By Jeff Holubitsky
Helicopters and light planes took to the air near downtown Edmonton during a recent Sunday snowstorm, testing the skills of their enthusiastic pilots as they hovered, rolled and raced.
No need for worry, no lives were threatened, not an eardrum damaged – the aircraft are all electrically powered models, guided by remote control.
Events like this take place every second week each winter as the members of the Edmonton Remote Control Helicopter Association find shelter from winter weather at the Alberta Aviation Museum.
During more hospitable months, the 14-member group meets at a field in the city’s deep south, where they really have room to manoeuvre their electric motor, as well as larger internal combustion powered machines.
Club president Ken Meidinger brought along a model helicopter he recently built. Unlike many other small helicopters, it features the shaft of the electric motor connecting directly to the rotors without going through any gears.
“Every helicopter model is a little different,” he says.
Like most of the other models used indoors, it’s maybe a third the size of the really large models you might see hanging from the ceiling of a hobby store. Those helicopters have rotors reaching up to a metre and half.
“They would be like flying a lawn mower in here,” he says.
Though some club members bring the bigger models to the meet to test out, the indoor arena means hovering only.
“These helicopters are difficult to fly, difficult to build and can be very expensive to crash,” Meidinger says.
Smaller remote-controlled helicopters for new enthusiasts sell for a couple of hundred dollars. As they get bigger, they cost more. Sophisticated models manufactured in Germany can cost many times that. They also take many hours to build and just as long to learn to fly.
“It’s nice to have this indoor facility where we can practice,” Meidinger says. “Without this place I don’t know where we would go.”
The hall inside the museum’s vast Second World War hangar – currently facing an uncertain future due to development — provides a cozy and convenient space for many groups including air cadets, other remote-control clubs, weddings and craft fairs.
The facility’s 20-foot ceiling may keep the flying close to the ground, but there are few — if any — similar facilities in the Capital Region where these enthusiasts can find not only the space, but also the historical ambience of a place that was built to house military aircraft on their way to battlefields in Europe?
A few ground-based pilots even guide their craft through the building’s impressive wooden rafters.
The museum’s hall is also affordable for the small club. Meidinger says interested members throw in a hundred dollars each every year in order to use the hangar. They simply couldn’t afford another big indoor space.
The members appear to be drawn to their hobby both for a love of aviation and a true appreciation for the technology behind it.
“This hobby is very difficult because you have to be able to fly them,” says club member and electrical engineer Trevor Cleall. “There is no automation as such.”
He picks up his most recent build to prove the point. All of the technology used in the tiny craft is almost exactly the same as a real helicopter. The only computer assistance is from gyros built into a small module that will right the craft if the pilot gets into serious trouble.
“With model airplanes you can kind of cheat the physics a little bit with incredible amounts of power,” he says. “But here you can’t. You have to stabilize it. You have to counter the induced torque from the rotor head. You have to hover. … Once you get flying, you are actually flying by the lift created by the blades themselves.”
“In this hobby, you can get out of it anything you want. (Some people only like to fly their machines), but if you want to learn how real helicopters work and real airplanes work, you can do that, too.”
Mike Dawe, the club vice-president, has been a model heli-pilot for about 15 years, but says he has never flown an actual helicopter. Ironically, neither have any of the other club members at this meeting.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “And if I won the lottery I would do it.”
But in the meantime, he enjoys the models, including electrically powered model airplanes which he got into about two years ago. His interest quickly grew along with his skills and he now has a model so large it has to be pulled to outdoor events in a trailer.
“Now he needs a bigger truck,” his friend Meidinger quips.