Chocks away at Formula One of the air

MASADA, Israel Thu Jul 2, 2009 1:07am BST

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MASADA, Israel (Reuters) - Flying radio-controlled model aircraft in a world competition is a dream that has captured the imagination of many a schoolboy.

In an event dubbed the Formula One of the air, only a select few attain the elite level, after putting in large amounts of money and thousands of hours of loving devotion.

"This is the Formula One of model flying but you have to buy your own plane and build it," said German Winfried Ohlgart, chairman of the Jet Model Committee (JMC), the organisation that runs top competitions.

More than 20 entrants took part in the world championships that concluded last week on a baking hot landing strip on the shores of the Dead Sea, well down on the 80 or so who participated at the previous event in rainy Northern Ireland two years ago.

Ohlgart said many competitors had stayed away because of the cost of going to a distant venue, others said they had safety fears and a small number from Gulf states did not show up, citing political reasons.

The competitors spend a fortune on preparing their craft but get no cash reward for their efforts.

Jet model aircraft evolved after the invention of the miniature jet engine -- about the size of a large soft drink bottle -- in the mid-1990s in Germany, one of the pastime's leading countries.

MALE DOMAIN

Models cost around $20,000 (12,100 pounds) to build and require many hours of fine tuning. Flyers compete in two weight categories: up to 13.5 kg and up to 20 kg and are judged on aerobatic skills and the accuracy of their models.

"One group of judges checks the authenticity of the model and its resemblance to the real thing. Another group checks to see that the plane can actually perform in the same way as the original," explained Israeli competitor Gabi Keidar, who finished second in the lighter category with his F15.

German Stephan Voelcker retained the championship trophy in the heavier weight division flying his BAe Hawk trainer.

Voelcker owns a company that produces kits and because he has been so successful several other competitors also fly the same model.

Ohlgart said there were between 200 and 300 flyers worldwide who were good enough to take part in competitions.

Flyers are almost exclusively male and because they are engrossed in flying they often leave organizational matters to their female partners.

Michelle Phillips from the English city of Nottingham, the assistant of the only British flyer in the competition, Paul Dunkley, said she did not have the urge to pick up the controls of her partner's T45 Goshawk model.

"I don't think of flying, I leave that to my partner but he needs somebody to organise for him and there are many women who also call (flying instructions) during competitions," she said.

MINUTE DETAILS

The roar of the miniature jets replicates the noise of full-sized engines but that is only part of flying.

More important is the airframe, which must be sturdy enough to withstand the G forces created in aerobatic displays.

German Roy Puchtinger, who at 21 was one of the youngest competitors in the championships, said he was taught by his father, Uwe, to fly models when he was eight years old. Uwe now acts as Roy's assistant.

"You can spend up to 2,000 hours to modify your kit to make it more authentic. The judges look for the most minute details down to the last millimetre," said Puchtinger, who flies a BAe Hawk.

Puchtinger produced his model authentication logbook which has pictures and diagrams of the real aircraft and comparative photos of both which the judges scrutinise painstakingly before determining their points score.

"They want to see that the colours are identical to the real aircraft on which your plane is modelled and that the markings correspond to their exact relative position on the real aircraft," Puchtinger said.

To aid this, there are companies in the model industry that can even produce made-to-order pilot dummies.

For others, who take the pastime less seriously, there are a flying witch and a flying lawnmower but the fun for the true enthusiasts is to recreate the performance of a real jet aircraft, although hardly any are pilots in everyday life.

"If you put a model pilot in a real aircraft he could fly it but a commercial pilot cannot succeed flying a model, it requires real skill," Ohlgart said.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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