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RADIO-CONTROLLED SAIL PLANES : Grounded Pilots Fly High on a Collision Course With Fun

August 12, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

Almost any afternoon on the bluffs overlooking the Santa Ana River bed in Costa Mesa, as many as 30 planes in various shapes, colors and sizes--with wingspans ranging from three to 14 feet--are soaring peacefully or looping gracefully using the same updrafts as the resident hawks.

Joggers, cyclists and dog lovers often stop to admire the silent aerobatics, and occasionally a dogfight will break out. But it's never the canine variety.

"I totaled a plane in an aerial dogfight a couple of months ago," recalled Cris Capp, 15, of Huntington Beach. "The planes hit about three times; nothing happened. Finally we hit again, my plane came out of the collision inverted and nose-dived right into the slope. (The impact) blew the plane apart.

"It was fun. It was worth it."

For enthusiasts of radio-controlled sail planes, collisions also happen unintentionally, a fact of soaring life accepted in varying degrees, depending on the circumstances and the temperaments of the individuals involved.

Repairing damaged craft might mean as little as a few hours tinkering in the garage, or it could mean a minimum of $15 (to buy) and 40 hours (to build) a new kit.

Once assembled, sail planes can fly without an engine for two reasons, according to Steve Fink, also of Huntington Beach.

"The sun heats the ground, and the air above a hot spot takes off--that's thermal lift," Fink explained. "We also have a west-facing slope here. The afternoon wind blowing up that slope creates an updraft and provides a constant body of lift.

"I've been flying on this hill for 20 years. This is the spot in Orange County for gliders."

Actually, there is another such spot, in Yorba Linda on the backside of Chino Hills State Park. The bluffs and adjacent field where Fink flies are at the end of Canyon Drive behind Estancia High School.

Some planes are designed to fly only on the slopes, some for thermal flight, some for both. For slope-side flight, planes are launched by simply tossing them off the cliff.

On the flats, a system called Hi-Start employs a nail, string and surgical tubing stretched 25 feet to catapult the crafts as high as 75 feet; club events and competitions often use motorized tow winches.

Two control sticks on the radio transmitters help regulate direction, elevation and speed of the planes once they are aloft. Each plane is tuned to one of 60 frequencies; planes tuned to the same frequency cannot fly at the same time.

Starter (or trainer) planes feature specially bent wings to make them more stable.

"They'll fly themselves," noted Fink.

"Floaters," Capp said.

Cost of soar plane kits--made from a variety of materials including foam, wood, fiberglass and Kevlar--range from $15 up to $900 for imported models; planes can also be bought already built. Radio transmitters range from $100 for a very dependable basic model all the way up to $1,800 for very sophisticated computerized models that scan for open channels.

For $150, you can be flying, Fink said.

Enthusiasts gather on the bluffs almost every afternoon; the slope-side skies are crowded with craft on weekends about 3 p.m. Capp first saw the planes about six years ago and began frequenting hobby outlets. He doesn't come out everyday, only when the wind's up.

Though Fink is a longtime member of the Harbor Soaring Society, he said you don't have to join a club to enjoy the camaraderie out on the bluffs.

"This is like the corner tavern out here," Fink said. "Everybody knows everybody, everybody talks about their day, what movie they saw, the new building technique they tried out--it's kind of like 'Cheers,' only outdoors with no booze."

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