Ron Hillmer of Hastings throws a handful of grass in the air to check the wind. It’s one of the first nice Saturdays of spring, and about ten members of the Rich Valley Radio Control Club are on their airfield south of Hastings. Wispy clouds thread a blue sky, and a couple hawks circle above.
“We stay away from the birds,” said Mike Eischen of St. Paul. “They’ve got the right of way.”
The club has been gathering to fly their planes since 1985, many of them indulging their passion for flight without the expense or commitment of the real thing. They’ve welcomed beginners into the fold and have mentored teens who have gone on to pursue careers in full-scale aviation.
Other members are real-life fliers who can’t get enough of the hobby.
Doug McKinney of Hastings, a commercial pilot and flight instructor, maneuvers his Extra 260, doing a knife edge, a hammerhead and then a rolling circle.
“It takes a lot of practice to get to there,” said Hillmer, admiring the last move. “Mine are never that big or that round.” McKinney then flips the plane and flies it inverted, but the engine cuts out and he lands without power.
It’s not uncommon this time of year, Eischen said; engines can be finicky after sitting all winter.
Each member has brought out a couple planes, many built from scratch. “In this hobby,” Hillmer said, “you’re limited only by your imagination and the money and time you want to put into it.”
Chuck Palmer, of Farmington, flies a little F86 Sabre that darts around the other planes like a sparrow. Palmer, a retired air force mechanic, bought a glider when stationed in Germany and said he’s “been stuck ever since” with the hobby.
Russ Pond, of Hastings, flies a flat plane that resembles a stingray, constructed from coroplast, the material used for campaign signs.
“We call it a flying pizza box,” Palmer said.
Eischen flies a Spitfire, a replica of a plane used during the Battle of Britain. Eischen flew rubber band-powered planes as a teenager and later flew full-scale planes recreationally, until the cost became prohibitive. (The cost of aircraft, insurance, and hangar rental ran around $500 a month.) After a friend asked him to teach him how to fly a remote-controlled plane, he recommitted to the hobby and now has about ten planes hanging up in his shop.
“That’s why so many people do this,” said Hillmer, a hobbyist for 50 years. “You’re whetting your taste for aviation, but you can afford it.”
After a plane loses a wing midflight and nose-dives into a cornfield, and others search out the “yard dart,” Hillmer brings up the safety perspective: “You have a bad day with a model airplane, and you go to the hobby shop. You have a bad day with a full scale, and you go to the morgue.”
Later, when Palmer accidentally nicks the field’s windsock with one of his planes, he’s not overly concerned.
“As long as you have a little $5 bottle of epoxy,” he said, “you can put the world back together.”
Hillmer, a retired police sergeant, spent several years doing a club mentor program, teaching young people to fly. One went on to be a pilot and another an airline mechanic. “We like to think we planted seeds,” he said.
Some members also helped establish a public flying field at nearby Scharr’s Bluff.
The club sets aside Wednesday evenings for training new students, and the hobbyists gather for breakfast on Saturday mornings before heading out for their flying fix.
“When you get done flying,” Eischen said, “it’s like having a very strong cup of coffee.”
Hillmer said he tells his wife, “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go out with girls that do, but I fly these things, baby.”
“You really don’t have to grow up,” he said, heading out to the field. “It’s a trap.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.