RC Eagles Keep Passions and (Most) Model Planes Aloft

By Spencer Morgan
Founder and Chief Community Officer at Grouper, Linkedin

On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Suhaka Field, Loren Anderson craned his neck skyward as the vintage biplane he had built from scratch – including cutting its balsa wood parts – soared through a clear blue Colorado sky. 

His friend Captain Rodney Getty, a pilot of real planes for 54 years and of model planes for 40, operated the remote control transmitter. Both men have been members of the Denver RC Eagles, a club for remote control (RC) enthusiasts founded in 1960, for going on four decades. Earlier that morning Loren had called up Captain Rodney for a favor: meet him for a test flight. Loren, 75, one of the club’s resident technicians, had made a ‘little adjustment’ to its center of gravity and controls. He wanted one of the club’s most experienced instructor pilots to take the bird up in the air first, on the off chance Loren had screwed the thing up. Rodney agreed. That’s what friends and fellow club members are for.

RC model airplane

The banana yellow biplane, emblazoned with a giant forest green wasp, appeared to be handling beautifully. Only one other RC pilot was out at the field that afternoon to see it. 

At least on weekdays, most of the Denver RC Eagles 143 members visit the club’s flying site at Cherry Creek State Park before noon, depending on their personal routine. 

“We have what we call the dawn patrol, the guys that are there at 6:30 in the morning and they fly until about 8, 8:30, then they’re done,” Loren tells me. “And then there are the mid morning guys. And I’m one of those guys, and [we] show up, it could be two days a week, it could be five days a week, from around 10 until noon. But it’s usually the same group of guys. We add a few and we lose a few, but it’s usually the same group of guys. We go out, have coffee, fly, sit around and talk, fix things. And then everybody’s got something going on in the afternoon. So, that’s kind of a daily routine.” 

The “Pit Crew,” about half a dozen older gentlemen who for various reasons have not yet consummated their dreams of owning an RC plane but regularly spend their mornings out at Suhaka Field providing commentary and “spotting” services, has their own pre-noon cadence. They also missed the impromptu test flight.

RC clubs require a decent amount of engaged and capable members in order to maintain a flying site and attract and train new pilots. The Eagles are plenty capable. 

“Oh boy, we have plumbers, electricians, painters, carpenters, doctors, lawyers, theoretical physicists, airline pilots, jet fighter pilots, nurses, paramedics.  There are quite a few paramedics right now. Probably a half dozen firemen, a couple of guys that own retail businesses. Veterinarians.” 

The current president is a steamfitter. Not to mention, Loren, who has a background in electronics and CNC machines among other things.

Suhaka Field comprises two paved runways – one 450 feet, and one 275 feet – paved taxiways, and a pit area, all built from donated funds and time. “We have a Connexx out there that houses all our electronics because the trend now is flying more electric motors than fuel motors, so we put up a solar charging station,” Loren says. “Members gather for maintenance day out at the field every month, where they go out and knock down bushes and paint and, you know, all the things that we have to do.” 

All of this effort provides for an elaborate playground for social interaction in the mornings and a fairly private flying sanctuary in the afternoons. As was the case that fateful Wednesday. (Weekends are a different story. Families! Scout troops!)

After about three minutes of banking and trimming and flying straight and level, Captain Rodney assessed that indeed the biplane was handling fine. 

“He says, ‘I’m gonna hand it to you on the next pass,’” Loren recalls. “In other words, he was going to give me the transmitter, and I could fly my own plane.”

Service is the Highest Goal

Loren says that community service is the G-force that drives the club. Sometimes that service comes in the form of helping people tap into the feeling they had as children, the satisfaction of building something and watching it fly.  

“The biggest motivation for most people in the club is they want to help people, they want to be involved, they want to be inclusive.” 

As an example, Loren tells me about a project a group of eight or nine members embarked on seven years ago to help Paul Schlein, another member, 79, a retired Navy engineer who is building a replica XB-70. Fifteen and half feet long, 12 feet wide with six engines. Paul met his wife on an XB-70 circa 1960. He joined the club a month after his wife passed. He committed to building the XB-70 to honor her. Call it bereavement therapy. A couple times a month this group gathers in Paul’s garage to help make his dream a reality.

“I look at it and I say those guys saved me,” Paul tells me. “There’s an amalgam, a stickiness, a bonding that’s hard to express.” 

There’s also Ralph, Loren’s neighbor with Alzheimer’s. One day, Loren got to talking with Ralph, and Ralph told him he was feeling lonely after his wife passed. Loren got Ralph’s daughter’s permission to take him to the field once a week and join the Pit Crew.

When they are not tinkering with their own planes or helping fellow members with theirs, the Eagles keep Suhaka Field buzzing with activity.

In May, the Eagles will host the Cub Scouts at the field, providing simulators hooked up to the Connexx power system, and 20 trainers for the scouts to fly. Throughout the year, there are several official air shows and multiple barbecues with unofficial air shows, which have the effect of converting drone fliers to more nimble (and fun) RC aircraft varieties.

All this RC air traffic helps attract new members. With the vanishing of corner hobby stores across the country – Loren first learned of the RC Eagles at the long dead Tom Thumb Hobbies in Centennial – chance encounters with curious passersby is a primary channel for growth for RC clubs. There’s always a spare plane ready to fly for that moment an unsuspecting recruit is out for a walk at Cherry Creek Reservoir and stumbles upon whatever excitement is happening at the air strip. “We always say, ‘We’ve got an airplane here ready to go. We’ll be more than happy to show you how this is done.’ And I would say three out of five come back. And out of that three out of five, three quarters of them end up becoming members and flying.” 

Joining a group does not only provide a Pit Crew, flight buddies and a team of helping hands. Flying solo can be a tricky affair. The increase in flight restrictions makes joining a club – with a dedicated airfield and the infrastructure and expertise to guide a newbie through the various required certifications – a no-brainer. RC pilots need FAA and Trust certificates and an Academy of Model Aeronautics membership, which among other things provides insurance and liability and access to its community of 2,400 member clubs and airfields.

Those costs add up, which is one reason Loren says the AMA’s announcement that they’d partnered with Grouper has been so well received. So far more than 500 AMA members are enrolled and eligible to have their $75 membership dues reimbursed.

The main reason to join a group, though, is as obvious as a yellow-and-green RC plane soaring 300 feet above your head on a Wednesday afternoon.  Captain Rodney was still working the stick, when he banked the plane around to return to the two Eagles. That’s when the upper wing came off. 

“We had an unscheduled mid-flight disassembly,” Loren deadpans. 

The plane came down in pieces. It would never fly again. Rodney helped Loren collect the pieces. It was not the first time a plane had come apart. Won’t be the last time. That’s OK. Successful flights are one thing. Great stories, plucked from the wreckage of an afternoon well-spent, those are what make being in a group fun for everyone to enjoy.

This article originally appeared on Linkedin.

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