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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Boys at Play in the Valley…

model chopper

One weekend annually in mid-July the small town of Arlington holds a “fly-in,”its celebration of light plane avionics. For a few days prior, the Valley sky thrums with the engines of small aircraft, both vintage planes and the newest in the line of experimental flying machines: destination…the Arlington Airport. I thrill to the throaty drone of a radial engine overhead, the sound of that reliable piston power from the days of barnstorming, Amelia Earhart, the Boeing flying fortresses. And whenever I see these planes cruising northward, I think of my dad, the pilot—how those sounds would thrill him—how he could, and would, tell me about those planes, their engines, his experiences with them, being around and even piloting some of them.

When we were kids, before the days of video games and  the current electronic diversions that preoccupy today’s youth and keep them “connected” with their BFFs, we had our own model airplane club. And while RC (radio controlled) sophistication was a few years away, we went airborne with control line aircraft. Dad's AtomicMany of these  miniature airplanes we built from kits or just “winged” it with experimental aircraft of our own. Every Saturday we would pack up our Glo-fuel, a pungent mixture of methanol and caster oil, dry-cell batteries, spare glo-plugs, propellers, tissue paper and Duco-Cement and haul our miniature flying machines to the local aerodrome (the school’s football field) where we would set them on the tarmac (the cinder track) and struggle to launch our whimsical aircraft aloft.

Twin control lines operated the elevator rod which controlled the tail section elevators intended to direct the airflow across the tail section of the plane: control handle up, the model descended; down, the aircraft zoomed higher. In theory that’s the way the aerodynamics were supposed to work. The balsawood rudders of our little “heavier than air” craft were slightly offset to direct the nose of the model away from its center pivot (the “aviator”) and enable the craft to keep the control lines taut. Periodically we had to give the “joy stick” a good yank to keep the plane from auguring into the track. However, the inevitable would happen and after an hour or so we would scoop up all the pieces: splintered wings and tail sections, severed firewalls—engines still attached--and put them in a paper sack for transport to the repair shop. A week later after intense re-gluing and several layers of paint we would be back on the flight line with our patchwork aircraft.

I’ve never attended a single Arlington Fly-In, but I understand there’s a variety of aircraft on site to delight the would-be aviator or aviatrix. And aerial shows, too—acrobatics that oooh and ahhh the spectators. But I didn’t have to make the trip north to watch aircraft barnstorm around the sky, barrel rolling, tail spinning, loop-the-looping, flying upside down. The other day in the Valley I was spectator to an impromptu aerial display that kept me entertained for nearly a half hour.

I’m on my morning ride when I notice a black Dodge pick-up in the Swiss Hall parking lot. As I approach, I see a figure kneeling before what appears to be a toolbox in front of the truck. “Ah, mechanical problems,” I think…but no, there’s no tell-tale sign of mechanics gone awry under the hood: the truck’s is shut and locked. I slow a bit and am about to glide on by when I see the crouching figure is a young man tinkering with a model helicopter. fine tuningWell, boys will be be boys…and I’m instantly transfixed…and transported to those days of Glo-fuel and the smell of methanol in the morning.

I meet Phil who is fine- tuning the engine on his radio controlled helicopter, adjusting the fuel mixture, doing some carburetor tweaking and has come to the Valley to do some flight testing over the cornfields. I share some of my own model aircraft experiences from the old control line days. Phil’s toy is far more sophisticated than any we young aviators had. For one, the helicopter is not tethered to the pilot; rather, it’s tuned to radio signals, responds to electronic demands from a hand-held control box. Phil and chopper

Phil explains some of the ‘copter’s mechanics to me, the type of engine powering the craft, fuel mixture (hasn’t changed much, still ignited by a glo-plug), how the rotor blade is clutch-engaged, so the engine can run without the rotors turning. (Problematic adjusting carburetor and such with the rotors spinning.) Other hi-tech advancements, too: an electric pump to fill the fuel tank, a drill-like doohickey to start the engine (we spun the props digitally on our little engines, which often backfired, bruising and bloodying our knuckles after the hour’s flight time). I leave Phil in a cloud of Glo-fuel exhaust, continue my ride, hoping the ‘copter will be ready for flight testing by the time I complete my own Loop-the-Loop.

On my return I approach Decks’ cornfield and see blue smoke pooling in the air above the parking lot and know flight testing is in progress. I wheel around the Hall just in time to see the ‘copter, belching exhaust, slowly lift skyward, and for the next few minutes I have a front row seat for heliobatics.

lift off


airbornePhil tells me he’s a member of a local model helicopter club (Snohomish, I think). I’ve heard it said about helicopters that their design is so aerodynamically flawed the craft shouldn’t be able to stay in the air, but Phil’s does, and he reIn controlally puts the little bird through its paces. One moment it hovers ten feet above the ground; the next the craft jets upwards like a rocket fifty or sixty feet in the air. Then there’s a 360 degree roll. Back to a low hover and again jets aloft where Phil flips the ‘copter on its back, makes it hover inverted. “Wow! Can the real thing make that maneuver?” I asked in surprise. “No,” Phil answers, “but they can do rolls.” copterbatics

I ask Phil how much a model ‘copter like his costs and learn one can expect to pay around eight hundred dollars for the machine alone. And then there’s the control unit and the “support” paraphernalia. But there  are hobbies far more expensive, of course. The little ‘copter settles back to earth for refueling. (Tank capacity allows a seven to eight minute flight.) Phil is still not pleased with the carburation, fiddles a while over the hot carburetor, and the ‘copter zooms up for another test. I’ve been treated to quite a show of ‘copterbatics, thank Phil for performing for the press, and with the fumes of nostalgia echoing in my nose, I head on home.

Phil is not the only boy at play in the Valley. You may have noticed the practice track for RC race cars Shay Goodlund has built between his home and the new two-story house next door (yes, the one that’s slowly being swallowed up by its own landscaping).Practice courseThis hard packed configuration of humps and bumps,  corners and jumps that Shay built is where he tests the cars he races in contests around the west coast. Shay told me sponsors pay him to race their products, reward him for his skills on the model track; his expertise helps sell their products to other hobbyists. Chassis, engines, and tires are what Shay puts to the test. I asked him if the cars had product decals on them like the full-scale Indy and NASCAR racers have. He told me they do. “And tires?” I asked. “Those little cars actually wear out tires during a race?” Shay explained some model car contests use similar formats as Daytona or Indianapolis and like these events are endurance type races employing the same pit stop strategies for refueling and tire changes used at the big race tracks. Apparently interest in these model racers and racing them is on the increase. Shay puts the little racers through their paces from a control tower high enough to keep his car in sight regardless of its location on the course.Shay Goodlund Goodlund also has electric powered cars he uses to test the track itself and when the track’s  fine tuned, the gas powered cars go out on the course. (Much to his neighbors’ distress, I might add. Shay told me they have complained about his “play”sessions. I can’t imagine these little racers can generate nearly the decibels as the bellowing Harleys and shrieking “Crotchettes” that echo through the Valley on sunny days. Too much dust and noise, they claim.)

Farming, I know, is hard work and a whole lot of that goes on in the Valley. Farming means long hours and plenty of labor, a lot of it hard and unpleasant, just to bring food to America’s tables. Farming, no doubt about it, is a tough way to make a living. Just wanted you to know, though, that from time to time a little play goes on here, too.

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