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October 2001

Of loops and rolls: Model planes soar above the mesa

Kurt Rosner sends his glider into flight. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

A perfect afternoon for Garrett Clark and his friends consists of nothing more than sitting on top of the mesa, gently pitching their model airplanes into the southeast wind.

On a good day—and there were a lot last summer—a steady wind can hold their gliders aloft for as long as five hours, allowing the operators to put on an aerobatics show of rolls and loops as the radio-controlled craft swoop down the steep slopes and soar back on thermal currents.

"Get high, go fast, do aerobatics," says Clark, a semi-retired pilot who used to fly helicopters for the Army. "This is a fantastic flying spot. It's as good as it gets."

Blessed by bountiful open space, the mesa has become a magnet for several dozen hobbyists who monitor UCAR's on-line weather report for the southeast winds needed to sustain their nonmotorized planes. Their favorite launching area is along the south and east edges of the ML parking lot, where they send their lightweight gliders rushing down silently a mile or so toward the neighborhood below, or up toward the clouds in such a high trajectory that the models virtually disappear from sight.

One of the fliers is Kurt Rosner, a retired electronics engineer who has been an "airplane nut" since he was a boy. He used to fly full-scale gliders as a teenager, but he prefers the models because there are no passengers to worry about.

"I think I get a bigger kick out of flying these little jewels than I ever did with the glider," says Rosner, whose wife, Ursula Rosner, is a former ASP staffer. "These can do anything a full- size plane can do, plus a few extras because no one can get hurt."

Rosner owns 13 planes, which he has built from kits. The mostly foam models can crash into rocks and trees without being badly damaged. Each of the planes contains a sophisticated radio receiver that allows the operator to manipulate such controls as the rudder, elevator, and wing flaps.

Clark flies about 10 models and he keeps pieces of several additional planes. "I've got bunches of wrecks," he says with a smile.

The hobbyists' planes generally cost about $50 to $100 apiece, which is far below the price of $1,000 or more for the top- performing models. Someone interested in starting out can buy a plane and all the requisite radio equipment from a hobby shop for about $250, Rosner says, and "get everything he or she needs to start flying except experience."

Clark's lifelong love of flying dates back to his childhood days on airbases when his father worked as a pilot. "I was born and raised around airplanes," he recalls. "There was no doubt when I was a kid about becoming a pilot."

A back accident in the 1980s left Clark unable to walk, but his enthusiasm for the sport is undiminished. "It's a pretty good hobby for me in a wheelchair," he says.

About two years ago, UCAR created a wheelchair-accessible walkway, which allows Clark to get much of the way from the parking lot to his favorite launching spot without assistance. Ideally, he would like UCAR to add a handicapped parking spot and extend the walkway to the edge of the slope, but generally another hobbyist, such as Rosner, is there to assist him.

Some of the staffers who work nearby say they enjoy the sight of the gliders.

"One of my first memories of the NCAR mesa—perhaps 15 years ago—was of an anonymous band of model airplane fliers. I still pause to enjoy watching their crafts soaring above the south side of the hill," says Rene Munoz, tour program coordinator in E&O. "That's one of the special things about our mesa location, that we can share even the air above with so many others."

Kurt Rosner and Garrett Clark say the mesa is a perfect launching spot for their model airplanes. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

On a recent September day, Clark and Rosner struggled to launch their planes in lighter-than-normal winds. Their challenge: find thermal currents that would give the planes the lift and momentum needed for aerobatics.

Instead, one plane under Clark's control crashed in an empty field at the bottom of the hill, much to the amusement of the two friends.

"I'm famous for landing down there," Clark joked.

He added: "I've only been doing it for about 30 to 40 years. I've got lots of room to improve."

• David Hosansky

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Edited by David Hosansky, hosansky@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Thu Oct 25 11:18:36 MDT 2001