By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- With pilot John Freeman at the controls, the plane spins high above the ground then comes in for a picture-perfect landing.
Freeman's part of the Pikeland Sky Chiefs, a group of radio-controlled plane enthusiasts that fly at Lake Pittsfield without ever leaving the ground.
Hand-held controls regulate a plane's speed and direction, with Freeman skipping the "real fancy stuff" this time in favor of slow flyovers for a flight of his Extra 260 with a 106-inch wingspan and a 9.5 horsepower twin-cylinder engine.
"It's interesting," Freeman said. "I just enjoy flying planes."
Club members fly most Sunday afternoons at Lake Pittsfield with brightly-colored planes zipping through the skies and the roar of engines filling the air.
"It's a good chance for us to get together and visit," club president Gene Heins said. "We don't fly all the time. We sit around and talk a lot."
The club was chartered in 1992 by long-time radio-controlled pilots Jon VanAntwerp and Chuck McCormick through the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Down to a handful of members, with just four actively flying, the club still promotes the hobby which has 100-member clubs in larger areas like St. Louis and Bloomington.
The carefully-manicured field, owned by the city of Pittsfield and leased to the club, offers four "gates" allowing four pilots to fly at a time.
"I like the hands-on stuff better than flying, but I like to fly, too," said club member Bob Hyde, who has flown and built planes since 1955. "I enjoy the craftsmanship of putting them together."
Including putting them back together when necessary.
"Taking off is optional, but landing is mandatory," Hyde said.
Prospective pilots start with a trainer, smaller planes which fly slower, to build up around six hours of flying time before making a solo flight.
"Don't overestimate your ability," Heins said. "I've done that a time or two. You get to trying stuff you know you shouldn't be trying and you do it anyway. It usually doesn't turn out good."
The planes can reach 50-60 miles an hour -- and the crashes can be spectacular.
Heins put one in the ground not long ago just after take-off. "The engine died. I tried to put it down in the tall grass over there and wasn't successful," he said. "The corn field out there ate a few airplanes."
The pilots scour the field looking for the wreckage, hoping to reclaim the electronics and the engine to rebuild. Unless there's a crash, there's little maintenance involved.
"Once in a while you check everything out to make sure it's tight, just like in a real airplane," Freeman said. "It doesn't really cost anything but fuel to fly it, and every two years, you put new batteries in it."
The hobby appeals to all ages -- and all budgets.
"I tell people it's just like fishing. You can fish with a cane pole or you can buy a bass boat. The end result is you catch fish," Heins said. "People can get started with electronics for $200, or you can get into jets and you can tie up $25,000."
Planes can be bought ready-to-fly, or from-scratch kits or as ARFs, or almost ready to fly, built in a similar style to actual airplanes or as scale models.
ARFs are "what most everybody is going for," Hyde said. "Not many builders left really want to build, and when you get a kit, that's exactly what it is, a bunch of sticks."
Planes can be electric, or battery-powered, or fly on two-cycle fuel.
Electric planes are quieter, a plus when flying in urban areas, and less expensive. "I've got a couple electrics, but I just don't care for them. I like power and noise," Heins said. "You can fly about 10 minutes on a battery, then you have to charge it or change batteries. With fuel power all you've got to do is fuel it up and go again."
Weather conditions, especially wind, can ground the planes.
"September's the best for flying, and the first of October," Hyde said. "It cools off, and the wind currents kind of slow down."
The Pikeland Sky Chiefs will sponsor a fly-in 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at Lake Pittsfield.
Gas, nitro and electric radio-controlled airplanes, helicopters, warbirds, classics and aerobatics will be featured.
"We're trying to get people out here to fly and get the public to come and see what we do," club president Gene Heins said.
Club members especially hope to interest young people in the hobby.
"The young kids, especially when they've played video games, catch on quick," Heins said.
Academy of Model Aeronautics membership cards are required for pilots. No landing fees will be charged, but donations will be accepted.
The public is welcome to watch the planes.
More information and directions to the field are available by calling Heins at 242-0742 or John Freeman at 370-7743.