On a clear, sunny day, many people choose to bask in the warm sun or go for a nice stroll. If you’re a member of one of the country’s more than 2,400 model airplane clubs, however, you launch your $2,000 creation 500 feet in the air and hope you can land it without a scratch.
Thousands of Academy of Model Aeronomics (AMA) members spend days, months and even years building small model airplanes closely resembling the big planes that fly around the world.
The preparation that goes into flying these aircrafts is something members of the Athens Model Airplane Club hold sacred. They view it as both a pastime and an artform that can’t be learned in a matter of minutes.
That’s why they don’t particularly care for new drone technologies that require little construction and minimal time. Drones are increasingly popular Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) flown by recreational users.
The fast-growing drone hobby has model airplane users uneasy of the changing times. A feeling Athens Model Airplane Club member James McGruddy compares to snowboarders taking over the ski slopes.
“There was always an issue between the old-school skiers, and [new school] snowboarders because the snowboarders would get in the way of the skiers, and vice-versa,” McGruddy says. “It eventually got to the point where they co-mingled and got along, but it’s the same thing with the airplanes and drones… the hobby kind of changes as the technology migrates. Now with the drones, it’s a new migration and tool for people who don’t really fly… and may not be interested in flying.”
McGruddy and many of his fellow other club members say drones take away from the art of building and flying your own personal aircraft.
“They’re fun to play with and that’s great, but they just don’t do anything for me,” said Mark Stanley, who has been flying model airplanes for 35 years.
Born to Fly
Most of the club’s members have flying model planes for decades. “I started in 1958. So that’s been… well, I’ll let you figure out the math,” said Ray Sexton, the senior member of the club.
Like most of the Athens Model Airplane members, Sexton was turned on to the hobby after the boom of military airplane construction throughout World War II. According to Air & Space Magazine, more than 304,000 U.S. airplanes were manufacturerd by 1945, which gave way to new, innovative styles of airplanes and bombers. Many people like Ray instantly fell in love with them.
“I just enjoy airplanes. I can’t fool with the big ones. I don’t have the finances to do that, so this is the next best thing,” Sexton said. “From a child on, I’ve build model airplanes in one way or another… When I first started, you had to build your plane, your radio and everything.”
Sexton, 87, flies with an old-school, gas-powered motor. He compares his impression of drones to how he felt about electric model planes when they first came out.
Stanley said when he first joined the club with his electric-powered airplane, the reception was not what he expected. “They looked at me like I had two-heads, ‘cause who uses electric airplanes,” he recalled, impersonating a few older members of the club.
The Hot, New Thing
The transition between gasoline and electric powered airplanes took some resistance at first, until they found a spot on the same airfield. That holdback could be very similar to the new wave of drones.
“You really can’t convince people until they actually get their hands on [drones]. Because we all fear what we don’t know, and don’t understand,” said Mark Evans, program chair for Emerging Technology at Athens Technical College in Georgia. He teaches both high school and college students how to properly use drones for recreational use. He says “Digital Natives,” who were born into the technologically advanced times, naturally gravitate to drones.
“There’s a theory that there are two types of people in the world right now,” he explains. “There are digital immigrants – guys like me who grew up before cell phones. And then there are digital natives – people who grow up with cellphones and computers all around them. What digital natives want is to control the world as much as they possibly can, through the devices they have. And drones allow [digital natives] to go and explore without really leaving the comfort of where they’re at.”
Drones are becoming more popular among the younger generations due to their accessibility. “What draws me to drones is that it’s almost as if I can apply the same concepts I do to play a video game. I can use these concepts to pilot the drone,” said Athens Tech student Aramis Pherrer.
Pherrer is one of dozens of students Evans teaches. He said he was able to become nearly an expert at flying a drone within a week, compared to the craft of flying a model airplane, which may take months or years to perfect.
“The modelers, they’re artisans. They take pride in their craft, and it is a true hobby. It’s something you spend a lot of time and money on. And there’s also a lot more that goes in to flying those particular machines,” admits Evans.
“Whereas with drones, if you give me two hours, I’ll make you proficient. If you give me a week, I’ll make you an expert.”
The Final Landing
This simplicity of flying a drone makes Evans believe more and more youth will continue to pick up the hobby. This may inadvertently hurt the future of model aircraft clubs.
“We’ve tried many times to get kids out here and get them interested…they pick up their cell phone and go home,” Sexton said, shaking his head.
Almost all of the 22 members of the Athens Model Airplane Club are retired, and there are no members under the age of 30.
“I think, in my own opinion, that the hobby is made up of more older guys than guys in their 20s or 30s,” said Harold Barnhart, president of the Athens Model Airplane Club.
Banhart is optimistic that his club will persevere and continue to attract new members. Sexton, however, is not as confident about the future of his craft.
“As you can see, we’re all old men,” Sexton said. “It’s going to die out one day if we don’t get some young blood in [the club]… I wish we could get more young folks in it, but maybe it’s just not meant to be.”
Zack Watson is a student at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism.