Remote Control Aircraft Soaring to New Heights of Popularity
By Michael Minasi
Photography By Michael Minasi
A propeller jerks into motion as the roar of an engine fills the air. Hutto resident Devan McDaniel, 26, eases his airplane forward onto a grassy runway with a gentle push of the throttle. He had been warned earlier about the turbulence around the runway, which later that day would send another airplane plummeting to earth. The pilot walked away from that crash unharmed.
If McDaniel’s airplane were to crash, he would walk away, too, because the aircraft zipping across the sky at Space City RC in Katy one Saturday morning in October were a fraction the size of full-scale airplanes. They were also remote control.
“I always wanted to fly. Always wanted to be a pilot,” said McDaniel, who recently began pursuing a career as a professional pilot after years of flying RC aircraft with his father and 19-year-old brother, Dustin.
The McDaniel brothers are one example of a young and energetic wave of people drawn to RC airplanes. Advances in technology and the mainstreaming of drones during the past decade have breathed new life into the niche hobby. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, a national organization that sanctions competitions, reports having more than 195,000 members — up from 145,000 in 2011.
“We’ve got about 70 members that are under the age of 65 and only about 38 members that are over the age of 65,” said John Eshbaugh, club secretary for the Austin Remote Control Association. “When I joined it was the flip-flop of that.”
The association has an airfield with an air-conditioned clubhouse and two runways — one paved and one grass — on the northeastern outskirts of Austin. RC pilots started using the airfield in the mid 1960s, and several of them officially formed the club in 1972, Eshbaugh said.
Now, the club is working to attract young, would-be pilots with educational outreach in local schools, special membership deals for youth and families, youth-focused training programs and more.
The McDaniel brothers’ father, Evan McDaniel, owns Labor Only Auto Repair in Hutto. He started flying RC aircraft about 25 years ago, shortly after Devan was born. McDaniel was driving past a park north of Austin when he saw a group of people flying planes, and he stopped to chat with them about it.
“As my boys got older I wanted to find something to do with them,” Evan McDaniel said. “They weren’t into sports so much, but I wanted to be involved with them and thought it would be a fun activity that would get us outside.”
At the end of most workdays McDaniel and his sons gather in McDaniel’s auto repair workshop, where more than 60 RC airplanes are peeking out from storage lofts and corners, to tinker on their planes together. Except for in the dead of winter, the weather in Texas allows the family to travel across the state to attend competitions and shows at least once a month. That Saturday in October in Katy, the McDaniels attended the Space City RC’s 12th annual Warbird Fly-In, where enthusiasts get together to show off their planes.
The pastime began in the mid-1930s when radio designers, aeronautical engineers and modelers began to experiment with remote control flight. For the most part, the hobby attracted builders — people interested in the engineering and craftsmanship of RC planes.
During the last decade, technological advancements and almost-ready-to-fly, or ARF, aircraft assembly kits have made the hobby more accessible and affordable. Though complexity can vary from kit to kit, beginner kits with foam materials can often be put together in an hour or two and can cost as little as about $200. The custom-built planes and more complex ARFs, on the other hand, can take a day or even months to complete — with prices ranging from the low hundreds to thousands of dollars.
“You’re going to get these guys who have been doing this since they were this tall, saying the invention of the ARF is the worst thing ever, and then you’re going to get people who are pragmatic about it and say, ‘You’re nuts, the invention of the ARF has saved the hobby,’ ” Eshbaugh said.
He estimates that about 75 to 80 percent of fliers in the Austin Remote Control Association use the almost-ready-to-fly kits rather than building from scratch. The kits have made it easier for young people to start flying RC aircraft and have even inspired some to pursue aviation as a career.
The McDaniel brothers have accrued six hours of flight training in full-scale planes. The Federal Aviation Association requires 40 hours of flight training to obtain a private pilot’s license. Flying commercially requires a minimum of 250 flight hours, and qualifying as a first officer on a commercial airliner requires 1,500.
“RC was the first time that I ever really messed with airplanes,” Dustin McDaniel said. “It helped me realize how much how of a feeling of freedom [flight] can give you. I haven’t been able to replace it with anything else.”