The Slick 540 rolls low and slow over the runway, the monoplane’s nose pointed up at a 45-degree angle that seems to defy the laws of physics. Then the aerobatics get really radical: The airplane rotates to a higher nose-up attitude so the wings are developing absolutely no lift—zero, zilch—and hangs like a helicopter on its propeller, hovering with the tail a breathtaking few inches from the pavement. At this point, the Slick looks more like a levitating cross than a flying machine.
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Okay, so this isn’t a real airplane; it’s a 35-percent scale model of the Slick 540, which is best known as a competitor in the Red Bull Air Races. And the pilot isn’t an aerobatics hot dog who’s dancing on the rudder pedals. He’s a hobbyist flying the radio-control—or remote-control— airplane from the runway with a pair of sticks attached to a radio transmitter. “That’s low enough,” his spotter tells him. So 21-year-old Jamie Hicks calmly uses his left thumb to apply full throttle and his right thumb to activate the right aileron. The Slick leaps back into the sky.
Such maneuvers are routine for Hicks and the other RC pilots competing at the accurately titled Extreme Flight Championships. Staged at the Academy of Model Aeronautics’ magnificent 1,000-acre site in Muncie, Indiana, the competition features the finest in what’s known as 3D flight. To borrow U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous description of pornography, 3D flight is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.
Generally speaking, 3D maneuvers are performed at high angles of attack, a departure from level flight that leaves less air to pass over and under the wings. At this point, the wings stall, or stop developing lift, and the airplane assumes the flying qualities of a two-by-four. So in the real world, high-angle-of-attack maneuvers are a “kids, don’t try this at home” proposition, limited largely to aerobatics and dogfights.
In addition to his radio-control stunt flying, Hicks is also a student pilot who eventually hopes to fly commercially, but he knows he’ll never be able to do in a full-size airplane what he can execute with his scale-model Slick. “These airplanes are getting to be so indestructible that you can do almost anything,” he says after completing his freestyle routine. “We’ve got larger control surfaces and much more power [proportionately] than full-scale airplanes. A real person can handle about 10 Gs, but we’re probably generating 10 to 15. It’s ridiculous.”
Even more ridiculous are radio-control helicopters. In the hands of superstar pilots like 17-year-old Jamie Robertson and 21-year-old Nick Maxwell, model helis dart through the air like dragonflies on amphetamines. They don’t seem to be flying so much as animated by CGI artists—or possessed. They zoom backward, hover upside down, spiral, and tumble like race cars crashing out of a video game. “We’re pretty much limited only by our imagination,” says Robertson.
But even though scale models are designed to mimic their full-scale counterparts, remote-control airplanes diverge from them in several significant ways. To begin with, they’re much, much lighter, proportionately, thanks to airframes built out of balsa wood and plywood. And they’re powered by remarkably efficient two-stroke motors. The thrust-to-weight ratio of a modern jet fighter is about 1:1. Most of the airplanes at the Extreme Flight Championships, however, have a thrust-to-weight ratio from 2:1 to 3:1. So even when their wings aren’t generating lift, their propellers can keep them flying.
All that propeller power has enabled the development of a thick playbook of 3D maneuvers. There’s the Harrier (flying with the nose at a 45-degree angle), the Torque Roll (spinning in place like a drill bit), the Elevator (a rapid descent in a full stall), the Blender (a diving roll into a flat spin), the Waterfall (a flopping 360-degree flip), the Knife Edge (flying sideways with the nose 45 degrees high), and so on. Real-world stunt routines look awfully prosaic by comparison.
“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.