The Kids Are Trying to Crash
Remote-control models face off in the Extreme Flight Championships.
- By Preston Lerner
- Photographs by Mark Fadely
- Air & Space magazine, January 2012
(Page 2 of 3)
“The top aerobatics pilots pay attention to what we’re doing,” says Jason Danhakl, who has seen real-world pilots start to incorporate 3D techniques culled from the remote-control world into their aerobatic routines. “A lot of them even fly scale RC models. It’s so easy for us to expand the flight envelope because, number one, we’re not sitting inside the cockpit, and number two, the airplane doesn’t cost $300,000.”
At 34, Danhakl is one of the few competitors who’s been flying long enough to remember the dawn of the 3D age—at the Tournament of Champions in 1994. Besides offering serious prize money, the tournament was unique because it featured a freestyle component along with traditional RC disciplines such as precision flying. So instead of flying according to prescribed patterns, competitors performed anything-goes routines to music blasting from public-address systems.
A handful of competitors had already begun experimenting with what are now recognized as 3D maneuvers. But an Argentine named Quique Somenzini was the first to put together a genuine 3D routine, and many of the moves he wowed the crowd with are still being performed. “It was amazing,” says Sean McMurtry, a 35-year-old competitor who attended the ’94 tournament as a spectator and still speaks about it with awe. “Nobody had ever seen anything like that before.”
Word of Somenzini’s exploits spread, and before long, so did many of his techniques. The knowledge base expanded through online tutorials, and new generations of remote-control flight simulators enabled pilots to experiment virtually, without destroying real airplanes. At the same time, models got lighter and more powerful. Control surfaces—ailerons, elevators, and rudders—were enlarged and given wider ranges of movement, and electronics and servos improved dramatically. Still, the biggest change, in many respects, is one that isn’t immediately visible to outsiders. From the earliest days of model aviation, the hobby has been a builder’s sport, and it wasn’t uncommon for pilots to spend months, sometimes years, fabricating and assembling their airplanes. In recent years, though, the industry has gone almost exclusively to almost-ready-to-fly kits: The aircraft can be put together in a weekend.
ARF kits offer great value, but they aren’t cheap. (Most of the entrants in the Extreme Flight Championships have invested between $4,000 and $5,000 in what is considered top-of-the-line equipment.) But there’s something to be said for instant gratification, and the ARF approach appealed to a new breed of RC hobbyist, who was gung-ho about flying yet had no interest in painstakingly building a model. Meanwhile, as the emotional attachment between airplane and pilot eroded, so did the fear of risky 3D maneuvers. Says Donatas Pauzuolis, a competitor from Lithuania: “If each pilot had to build a plane, we wouldn’t have competition like this.”
The last Tournament of Champions was staged in 2002. The same year, RC aviation stalwart Frank Noll inaugurated the Extreme Flight Championships (XFC). Instead of faithfully following the old tournament’s format, he focused on its most crowd-pleasing element—the freestyle event—and he opened up the competition to helicopters. The XFC is now the premier event of its kind in the world, and this year’s invitation-only field includes entrants from South Africa, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, Lithuania, Taiwan, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.
The competition is so stiff that pilots are forced to push themselves—and their aircraft. “We want to see ailerons scraping,” announcer Bob Sadler, billed as the “Mouth of the South,” booms over the loudspeaker. “We want to see rudders scraping. We want to see the inside of the canopy scraping. After all, this is called the Extreme Flight Championship, not the Fairly Extreme Flight Championship.”
The carnage isn’t as bad as you might expect. But with powerplants and airframes being stressed so severely, propulsion and structural failures are inevitable. There are also a handful of crashes attributed to pilot error, known in the hobby as “dumb thumb.” Victor Aponte destroys his 36-percent Sbach 342 while performing a rolling Harrier a few feet off the deck. “Don’t worry, Victor!” Sadler crows good-naturedly over the P.A. as the wreckage is carted off. “They build more of them every day!”