physics and fun. A Seattle club flies floatplanes weekly near Seward Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Where to watch(or fly with) local R/C flying clubs

Lake Sawyer Hawks R/C Club, Members may fly planes daily, sunrise to sunset, at Marlow Anderson R/C Airfield (old Hobart landfill), 24041 276th Ave. S.E., Maple Valley; floatplanes fly most Thursdays (weather permitting), 10 a.m.-1 p.m., at Ferdinand Street Boat Launch, at South Ferdinand Street and Lake Washington Boulevard South.

Flaming Geyser Flyers, Members may fly daily, 10 a.m.-dusk, Flaming Geyser State Park, Auburn, and most Fridays, 12:30-3:30 p.m. at SeaTac Community Center, 13735 24th Ave S. (indoor flying for electric planes and helicopters only).

Marymoor R/C Club, Members may fly daily, 8 a.m.-dusk (8 p.m. latest), Marymoor Park, Redmond (south of east entrance).

Radio Aeromodelers Seattle (RAMS), Members may fly daily, sunrise to sunset, at their field off West Valley Highway just inside the northern city limits of Sumner.


On a cool Thursday morning, a bright orange floatplane readies for takeoff near Seward Park on Lake Washington. Pilot Fred Carey opens the throttle, the crescendo of its buzzing propeller filling the air as the plane skims the water. The aircraft accelerates into a light north wind, barely noticed by flocks of coots and ducks paddling in the water nearby.

The plane climbs smoothly and levels out. Carey backs off the throttle. He circles a few times, then turns into the wind, preparing to land. Reducing airspeed as the pontoons near the water, he cuts the power and adjusts the plane's surface controls to slow the rate of descent. The aircraft touches down as light as a caress, then putters toward the shore until the pontoons nudge the beach.

Standing on the shoreline, Carey, bundled in faded blue coveralls, puts down his radio-control transmitter and carefully lifts the airplane from the water's edge, then he sets it gently on the beach. This is not the toy airplane you glued together in a weekend in your bedroom. Carey's hand-built model, which he's flown for 20 years, has a six-foot wingspan.

Carey is a member of the Lake Sawyer Hawks R/C Club, a group of radio-controlled (R/C) airplane enthusiasts that flies model floatplanes every Thursday, weather permitting, just north of Seward Park. Club members also fly a variety of land-based models at the old Hobart landfill, re-dubbed the Marlow Anderson RC Field after the club president.

With 123 members, the Lake Sawyer Hawks are one of nearly 50 R/C airplane clubs in Western Washington. The Thursday fliers are mostly older, retired, engineering types who have loved building things since they were kids.

Dreams of flight

Carey, a retired civil-engineering surveyor, long dreamed about flying. "I always loved anything about it. I would lie in bed at night and think about the book I was reading, which was always about flying, and I would imagine I was in the cockpit," he recalls. His mom bought him a glider when he was 8, and although it was too heavy to fly, it fueled his interest. He moved up to models that flew on control lines, and finally to R/C airplanes in 1975.

Most of these R/C pilots are nourishing a lifelong passion for airplanes.

Growing up in the tiny Eastern Washington town of Almira, Ted Moser scrounged scrap wood from an apple crate for his first model airplane. As a kid he had a natural curiosity about how things worked and loved to scavenge the town dump for mechanical devices to dissect and reassemble. When he was 9, he saved enough money from his paper route to buy a rubber-band airplane kit. He immediately set about modifying it by adding controls and a motor. It flew. He was hooked.

Moser, a gregarious retired deputy sheriff, laughs as he recalls a neighbor's comments about his endless flying. "There's that Moser kid up there flyin' one of them fool airplanes again. I wonder if he'll amount to anything."

Practice, and physics

It takes practice and a good grasp of the physics of flight to fly a plane by radio control. The preflight checklist alone for R/C airplanes is extensive, ensuring that all mechanical parts are operational and the radio controls are working at the expected distance. Pilots who don't conduct a thorough preflight check risk crashing or watching their planes fly out of control range.

The sophisticated transmitters that control the airplanes' flight make video-game controllers look like kids' stuff. Complex buttons, dials and small joysticks allow pilots to manipulate tiny surface controls on the airplanes that mirror those found on the full-scale versions, controlling pitch, yaw and roll.

Carey, a self-taught R/C pilot, says he suffered numerous crashes in the early days. "I had three airplanes and I would crash all three of them on Saturday, go home Saturday night and work all night fixing them, then go fly them again on Sunday," he says.

In other words, owning and flying R/C planes is a tinkering geek's dream. It can also look a lot like an obsession.

Variety and volume

Carey has about 40 planes, a mix of gliders, biplanes, floatplanes and others that hang from the ceiling of his "man cave" and on shelves in his garage. His favorite? A Robin Hood, modeled after the 1920s full-scale Curtiss Robin, a two-passenger monoplane.

Tom Richards, another club flier and licensed private pilot, has about 75 R/C model airplanes in flying condition and another 120 "dead and dying" in his attic. Those he can bring back to life he often gives to children. "They're good for a little while," he says.

While most of the Lake Sawyer Hawks both build and fly planes, it's not just about the engineering. "It's a great hobby," says club Vice President Dick Weaver. "When the sun is out, you can go out and fly, visit with friends and make new friends. When it's raining and blowing, you can build airplanes or rebuild broken ones."

But it transcends mere mechanics in other ways, too.

"It's graceful and it's creative." Moser says, "And it's for the enjoyment of both the spectators and the fliers." Adults and kids regularly stop to watch and ask questions, grinning with enjoyment. There's even a comment book filled with appreciative notes from spectators. One 12-year-old girl enthused that watching the planes was better than watching a ballgame.

Then there's the occasional out-of-body experience.

"When I'm flying one of these airplanes, I'm not standing here holding the box," says Richards. "My mind is in that thing. And if I crash, I'm hurt. So my attic is full of things with the blood of my soul on them."

Ann Zeman is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Seattle and the Columbia Gorge.

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