Rod Roberts flies his self-built AH-64 Apache in the field near Lake Earl. Wescom News Service/Bryant Anderson
CRESCENT CITY – Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an upside-down helicopter pulling aerobatics faster than you can think.
Step onto the official field of the Redwood Empire Modelers Association and you’ll meet men eager to show off their toys: remote-controlled helicopters. And these birds don’t mess around.
“There are times when I land my helicopter and shut it off and my knees are shaking from the adrenaline rush,” said Don Beard, member of the local RC club since 1995.
His point was punctuated when Rod Robert’s helicopter took the first flight, blazing more than 90 mph back and forth across a 100-yard stretch, soaring as high as 200 feet.
Their transmitters’ range actually allow them to go higher.
“You can still control it higher than you can see it,” Beard said.
Roberts, a club member for more than 15 years, landed his bird, measuring more than 3 feet long, while Matt Blaisdell prepared for takeoff.
Blaisdell’s deft flying skills preceded him. He is a sponsored RC helicopter pilot who flies 3D, a term used for helicopter aerobatics like flying inverted or backwards, pirouetting, flipping or rolling.
“Matt makes them do things they were never designed to do,” Beard said.
Once he lifted off, all eyes of the small crowd immediately fixed on Blaisdell’s 3D tricks. The whizzing and whirring created by his maneuvers sounded like a swarm of multiple machines.
“Don’t get too close Matt!” Beard yelled as Blaisdell plunged the helicopter toward the ground, pulling back at the last second.
Modern pod-and-boom RC choppers can flip upside-down because of servomotors (“servos” for short) that change the cant of the blades within a fraction of a second.
Although Blaisdell is sponsored by Helihobby and HeliDirect for product testing, he insisted he is not skilled or fast enough to compete.
“There's so many maneuvers I can’t even show you, because I don’t even know how to do them,” Blaisdell said. “If you have to think about the maneuver, you’re going to put it in the dirt.”
Putting it in the dirt is expensive. Blaisdell crashed a model recently that cost him about $800.
The other style of model helicopters, apart from the pod-and-boom, is the scale style. Roberts flew a self-built AH-64 Apache, which from a distance could easily be mistaken for a full-size U.S. Army attack helicopter. The Bell 222 is another popular scale helicopter.
Roberts favorite part is “watching something fly that I built.” He’s been flying model airplanes since 1983. Eleven years ago, Beard got him into helicopters, and he’s been hooked since.
When Blaisdell was starting out he kept crashing, then went to Beard for help. Now the student has surpassed the teacher.
The first thing you have to learn is the hover. Launching, landing and getting out of trouble all stem from the hover, which is difficult to master.
“It’s like putting a marble on a piece of glass and trying to keep it in the middle,” Beard said. “Even when that helicopter is sitting almost perfectly still, his fingers are constantly in motion, constantly making corrections.”
That should not discourage anyone from trying it out.
“We encourage anybody that wants to learn and play and have a good time, to come on out,” Blaisdell said.
The only requirement to fly with the club, founded in 1978, is that you are a member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, because AMA members receive $2.5 million liability insurance for accidents involving flying models.
Although the club has not had any accidents in recent memory, the risk is still high with blades moving at 2,000 rpm, Beard said.
“Those blades would probably break your leg, not to mention the cut,” Beard said.
Membership costs $58 for adults, $48 for those 65 and over, and it’s free for those under 19. It can be purchased at modelaircraft.org. Membership is not necessary to watch the action, which takes place in a field off Lake Earl Drive.