The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


NO FEAR OF FLYING © Duncan Graham 2007

The difference between men and boys is the size of their toys.

The old proverb holds good most Sundays at a recreation park in Malang, East Java, when a crew of alleged adults get together to realize their fantasies.

They're bankers, businessmen (the women, emulating air hostesses, tend to supply food and drink), oil industry executives and just about anyone who had their childhood dreams of freedom in the skies grounded.

"At primary school I always wanted to fly planes – the commercial variety," said Budi Santoso, organizer of the Malang Raya Aeromodelling Club (scaled down to MR AC). "But I didn't choose that path; instead I became an engineer.

"There are four kids in my family, though we only have three children. Am I a frustrated pilot? Yes, I think so!"

They may never get to wrap their palms round the throttles of an Airbus but they'll handle most things short of wearing a peaked cap and calming a cabin full of nervous souls by articulating with authority the sentence of assurance: 'This is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard'.

In fact the wannabe aviators can do more; how many A 320 jockeys have designed and built the aircraft they fly?

Australian aid administrator Barry Clark has been playing (woops! – carrying out aerodynamic experiments) with model aircraft for more than 40 years. He's made his own in the past but the pride of his current fleet is a big yellow craft he bought ARTF (almost ready to fly) in Jakarta. This means it took him only four hours to assemble.

There are few local suppliers outside the capital so members have to rely on friends who travel regularly, particularly to Singapore and Australia where the hobby is big business. Vietnam is now producing some excellent models for those without either the patience to build or tolerant partners.

("Wait a moment, darling; I'll come to bed just as soon as I've fiddled this flap. I've got a drag and yaw problem.")

An expensive pastime? Not if you go for tethered round-the-pole planes controlled by two hand-held cables, according to Budi who makes many of his own parts.

For the free radio-controlled craft the cost depends on what you want, how digitally smart you are (fingers and electronics), and your knowledge of flight science. Set aside Rp 1 million rupiah (US $112) for a basic body, double that for the engine and controls, triple it for the transmitter and toss in another million or so for other gizmos you're bound to want – even if you don't need.

Although there are off-the-peg designs available the real challenge comes from applying the laws of physics, understanding meteorology and being inventive. This can be a really educative and creative sport.

And a damaging one. Anarg, who works for the military where he controls pilotless drones for gunners to practise their aim, found his hobby plane going way off course with a stiff wind up its flimsy backside.

It zipped out of the park, crashed into trees alongside a busy road, then tumbled into the traffic. Just as toast always falls with the marmalade side down, so model aircraft hit hard things nose-first where the expensive bits are located.

In other countries governments and clubs exercise rigid controls on radio frequencies and flight paths, but this country is free of such tiresome rules. That makes for greater hazards and more fun. Wags say there are old pilots and bold pilots – but no old, bold pilots. Except among Indonesian aeromodellers.

"Malang is made up of real enthusiasts," Clark said. "These planes are beyond toys. They can reach speeds of up to 100 kph.

"The club in Jakarta meets out at Halim where there's some serious money. They even fly jets and employ boys to run out on the field to pick up the crashes."

But Malang is mainly do-it-yourself, though there's no shortage of revved up little lads who sit in wonder to watch their elders, and supposed betters, stretch elastic bands, twist bits of wire and rip packaging tape with their molars.

The earth-bound airmen swap ideas, trade tips and tell of fruit shops that will let you filch high-density Styrofoam. Although used to stop apples bruising in transit, the lightweight sheets make ideal wings.

Readers who misspent their youth trimming balsawood and getting their mum's best tablecloth sticky with Tarzan's Grip will be happy to know their ancient skills won't be wasted. Tiny two-stroke diesel and glow engines are still used, though giving way to electric motors.

Wrinklies who reckon they haven't had a good day's flying unless they come home sprayed with fuel mixed to a secret formula, ears ringing from the high pitched buzz, fingers bleeding from propeller mishaps, sneer at the innovations.

But this is also about gadgets and progress. If the Wright brothers had been happy with their prototype we wouldn't now be Boeing our way around the globe.

"About five years ago there was a significant shift in the technology," said Clark. "More powerful lightweight batteries came on the market, along with miniaturized electronic equipment.

"In the past the transmitter would allow only one or two on-off functions. Now you can refine controls of the rudder, elevators, engine speed and ailerons. Some models also let you raise the undercarriage after take-off."

Though not at MR AC. Although one fellow has a big flash helicopter, the 30 odd members - some have up to ten planes - aren't too fussed about appearances. The most spectacular flier, a gaudy biplane with a two-dimensional fuselage, looks like something kicked aside by rubbish bin scavengers.

But in the air, piloted by its designer Sang Ajim the ugly swan transformed into a swallow. It could turn, roll, hover (if the headwind speed is right), flip, fly vertically and upside-down, duck and dive – giving spectacular displays that would rival any air-force show.

The kids loved it all. Even the little ones.

(First published in The Sunday Post 10 June 07)


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