August 24, 2013

Flying machines: A most uplifting hobby

Two local clubs devoted to model aircraft have attracted many enthusiasts, including commercial pilots and military veterans.

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

NEW GLOUCESTER - The Propsnappers field could have been a scene from "Toy Story," with mini helicopters, Twin Otters and a mini Russian jet. But don't call these model aircraft toys to the boys who fly them.

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Giuseppe “Joe” Ribecca’s electric bald eagle is so lifelike it even attracted a pair of hawks at the Propsnappers Fun Fly last week in New Gloucester. But while the Italian-born Windham school bus driver builds model aircraft, he doesn’t sell them for safety reasons.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Bill Lairsey, an Air Force veteran and former U.S. Airways pilot, is such a student of model airplanes that he’s qualified for regional competition in North Carolina in the hopes of making the world championships.

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To learn more about the Maine Jet Rally on Sept. 5-8 at Sanford Airport, go to:

"It's a mistake to call it a toy. It's educational and it is a hobby," said Bill Reeve. "I have been doing it since I was 9, almost 60 years. It's unbelievable how much it's changed. You can't keep up with the technology."

Last week the Propsnappers held a Fun Fly for electric model airplane pilots, and dozens of small aircraft took to the sky there.

There are two large model airplane clubs in southern Maine, the Propsnappers and the Skystreakers, and both hold open houses and events to share action with the public.

They're populated by current or former commercial airline pilots and some veterans. But the joy of flying and watching model airplanes is not just for licensed pilots.

More than 15 years ago the Skystreakers got together with a model airplane manufacturer to hold a weekend-long demonstration and model airplane gathering. It grew so big it had to move to Sanford Airport. Last year that event, the Maine Jet Rally, drew in excess of 18,000, said Mike Fasulo, who co-owns a hobby shop in Falmouth devoted to the pastime.

"Everyone in Germany never thought we'd draw more than theirs, especially in Maine. But it draws from Ohio, New York and Canada," Fasulo said.

Mostly, these participants enjoy getting together and flying advanced electric model planes for the skill and discipline involved.

Bill Lairsey is such a student of the pastime he qualified for the regional competition in North Carolina, in hopes of making the world championships for model airplane pilots.

"I think we have a chance to get in the world championships in Indiana. I think (our club) can get one to two guys there," said Lairsey, an Air Force veteran and former U.S. Airways pilot.

Whimsical, colorful and full of fun as such gatherings are, there are grownup concerns.

First, take the lobbying effort by the Academy of Model Aeronautics to prevent restrictions on those who fly model aircraft, part of the debate around "drones," or aircraft that can be used to spy. That fight is ongoing.

Then there is the fear of being sued.

Giuseppe "Joe" Ribecca, a Windham school bus driver originally from Italy, builds model aircraft -- big, hand-painted, papier-mache models that fly with an electric control, same as the store-bought planes.

However, he doesn't sell them because if used incorrectly, his planes could hurt someone.

Ribecca has built a model eagle, a Superman, even a flying pig. His electric bald eagle brought in a suspicious pair of hawks at the Propsnappers Fun Fly.

"Anyone can buy one, but it's hard to design it right," Ribecca said. "It's hard to get the C.G., the center of gravity. When you get the C.G., you can fly a brick."

Certainly in Maine there is a healthy interest in the hobby among model plane collectors.

Plane kits can range from $100 to as much as $20,000 and beyond. The size and scale is also extraordinary.

"And there are electronic planes that are 30-percent and 50-percent scale. In Europe, it's legal for planes 75-percent scale," Reeve said.

Most who flew at the Propsnappers gathering a week ago had hand-held planes, but the thrill of a larger plane, the kind that will be flown at the Jet Rally, is enticing.

"Why have one? Because you can," Reeve said.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

Twitter: Flemingpph

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Additional Photos

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Adam Courtemanche of Portland tests his F450 Quadcopter before attaching a GoPro camera to search for a member’s missing plane.

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A couple models share the wild blue yonder.

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New Gloucester’s Jim Washburn and his son enjoy last week’s Fun Fly in New Gloucester, where model plane enthusiasts gathered from far and wide.

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