Vic Koenig starts the engine on his plane, Dirty Birdy. (Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press
There’s an airfield off Eastern Star Road where several high-skilled men use their love of airplanes to build their own machines, practice flight patterns and prepare for national and international competition.
The airfield and airplanes are smaller than the real deal, but the intensity, skill and knowledge required is just the same. Many of the nearly 125 members of the Johnson City Radio Controllers Club are former aviation professionals and engineers, bringing their experience and love of flight to their favorite hobby.
Vic Koenig showed off Dirty Birdy, a 6-pound, 6-ounce red and yellow, fuel-powered aircraft that can go several hundred feet in the air, be controlled to perform flips, spins and loops and stay up for sometimes the better part of 30 minutes.
Like many of his companions, Koenig got into airplanes at an early age.
“I’ve always watched birds fly,” Koenig said. As a kid, he also enjoyed taking his brother up to the roof of their family’s home to fly small planes.
The club provides a chance for Koenig and some of his closest buddies to encourage each other as they work on their planes, a constant endeavor. Each carries with them a wooden box that contains tools, adhesives, paint, parts and other gear.
Koenig likes the opportunity to custom make his planes. He has four in all that are flight worthy and builds them frequently enough to sell as needed.
The club’s membership runs the age gamut, said Koenig, who introduced William Rhea Starnes, a World War II veteran, to the group. Starnes, 88, said he was an aviation ordnance man during the war. Now he flies a model plane called the Commander, but often shows up to the airfield just for the social side of things.
Starnes said his love of flight is why he taught his son, Bill, how to fly on a Sensa 172. The younger Starnes tragically died in a helicopter crash in 2012.
That’s where the camaraderie of the club comes in, providing friendship and support in times of tragedy.
“We come here, talk, solve the world’s problems and someone might fly a plane,” said Jerry Black of Jonesborough. He is one of the most decorated pilots in the group, as evidenced by his national championship.
Black and others take turns with their planes at the airfield, taking off from the runway and performing an array of aerial displays and maneuvers. Perfecting different maneuvers is one of the points of the club. Each performing in their own classification, members don’t compete against each other, as the weight and size of the plane makes a difference in the category of competition. Smaller- scale planes, as well as 35- and 42-percent model sizes, are some of the different categories.
Don Martin was flying his 35-percent plane on a recent afternoon, showing off some of the 10-12 flight patterns and tricks required to place well in the competitions. A perfect score of 10 is extremely difficult to come by, but that’s what members of the JCRC strive to attain.
What motors the plane is another difference between styles. There are fuel-powered as well as electric battery-powered crafts. With the emergence of battery power, the technology in model scale planes is always changing, Koenig noted.
There are many competitions throughout the main part of the season, which is just beginning and carries well past the summer, including a pilot’s “Super Bowl.” The national event is held in Muncie, Ind.
While it’s still a social event, things get a little more serious at the competition. Still, there are cutthroat competitors, who, as seriously as they might take the competition, will be just as happy as to share parts, tools, tips and even whole planes with their opposition.
Competitions aren’t the only scheduled events on a pilot’s radar, either. There are also fun flies around the Southeast region, especially one in South Carolina that gets the patronage of many members of the JCRC.
It’s not always pretty, though, as Black said there’s not a person there who hasn’t crashed a plane.
A common belief about pilots of model planes is that they are operated by adults who want to play with toys. That doesn’t sit well with Koenig.
“It’s a true airplane,” he said. “I don’t care what anyone says. People fly full-scale planes for fun, and I fly model-scale planes for fun.”
To get into the hobby, or in the case of Koenig and his pals, obsession, he says it’s not as expensive as one might think, and they’re happy to see new faces all the time. A few hundred dollars, a willingness to work hard and the ability to practice and one can go far in the way of experiencing flight on the model-scale size.
For more information about the JCRC club, check out its website at www.flyjcrc.com or find it on Facebook.