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Remote control pilots reach new ‘flights’ at Kingsland airstrip

Young Scarborough

Highland Lakes Flyers Club pilot Young Scarborough prepares for takeoff at the club's airstrip in Kingsland. Staff photo by David Bean

To fly an airplane at Hank Nelson Field in Kingsland, pilots have to have their feet firmly planted on the ground. 

The about 40 members of the Highland Lakes Flyers Club take off, maneuver, and land their remote-controlled airplanes while standing on a flight pad from behind a fence that lines a 450-foot-long landing strip. The goal of these flyers is to replicate the flight of a full-sized plane on a small scale. 

“For me, the best part is trying to make the airplane that I’m flying in the air look like a real airplane would look like if it flew by,” said Jeff Ellis, president of the club. “If I can make it look like that, a full-size airplane, and handle like that, especially when it takes off and lands, that, for me, is the greatest thrill.”

Ellis makes it sound easy, but he and other club members readily admit that, while it is great fun, it can be difficult. 

“Part of our challenge is that the guys who fly full scale are sitting in the airplane,” said Mike McDougall, one of the club’s directors. “They know which way is right or left or what is up or down. They know how far they are from the ground. Our perspective is from maybe 100 feet away. The plane is moving, but we are not. We constantly have to gauge from a distance the height, altitude, and speed.”

No matter where a full-sized plane is headed, right is always right and left is always left to the pilot in the cockpit. Turn a model plane around and head in the opposite direction, and that is no longer true. Right and left just reversed on the ground-based control panel, adding to the challenge. 

remote-controlled plane
A battery-powered, remote-controlled airplane complete with tiny pilot soars above the Highland Lakes Flyers Club airstrip in Kingsland. Staff photo by David Bean

The hardest part, however, is landing.

“Landing separates the real pilot from the novices,” Ellis said. “Landings are never the same twice in a row. The wind is different, your plane is different. It’s a real challenge.” 

No flight is ever the same either, also because of wind and weather. Just like pilots in a cockpit, remote control pilots have to gauge the wind speed and direction to plan flight times. They can be grounded, too. Flyers can be found at Hank Nelson Field, 702 Williamette Road in Kingsland, from 8-10 a.m. just about every day except when it’s windy or during bad weather.

Remote control pilots have plane preferences. Some fly for speed; others are in it for the stunts. 

“The kid in everybody comes out when you get out here,” Ellis said.

The bigger the plane and engine, the faster it goes. On average, model planes can fly up to 40-50 mph. Bigger planes, especially thosewith ducted fans like in a jet engine, can push 120 mph. 

Pilots differ on more than the size of the plane. Although battery-powered planes are more prevalent now, many flyers still prefer those that run on gas or glow fuel (nitro), mainly because they sound more like real planes. 

Most of the Kingsland-based flyers have both, but don’t ask them how many of either kind.

“I’ll have to take the fifth on that,” McDougall said. “It’s a few.”

All have tales of crashes and accidents. 

“If it’s a mistake, I’m sure it’s happened out here once or twice before,” Ellis said. “We’ve had this field for 21 years. We’ve seen it all.” 

Mistakes can be costly. A beginner plane can run about $300, according to Ellis, although a “nube,” made of styrofoam board and duct tape, only costs about $100 to completely outfit. 

“They’re not speedy, but they’ll turn on a dime,” said Young Scarborough, club treasurer. He explained that remote control pilots use nubes for pylon races, which are a cross between a demolition derby and barrel racing in the sky. Four planes start out; only one usually survives.

Part of piloting by remote control is learning to live with those losses. 

“There’s an expiration date on the inside of every plane,” Ellis said. “You can’t find it, but you’ll see it when it happens.” 

remote control for battery-powered plane
A remote control used to pilot a battery-powered, small-scale plane. Staff photo by David Bean

Mistakes do have an upside, pilots claim.

“You don’t make the same mistake a second time,” Ellis said.

Mistakes mean more time in the shop fixing broken wings and bashed-up bodies. For every one hour of flight, Ellis estimates he spends two hours on maintenance and repair, but that’s all part of the fun and enjoyment. 

At the Kingsland field, all competitions are friendly and for bragging rights only. Members have fly-ins on the airstrip and float flies on the Llano River. They also have a buddy box to help train new pilots. Like a driver’s eduction car with brakes on the passenger side, the buddy box allows a more expert pilot to take over the controls when trouble strikes a trainee. 

“The system won’t let you make a lot of huge errors like I made when I first learned,” McDougall said. 

While many of the pilots in the Highland Lakes Flyers Club have been into remote-controlled planes since childhood, others started after retirement. Daryl Bley, who moved to Horseshoe Bay after retiring from the tech industry in Austin, discovered remote-controlled planes five years ago. He came to an event the club held during AquaBoom, Kingsland’s Fourth of July celebration. McDougall took him under his wing, so to speak, and taught him how to fly.

“I got addicted to it real quick,” said Bley, who is now secretary of the club. “I’m the worst flyer, but I’m always happy when I’m out here.” 

McDougall, Scarborough, and Ellis nodded their heads knowingly at this. 

“That’s the goal,” Ellis said. “Leave your troubles behind and come out and have some fun.”

For anyone wanting to take a turn on the buddy box or find out more about joining the group, visit highlandlakesflyers.org. Contact names and email addresses are available online. 

suzanne@thepicayune.com