Radio high-flyers

It’s not an uncommon sight.

Planes rip and roar through the skies over Whidbey Island on a daily basis. Around Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station jets boom on a regular touch-and-go schedule.

But there’s a group of local flyers who, in terms of size and decibel levels, soar under the radar of islanders. The Whidbey Island Radio Control Society, a group of 95 remote control plane enthusiasts, have shared airspace over Whidbey since the early 1980s.

“It’s basically radio controlled aircraft in all its versions,” said WIRCS president Ken Woblick of Oak Harbor, defining the club’s purpose.

Club members can be found lining the airstrip at Outlying Field south of Coupeville almost every sunny, calm weekend. Carrying Park Flyers, gliders, sport planes, helicopters and even some single-turbine jets, club members seem to share one true passion for their hobby.

“I enjoy the camaraderie of it all,” said 69-year-old Freeland resident Keith Dubendorf. “Everybody out there enjoys flying and talking about planes.”

Langley resident Leonard Good can still remember being a young boy who sat with his father to watch planes and jets fly by from Tinker Airfield, a military training base for pilots during World War II outside Oklahoma City, Okla.

“It always seemed like a little miracle to me, flight in general,” Good said.

Good began building model planes at age 10, after being awed by a neighbor’s aeronautical creation.

“I asked him how he’d done that,” Good said. “He said he’d read the directions, and at that age I couldn’t believe it was that easy to build your own plane.”

He moved onto radio control planes in his 20s when technology gave more bang for the buck with improved power, handling and lower prices tags.

Today, Good has five planes flight ready and has about 20 others on display, among them is a scale model Jenny bi-plane with an 8-foot wing span.

His collection includes free-fly planes, rubber band planes, sail planes and radio-control aircraft. His love for models and radio-controlled craft even extends to boats.

“There’s so much to this hobby,” he said. “Crashing is disappointing, but you can always build another one.”

His favorite plane, a tissue paper covered model with a 30-inch wing span, had a not-so-noble crash landing. The family cat knocked it off a shelf when Good was on vacation. When he got home, Good found his prize plane crumpled under a book.

Up into the wild blue

Standing over his fleet of six airplanes at the Outlying Field recently, Ken Woblick proclaimed it’s not always the flying that’s the most rewarding part of radio control planes, but working up to it.

“I love to build airplanes,” he said. “Flying is the second part of it.”

Several of Woblick’s planes were constructed from the ground up with balsa wood kits, while a couple are “already ready to fly” planes.

“They take minimal effort to put together and it gets you into the field,” Woblick said.

His most prized possession is his orange Dazzler, which he constructed over a 30-hour period, using fine detail.

“It’s more of a sport airplane that does loops, barrel rolls and just about any kind of maneuver you want,” Woblick said.

Although he has 10 years of radio control experience under his belt, Woblick has yet to work up to the level of flying jets, which are legally allowed to reach speeds of 200 mph.

“When you’re talking a $4,000 or $5.000 airplane, you want to have control of it,” he said.

Keith Dubendorf, a retired Boeing 747 designer, spent 35 years working on high-priced planes and now fuels his flight fancy by building and flying radio-controlled planes.

With dozens in various stages of completion, Dubendorf’s two working aircraft are a replica of a North American AT-6 World War II trainer with a 101-inch wing span, and an electric scale model of a deHavilland Tiger Moth with a wing span of just under 2 feet.

Owing to the fact that the club has a Navy airfield to use, WIRCS holds one of the largest jet meets on the west coast. This year’s event, which will draw people from British Columbia, Montana, Idaho and California, will take place Aug. 27-28 at the Outlying Field.

“This field here, we’re really fortunate the Navy lets us use it because a lot of fields are grass fields,” Woblick said. “The jet pilots love it here.”

Several people in other western states subscribe to a WIRCS membership just so they can attend the annual event.

WIRCS also holds smaller events throughout the year, including many just for fun, like pylon races and weight lifting competitions. Members — who range from middle-schoolers to 85-year-old Burt Burnham of Coupeville — even hold radio-controlled introductory sessions for people who request it.

Burnham, who flew his first radio control plane in 1927, still loves making it out to the airstrip when he can. His favorite part of the hobby, however, has always been putting planes together.

“I’m a better builder than I am a flyer,” he said, laughing.

WIRCS also works with students at the Oak Harbor Christian School in a special program. Five or six kids are selected at the beginning of each year to participate in a six-month program that introduces them to basics of flying. Students then build gliders and work their way up to constructing and using a trainer model planes.

Woblick said people can get involved in the hobby of radio control planes for not much money. For a trainer plane, which is what most people learn on, he spent $64 for a kit, $45 on a motor and $120 on radio gear.

“You can do it pretty inexpensive,” he said.

Good loves to spread the love for flight. As a teacher at the Whidbey Island Academy, he’s been known to bring some of his planes to school. He treats the kids to fun demonstrations in which he drops cinnamon bombs or parachutes from high above. He’s even raised a camera in the air with one of his planes.

He appreciates flight so much that he even studied to become a pilot, but that’s one project he has yet to complete.

“I told my wife it’s probably a good thing I never got my license because I’m always crashing the models,” Good said.

Record reporter Cynthia Woolbright contributed to this story.

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