Some kids (and parents) spend their afternoons and weekends on the couch playing a flight simulator game. Others head for the nearest park and actually fly a plane.
Sure, they’re typically small planes. But Model Aviation magazine Editor Michael Ramsey says model-airplane flying is like bringing a video game experience to life, appealing to the same hand-eye coordination skills and electronic-control appeal.
Plus, "it gets the family outdoors," Ramsey says. "On a bright sunny day, there’s nothing like enjoying the weather with a nice model airplane."
Jeff Nance, director of marketing and programs with the Academy of Model Aeronautics, says model-aircraft flying appeals to kids’ imaginations and adventurousness. "Most young people are enthralled with aviation," Nance says. "They look up and see an airplane, then go and read about it. A lot of them go on to careers in aerospace and aviation."
Once the domain of people who painstakingly built the crafts from scratch out of balsa wood and glue, model aviation has progressed to where ready-to-fly and almost-ready-to-fly planes are available at affordable prices from hobby shops. Beginning trainer planes can sell for under $200, are more durable than their ancestors and can be repaired with interchangeable parts in event of a crash.
Not all model aircraft have to be nitroglycerine-burning hulks. Electric "park flyers" now cost about $100 and can be flown around most open city parks without excessive noise or intrusion. And co-axial model helicopters provide extra stability for kids and first-time flyers.
The smaller versions of the helicopters can even be used in the house on a rainy day, says Nance. "They fly indoors, they’re quiet and they don’t scare the cat or hurt the ficus. And everything you’d learn flying the helicopters would translate into airplanes."
Plenty of model-aircraft clubs cater to a young audience.
Michael Lee, president of the Griffith Barnstormers in Griffith, Ind., has seen firsthand the family fun of flight. His 16- and 14-year-old sons are both accomplished model-aircraft pilots, and he’ll be giving his 6-year-old son lessons this summer using a "buddy box," which lets Lee grab back control of the plane if the boy gets into trouble. "He would have to screw up and I would have to screw up for it to crash," Lee says. "That’s how you teach someone to fly."
Lee says he and his sons love the atmosphere of a model-aircraft club. "Everybody is out there having a good time; everybody loves the hobby; everybody is willing to help everybody else out," he says. "You get a lot of camaraderie."
The hobby can even be educational, fostering discussions about engineering and physics, says Ramsey. Many devoted model fliers are current or former pilots and astronauts, who can share their expertise with kids. "You’re investigating and learning about science, math—those types of things come into it," Ramsey says. "And it’s also a discovery process learning about wind direction, what makes the plane fly."
As for model rockets—the other popular hobby for making crafts soar through the air—Ramsey says that’s also a great activity for family and kids. But there’s one big difference with model airplanes, he points out: "You don’t have to chase them."
Taking off with model aircraft
To learn more about getting started with model aircraft, visit your local hobby shop or www.modelaircraft.org. The site offers a search engine for local clubs. Most are accepting of inexperienced flyers, but those listed as having the Intro Pilots program (like the Griffith Barnstormers) will have specifically approved instructors available.