October 5, 2005 - Many of the planes that do tricky stunts in movies have cockpits that aren't occupied by anyone at all. That's because they're giant model airplanes operated by remote control.
The movie "The Aviator" used such planes, and a man who lives in Tucson piloted some of their stunts from the ground.
That man, Bill Hempel, will compete with about 20 of the world's top operators of giant-scale remote-controlled planes Oct. 8 and 9 in the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout at a scaled-down runway in the Northwest.
The event is one of only two in the United States that invite a large collection of the top pilots who operate their behemoths from the ground, said Michael Cummins, president of the Tucson International Modelplex Park Association.
The operators will come from across the country and overseas to compete for about $80,000 in money prizes with planes that on average have a 12-foot wingspan and cost up to $12,000, Cummins said.
Two of the planes that visitors will see in the shootout, he said, are exactly half the size of the full planes they are modeled after.
The most popular shootout events for visitors are the freestyle aerobatic routines that the giant model planes carry out choreographed to a variety of music, Cummins said.
"Popular, rap, you name it," he said. "They'll come up with a way to fly with it."
The planes spin and loop to the beat, and they sometimes hover close to the ground like helicopters, Cummins said.
"We call it ballet in the sky," he said.
An advantage of watching an air show with model airplanes, he said, is that they fly closer to the ground than a piloted airplane would, so they're right in front of the audience much of the time.
The choreographed events with music will begin when the events scheduled to run before them draw to a close, which, Cummins said, should be sometime around 11 a.m. Saturday, sometime around 9:30 a.m. Sunday and in the early afternoon Sunday.
The shootout will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Barbecued hamburgers and hotdogs will be available for a cost, as will sodas and other foods. In the mornings, visitors will have the opportunity to buy breakfast at the event.
People also are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and sunscreen, Cummins said.
The other event in the United States that brings together the world's best operators of giant model planes is in South Carolina. Smaller regional events take place across the country that are tied together by their common adherence to regulations supplied by the International Miniature Aerobatic Club.
This is the fourth year that world-class ground pilots of giant planes have gathered in the greater Tucson area for the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout, and they look forward, each year, to the challenge of competing with each other, Cummins said.
"They really try to outdo each other every year," he said.