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 3 of 3)
Most of the competitors are very young. This is especially true on the heli side, where most of the entrants have yet to shave. It’s the nature of the sport: With everything seeming to happen at warp speed, the game requires a youngster’s lightning-quick reflexes, little or no memory of past disasters, and the luxury of time for endless hours of practice. At the same time, several older stars have left the hobby to pursue remote-control flying as a career. Helicopter pilots are in high demand for movie and commercial shoots, and fixed-wing guys have landed jobs in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles for military and civilian applications.
Still, there’s a sense, particularly among RC veterans, that 3D is stagnating. The glory days, they say, were the 10 years after Somenzini’s triumph, when pilots struggled mightily to overcome the limitations of airplanes that would today be considered junk. Technology has improved dramatically since then, and so has flying technique. Some young hotshots consider the Torque Roll and other classic 3D stunts so cliché that they no longer perform them. Routines have become faster and more aggressive, with more moves packed into ever smaller slivers of time and space. “The flying style has changed more than anything,” says Noll. “The kids are trying to crash every time they fly. But in terms of new maneuvers, I think we’ve hit a wall, at least on the scale airplane side.”
Which raises an interesting point. The Extreme Flight Championships are limited to aircraft models because that was the legacy of the Tournament of Champions—and that’s primarily what the model industry sells. But considering that RC pilots are flying routines that real-world pilots can’t replicate, some visionaries argue the hobby ought to loosen its ties to full-scale aviation. To a certain degree, this has already begun. Attached to the wings of several airplanes at this year’s competition are plates called side-force generators, which produce lift while the craft is flying in a knife-edge attitude.
And a groundbreaking form of aerobatics sometimes referred to as 4D is emerging. It uses “foamies”—smaller radio-control model airplanes made of foam—that are light as a feather, cost next to nothing, and are easy to repair if they are damaged in a crash. But some of them incorporate technology that would make an F-16 pilot green with envy. Motors mounted on a pivot allow them to vector thrust. Propeller pitch can reverse direction, enabling some foamies to fly backward and hover upside down, a perfect example of RC airplanes going where their real-world counterparts cannot.
“That’s why I hope Frank will open up the regulations for the XFC,” says Chris Hinson, the owner of Extreme Flight RC, which sells a variety of airplane models. The son of a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion pilot, Hinson has been around airplanes since he was a child, and he has devoted his adult life to the RC industry. “We’ve come full circle,” he says. “We started out emulating full-scale airplanes. But now that top aerobatic pilots are following us, why can’t we take the lead and expand the boundaries?”
Sounds like a plan. Can the Mega-Extreme Flying Championships be far away?
Longtime contributor Preston Lerner last wrote for the magazine about the Sidewinder air-to-air missile (Oct./Nov. 2010). Photographer Mark Fadely enjoys making inflight images of everything from radiocontrol aircraft to birds.