By Ron VandenBoom
Wide-eyed excitement is the only expression on Christopher Velk's face as he stares transfixed at his new remote controlled airplane turning and swirling overhead.
"Yes," he exclaims as the plane goes through its paces.
Velk and his father Lauren, have had a casual interest in remote controlled aircraft for some time, but until they had a chance to pick up a plane of their own at a local garage sale, they were forced to be little more than spectators.
"He paid for it himself," Velk said of his son's new plane.
Velk explained that his son had received some money when he graduated from the eighth-grade and when he saw the plane decided that this was how he wanted to invest it.
It's obvious judging from the expression on Christopher's face that he feels it was money well spent.
Velk is now the newest member of the Saddle Butte R.C. Club a group of 13 members that meet to share the joys of building and flying remote control aircraft.
"It's a beautiful hobby for a young person starting out in life or an older person," said Bert Unruh, president of the Havre based club. "It's just a good clean hobby."
Members of the club meet the first Wednesday of each month to discuss club business and also take a moment to try out a wide variety of remote control aircraft each member has assembled from a kit.
The planes come in a variety of styles and colors that can range from the simple trainer or Piper Cub to the more complex F-16 Jet Fighter or WW II Corsair.
Unruh explained that anyone is welcome to join the club the cost is only $20 a year plus a one-time-only fee of $30 for new members. The $30 fee is assessed to help defray the cost of building the clubhouse, Unruh said. But new members might also find there is additional cost involved in obtaining their first remote control plane.
Unruh said that RC planes are just like any other hobby it takes some money just to get started.
"It's just like anything else golf, fishing, hunting, everything costs to get into it," he said. "Then once you're into it, it's however much you want to spend from there."
Unruh said an initial investment of about $350 should be about enough to get started.
The members, he said, buy their planes in kit form from Tower Hobbies and build the planes themselves. The kit will contain almost everything needed to get started and come in a variety of sizes, complexity, and types. Most common are the models that are one-fifth scale. But one club member is building a one-third scale model.
Each kit will vary in assembly time depending on the model's complexity and according to Unruh it could take anywhere from hours to months to complete depending on how much time you are willing to put into it.
Some beginners might want to start with what club members call an "ARF" kit or Almost Ready to Fly kit.
The ARF still requires some assembly, but comes complete enough to get the hobbyist in the air as quickly as possible.
Unruh said it's not necessary for the buyer of the kit to be an expert in building models.
The kit comes with complete instructions and pictures and if the builder does get into a bind, club members have been known to help walk the builder through the problem.
Once complete, the new member can take their creation to the site of the organization's clubhouse and flying field to try it out.
It's always a new experience launching a new plane on it's first flight.
"A good plane to me is one that does what I want it to do," said Dave Keeley, a long-time club member. "I want to know what's taking place and that I'm doing it. I like an airplane that does what I tell it to do, goes where I point it, and stays there."
Keeley said he has 13 working models at home and at least that many hanging on the walls to be used for parts.
For some, mastering the radio can be the greatest challenge.
"Some of the guys, the first time on the transmitter flew it like they owned it," Keeley said, adding that others take a long time to pick it up.
The clubhouse and flying field is located just south of Havre and east of the old slow-pitch softball complex overlooking the city of Havre. It's a picturesque backdrop for members to test their skills and equipment.
The club has constructed a sheltered complex complete with picnic tables and a storage area that can double as a snack-bar during club sponsored events. Bleachers located to the west of the building also provide seating space for spectators.
A fence separates the spectator area from the flying field and serves the needs of the flyers while also taking into account the safety of spectators.
The field has been graded to provide a flat takeoff and landing area and special work benches and launching benches also line the side of the field.
"You wouldn't want a nicer flying field," Unruh said.
Keeley echoed Unruh when he said he believes Havre's is one of the nicest fields in the state of Montana.
And he should know, he has seen and flown his planes on several around the state.
The field was also designed to accommodate what Unruh calls "fun flys" where other clubs from around the state are invited to bring their planes and their families for a day of fun and flying.
The layout of the complex is both pleasant and functional, but it's easy to see that safety has also been considered.
"It's a safe hobby if you're careful," Unruh said, adding that it is possible to tear off a finger just by getting it in the way of the propeller. "We try and stress safety in our flying."
He notes that while many of the planes will fly at about 60 MPH they have clocked others at 120 mph.
"That airplane out there is just like a bullet," he said. "If it hits you it can kill you."
Safety is another of the reasons joining the club might be the best way for beginners to take up the hobby.
The experienced members will serve as mentors and teachers to the new comers.
"We're going to do just like a real pilot instructor will do," Unruh said.
New flyers will be hooked up to a buddy cord so both parties have a radio and the instructor can take control of the neophyte's airplane if they get into trouble.
"We loose very, very few airplanes because of new flyers," Unruh said.
Safety and the possible loss of airplanes are also reasons the club will not allow anyone who has been drinking to fly a plane.
"Anyone who brings a beer to the field is required to stay behind the fence and is not allowed to fly," Unruh said. "The same is true of anyone who has been drinking before they got here."
The history of remote control flying can be traced all the way back to the 1940s in Havre, but the current club started in 1984, Unruh said.
Unruh encourages anyone wanting more information about the club or anyone interested in joining to call him at 265-4828 or Keeley at 265-5089.