Taking to the skies - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Taking to the skies

Model aviators land in desert west of town for Tucson Aerobatic Shootout

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Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:54 am, Wed Nov 28, 2012.

Even though the planes and the airport stand in miniature, to the model airplane pilots who converged last weekend on the Tucson International Modelplex Park, it’s one of the biggest things around.

Radio-controlled airplane pilots from around the world landed on Tucson’s far west side for the Tucson Aerobatic Shootout.

The fliers competed for $100,000 in prizes, one of several such international tournaments where the world’s top pilots test their skills.

Despite the spirited competition, most the contestants kept the rivalries to a minimum.

“The people here really get along well,” pilot Kurt Koelling said.

Even at high-stake competitions, Koelling said, contestants offer their own planes to other pilots after they’ve had a crash and couldn’t continue. An astounding level of camaraderie among competitors, especially when they’re playing with toys that can cost as much as $10,000.

Koelling began flying about 12 years ago when his father, also a model pilot, took him to the airpark for a demonstration.

“I had him on a training cord,” Jerry Koelling said of his son’s first flight.

That “training cord” joins two sets of controllers together so that a more experienced pilot can take over if the novice gets in trouble.

Jerry quickly cut the cord, though, when he saw his son’s knack for flight.

“It took him about 30 seconds,” Jerry joked.

Kurt now tries to fly for five hours per day on the weekends and daily during summer. He also competes in about 10 contests per year, like the U.S. and Canadian championships where he took first place last year.

He’s even snared a few sponsorships that help defray the costs of carting around a couple of 10-foot-long model planes to competitions throughout the country.

“Last year, I ended up breaking even,” Kurt said, a sizable boast for practitioners of this costly hobby.

But all that flying is just what he does in his downtime. When he’s not piloting scale-model aircraft, Kurt spends his days in the laboratories and lecture halls of The Ohio State University, where he teaches chemical engineering.

Like Kurt, most of the pilots compete in tournaments for the excitement, but for pilot Dave Villwock, the contests represent a marked departure from his full-throttle daily grind.

At his day job, the Seattle resident flies across the water at nearly 200 mph in the super-charged hydroplane race boat, Miss E-Lam.

At full speed, the boats cut across the water with little more than their propellers breaking the surface. In addition to their lightning speed, hydroplanes have been responsible for some of the most spectacular crashes caught on film.

Villwock, one of the sport’s all-time leaders, knows well the perils of this high-octane vocation.

In a 1997 race, while driving the famed Miss Budweiser unlimited hydroplane, Villwock’s vessel took flight, upended and crashed upside down in the water.

“At 7,000 pounds and like 50 G’s, well, you do the math,” Villwock said.

The crash knocked him unconscious and crushed his right hand. After a 12-hour surgery, Villwock came out alive but with two fewer fingers.

Oddly, he said it was the boating world that got him involved with model aircraft.

Before speedboat racing became his full-time occupation, Villwock ran a sheet metal shop. He designed and raced boats in his spare time and did well enough to attract the attention of some heavy hitters on the racing circuit.

Years ago one of those speedboat gurus, who wanted Villwock to come and work for him, introduced him to model planes.

He’s been competing in model plane shootouts almost ever since.

But when the final results were tallied Sunday afternoon, neither Villwock of Koelling came home with the gold, or the $25,000 prize.

Koelling finished up the weekend in ninth place, making a better run of than Villwock, who failed to place.

“This is fun,” Villwock said before the competition started, adding that unlike his day job, “It’s not life-threatening.”

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