GILLETTE — The wind whipped through a recent cool Saturday morning as about 20 people gathered at the Sage Hoppers RC Club’s annual Fly-In at its airfield east of Cam-plex in Gillette.
Biscuits and gravy served alongside hot coffee helped warm up the remote-control pilots as they gathered in a circle around Sage Hoppers President Jack Adsit.
“It takes brave people to fly a plane in wind like this,” Adsit told the group before going over some brief safety guidelines and beginning the day’s event.
The group consisted of mostly men, with a handful of younger kids running around, bringing equal parts youth and enthusiasm to the event.
The Sage Hoppers members love remote-controlled planes and love aviation. Now they want Wyoming students to love flying, too.
Thanks to money from a long list of local donors and a sizable donation from the Campbell County School District’s recreation mill, the Gillette Sage Hoppers RC Club is building a new clubhouse of sorts. There members hope to enlist students interested in learning about aviation and provide them with a building and resources to pursue that interest.
Concrete was poured in August for the building’s foundation and a small, secondary runway also was laid and paved in the airfield, additions that will make the space more amenable for young fliers.
“Opportunities for youth to get into aviation aren’t out there,” Adsit said. “That’s why I’ve been after that building for more than 10 years.”
Once completed, Adsit envisions the Sage Hoppers working in collaboration with the school district to organize clubs or activities where youngsters can learn about aviation and even fly their own model planes.
It’s now just a slab of concrete, but by the end of next summer Adsit plans to have the building ready.
“We’re going to do something at least monthly out here for kids who want to be involved with aviation,” Adsit said.
The inside design is straightforward: a large room. But inside of that room, Adsit has plans for an aviation world all its own.
One potential activity could be to have kids build inexpensive, simple planes out of ¼-inch foam board. From there, he said they can work up to building wooden models, the whole while learning how to control them in the air, risk free, on a flight simulator.
Two simulators — a remote control transmitter connected to a computer program on a flat-screen TV — can be used by those new to the hobby to get a feel for flying, and crashing, model planes. They can even build planes of their own.
By using the simulators, variables such as weight, length and weather conditions can be modified for those training with it to practice flying different planes in multiple scenarios.
Adsit also described a “buddy link” system, where a model plane is controlled in the air by two remotes, one used by the person learning and the other by a more experienced pilot. That way, the rookie can practice flying a plane in the air while the other, more experienced person can take control over the plane to help with the takeoff or avoid a collision.
Aviation can be a difficult subject of study. Besides the technical aspects of understanding the physics behind flight, having access to resources can be just as difficult.
“That’s my goal on this building is to have an ability to go after school-(aged) youth and give them someplace to go to have them start learning about airplanes,” Adsit said. “That education just isn’t there in grade school.
“I want someplace for them to go, work on models, learn to fly. If I had that option when I was a kid, I’m sure I would have had a different career.”
Nub Baker is a former fire department chief who attended the Fly-In event and said he taught several kids in Newcastle how to fly remote-controlled planes.
The miniature airfield used by the Gillette Sage Hoppers has a paved runway, something that is a “treat” considering the gravel one he is accustomed to flying off of in Newcastle, Baker said.
As a way of teaching kids how to fly, he has used “buddy links,” or two transmitters to control a single plane: one for him and one for the novice. Once he gets the plane in the air and about “a couple mistakes high,” he passes the reins to the kids to let them maneuver high in the sky.
He instructs them on what to do and what not to do, all the while holding a secondary transmitter just in case he needs to step in to avoid a crash.
During the Fly-In, he had less luck.
Strong winds picked up that morning and, although a couple of dozen men from as far as Casper made the trip to Gillette to use the runway and open skies, the wind gave pause as to who would be first to fly.
A remote control helicopter could be seen whirring in the air performing acrobatics despite the wind, but model planes present more difficulties. Once a plane is in the air, most of the risk is gone. But the takeoff can get dicey.
Baker was reminded of that the hard way.
He was the first pilot to roll a model plane onto the runway. His rig, a white Great Planes Reactor with orange accent colors, stared down the long path of pavement.
Despite the wind, Baker started the engine and caddied toward takeoff. As the plane accelerated, it quickly lurched into the sky but struggled to gain altitude. After getting batted around by a couple of strong gusts, the plane was pushed to its right and spiraled downward before ultimately splintering into the ground.
“It is rebuildable,” Baker said after picking up the wreckage from the crash. “I’ve had worse than that.”
Although the crash appeared dramatic, Baker was unfazed. He said the engine and other mechanical parts weren’t damaged and he only had to repair the plane’s body and wing. He brought multiple planes and planned to fly another one later in the day.
“That’s just the nature of the beast,” he said.
Not long after, Jerry Williams, another remote-controlled pilot from Casper, reached a 137 mph speed gun reading while flying his Spitfire RC plane, or as Adsit referred to the original it’s modeled after, “the plane that saved England.”
Benefiting from tamer winds, the Spitfire landed without incident.
The club doesn’t only focus on planes. Remote-controlled helicopters and even drones are regularly flown in their airspace.
In fact, an airborne remote-controlled helicopter caught young Boston Lee’s attention early on during the Fly-In.
“A helicopter!” Lee yelled as he ran toward the airstrip where an RC helicopter zipped through the air.
Despite being the only kid there that day, he brought enough enthusiasm and youthful energy for the whole lot.
His grandfather, John Harvey, brought Lee because of his interest in flying. By the end of the day, a few more kids were brought by their own grandparents, causing a slight, youthful trend toward the direction that Adsit envisions the Sage Hoppers moving as its members age.
Near the end of the Fly-In event, a raffle was held. The prize? A trainer model plane that happened to perfectly suit the new pilot who won it: Lee.
Adsit said the young boy couldn’t hide his excitement when he found out he would be taking home a remote control plane of his own.
He hopes that the age dynamic begins to shift in the years to come, which is why he and the Sage Hoppers are building a new structure to educate local kids interested in aviation.
“That’s where our focus is at,” he said.