Ever seen a radio-controlled model aircraft do 300 mph? Visit Metropolis, Missouri, this fall.
- By Ed Regis
- Air & Space magazine, September 2004
(Page 2 of 6)
The rally drew 45 pilots. Ten years later, the Superman rally was regularly pulling in 200-plus enthusiasts from 30 states and a dozen countries. Last year’s event brought pilots and airplanes from Hawaii, England, Argentina, Venezuela, Germany, Finland, and Japan. Even Caudle, however, has trouble accounting for the rally’s hold over jet modelers. There are major radio-control jet events annually in Lakeland, Bunnell, and Lake Wales, Florida; Tucson, Arizona; Chino, California; and Whidbey Island, Washington, with regional contests held all around the country. “This is more or less a fun fly, where everybody gets to fly as much as they want,” Caudle says. “It’s just an annual event that in the last two or three years has been the largest event of its kind in the world.”
Location seems to have played no role in attracting an international crowd to Metropolis (population 6,700), which, being a 180-mile drive from St. Louis and the closest major airport, is equally hard to get to from everywhere. The city itself has a down-at-the-heels look, I tell him. “This city?” Caudle says, affronted. “It’s got a riverboat. They just paved every street and alley in town. It’s got all new sewers.”
Even with its magnificent sewers, however, this is a town of no particular charm, consisting mainly of used-car lots, video stores, tire outlets, bargain huts, gas stations, and closed businesses. On the other hand, there is the Superman effect.
In the early 1970s, resident Robert Westerfield, mindful that the legendary Man of Steel hailed from a fictional Metropolis, saw a golden opportunity: Why not officially declare the city the Hometown of Superman? Unconcerned that Superman was born on the planet Krypton and raised in Smallville, Kansas, the Illinois House did exactly that in 1972. Metropolis now boasts a Superman Car Wash, a Superman Museum, and a 15-foot bronze Superman statue smack in front of the Massac County Courthouse.
What all this has to do with the success of Superman Jet Week is debatable, for the only thing Superman and the scale-model jet fliers seem to have in common is an inordinate love of speed. “My husband’s Bandit easily does over 200 miles an hour. My BobCat will only do about 175 or so,” says Dawn Ellzey, a travel agent from Grand Prairie, Texas, and a modeler who also holds a multi-engine rating in full-scale airplanes. “The speed is a definite factor for the turbines.”
“That one is capable of 300 miles an hour,” says Patton of another of his models, a Predator 175. “But we’re regulated by the AMA [Academy of Model Aeronautics] to 200, so I’ll be flying half-throttle most of the flight.”
All this velocity is a function of the turbine engine, which is often the most expensive component of a model jet. Modelers generally build their own aircraft from scratch or kits, which range all over the map in price, materials, and amount of assembly required. A basic “sport” model is a conglomeration of balsa wood, fiberglass, and carbon-fiber composite materials that costs from $2,000 to $8,000 or more.
The turbines that power them are mechanically complex, technically demanding, and electronics-heavy precision instruments. The P200, a state-of-the-art JetCat engine made in Germany, is five inches in diameter, weighs less than five pounds, and, at a max rpm of 112,000 and exhaust gas temperature of 1,240 degrees Fahrenheit, gulps 23 ounces of fuel per minute to produce 50 pounds of thrust. Total cost, including accessories: $4,995.00. Put one of these in a model aircraft and everything starts to happen fast—sometimes too fast.