Up and away with model planes

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Shirley Brenon

John Williamson, Dan Metz and Dr. Allen Williamson prepare for the maiden flight of Williamson’s scratch-built Mitchell B-25 during a Coachella Valley Radio Control Club event.
Photo by Murray Ross

The Coachella Valley Radio Control Club has come a long way from a loosely knit group of model airplane enthusiasts to an organization of 150 members with a professional flying field.

One of the oldest organizations in the Coachella Valley, it started with a group of weekend pilots in 1938, stopped during WWII and picked up again after the war. Flying fields were  empty lots, ranch fields or any place with a level site away from houses or power lines. By 1999 Dan Metz, then president, was anxious to find a permanent “airport” as the gypsy fliers had shared their hobby on more than a dozen sites.

After many disappointments, the Bureau of Reclamation offered 240 acres alongside the Coachella Canal in Thermal with a 25-year contract for $1 a year and a chance to renew for another 25 years. The property was littered with old cars, furniture, construction debris and hundreds of tires, but the model pilots descended on the property to man tractors and bulldozers for a massive cleanup. Metz reached out to the community for financial help and was rewarded with checks from developers, large companies and donations from members.

 “I realize that there were many workers and angels that helped us through this process, but Dan Metz continues to be the wind beneath our wings. He led the fight for our flying field and continues to lead us as president,” says Murray Ross, who has been flying for 28 years and was part of this work force.

The field opened in May 2002. Today,  the flying venue, with an 865-foot by 70-foot runway, large pit area, 10 shade structures, ample parking for cars and motor homes, is available to the members 365 days a year.

Spectators are always welcome free of charge unless the club is holding an event with an admission fee.

The flying bug

CVRCC members range in age from teenagers to late 80s and in lifestyles from student to retiree. Member Jim Morgan encouraged his grandson Darrel to fly, and he is now very proficient in aerobatic flying. Eisenhower Medical Center surgeon Dr. Allen Williamson and his teenage son John also fly together at the field.

Most of the pilots are not interested in competition, but just enjoy bringing planes out to fly and photograph.

“The most enjoyable aspect of the hobby for me is going to the field to watch and photograph other pilots flying their planes and sharing my photos,” says member Jim Burk.

Another photographer, George Muir, is noted for his videos of rapidly moving jets.

“I’ve always been interested in flying R/C planes but have only been flying and a member for 10 years. I remember back in the early ‘70s I would ride my bicycle to the Indio Date Festival parking lot and watch Ernie Chapin and Bob Taylor (two of the early fliers) fly their airplanes.”

Ned Smith has been fascinated by airplanes since he was a child. His parents lived near Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and left his crib outside in the yard so he could see the airplanes flying overhead.

“I suspect it caused my interest in airplanes,” he says. “The hobby gives me something to fill my time and helps keep me mentally and physically active.”

Retired engineer Court Moe has been flying for more than 10 years and says he enjoys the intellectual challenges of putting the planes together – what propeller goes best with what motor, for instance.

Club events

The club, a nonprofit organization, hosts several events that cater to pilots with specialized interests and skills.

At three aero-tow events, radio-controlled planes tow sail planes to high altitudes where they are released.

Those with scale model military planes from WWI through post-Viet Nam have their day at a War Birds event as scale replicas of combat aircraft take to the air.

The jet rally brings in modelers from several states with jet planes costing upwards of $2,000 that fly up to 200 miles per hour. They look and sound like real turbojets, and require special skills to build, maintain and fly.

In another event, pilots compete in precision and 3D aerobatics. Large aerobatic planes must fly a set of aerial maneuvers, which many think of as ice skating figures in the sky.

Just as nearby clubs are invited to ‘fun flys’ for a day of camaraderie, flying and barbecue lunch, desert pilots participate in other clubs’ activities such as Lake Hemet’s Pine Float Fly with float planes.  

Community outreach

The club mans a promotional booth and puts on an R/C airplane show at the biannual Jacqueline Cochran Air Show at the regional airport that bears her name in Thermal. 

 Members gather gifts for Toys for Tots annual drive at Christmas and donate money to Wounded Warriors

Members not only build or assemble planes, repair and fly them, but they reach out to others with their flying skills. There are generally three instructors at the field who give free lessons. Rob Thomas, co-owner of Uncle Don’s Hobby Shop in Palm Desert, gives flying lessons on Wednesdays. The store has two flight simulators to aid in instruction.

“The equipment is getting better, making it much easier,” says Thomas. “A RTF (ready to fly) foamy plane, which includes everything, can be purchased for $100.”

In the summer, club members teach children and their parents how to build and fly small balsa wood/rubber band planes and paper airplanes at the Palm Springs Air Museum. One year, a young man announced that he was going into aeronautical engineering because of what he learned on a model plane day.

The club hosts Astro Camp for youngsters from Idyllwild who launch small rockets they have built

Individual members promote aviation to youngsters, including:

 • Metz, who has lectured and demonstrated RC planes to Palm Springs Civil Air Patrol cadets, and invited them to the field for flying lessons.

• Ron Vincent works with the La Quinta High School ROTC members on flying.

• Joe Scuro, an expert in control line aerobatics, organized a model airplane club at Cathedral City High School.

John Cunningham has been flying for 40 years and with the Coachella Valley club that he calls “top notch” for three years.

“We have a facility that provides us with the opportunity to fly planes of all sizes and types,” says Cunningham. “We are very blessed to have this and very thankful to have such a great group of individuals.”