Originally created 09/18/96

Weekend Air Force



BEECH ISLAND - The pink-and-white plane dives at the runway, then pulls out and aims straight up.

On the ground below, 34-year-old Lenny Sarbin eases his thumb back on a remote control until the 3-foot-long model plane lacks the power to climb, but doesn't fall backward. It just hangs for a few seconds, 15 feet in the air.

"He's crazy," fellow model plane pilot Chris Rieke says. "If anybody'll fly upside down 2 feet off the ground, it's him."

It's Sunday morning, and the membership of the Southern Model Aviation Club has convened in the middle of a field near Beech Island to fly, fix and fiddle with their creations.

"I've found it's very relaxing compared to what I do for a living," said Emory Donaldson, manager of an auto racing team, as he worked on the engine of a Cap 231 model with a blond Barbie doll as pilot.

At least four radio-controlled airplane clubs operate in the Aiken-Augusta area. Bill Boynton is president of the Aiken Radio Control Society, based at a field near Windsor.

"I've been flying them since before World War II," Mr. Boynton said. "They are quite detailed, and it takes a lot of time and work. It's just a fun thing."

The operators at the Beech Island field this Sunday morning are all men, though quite a mix: Young men with long hair and Camel cigarette T-shirts fly planes alongside older men in golf shirts sporting country club logos.

As they look over each others' finished planes and works in progress, the two dozen men joke about how much their wives dislike their hobby.

"I don't know why," Mr. Sarbin said. "If you're out at night, they know you're not flying planes. You can't use that excuse."

The only woman at the field is Cheryl Gainey, who brought her three children to watch their father fly his plane.

"It's not too bad; it gives him something to do. But it can be a pain sometimes," Mrs. Gainey said of her husband's hobby. "It's money, time, all that good stuff. He crashed his plane last week, so he's been constantly in the shop working all week."

Darrell Mills, owner ofus Ultimate Hobbies in North Augusta, said the cost of a first plane is about $400. But as with any hobby, there's the potential for much higher spending.

"I've seen guys put $5,000 to $6,000 into an airplane," Mr. Mills said. "But that's not the norm."

If you buy your plane at Mr. Mills' store, he'll even teach you how to fly it.

"Then to stay in the hobby is pretty economical," Mr. Mills said, "if you don't crash."

The unofficial motto of the Southern Model Aviation Club is, "If you don't want to crash it, don't build it." Hence the club's self-mocking acronym - SMAC!

It's a sound that resonates across the club's field when one plane touches down, veers right and ends up with a stake marking the runway buried 2 inches in its balsa-wood wing.

The fear of such a fate or worse keeps Daniel Ortiz from attempting the fancy aerobatics of the other operators. The rookie controller, who took his first solo flight just a few weeks ago, flew large, slow circles, each time getting a little closer to the runway.

After a few practice runs and aborted attempts, Mr. Ortiz's plane finally touched down and sputtered to a halt.

"As long as I don't have to go home and put it back together, it's a good landing," Mr. Ortiz said.

Radio-controlled plane clubs

Aiken Radio Control Society
Field is just south of Windsor
Bill Boynton, president
(803) 279-7051

CSRA Fliers
Field is near the intersection of Old Savannah Road and Horseshoe Road
Tom Wade, president
733-0882

Ridge Radio Control Fliers
Field is at the Trenton, S.C., airport
Watson Rhoads, treasurer
(803) 275-4457

Southern Model Aviation Club
Field is near the intersection of Storm Branch and Pine Log roads in Aiken County
Chris Rieke, president
(803) 643-3007