This ‘video game’ isn’t for couch potatoes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 3, 2008

ISLE OF WIGHT—They gather pretty much every Saturday morning, the men and their flying machines.

Passersby can see them on the field just to the north of the Isle of Wight Courthouse County government complex, people holding book-sized control panels aimed at model planes floating several hundreds of feet in the air that are sometimes worth thousands of dollars.

That view, of course, is from the outside.

Up close, grown men keep planes afloat, arching them, angling them, making them climb, making them bank.

It’s all executed with adjustments of the wing flaps and balancing speed with lift.

Meet the Tidewater Model Soaring Society, a group of learned professionals who gather weekly to launch their amazingly light sailplanes high into the sky only to guide them to the safety of the ground by negotiating those flaps by those control panels through electronic signals.

There are no engines to power these models once they’re in the air. The flight is determined by managing the lift of hot air from the ground, the speed of the plane, the dexterity of the pilot.

&uot;This is a video game,&uot; said Don Richmond, who has logged more than 6,000 hours as a Naval helicopter pilot before his retirement. He said those hours and training in a manned craft have provided few tools that translate into piloting a sailplane.

But like manned gliders, the skill is using what nature has to offer to power the craft.

Largely, that comes in the form of thermal &uot;lift,&uot; hot air generated by the sun’s rays warming the earth. Some places are warmed faster than others, generating the warmer, lighter air that lifts planes to higher altitudes.

Another factor is wind. Most of the higher end planes weigh less than 8 pounds. Using the wind to provide more loft keeps the craft in the air longer.

The current president of the society is Lenny Strickland of Virginia Beach, another retired Naval officer. Recently, Strickland was working with a new plane, a &uot;Supra,&uot; a graphite composite made in the Ukraine.

To get the sailplanes launched, pilots use a wench powered by an electric motor that whips the plane into the air. With a flick of a control panel, the plan arches, releasing the metal catch from a loop on the bottom of the craft and the plane is free of its tether.

From there, Strickland explains, the flight is controlled by finding and judging lift, either by heat or by wind, and adjusting the flaps to control direction and altitude.

The Society is based in Chesapeake, but has members based all over the Tidewater region. Formed in 1970 by enthusiasts with a common interest, to promote remote control model soaring. The group is comprised of &uot;all experience and skill levels from world class competitors to folks just getting started with low cost models,&uot; according to its Web site, They are organized under bylaws, elect officers, are insured and bonded to use the county-owned field and generally participate in what appears to be male-bonding.

&uot;Only two things keep us from flying,&uot; said member John Moody. &uot;The wind and our wives.&uot;

He didn’t say which had the greater influence.

The different skill levels of its members lead to different levels of competition. Contests are generally held the second Saturday of the month and usually consist of timed flights combined with measured landings. Scores are calculated by the accuracy of both phases.

Additionally, members can train for, be tested on and reach different levels of skill with the organization.

For example, the &uot;League of Silent Flight,&uot; as it’s called, has five &uot;levels&uot; than can be achieved through a series of tests. One such test, for instance, to reach Level 5 — the highest level offered by the LSF — includes keeping the plane in the air for eight consecutive hours.

That means maintaining the controls for eight hours, keeping a position to observe the plane for eight hours and forgoing basic human needs for eight hours.

Percy Pierce of Suffolk has reached Level 5 status, but not without a struggle.

&uot;It took me 14 trips to the mountains to make the eight hours,&uot; Pierce said. &uot;I had to crash the airplane to get it on the ground.&uot;

The Tidewater society also holds an annual &uot;Hardy Souls Club&uot; that meets on New Year’s Day. Attendance is not required, but it will be taken.

But flight isn’t the only thing that brings society members to Isle of Wight several times a month.

There is a peacefulness, they say, to piloting a glider through the air and landing safely on the ground. The Web site calls it &uot;The serenity of soaring.&uot;

And there’s the allure of guiding one’s plane among the birds.

Above the field have been hawks and bald eagles.

&uot;We watched a bald eagle for 15, 20 minutes one day,&uot; said Pierce. It was chasing a sea gull until the gull found refuge in a tree, beyond the reach of the eagle.

&uot;They’re in here real often,&uot; Pierce said.