Spending the afternoon watching remote-controlled airplanes flying indoors can be exhilarating -- and unnerving. Planes swoop, speed past, dive and hover overhead, seemingly all at once.
Every Sunday from December through March, members of the Babylon RC Flyers take to the air in the gymnasium of the West Babylon Community Youth Center. Beginners and seasoned fliers share the airspace, which leads to close encounters but few actual crashes.
"If you can't crash them, don't fly them," jokes Richard Green, 75, of Lindenhurst, president of the Babylon RC Flyers, who adds that there are nearly 3,000 RC fliers on Long Island. "I tell people, 'Don't stand there and look at it and cry 'cause you crashed it. Pick it up, rebuild it and fly again.'"
Another club, the Brookhaven-based Silent Electric Flyers of Long Island, takes its indoor flights at Samoset Middle School in Ronkonkoma. Member Joe Wojtkowicz, 46, of Selden, says such groups offer more than just a designated place to fly. It's a place to "get help with the hobby and learn to fly in a safe way."
CATCHING THE FEVER
Carla Cannistraci, 30, of Bellmore, who was taking the controls for the first time on a recent Sunday, was finding the crashes a little unnerving. All her previous experience had been on a computer simulator. Her husband, Billy Cannistraci, 33, a member of the Babylon RC Flyers, had convinced her to leave the computer for the real thing.
"It is a little scary, but fun," Cannistraci says after a few crashes and hard landings. (Good news: the damage was fixable.) "It is kind of disconcerting when the plane is flying back toward you."
By the end of the afternoon, Cannistraci graduated to flying a more complicated -- and more expensive -- plane.
Green, who also is president of the umbrella group, Long Island Aero Modelers Association, says about 25 members show up on any given Sunday. Most club members fly multiple crafts, including minis that have a wing span of less than 12 inches, helicopters, large foam planes with wing spans up to 36 inches and even more expensive planes normally flown outside.
Luckily, they don't all fly at the same time.
Most of Long Island's more than 25 clubs use a buddy box system to help new pilots navigate the shared airspace. It has two controls, one for the novice and one for the instructor, who can take control when needed.
"What people don't realize is that some of these planes can fly 150 to 180 miles per hour," warns Philip Friedensohn, 62, of Forest Hills, an instructor for the group. "At 150 miles an hour, these are not toys."
And you can't just fly anywhere, Friedensohn points out. Hobbyists have to know where designated areas are and must follow municipal and state rules, including hours that flying is allowed, decibel level of the aircraft and how close spectators can come (two teens were killed last year in separate incidents involving model aircraft).
"It is a long learning curve from driving a remote-controlled car to flying an RC plane," agrees fellow instructor Tony Aprile, 59, of Lindenhurst "You're going to break a lot of equipment in the process."
LONG ISLAND CLUBS
Those interested in remote-controlled fliers should contact one of the more than 25 clubs on Long Island, many of which fly indoors and out, giving members year-round access to the sport. Find clubs through the Long Island Aero Modelers Association (liama.org).
SILENT ELECTRIC FLYERS OF LONG ISLAND
WHEN | WHERE 1-4 p.m. Jan. 12 and Feb. 9, Samorset Middle School, 51 School St., Lake Ronkonkoma
INFO 631-880-2054, sefli.org
ANNUAL DUES $50
Beginner fliers are put in club's mentoring program.
BABYLON RC FLYERS
WHEN | WHERE Noon-4 p.m. Sundays through March 30, West Babylon Community Youth Center, 71 Sawyer Ave., West Babylon; 7-9 p.m. Wednesdays (April-May), Lindenhurst Bubble, 831 N. Queens Ave., Lindenhurst
INFO 631-838-2570, babylonrcflyers.org
ANNUAL DUES $25 ($30 initiation fee)
Open to ages 6 and older, membership includes instruction, flying time, permits and leasing fee.