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Flying Economy Class

Park fliers have trimmed model airplaning's expenditures of time and money, but not the fun.

January 17, 2002|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in the days of "Leave it to Beaver," dad and lad could be found bonding not only their relationship but also pieces of balsa wood into radio-controlled model airplanes. After weeks or even months of work, they would emerge from the garage workshop and head for the park with a gas-powered flying machine that would cause everyone in the neighborhood to exclaim, "Gee."

Times have changed.

"We don't have the traditional two-parent family and garage full of tools that dad used in his free time to show everyone on the street how to make an airplane," said Glenn Merritt, director of marketing for Hitec RCD, which makes a wide variety of radio-controlled airplane products. "Now you have a single mom supporting two kids, living in a condo or apartment. They don't have the space or resources to do the traditional kind of modeling.

"We live in an age of instant gratification," Merritt said, which calls for a new kind of model airplane if the endeavor is to survive. Over the last couple of years, advances in technology, clever engineering and mass manufacturing in Asia have provided a possible answer: the park flier.

Unlike gas-powered models, which can cost a beginner about $400 for a "trainer" airplane and other necessary equipment, a park flier costs about $100 for an all-inclusive package.

Several will be on display this weekend at the Pasadena Convention Center during the country's largest model airplane convention and trade show, sponsored by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (www.model aircraft.org).

A park flier can be snapped together and readied for its first flight the same afternoon the box is opened. And instead of using gas, it is powered by much cleaner, rechargeable batteries.

There are drawbacks. The park fliers generally are far more limited in speed, acrobatic ability and length of flight than even the most basic gas models. And to put it diplomatically, when compared with the traditional balsa wood planes, they have nice personalities.

"The aesthetics are not exactly as satisfying," said Greg Horwitz, longtime member of the San Fernando Valley Radio Control Flyers (valleyflyers.usinter.net), which operates a flying field in the Sepulveda Basin that is world famous among those in the model airplane scene.

On a recent Sunday, the dozens of aircraft soaring above the field included meticulous reproductions of planes ranging from a military Bearcat to the general aviation Piper Cub. There were several helicopters and even a couple of sleek turbine-jet models capable of reaching speeds close to 200 mph (just the engine on a model turbine costs more than $3,000).

But if the bare-bones park fliers bring young people--who are far more likely to play a video game than be enchanted by airplane models--to the Flyers or any of the other 2,500 model airplane clubs in the country, their aesthetics probably will be overlooked.

"When I first joined the club 31 year ago," said George Finch, a past president of the Flyers, "I was the median age.

"I still am."

Among the advances that led to the development of park fliers was the strengthening of lightweight foam that could be used instead of balsa. Not only did the foam allow for a model design that could be mass manufactured and quickly assembled, it also made repairs much simpler.

"Wood planes don't rebound; they break up pretty good. And there is no way to learn how to fly without doing some crashing," said Steven Goodreau, spokesman for Horizon Hobby, which makes the Firebird line of park fliers.

"The damage to foam planes tends not to be as critical, and it can be more easily repaired."

The electric engines and radio receivers built into park fliers also are lightweight.

"You look at one of these things and you can't help but be impressed with how small the components have gotten," said Jim Pearson, who has been flying models since 1961 and is assistant editor of RC Modeler magazine.

"They make it possible to build a plane that can be flown in an area much smaller than what used to be needed."

But can a completely inexperienced klutz assemble and fly a park flier?

The first one we tried was the Wattage Lightning EP (Global Hobby Distributors, $80), a dual-propeller model that is small and lightweight even by park flier standards.

It took my buddy Henry and me only 16 minutes to assemble the plane, following the clearly illustrated instructions and using the enclosed screwdriver.

Quality control was not the model's strong point. One of the propellers was missing its cone assembly, but a couple of spares were included.

The on-board battery allows for only a few minutes of flight time before recharging. But the recharging can be done in the field, because the transmitter doubles as the battery charger.

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