The Kids Are Trying to Crash

Remote-control models face off in the Extreme Flight Championships.

Chris Fry's Extra 330 dazzled with a low ribbon cut. (Mark Fadely)
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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!”

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.

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