San Benito Lifestyle

Piloting planes on a smaller scale

Academy of Model Aeronautics flies remote control aircraft in San Benito skies.

There’s a small, faded sign along Highway 25 a couple miles north of Highway 156 that doesn’t draw much attention as Hollister empties each morning of its Silicon Valley-bound commuters. The sign promotes the Wavemasters RC Flying Field, which is home base to a club of dedicated, highly skilled pilots who have been steering their scaled-down airplanes at blinding speeds, as they’ve spiraled, looped and swooped over the airstrip for the past 30 years. The club is the Academy of Model Aeronautics, or AMA.

Photo by John Chadwell.
Photo by John Chadwell.

Flying RC, or remote control, aircraft is a bonding experience where on any given day there can be dozens of flying enthusiasts, plane builders, and even a combat pilot or two representing boomers, generation X, millennials and generation Z all maneuvering their swift replicas of World War II fighters, biplanes, and experimental aircraft.

On Sept. 13 when BenitoLink visited the airfield, there was even a Korean War-era Grumman F9F Navy Cougar jet being delivered by Hollister resident Andre Torres, who built it for retired Silicon Valley CEO and multi-millionaire Henri Richard, who owns 30 RC airplanes and helicopters, including two of Torres’ jets: an F18 Blue Angels’ Hornet and the F9F Cougar. He’s now working on a third model, a Russian SU-30. 

Andre Torres shows Henri Richard the features of his new F9F Cougar. Photo by John Chadwell.
Andre Torres shows Henri Richard the features of his new F9F Cougar. Photo by John Chadwell.

Since the jets need longer runways to take off, they’re not flown in San Benito County, but Richard is talking to a local real estate agent about buying at least 60 acres of land north of Hollister to build not only a longer runway to accommodate jets, but an entire facility for RC flying events that could attract thousands of enthusiasts from around the world.

Club members are hoping more youngsters will come out and see for themselves what’s going on and perhaps take up RC flying which, unlike drones, requires more than just taking a not-so-elegant piece of hardware out of a box and flying it willy-nilly over neighborhoods or restricted airspace, but rather a degree of education and skill.

Andre Torres working on two jets in his garage. Photo by John Chadwell.
Andre Torres working on two jets in his garage. Photo by John Chadwell.

Torres has been a member of the club for seven years. He said the members all have a love of flying, whether it’s models or full-scale aircraft. He said the cost of getting into the hobby, which commonly means buying a ready-to-fly kit model, can range from $300 to $500 for an entry-level plane. The ones he has built for Richard range from $20,000 to $30,000. They are highly customized kits that he buys and then spends months modifying into actual jet-powered planes. The jet engines, alone, cost upwards of $5,000 each.

“There’s also kits of balsa wood parts where you build your own aircraft,” Torres said. “Those are the cheapest models. Then there’s RTFs, ready to fly, and ARFs or almost ready to fly, which is built, painted and ready to go. You just install your engine, servo, batteries and receiver of choice. That way, you can pick and choose your components.”

The F-18 Hornet that Andrew Torres built lands. Photo courtesy of Andre Torres.
The F-18 Hornet that Andrew Torres built lands. Photo courtesy of Andre Torres.

Club member Rob Reed, who lives in San Juan Bautista and works for Graniterock, first joined the club when he was in high school. He took a break for a few years, but began flying again 10 years ago.

Photo by John Chadwell.
Photo by John Chadwell.

“We’re trying to attract people of all ages and get them enthused about the model industry, especially because of all the things going down with the FAA’s [Federal Aviation Administration’s] new regulations because of the drone sales,” Reed said. “We’re not against drone fliers, however, there are a lot of people who don’t understand aviation. That’s why the drone regulations are becoming so intense, because anybody can buy a drone without knowing anything about airspace regulations. They just fly wherever and whenever they want, and they get so wrapped up in their [first-person view] goggles they forget to pay attention to their surroundings and orientation. Then they just fall to the earth and possibly hurt somebody.”

Photo by John Chadwell.
Photo by John Chadwell.

Richard, who lives in Los Altos Hills, started flying as a child, had a long break, and then came back to the hobby eight years ago. He said for three years he would come to the airfield just to watch and support the club. He said he was first attracted to the hobby through the building and mechanical aspects.

“I used to race cars, so I’ve always liked the mechanics,” he said. “I build and set up planes, and I also fly model helicopters. When I was a kid, I dreamed about being a pilot, but my eyesight wasn’t good enough, so model airplanes are the next best thing. And with regards to this club, I just like the people. I’m a member of 10 clubs in the Bay Area, and this is the nicest group of people.”

Photo by John Chadwell.
Photo by John Chadwell.

He recognized that many young people lean toward drones and first-person flying.

“But what this does, it develops a skill set that’s useful in terms of keeping your mind sharp,” he said. “It has a mechanical component, a flight component, and you get to meet some really great people. You also get to learn the history of our country because a lot of people who do this are veterans, so there’s the social aspect from a communications standpoint and a friendship standpoint.”

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: johnchadwell@benitolink.com.