Pilots with feet firmly on ground

Dunedin Model Aero Club president Jeff Smart. Photos: Peter McIntosh
Dunedin Model Aero Club president Jeff Smart. Photos: Peter McIntosh
The clever buggers at the Dunedin Model Aero Club keep their flying machines running come rain or shine. Mike Houlahan talks to club president Jeff Smart about a hobby which can be cheap and cheerful or high-price and high-tech.

The Dunedin Model Aero Club looked more like the Model Boat Club a few months ago: in the July floods, the club’s Outram base disappeared underwater.

Not that that stopped them flying.

"The seats were just out of the water but we were out there with flying boats and float planes, or hand-launching gliders," the club’s president Jeff  Smart said.

"Generally once a year we get a bit of water in the paddock — although generally not that high — and so we have a float plane day, usually at short notice."

The answer is indicative of the "No8 wire" mentality many flying model enthusiasts have.

While some prefer ready-made planes or drones, there are plenty who prefer to assemble kits or even make their mini flying machines themselves.

Mr Smart is happy taking any runway, so long as he gets a model to take off and start flying.

"Ninety percent  of the planes now are complete and you buy them and fly them, but there are still guys in the club who build planes out of balsa wood and put methanol or petrol engines in them and fly them," he said.

Model aircraft controllers and spare parts.
Model aircraft controllers and spare parts.
"You can copy a scale plane, or build a jet — it’s unlimited."

Whether the draw was making the plane, flying the plane or racing the plane — there are regional and national championships in various divisions of flying, both racing and aerobatics —  the main focus of the club was to have fun, Mr Smart said.

Planes have always been a passion for Mr Smart, who has formerly flown gliders. Model planes were an easy and accessible way to maintain his interest in flying — if not necessarily a cheap way to remain involved.

"It can be very expensive if you want it to be," he said.

"It depends how much you want to put into it and what sort of models you want to get ... you can spend, by the time you get a handset and a plane, $300 to $400, right up to $10,000 or more for a plane."

Almost any machine which man has launched into the sky can be replicated in miniature and flown, Mr Smart said.

"There are some planes which won’t scale well, but pretty much anything you see flying can built to scale: if you look at YouTube there’s every sort of plane you might ever want to see."

Rockets have also become part of the model flyer’s inventory, but aren’t part of the Dunedin Model Aero Club’s remit: the club’s grounds are in controlled airspace and its models are limited to a height of 400ft.

If in wet weather Dunedin Model Aero Club president Jeff Smart cannot fly his normal plane, he...
If in wet weather Dunedin Model Aero Club president Jeff Smart cannot fly his normal plane, he can always fly his float plane instead.
Technology is a feature of the hobby, and drones — the latest model flying toy — have attracted younger members to the club.

While drones aren’t new — Mr Smart flew his first one 15 years ago — they are now accessible and cheap, which has brought problems, as well as opportunities.

"Now we have people flying in their backyards and in their streets, and the CAA becomes aware of it."

That led the Civil Aviation Authority to implement rules for drones — Mr Smart was vice-president of national body Model Fly NZ at the time, and played a part in shaping those regulations.

Those national connections came in handy again after the July flood. Model Fly NZ offered some funding to help the Dunedin club repair its facilities.

While the clubrooms aren’t palatial — they’re a shipping container — it is home for the club’s 70 members.

During the flood Mr  Smart paddled his canoe out to assess conditions.

"I could touch the roof with the blade of my paddle: the shipping container is 10ft high and it’s sitting on truck tyres, so the water was pretty high."

Chairs, the barbecue, a tent, as well as planes, controllers and equipment for competitions were all lost in the flood.

"We’re going to have a working bee shortly to paint up the container — it’s going to have a shelter added to it so we can sit out of the sun on a hot day."

However, the main issue was the grounds: repairing gravel and fences and clearing rubble.

"When the water came through, for some reason it made the runway like waves — it left ripples in the ground," Mr Smart said.

"We’re going to poison off half the runway, harrow it up, level it and regrass it; basically build a new runway."

The grass runway can still be used, although there are a few issues there, too. Two cuts of baleage have been taken off the field already — because it is on the flood plain, fertiliser washes down and makes the grass extra lush.

Just some more unexpected turbulence for the flyers to navigate.

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