‘THE SKY IS THE LIMIT’

Without leaving the ground, Onekama man’s hobby takes flight

LARGE COLLECTION: Radio-control pilot Mark Harrison holds one model aircraft that has an 8-foot wing span, surrounded by his collection of 14 R/C airplanes. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

LARGE COLLECTION: Radio-control pilot Mark Harrison holds one model aircraft that has an 8-foot wing span, surrounded by his collection of 14 R/C airplanes. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

ONEKAMA – Mark Harrison knew the airplane he was piloting was going to crash. And it did.

In fact, the 61-year-old rural Onekama man has piloted more than one aircraft that crashed.

Not to worry. The airplanes that Harrison flies are radio-controlled (R/C), and are typically 1/5th the scale of their real-life counterparts.

“The sky is the limit in flying these aircraft, without the worry of crashing a full-size aircraft,” said Harrison. “A radio-controlled aircraft will eventually crash, due to either pilot error or a system malfunction. The advantage of flying an R/C aircraft is that you can do aerobatic maneuvers that you would never do in a full-size aircraft.”

To Harrison, and most other model airplane pilots, crashing their small aircraft isn’t the worst thing that can happen. In fact, it can become rehabilitating, and even relaxing.

“Part of our hobby is repairing our airplanes,” said Harrison. “My favorite (thing to do) is to build an aircraft from plans I find on the internet. To be able to fly a plane I built from scratch, is a big thrill. I try to build one balsa plywood plane every winter.

“Each winter the planes I build have been a little more complicated than the previous year. The first year I scratch-built foamies like my Polaris, and my Sea Mako, which both can fly off of grass, snow and/or water. I fly these at the club’s float fly picnics.”

A foamy model airplane is just that, a soft and durable model airplane built of hardened foam. Many, though, are constructed of balsa wood, just as they were years ago.

Harrison’s first scratch-built balsa plane was a Piper Pacer 125 that he flies indoors.

“We fly our smaller scale planes indoors, in gymnasiums,” said Harrison. “That can be challenging. The walls can come up on you real fast, so you have to know what you are doing.”

His second airplane built from scratch was a World War II PT-19, which has a 40-inch wing span.

Looking to the skies

MAKING PLANS: Mark Harrison stands with a blue print of a model airplane he recently built. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

MAKING PLANS: Mark Harrison stands with a blue print of a model airplane he recently built. (Courtesy photo/David L. Barber)

Harrison grew up in Wayne County, and graduated from Garden City West High School in 1973.

His father, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, was a teacher in neighboring Taylor, and the family spent their summers vacationing along the southeast shore of Portage Lake.

“My dad also enjoyed airplanes,” said Harrison. “He made free-flight models when he was a teenager. He was (later) stationed on an island air strip that guarded the Panama Canal. He wasn’t a pilot, but always wished he was one. He enjoyed watching the warplanes take off and land.”

Harrison recalls becoming interested in flying in his youth, and reflects on looking into the skies more than 50 years ago.

“I remember when I first saw a passenger jet fly in the late 1950s,” he said. “It was a rare site. Then, when I was with a group of junior high friends around 1968, we each went to the local hardware store and purchased a Cox control-line airplane.

“I had the best time flying those gas planes. They’d do loops, climb high, and land when they ran out of fuel. I had a tackle box full of .049 Cox engine parts and accessories for those planes.”

Four years later, in 1972, Harrison’s love for airplanes really took flight.

“My dad had a teacher friend who had a private pilot license, and his own plane,” said Harrison. “He invited my dad and me to go for a ride over Ann Arbor. We had a great time, and enjoyed the flight.”

In 1975 Harrison married, and a year later he and his wife, Patricia, moved to Manistee County, where they had two children who would go on to graduate from Onekama High School.

Then, after taking flight lessons at Blacker Airport in 1980, he earned his private pilot’s license.

“I would rent out the Cessna 150 and fly around with family members for a couple of years, until it became too expensive to continue, as we were trying to raise a family,” he said. “ I never went back to flying full-size aircraft.”

That same year he came across a catalog that specialized in R/C airplanes, boats and cars.

“I purchased a Piper Cub balsa kit and slowly built the plane in my spare time,” said Harrison, who was working 12-hour days at the time in his own exterior marine canvass business.

CONTINUING HOBBY: Mark Harrison, of Onekama, owns many radio controlled aircraft, continuing a hobby he first started as a child. (Courtesy photo)

CONTINUING HOBBY: Mark Harrison, of Onekama, owns many radio controlled aircraft, continuing a hobby he first started as a child. (Courtesy photo)

“Before I finished the Cub, I purchased an Ugly Stick trainer plane that took a gas nitro engine. I would have the engine running, but when I would try to fly it in my back yard, it would stall out – it flew maybe 30 feet one time.

