Modern Model Airplanes Blend Art, Aviation And Grown-Up Toys

Mike Pecue prepares to send his biplane into the sky over Westport, N.Y.

Brian Mann/NCPR

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Brian Mann/NCPR

Mike Pecue prepares to send his biplane into the sky over Westport, N.Y.

Brian Mann/NCPR

Model airplanes have come a long way from the days when you stood in your backyard and the little buzzing plane whirled around on a string. These days, remote-controlled model airplanes are often lovingly crafted historic recreations worth thousands — and even tens of thousands of dollars — that soar high in the sky.

Jerry Willette, with the Champlain Valley Flyers model airplane club in northern New York, built a replica of a World War II twin-engine fighter-bomber called a P-38. It has a wing span of nearly 10 feet.

“This was built right from scratch. You got to get the plans and then you gotta make all the pieces up, and then you build it,” he says. “This particular airplane right here was probably four or five years in the making.”

It’s a beautiful work of art made of balsa wood and paint and wire, with the added complication that all the mechanics — the little servos, the wing flaps, the miniature engines — have to actually work. It’s not cheap. The engines that power these model planes can cost $5,000 apiece.

Like a lot of hobbyists, Willette has loved flight since he was little. His curiosity blossomed into a decades-long obsession.

“My dad used to take us to the airport when we were little kids,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot of money. We’d go to the airport and watch the airplanes take off and land.”

Club member Mike Pecue is an actual pilot. He owns an auto parts store and splits his spare time between flying real planes and these recreations. One of his planes is a model biplane the size of a golf cart, built from balsa and lightweight plywood.

A lot of smaller model planes sound sort of like weed whackers or coffee grinders, but on these big models, the power roars.

That’s usually a good thing, but sometimes, especially because the radio control systems for these planes can be tricky, flights can go really wrong and these soaring works of art crash to the earth.

“I’ve lost two,” Pecue says.

“They come down like a manhole cover,” Willette says. “I’ve been doing this about 45 years, and I’ve lost my share.”

Sometimes planes crash so hard, Pecue says, you have to dig the engines out of the ground with a shovel.

Fiddling the radio control knobs, Pecue taxies his yellow and blue biplane out onto the grass runway. It takes off, and he sends the plane through a choreography of acrobatic tumbles, then races it head height in front of the crowd.

“Look at that! Ah! That is just awesome!” Pecue says, as his plane swoops up, spinning away into the sky.

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