found at flying competitions.
“They’re a gathering of like-minded people who love the sport,” Tom related of the competitions. “Some people take it very seriously.” Contestants fly their planes conducting a pre-determined set of stunts.
A panel of judges score the performance on a list of criteria. The father and son enjoy attending the competitions together, Tom noted, usually attending a large national conference near the Pennsylvania/ Maryland border and most recently one in Drums. James, he added, has taken home a few trophies.
Tom learned to fly successfully and taught himself stunts through years of trial and error. “I really didn’t have anyone to coach me,” he said. “I had more of a rough start.”
His son was more fortunate, having a father for a flyer to give him tips as well as exposure to experts at flying competitions. Needing a large area for a flying field, because of both the plane’s large size and the distance needed for its cables to span, the two often practiced at municipal parks or soccer fields in Dorrance, Slocum, or Rice Township.
Even though James crashed his first plane at age 10, Tom noted that his son’s talent for the sport soon became evident as the boy practiced. “I could see his progress because I was able to warn him about how to do a lot of things,” his father said. “He was able to develop a real skill set.”
The planes are powered by fuel, a mixture of nitromethane, methanol and castor oil. The plane is attached to a controller by two wires and the pilot manipulates the controller in a calculated way.
The plane is held by a support person and released when the pilot gives his say so. Generally, it is flown in a circle, but various stunts can be performed, from inside and outside loops to inverted flying and various geometric shapes.
“Once the airplane is running, you’re basically on your own. No one can help you,” Tom explained. “There’s no way to shut it off. You have to fly it until it runs out of fuel.”
With 60-foot long cables that need to be controlled, not tangling those cables is often a skill that needs to be learned with much practice. As the plane twists around your body, Tom continued, you need to count the twists and then fly it in just as many loops in the opposite direction. Landing the plane is tricky, too, as it is easy to crash and much more difficult to glide the craft in for a smooth landing.
Through the years, Tom bought James plane kits for birthdays and Christmases and the two bonded over building planes together. As scoutmaster for his son’s Boy Scout troop in Dorrance, Tom recalled how he and James impressed the other scouts by showing off their plane, which they named “The Indestructible.”
James is building a plane right now that he plans to take with him to college. Perhaps he’ll pass the sport from a bygone era to others he meets there. And perhaps he and Tom will pass their thrill of flying onto the next generation some day.