“I got discouraged and packed away my planes and my accessories.”

A few years later Harrison sold the few R/C aircraft and accessories he had, at a yard sale. He’d not fly an R/C aircraft again, for several years.

Promoting a hobby

Eight years ago, Harrison, suffering from serious arthritis in his wrists and knees, retired from his job early.

About that same time he attended an R/C air show in Empire, and it was while at that air show that he learned of a radio-controlled airplane club headquartered in Benzie County.

“I went to the BARC (Benzie Area Radio Control) Spring Air Show in May 2011,” he said. “Ed MacIntosh was the contest director and emcee, and he proceeded to tell the crowd, ‘we’ll teach you how to fly R/C airplanes, just come up to the BARC tent and see Fred Stafford.’

“When I heard that I went to talk to Fred, the club’s flight instructor and president. He told me to meet him the next Thursday at the club’s grass runway and he’d have a club trainer plane ready for me to fly. He gave me a transmitter control, with a trainer cord attached to his transmitter.

“R/C flying is real flying, but from a different perspective – you’re not sitting in an airplane cockpit. You have to learn how to control the airplane when it’s coming toward you, which is not natural for a full-size aircraft pilot.

“Once I got the pattern flying maneuvers mastered, I had to purchase my own plane to start my own takeoffs and landings, but that were still attached to the trainer’s transmitter,” he said. “Once I could take off and land the plane on my own I was awarded the Club Wings, which entitled me to fly alone at the site, as long as I was a member in good standing.”

Today, Harrison has 14 R/C airplanes, nine for flying outdoors and that have wing spans that measure form 30 to 70 inches. Some of the aircraft are so large they barely fit into his automobile whenever he takes them to air shows.

His five indoor aircraft have wing spans from 18 to 24 inches.

Mark Harrison shows off his model Revolver R/C airplane. In 1968, Harrison purchased his first model airplane. (Courtesy photo)

Mark Harrison shows off his model Revolver R/C airplane. In 1968, Harrison purchased his first model airplane. (Courtesy photo)

“When I fly at an airfield I like to bring a minimum of three airplanes, and as many as five, as long as they fit in my vehicle,” said Harrison. “If I decide to start building ¼-scale aircraft I’ll have to purchase an enclosed trailer, which may happen some day in the future.”

Harrison is an active member, and staunch supporter, of the 36-member Benzie Area Remote Control club.

“The club has been a great resource and help for me,” he said. “The members are very friendly and had great tips and knowledge for any questions I had for any problem that came up with my R/C planes.

“The club was the main source for me to become a successful R/C pilot. Some (club members) are hardcore flyers, and the rest are aviation enthusiasts who enjoy talking aviation.

“The club (invites) wives and families to participate by having float fly picnics, and monthly dinners at local restaurants,” he said. “The club sponsors air shows in order to promote our hobby, and recruit future R/C pilots.”

Last year Harrison volunteered to serve as contest director and emcee of the club’s air shows.

“My responsibilities include setting up the show, including establishing safety lines, flight stations, speakers, and a registration table and communication table,” said Harrison. “The air show is a sanctioned event of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which will provide liability insurance if we make sure all pilots follow the AMA safety rules, and are members of the AMA.

“The air show also supports the Thompsonville airport, as the show is a source of income to help pay the airport’s expenses. The airport will run a food tent and parking for the spectators, asking only for donations.”

Len Todd, also an avid R/C pilot from Baldwin, said he enjoys watching other pilots like Harrison fly their aircraft, as much as he enjoys flying his own.

“Pilots have a lot of respect for each other,” said Todd. “We know the work each puts into building his own airplane, and then learning how to fly.

“We have a pretty strong appreciation for what ‘the other guy’ does.”

Harrison said he became “amazed” in 2011 – the year he joined the club – to learn that 95 percent of all R/C airplanes are driven by electric motors, a far cry and “great improvement” from the gas engine models he flew as a youth.

“Technology has really changed a lot with this hobby,” he said. “I have seen new pilots take-off and land solo on their first day, which is amazing.

“We have one new pilot in our club who just had his one year anniversary, and who has accumulated 50 planes, which I think is incredible.”

An avid fisherman and carpenter, Harrison served with the Onekama Lions Club for many years.

“I’m proud of the work I did for the Lions Club for our community,” he said. “I enjoy working with tools, and building things, and I especially enjoy flying something I build.

“Flying R/C aircraft is my number one hobby. And, to this day, I will point out a plane in the sky to my wife, or anyone who is with me.”

Find out more about BARC at www.benziearearc.com.

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Posted by David L. Barber

David L. Barber is the retired editor of the Manistee News Advocate. He contributes columns weekly for the News Advocate. You can contact him at dlbarber1006@gmail.com.

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