VACAVILLE — Members of the Lagoon Valley Electric Flyers are familiar with the “walk of shame.”
It’s the trek to a vehicle or the nearest trash can with the foam or balsa wood pieces of a broken remote control airplane. The usual scenario is flying object versus tree. Midair collisions happen as well.
“It’s like in that one second, all the eyes of the world are on you,” said Dave Marino.
Members readily admit that it does happen, and more than once. Most have stories of their latest crash – and can remember the location of the offending tree. But behind the snickers, and the heartfelt condolences – it was called “painful” by more than one member – is a camaraderie that makes for a cohesive club.
Picking up airplane pieces and removing the expensive inner workings can be a group project, just like helping each other with airplane problems and flying tips. While a predominantly male group, the club attracts not only a diverse group in age and experience, but also in the types and colors of planes. The cost also varies dramatically. Organization president Bob Art said someone can start in the $500 range – plane, inner works and radio control and “be off to a good start.” The price can dip below that and rise far above that cost.
On a recent Sunday, the back flying area of Lagoon Valley Park looked like a tailgate party without barbecues. Dozens of vehicles had their trunks up or tailgates down, but instead of footballs being tossed about and the smell of food wafting in the air, scattered around the folding chairs were all manner of electric airplanes, from jets to warbirds to helicopters with wingspans up to 84 inches. The average is about a 48-inch wingspan.
Then there was Todd Hunter with his drone-like airplane called a Sky Hunter – a twin boom airplane that carries a GoPro camera and operates in first-person view, giving Hunter, through on-ground technology, the same view as a pilot. It’s remotely controlled by video and can leave Hunter’s sight; but with a quick flip of the “return to home” toggle, Hunter can turn the plane around.
“It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to flying a real plane,” he said. “I always wanted to be a pilot.”
While some members bring their multiple planes in large SUVs or pickups, many, such as Alex Garza, pack everything into a car. Garza, one of the younger members, has five planes packed into a two-door coupe. Three of his planes are warbirds, another is a jet.
“That one just likes to go fast,” he said of the jet. “You go fast, take off fast and land fast. It’s just nerve-wracking. You have to pay 110 percent attention.”
Like the rest, Garza packs a tool kit with everything from scissors to glue and duct tape. Some, like Hunter, need a few more technological gadgets in case of a minor malfunction.
“If you have a major crash, you’re better off taking it home,” Garza said.
Unless it goes straight into the trash can.
Art relaxed in a chair that Sunday and chatted while he watched the overhead happenings. Planes straight-lined at rather quick speeds – some planes can go up to 200 mph – and others did hovering tricks low to the ground or aerobatics in the air.
At the other end of the landing strip, Richard Carlton and his teen son Alex Carlton had fun with their large helicopter with a G.I. Joe doll attached to the skids. “Joe” mock shot at Cory Coyle’s helicopter, which was close to landing for a battery recharge – the rumbling of Carlton’s chopper shook the gun in a perfect rhythmic movement of a machine gun spewing bullets.
“It’s the only time I get to play with G.I. Joe anymore,” Richard Carlton said, laughing, to Coyle.
The club began as a casual group at the back of the west side of the park, a safe place away from other parkgoers. It was rustic. Hunter recalled dragging some chain-link fence behind a vehicle to keep the hard-packed dirt smooth. About eight years ago Hunter, with the help of his 7-year-old daughter, rolled out and nailed down – with spikes – 150 feet of geotechnical fabric for a single-strip landing field.
Since then, the landing strip has doubled in size, another cross landing strip was added and the club has joined forces with both the Academy of Model Aeronautics for insurance purposes and the city of Vacaville, which allowed them to use that area of the park and make improvements. Hunter said the city added the benches, bleachers, gravel and trash cans. The city keeps the weeds and grass down in the outer area but the members are responsible for the areas next to the runways.
On that recent sunny Sunday, the dozens of vehicles not only held the planes but wives, children, friends and several dogs. By late morning, no one had taken that “walk of shame,” although a couple came precariously close. Many overshot the runway or couldn’t take off, ending nose down in the dirt. Loran Page broke the tail on one of his planes. He simply walked back to his vehicle for another plane to fly.
Page, a longtime electric airplane flyer, has crashed his fair share of planes but was able to put it into perspective with some good advice he got from an elderly man when Page first started flying in his mid-20s. Page crashed his plane and got mad.
“The old man said, ‘Don’t get mad. They’re built to crash. If you don’t want it to crash, hang it up in a room,’ ” Page said.
He laughed when he added, “There are a lot of pieces and parts in the trash can on the weekend.”
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.