By Patrick Winderl
On any given afternoon when sunlight is abundant and the wind is calm, there's a good chance that some of Havre's radio-controlled - or "R/C" - aircraft enthusiasts will be found at a field south of town. Just north of the softball complex and the trap club off Montana Highway 234 is an airport that caters to heavy traffic.
It is here that R/C pilots fly - just for the fun of it.
"The fascination is flight," said enthusiast Rocky Preeshl. "I don't know how to describe it any better than that."
They pilot scale models of real aircraft in intense acrobatic maneuvers, all from the safety of the ground. Using multichanneled FM radios, they control every aspect of flight. Here, aeronautics is not learned in a textbook, but tested in the field.
"Just because you are not actually sitting in the plane, it takes a little getting used to. Landing is probably the hardest maneuver for a beginner to learn," said Max Hinrichs, a member of a local club for R/C enthusiasts.
"We'll fly any afternoon when it's not to windy," said Bonnie Keeley, secretary of the Saddle Butte R/C Club. Keeley and her husband, Dave, are the only husband-wife team in the club, which also includes two father-son duos. Max Hinrich's father, Fritz, was one of the founding members of the group, and the obvious enthusiasm of club member Jim Potter seems to have rubbed off on his son, Ben.
The official history of the Saddle Butte R/C Club starts in the mid-1980s, though R/C enthusiasts were active in Havre as early as the late 1950s. Many of the old-timers thank Dean Gebhardt for their start in the sport.
Gebhardt, who died in 1997, at one time owned a hobby shop in the Holiday Village Shopping Center and was one of the earliest members of the Saddle Butte club. The club was formed in 1984 with the help of Great Falls native and fellow R/C enthusiast Glen Mischke, who has also since died.
The same year, the club leased land east of Havre as its flying field, but was later forced to move to make way for new residential development. In 1991, the club settled on a parcel of land just south of the U.S. Border Patrol station. Under an agreement with the city of Havre, the group leased the property for 20 years. Using club dues, donations and a lot of elbow grease, the Saddle Butte R/C Club landscaped the area, built a clubhouse and installed work benches.
For many club members, it is a home away from home, a place to tinker with their aircraft and pit its abilities against their own.
Getting off the ground
Beginners who join the Saddle Butte R/C Club can fly without fear of losing an aircraft to inexperience thanks to a flight-training system used by the group. Using a plane generally considered the easiest to fly - a high-wing monoplane with tricycle landing gear - the system incorporates dual radio controls so that an experienced pilot can assume command of the airplane if the rookie runs into trouble.
"We don't lose many trainers," Dave Keeley said of the so-called patch cord system.
The new technology has made it easier for beginners to enter the sport, said Hinrichs, who got his start with control line aircraft. Control line aircraft are considered the predecessor to R/C, and consist of a powered model airplane attached to a cord that flies in circles around the stationary pilot.
When Hinrichs graduated to flying radio-controlled aircraft, the concept of dual trainer controls did not exist.
"Basically, if the guy got into trouble, you had to hand the remote off. Now, with the patch cord system, you just hit the button and take the controls away from them," he said.
Most entry-level R/C aircraft use four channels - one each for the throttle to control speed, the rudder to control horizontal movement, the elevators to control pitch, and ailerons to control bank.
As pilots become more experienced, they may choose to invest in more complicated - and expensive - aircraft. Some have as many as nine channels.
Each plane is able to stay aloft for about 10 or 15 minutes, though more expensive motors and larger fuel tanks can enable longer flights.
While Saddle Butte pilots do the vast majority of their flying during the summer months, a few hard-core members keep at it year-round.
Dave Keeley event went so far as to outfit an aircraft with skis so that it could take off and land on snow. A similar attempt to convert an aircraft for use on water was less successful.
"Water and electrical components do not mix," he said.
Still, club members maintain that R/C technology is improving at a rapid rate, meaning better performance and better reliability.
"The popularity of the sport has stayed the same throughout the years," Hinrichs said. "With the technology, of course, the aircraft are getting better. The radios are more reliable and the engines are more reliable."
Another thing that has changed is the emergence of ARFs -almost-ready-to-fly aircraft. They come largely preassembled and are ready to fly practically right out of the box. The ARFs have surged in popularity during the last decade among novice flyers, Hinrichs said.
Most planes are pretty resilient and can withstand many of the inevitable crashes, he added.
"Takeoffs are optional. Landings are mandatory," he joked, adding that even if the engine loses power, it is still possible to execute a safe landing.
"If you lose the engine, you can still glide the plane back in and do a dead-stick landing - depending on the model," he said. "Some descend faster than others."
With the increased reliability, most crashes are caused by pilot error rather than radio or mechanical failure, Hinrichs said.
"I've had numerous crashes, but most were so minor that you could repair the aircraft in two or three evenings. I'd say over the years I have only had three total losses, or crashes where the aircraft was damaged beyond repair," he said.
R/C flying offers participants a wide variety of aircraft and activities. One activity that has become popular in recent years is combat flying, in which pilots engage in aerial combat using their R/C planes. Two or more flyers engage in aerial combat by attempting to sever a 25-foot streamer attached to the "enemy" aircraft using the propeller of their own plane.
Combat flying has not yet found its niche in the Saddle Butte R/C Club, despite the best efforts of club member Jim Potter.
Preeshl shares Potter's desire to see combat flying become popular in Havre.
"I'd really like a lot more people to get into it," he said. "You could have 10 planes in the air and the last one still flying is the winner. I think it's great and I would like to see more of it."
R/C flight is not relegated strictly to airplanes. Preeshl and Hinrichs have both expanded their mastery of R/C flight to include helicopters.
"The fascination is with the mechanics of the helicopter. It is a challenge to fly an R/C helicopter," Hinrichs said. "You could compare it to balancing a BB on your nose while chewing bubble gum. The helicopter is basically a big balancing act. It takes steady movement of the controls to maintain the beast."
Hinrichs flies a ThunderTiger Raptor 60 model helicopter. The aircraft has a 61-inch rotor and weighs 12 pounds. A .70-cubic-liter three-horsepower engine propels the machine skyward.
Preeshl has a slightly different model. Like combat flying, he said he would like to see more people take up R/C helicopters.
Preeshl said he acquired his love of R/C flying when he was in the eighth grade and spent hours in Gebhardt's hobby shop. In the 25 years since Preeshl took his first R/C flight, that love has been an on-again, off-again relationship. However, he always comes back.
"It's like riding a bike," he said. "Once you learn how to fly an airplane, you never forget how to do it."
On the Web: AMA's official site is at www.modelaircraft.org. Saddle Butte R/C Club's site is at www.onewest.net/~evans