Model airplanes land on Martha’s Vineyard

Jiri Luncar prepares a model for takeoff at a field behind the regional high school used by the model flying club. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Martha’s Vineyard Model Flying Club (MVMFC) has been flying comfortably below the public radar for the past five years, but now it wants to soar — with new members.

Club president Braulio Carreno said in an interview last week that the club believes young people would enjoy the hobby. “They are already comfortable with the control technology via video games and iPhones et al,” he said. “It’s a hobby you can set up and begin quickly and inexpensively and it will cut down on what I call ‘screen time’ — the hours young people spend every day in front of computer screens of one sort or another,” Mr. Carreno said. “I have two sons, aged three and five. The five-year-old is just learning to fly, but even the three-year-old can handle our computer at home without any trouble.”

Affordability is a big factor in the hobby’s appeal. Prices range from $20 starter kits to thousands of dollars for custom planes with ten-foot wing spans. Most members customize and improve their equipment as they go. It costs $25 to join the club, and membership is $30 per year.

“Our goal is to offer two full free memberships. Scholarships provide membership, and new members get a plane to fly indoors and receive lessons on how to build and fly indoors,” Mr. Carreno said. “MVMFC is a charter member of the national Academy of Model Aeronautics, a terrific benefit. They provide our safety rules and are covered by the AMA substantial insurance plan.”

The club has recently improved its airfield, doubling the runway length and smoothing the landings, thanks to a contribution of Astro-turf from Contemporary Landscapes in Vineyard Haven.

Mr. Carreno said the club has had preliminary talks with high school guidance personnel who’ve shown interest in the idea. Club members use the high school gym for winter flying, and they have built an airfield behind the high school baseball field for outdoor flying. Members are free to use the airfield at any time, weather and safety permitting.

The club meets regularly to fly on Thursday afternoons at 5 pm and on Saturdays at 9 am from spring to late fall at the outdoor site. Guests are welcome.

Today the 24-member club is composed principally of adult men, including its spiritual leader, Joe Costa of Oak Bluffs, who has piloted full-size airplanes for 58 years. Since he was a child he has been building model planes, both for his own use and for people who want a model built. “Carl Watt from Edgartown called me about five years ago. He heard I built models and got me involved,” he said.

Most model pilots have many planes — seven or eight planes or helicopters, on average. The on-Island king of model collectors is Cedric Belain in Aquinnah. “He’s got to have about 40 of them,” Mr. Costa said.

Club officers include vice president Bill Hudgins, secretary Bob Stevenson, field officer David Taylor, and security officer Bill Richard. Mr. Costa is the flight instructor. He has flown 38 different types of aircraft in his career in the Air Force and as an airplane mechanic, and he holds the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. “That’s for flying for 50 years without wrecking myself or the planes,” he said in an interview last week.

Building models has real-world applications, Mr. Costa said. “I test-fly passenger planes and I’ve been able to identify problems in passenger planes as a result of having built models,” he said.

Models today include helicopters and more modern versions, but most models are replicas of World War II aircraft. While the model plane industry existed prior to the war, the hobby took off, so to speak, following the war. “Model-makers thought that returning vets would want to fly the models they’d flown in the war,” Mr. Costa explained. “Although that didn’t happen, those model templates have continued to be used.”

Just about everything about the planes, including power and range, had changed dramatically. The MVMFC club flies at about 20 miles per hour using planes with a range of 400 yards to a mile, Mr. Carreno said. Working with forest managers, the club officials manage bordering tree lines and trim brush to provide pilots with sightlines within range of their flights.

Electric batteries now run most models, replacing gasoline-powered models of earlier eras, powering on-Island model planes with wingspans between 15 and some 60 inches.

Unlike the mythical Icarus who had the really bad idea of using wax-fixed wings to fly to the sun, model-flying today follows a complete set of safety protocols which includes notifying the nearby Martha’s Vineyard Regional Airport and two-man flying teams including the pilot and a spotter.

Last week, Jiri Luncar, the club’s newest member and proprietor of the I’ll Be There painting company, demonstrated his expertise at the model airstrip, taking off and landing a P-51 fighter with in-air acrobatics —flips, turns, and barrel rolls — during its flight.

Mr. Luncar is handy and has customized his planes with separately controlled ailerons and flaps for smoother control. He has also adapted his handheld control mechanism to provide six different controls, resembling a complex video game controller.

While balsa wood has long been the material of choice for model planes, and expert pilots continue to use balsa, Mr. Luncar has constructed his planes using styrofoam, covered with a thin plastic shell. “They are easier to repair and you can get back in the air quickly,” he said. “You will crash in the beginning,” he added, showing evidence of taped repairs to his craft.

“People want to fly,” Mr. Carreno said. “It’s inside us. Also, there’s the achievement of assembling a plane. It takes 30 minutes, then you take it outside and fly it. Amazing experience.”