Tiny Turbines

Ever seen a radio-controlled model aircraft do 300 mph? Visit Metropolis, Missouri, this fall.

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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.

Early in the afternoon Mike Fuller is flying an Aermacchi MB339, a specialty sport model built by Jack Mathias. (It is not unusual for builders to have someone else do the flying.) Both live in Evansville, Indiana, and have driven here in a camper. With the airplane on final approach, Fuller senses that it’s handling a bit strangely and suddenly realizes he has forgotten to lower the flaps.

When he does, the airplane pitches down and before he knows it, makes what might politely be called abrupt contact with the runway. It bounces, which bends the nose gear (though Fuller does not realize this at the time), then slews into the grass but keeps streaking along. In order to finish with a proper approach and landing, Fuller firewalls the throttle for a go-around. The model shrieks back into the air but on the downwind leg it slows, staggers, and crashes in a bean field along the runway.

“I just lost airspeed,” Fuller tells Mathias later. “When I made that turn and started downwind, all of a sudden it slowed down and I said ‘We’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.’ I was just trying to coast it and get a rudder turn and get in, and it never picked up speed.” “But you don’t think the engine quit,” says Mathias.

“Yeah, I do,” says Fuller. “There’s no way that that engine shouldn’t have powered me out.”

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