Model plane hobbyists navigate through history

By Rick MusselmanJuly 12, 2012

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FORT BELVOIR, Va. (July 12) -- Two local military officers, with a passion for aviation history, spend much of their free time building and flying radio controlled planes modeled after some of the most famous planes to take to the skies during America's wars.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bill Blacker, who served for 23 years and currently works at the Department of Homeland Security, and Col. Michael S. Tuomey, Defense Logistics Agency, Fort Belvoir, Army Reserve Element commander and works as a civilian for the Army staff (G-8) at the Pentagon, have discovered an enjoyable hobby that provides them hours of excitement and a welcome break from busy work schedules.

Blacker, originally from Tucson, Az., has been constructing and operating model planes for five years, having first discovered his passion for the craft with a trip to a local hobby shop preparing to close its doors.

"I always wanted to fly radio planes but I never had the time," he said. "There was a hobby shop nearby that was going out of business; I went to the clearance section and walked away with three planes."

Tuomey, who has been involved in model planes for about a year, found the activity satisfied a life-long desire to fly planes, after learning early in his military career he would not be able to fly military jets.

"I've always wanted to fly. When I was a cadet, I was too big -- still am, I guess. I'm 6 foot 6 inches and weigh about 260 pounds. The Navy didn't give any real attractive options. So, I switched over to the Army my sophomore year and I became an Army Field Artillery officer," said Tuomey, who is originally from Potomac, Md.

Blacker said the hobby provides a rewarding break from work as well as an opportunity to interact with other people involved in the sport.

"The most enjoyable part of this is getting outside and focusing on something other than work -- the people you meet in the hobby and the time you spend working with and helping each other," he said.

"It's really a challenge -- very difficult," added Tuomey. "The kits are tough to build, repair and maintain. As Bill said, the other folks involved in the hobby are really a great bunch of folks."

Blacker and Tuomey said their enthusiasm for model planes covers the entire spectrum of both military and civilian designs and eras. But the war-period models remain their favorites to build and fly.

"I like them all, but the WWII planes are the ones most available and modeled," said Blacker. "Some of the specific WWII planes I've built are the (Curtiss) P-40 Warhawk, (Republic) P-47 Thunderbolt, (Vought) F4U Corsair, and a (North American) B-25 Mitchell. I also fly many of the modern acrobatic planes -- Extras, Edge, Slick, and Cap 262 are all acrobatic planes."

"I enjoy 'scale' war birds -- 'scale,' meaning the aircraft is an exact, scaled down replica of a real plane, a plane that actually existed or still exists," Tuomey added. "I enjoy the history of them. My (Lockheed) P-38 'Lighting' is a model of a real airplane that existed at one time, one that flew in WWII. I have a (North American) P-51D Mustang, which is also an exact replica of a plane that flew in Italy during WWII. I like some modern aircraft, too, like the (Fairchild Republic) A-10 Thunderbolt II 'Warthog,' but mostly scale WWII war birds."

Both men also take advantage of nearly every spare minute to get out into the open and fly, regardless of the temperature.

"I fly RC planes whenever the winds are less than 10 mph and it's not raining. I've been out when it was 15 degrees and I've been out when it's 105. It really doesn't matter to me," he said.

"Like Bill, I'll fly whenever I can. Bad weather conditions, however, can be bad for the aircraft and unsafe for people nearby," Tuomey said.

Blacker and Tuomey personally build every plane they fly. Blacker noted the construction process has become much less time consuming than the modeling techniques of the past.

"Most models today come as 'ARF,' which stands for Almost Ready to Fly. Some assembly is required but there's no gluing sticks together and pulling fabric covering," he said. "There are two basic types: Z-Foam and balsa. The Z-Foam material has really made it easy for manufacturers to make really well-scaled and reliable models. Most of my World War II planes are foam."

These hobbyists are two out of thousands of modeling enthusiasts around the country. They pursue the sport as members of a national association that provides modelers with learning resources and sponsors flying competitions.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics is the world's largest model aviation association, representing a membership of more than 150,000 from every walk of life, income level and age group, to promote the development of model aviation as a recognized sport and worthwhile recreation activity, according to the group's mission statement.

As the official national body for model aviation in the United States, AMA sanctions more than 2,000 model competitions throughout the country each year and certifies official model flying records on a national and international level. Additionally, AMA is the chartering organization for more than 2,500 model airplane clubs across the country, offering its chartered clubs official contest sanctions, insurance, and assistance in getting and keeping flying sites.

Blacker and Tuomey highly recommend beginning modelers join this organization as it provides a resource-rich foundation on which to build good operating skills.

"I recommend contacting a club in our area -- Northern Virginia Radio Control Club has an excellent beginner program -- or meeting up with someone who is into the hobby to help select the right kind of airplane and radio system," Blacker said. "There's a lot of junk out there and not all airplanes are for beginners. With most systems we use, you can link two radios so an experienced pilot can coach a beginner and teach them to fly. We are an informal group, but I do teach people to fly the radio planes. I taught Col. Tuomey last summer and I'm current working with a retired gentleman."

For additional information about radio control airplane modeling and the AMA, visit