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101 FUN THINGS TO DO: Highland Lakes Flyers share hobby at Aqua Boom

Michael McDougall is one of several expert model airplane enthusiasts who will be on hand at Hank Nilsen Field in Kingsland on July 6 for Flights of Fancy during the Aqua Boom celebration. Kids can fly model planes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and have a chance to win one of their own in a free drawing at 2 p.m. Photo by Suzanne Freeman

If you want to know what it takes to fly an airplane without actually leaving the ground, you can find out July 6 with the Highland Lakes Flyers.Each year, the model airplane group hands its joysticks over to eager kids wanting to turn their computer skills into real-life 3D action. Called Flights of Fancy, the event is held as part of the Aqua Boom celebration in Kingsland.

Training and flying begin at 9 a.m. and continue until 2 p.m. when one lucky flyer will win his or her own remote-control plane. It’s entirely free. Just show up ready to take over the controls at Hank Nilsen Field off RR 2545 at 702 Williamette Road. The model air strip is about two miles east of RR 1431.

Participating youth will be given instructions they can readily relate to: first-time flyers practice on a computer-simulator game.

“Kids take to this a lot easier than adults,” said longtime member Mike McDougall, who’s been flying model planes since the 1960s. “They were born playing computer games similar to this.”

Translating skills from the computer joystick to the buddy box is easy for most children, but for those of us adults who equate flying with uninterrupted time to read, it’s a bit more challenging. The idea of a buddy box is similar to a driving instructor’s car. It is connected to the plane’s wireless controller, so a trained professional can take over at any time to prevent accidents.

On a recent sunny morning at Hank Nilsen Field, I was given the opportunity to fly one of McDonald’s planes.

But first, I had to earn my flying privileges on the computer like most novices.

“Hold some back stick,” McDougall said as I crashed my pixel plane on an imaginary field. In other words, pull back on the joystick to raise the nose of the plane. Just as I thought I had the lingo down, I ran into a bigger problem: how to tell left from right.

“When the plane is flying away from you, right is right and left is left,” McDougall said. “When it comes back toward you, you have to be thinking in the cockpit. It’s just the opposite.”

Jerry Thomas, a flight instructor who was looking on, told me it is easier to fly a plane if you’re actually in the pilot’s seat. “When I first got started, I was always going the wrong way,” said the winter Texan from Minnesota. “It’s easier in the airplane. You know immediately which is right and left. Down here, you have to remember which way it is.”

At the computer, you get a first taste of the vertigo-like sensations you experience when overworking those particular directional brain cells. With a buddy box in hand and a plane in the sky, the feeling escalates.

Peering up at a plane in motion, it all seem effortless. On the ground, faces are tight with concentration, eyes locked on the aircraft while hands, arms and brain work in syncopation to create the miracle of flight. I quickly began to understand the focused looks on flyers’ faces as they guided their planes through loops, hovers and complicated swirls across the bright blue sky. Important lesson learned: Do not ask questions of someone flying a model plane. Perhaps more important: Do not talk to me while I’m flying.

Before take-off, McDougall showed me how to prepare the plane. His large blue-and-white aircraft rested on one of the handmade plastic and metal flight stands. He turned it over on its back and took off the engine cover. The batteries were already in, so he only had to plug in an arming switch to connect the battery and make it work. With the cover back on and the plane righted, he flicked the on/off switch on the side and the aircraft was ready for flight.

McDougall then performed a round of tests with the controller, remotely moving the various flaps and wheels. Watching the plane come to life brought to mind the sights and sounds of cartoon robots with their beeps and whirrs and jilted movements. Even on the ground, as the plane built up speed for take-off, it seemed like a flimsy toy, hopping along the runway.

Once in the air, however, the plane glided with grace and ease — or, at least, it did as long as the right hands were on the controls. A heavy touch and the craft will jerk in the air, sputter and sometimes even dive and crash. Thanks to the main controller hooked to my buddy box, my aircraft made its turns and swoops with dignity, came in for a safe landing and lived to give the exhilarating experience to yet another novice on another day.

That novice can be you. Bring the kids to Hank Nilson Field on July 6 and watch them turn into an experienced modeler. I haven’t rushed out to buy my ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) kit yet, but I can almost guarantee your kids are going to want one. They can even become a member of the Highland Lakes Flyers for only $2 a year, giving them access to a great flying facility and some of the best mentors around.