A safe adrenaline rush

Thursday, October 5, 2006
Brian French of Sheboygan, Wis., flew his model KingCat plane Wednesday at the Superman Jet Rally at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. (Diane L. Wilson)

The blue BVM KingCat jet goes roaring by 20 feet off the ground at 200 mph. It climbs into the sky at a nausea-inducing incline, hits its pinnacle and starts a tailspin back to earth like an autumn leaf.

And just when it seems some mechanical malfunction has caused certain destruction, the pilot levels the wings and guides it back up into the ether.

A harrowing ride for any pilot, but this one, Brian French of Sheboygan, Wis., never breaks a sweat. That's because his plane is a radio-controlled jet replica and throughout this aerobatic display his feet are firmly planted on the ground.

"I've been flying these jets for six years," French said. "It's just a hobby, but it is kind of addicting. You get a little taste of it, and then you get your jet waiver," the equivalent of a pilot's license.

"And from then on you're looking at different models and better jets."

Others call it a safe adrenaline rush.

"It's a thrill," said enthusiast and physician Tommy Yates of Alabama. "And the best part is, if you crash and tear one up, the pilot doesn't hurt anything except his pride."

More than 150 model jet fliers from 10 countries and 33 states are at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport this week for the 18th annual Superman Jet Rally.

Rob Janiger, left, of Airworld USA, pulled his model L39 Albatross off the runway Wednesday after flying it at the Superman Jet Rally at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport.

The rally is a noncompetitive event with prizes awarded for best in show, best graphics and other distinctions. Demonstrations will go from 9 a.m. until dark Thursday and Friday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $5 and free for children under 12.

The Superman event gets its name from Metropolis, Ill., where it was held for 17 years. Last year, the FAA introduced a new restriction forbidding federally funded airports from closing for non-aeronautical events. Cape Girardeau, which has two runways and can hold the event without closing, jumped at the opportunity to host.

The FAA may not deem these jets aeronautical, but enthusiasts say they're no toys.

"They can do anything in the air a full-scale plane can do and more," said Larry Kramer of Naples, Fla. "Because they don't have some of the G-load limits of a full-scale, you'll see things here that would make a real plane come apart. These planes are kind of delicate on the ground, but they're very strong in the air."

The jets average about 6 feet in length, are powered by real jet fuel, with a real throttle, real landing gear and moveable rudders. In fact, many of them are scale replicas of fighter jets used in conflicts from the Korean War to the modern era. The aerobatic planes even pump an oil into the exhaust stream to create a vaporized plume of smoke to accentuate the loop-the-loops.

The inner workings of these crafts are equally complicated. Pop one open and you'll see a maze of wires, tanks and batteries designed to maximize the thrust (the turbines reach a maximum 160,000 rotations per minute) and minimize weight (the Academy of Model Aeronautics, the governing body, requires special training for models weighing more than 55 pounds.)

But all this reality does not come cheap. The least expensive jets at the rally are several thousand dollars, and the priciest can cost as much as $30,000. They're available assembled or in kits, and the time to assemble kits ranges from 75 hours to 1,000 hours.

The world of these model jets is highly competitive. Some wealthy participants bring their own paid operators and mechanics.

Organizers eliminated a speed competition from the Superman event a few years ago because, according to event organizer Jerry Caudle, "it was getting out of hand."

But Wednesday with wind gusts reaching as high as 22 mph nobody was taking any chances with their high-priced investments. Each radio operator has a "caller" alongside who helps watch for safety hazards in the sky and gives reminders to the operator bringing in the plane for landing.

"When you make that final turn and it goes from where you're just seeing the sky to looking at both the sky and the landscape, it does make a big change in your depth perception," said Larry Tudor, a representative for Composite ARF, a scale airplane manufacturing company with a booth at the event. "You've got to be careful on a day like this."

And French was. He pulled the plane around for its final descent, braved a couple wing wobbles from shearing winds and guided it onto the runway at 40 mph before screeching on the brakes. Just as he planned it.

"This is a good plane. You only bring a plane here you're comfortable with," he said. "I'm not going to come out here and try to do a maiden flight with some new plane."


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