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Friday, March 23 News

Before drones: Fairfield Flying Aces were model aviators through the years

The gym at the Fairfield Senior Center on a recent afternoon seems at first to be full of large, buzzing insects on the wing. A closer look reveals that the buzzing is emanating from small planes swooping and circling near the gym ceiling. Closely watching the aeronautical display is a group of aviation buffs -- the Fairfield Flying Aces. Their love of aeronautics has continued for these men beyond their days of aircraft model-making, military service and pilot licenses.

"We are the generation born in the age of Lindbergh," explained Richard DeAngelis, the leader of the Flying Aces, and a retired Fairfield University history professor. "We were kids during World War II and our heroes were the pilots."

DeAngelis is piloting a small radio-controlled plane that weighs less than an ounce. He guides the plane to circle the gym's high ceiling, and brings it in for a landing at his feet. He is sitting among about 18 other men along the room's edges, all either flying their planes, working on their miniature aircraft or swapping stories.

Those planes that aren't radio controlled are "rubber powered," taking off and flying with nothing more than a twisted rubber band propelling them.

Jim Tambora, a U.S. Air Force veteran and retired engineer from Shelton, has built his rubber-powered plane from balsa wood and tissue paper. Remarkably, it lifts off, swooping 20 feet into the air and circles the gym.

The club has about 29 members from across Fairfield County. The group requires little from members -- no dues, no officers, no bylaws. "We have one rule: You have to show up," Tambora joked.

For Ron Atwater, a retired marketing executive from Fairfield, the club is better than meditation or finding some other way to put the day's problems aside. "It's extremely relaxing. It takes your mind off of everything else," he said. "And it keeps up your hand-eye coordination."

The club meets weekly and its members have been attending faithfully for more than 10 years since it was organized at the Fairfield Senior Center in 2002. They always fly their aircraft indoors because the wind would quickly carry their tiny aircraft out of control.

Unlike drones, which can be small, the Flying Aces' aircraft are not heavy enough or powerful enough to carry cameras or any kind of cargo. "And they can't hover," which is one characteristic of a drone, according to DeAngelis.

Despite his love miniature planes, the proliferation of drone-type aircraft is worrisome to DeAngelis. Small aircraft -- only slightly bigger or more powerful than the planes flying around the center's gym -- could carry cameras or even light bombs, he explained.

What he called "quad-copters" or miniature radio-controlled helicopters with four small engines, are of particular concern because they can hover, he said. "That's what makes them dangerous." Representatives from the Academy of Model Aeronautics met recently with the FAA to discuss the regulation of drones, DeAngelis said.

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But any kind of nefarious use of model aircraft seemed to be the farthest thing from the minds of the Flying Aces as they piloted their planes around that afternoon.

Among the model plane pilots was Andy Kosch of Bridgeport, who has built a prototype of the plane designed and built by aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead, which he and many others believe was the first plane to fly -- and that flight happened in Fairfield.

"I built the plane and I flew it," he said of the Whitehead prototype. "We have proved that Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly a plane, and the governor and state legislature have accepted it."

Another Fairfield Flying Ace, Irwin Weisbrot of Norwalk, an 85-year-old retired physician, has brought not only a small plane to fly in the gym, but also larger miniatures that fly outdoors to show fellow club members. Weisbrot was a licensed pilot and owned five standard airplanes through the years, which he and his wife used to travel around the country. Piloting the model airplanes keeps him busy now, and he especially likes coming to Fairfield when flying larger miniature planes outside is impossible. "It's lovely in the winter," he said.

The Flying Aces group is open to anyone who enjoys flying the planes -- or even just watching, DeAngelis said. All they have to do is come to the Fairfield Senior Center, 100 Mona Terrace, between 1 and 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoons. Young people are also welcome to come and watch the swooping aircraft. One of the club's goals is to pass their knowledge and love of aeronautics on to the next generation of flying aces.