Club showcases model airplanes

Model airplane enthusiasts watch Fly Baby come in for a close pass at the Champaign County Radio Control Club giant scale airplane fly-in on Sunday. Erica Magda

Model airplane enthusiasts watch “Fly Baby” come in for a close pass at the Champaign County Radio Control Club giant scale airplane fly-in on Sunday. Erica Magda

By Emily Thiersch

Retired pool installation worker Danny Urbeck, 58, has invested tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours into his true passion: building and flying radio-control, or RC, airplanes, a hobby that has brought him in contact with other RC pilots at dozens of “fly-ins” across the country.

“I saw my neighbor flying a plane when I was 13, went over and watched him, and I was done,” Urbeck said. “Ever since then I’ve been flying planes.”

Urbeck flew one of his latest creations, a red, white and blue plane with a 16-foot wingspan, at the Champaign County Radio Control Club’s airfield – a runway strip about 350 feet long set in a grassy field along Route 150, west of Champaign’s Mattis Avenue – in their 16th annual Giant Scale Airplane Fly-In on Sunday.

Over the course of two years, Urbeck has spent more than 1,500 hours and $5,000 constructing the plane. Urbeck spent half that time building the structure and ensuring aerodynamic lift by cutting the wood based on measurements, doubling the dimensions of a kit plane he had previously built, spacing the ribs and sanding the wood. Urbeck spent the rest of the time covering the plane with cloth, painting it and adhering vinyl stars.

“It’s not tedious work, it’s just hours,” Urbeck said. “Six hours a day, four to five times a week. You have to approach it one piece at a time.”

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    On Saturday and Sunday, the Fly-In drew 36 pilots, who flew a total of 96 planes with wingspans of at least 60 inches, showcasing their creations and demonstrating their carefully honed maneuvers. Some pilots took their planes on modest trips about the field; others steered their planes to flip over, nosedive and shoot upwards at steep angles.

    Two of the planes were designed to resemble a lawn mower and a race car. Essentially just wings with motors, they looked more like toys made to run on the ground than aircraft.

    The club, founded in 1950, brings together people of all ages who bond over their shared love of building and flying RC planes. The club includes about 150 members, who meet twice a month to talk about their ongoing projects and use the club’s airfield to test their planes.

    University students studying aerospace engineering are among those interested in the craft of building planes. Aerospace Engineering Professor Greg Elliott, a club member, takes his Introduction to Aerospace Engineering class to watch a fly-in every semester.

    Not all members of the club share Urbeck’s passion for building planes from scratch. Many buy kit planes, or planes “almost ready to fly,” which cost around $1,000.

    Some of the club’s members fly RC planes as a less-risky alternative to flying in the cockpits of full-scale planes, often at the urging of their wives. Dan Irwin, a flight instructor with the group, said he was two flights away from getting his pilot’s license when he switched to flying RC planes.

    Like a higher-stakes, real-life video game, flying an RC airplane gives the group’s members a certain thrill and keeps them challenged as they try to master new moves, such as spirals and spinning.

    “RC planes are controlled exactly as if you were in the cockpit of a plane,” Irwin said.

    When flying planes from the ground, a new component of difficulty is added: Pilots must be able to gauge the angle of the wings visually by using the ground as a reference point.

    “Just keeping the plane level is very difficult,” Irwin said.

    While new flyers are especially prone to losing control while their planes are in the air, causing them to plummet, even veteran flyers crash planes now and then. Urbeck said he still crashes at least one plane a year.

    “It’s part of the game,” Urbeck said. “Batteries die, something breaks. Things go wrong.”

    Urbeck has been building RC airplanes and storing them in his home for years – one he kept in the living room for two years.

    “It’s a neat hobby,” said Tom Griffith, the club’s event coordinator. “There’s a sense of accomplishment when you gather parts from different places and see something that you built fly.”