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Twin Ports model airplane club enjoys first flights of season

Duluth/Superior RC Club members carry Steve Bowman’s float plane, “Fly Baby,” to Caribou Lake for launching during the first “fun fly” of the season this month. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 7
Steve Bowman uses a remote control radio to fly his Citabria sea plane, one built by his father some 30 years ago. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 7
Steve Bowman's plane taxies on the water at Caribou Lake northwest of Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 7
Scott Johnson’s homemade foam delta wing crashes after burning up a speed controller during a group event with the Duluth/Superior RC Club at Caribou Lake. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 7
Scott Johnson of Esko and Rod Hess of Hill City retrieve Johnson’s delta wing after it crashed. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)5 / 7
A collection of planes waits to fly during the first “fun fly” of the season for the Duluth/Superior RC Club at Caribou Lake northwest of Duluth recently. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)6 / 7
Steve Bowman of Proctor carries his Citabria after claiming the first flight of the day at Caribou Lake. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)7 / 7

On the first Saturday morning of June, a clutch of men and women encircle the beach on the upper arm of Caribou Lake northwest of Duluth. Vans have been parked with the back ends facing the water, each uplifted hatch revealing a gem inside, a flyable model airplane. Lawn chairs are positioned and lunch readied on the tailgate of a pickup.

This was the first “fun fly” of the season for the Duluth/Superior RC Club, better known as the group that flies model airplanes by radio control. This was a float fly, meaning the quarter-scale or smaller fuel and some electric planes had to be outfitted to take off and land on the water.

And there was the rub on this sun-splashed day with thousands of dragonflies skimming the air. A crosswind was rippling the lake and was keeping people from setting out right away. While the wind is of little concern once in the air, any small gust on takeoff or landing could lift a wing and dunk a craft.

Such mishaps are what the men were talking about as they caught up with each other after a winter of tinkering and hankering to get back out and fly.

“One will fly, and that will inspire the others,” Scott Johnson said.

Frank Tahtinen has drawn a crowd around his new deHavilland Beaver model, a plane designed for floats. He holds court with advice, lessons learned, the small revealings about the art of assembling the planes that people curiously prompt.

Steve Bowman took notice, smiling and thinking again that “Frank always has the best. It’s a running competition.”

So Bowman tried to steal the show by taking no time to launch his cream and orange Citabria, one built by his father some 30 years ago. At 9:40 a.m., the first plane was in the air. It’s old-fashioned and heavy enough that Bowman doesn’t have to worry so much about the wind. His greatest concern was the two buoys marking the swimming area, making for a more complicated takeoff and landing area.

And there is the normal lake traffic to look out for as well. Canoes and fishing boats appear from the west with little warning, a blind spot caused by a jutting out of the shoreline.

Bowman is an expert flyer. His fellow club members said he makes it look so easy.

The plane loops and dives. He touches down only to take off again. “I’m just goofing with the water,” he said.

He found a “sweet spot” with the wind.

“Someone’s gotta go fast,” Johnson says, and soon one of his electric ultralight foam machines is buzzing around. Club members take turns and have a standing agreement to not have more than three planes in the air at a time.

As soon as Bowman’s plane comes down, he’s up near his van and considering taking out “Fly Baby,” another of his fuel-powered planes. Club camaraderie ensues, and there are people helping him attach the wings.

“It’s a great hobby,” Bowman says, thrilled with his first flight.

Bowman’s father flew models going back more than 70 years. He takes a look around the beach and says foam planes are taking over. Johnson is tinkering with a massive camouflage Stealth fighter-looking model. The planes have a lower entry point into the hobby as far as cost and are easier to fix if something goes haywire.

Members say flying has a future with younger people, though you wouldn’t know it by looking around at the aging group. If you know your way around a joystick, say from video games, you aren’t too far away from being able to control a plane.

Johnson launches his craft, and it zips around for maybe a minute before he loses power. The plane does a spectacular nose dive into the water. It doesn’t seem worse for the wear, but the electronics are smoking. He has to rush out in the retrieval fishing boat and hope the heat doesn’t get to the foam before he does.

Bowman says you have to be realistic when flying models. “You should never fly an old airplane you’re in love with,” he said.

Just before Johnson’s crash, after landing “Fly Baby” without a hitch, he points to the potential engineering Waterloo on his machine, the one that makes everything else function properly.

“One cotter pin,” he said. “It comes down to that.”

IF YOU GO

The Duluth/Superior RC Club is open to all radio control airplane enthusiasts. The club meets at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at a hangar at the Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport in Superior.

The club has a field in Duluth off Jean Duluth Road near the soccer fields. It also has a field south of Superior. The next fly in Duluth is scheduled for Aug. 8.