Giant radio-controlled models celebrate planes of D-Day
Seventy-five years ago this month, the D-Day invasion to liberate France was kicked off by almost 1,000 C-47 Dakota planes -- the military version of the two-engine DC-3 commercial airliner -- dropping 23,400 soldiers in parachutes and gliders behind the German-held beaches.
For two months before that, 12,000 B-17, B-24 and Lancaster heavy bombers had been preparing the way by dropping bombs on the railroad bridges, yards and tracks on which the beaches' defenders would rely to bring them reinforcements and ammunition.
That history-changing June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy will be the theme of the sixth annual Windy City Warbirds & Classics show held by the Fox Valley Aero Club Thursday-Saturday, June 20-22, in St. Charles. Visitors of all ages will be able to watch "Giant Scale" authentic-looking, radio-controlled replicas of those World War II planes -- and some fighter planes from the German Luftwaffe that came up to try to stop them -- re-enact what happened in the skies over France. Fans of more ancient and more modern military aircraft also will be able to see models of World War I biplanes and modern jets, like the A-10 Warthog and F-18 Hornet, powered by jet engines that can move them 200 mph.
According to John Fischer, chairman of the event, 80 pilots from seven states and Canada are expected to participate. As many as six planes fly at the same time, some with wingspans up to 20 feet. In the past, the shows have drawn up to 2,000 spectators.
Most of the planes are made by their owners using wood, fabric, scale-model blueprints and off-the-shelf engines in a process that can take hundreds of hours. A beginning model can be finished for as little as $300, but costs can quickly rise to $1,000 or more.
As they prepared for the show on a recent sunny day, two club members prepared to launch the first flights of planes whose real-life counterparts could have fought each other to the death 75 years ago over Normandy. Fischer had just finished a German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter plane. Steven Gawlik, a 63-year-old architect from Prairie Grove, had just finished an American B-17 bomber named High Life. Made at one-ninth scale to the real plane named High Life, it has a 12-foot wingspan.
"I have always been fascinated by the physics of what keeps airplanes in the air," Fischer said. "In 1996, I realized that one missing item in my life was a hobby. So that year, when my wife asked what I wanted for Christmas, I asked for an RC trainer plane. I quickly joined a club and got hooked."
Fischer said he probably has built 25 RC planes since then. The FW-190 -- based on a real plane in a German museum -- will join his British Spitfire fighter and his American P-51 Mustang fighter. The Mustang is based on one whose real pilot, C.E. Weaver, named it "Passion Wagon" and decorated it with a drawing of a naked woman, right next to eight swastikas denoting that he had shot down eight enemy aircraft.
As B-17 owner Gawlik held a radio control panel with multiple levers in his hand, the four separate gasoline-burning engines on his bomber High Life spun their propellers. The plane gained speed as it tore down the club's 800-foot-long asphalt runway. Finally, those engines lifted its 45 pounds into the air. After a few turns around the field, Gawlik landed it again safely. That doesn't always happen on an RC plane's maiden flight -- in fact, that doesn't always happen on a real plane's first mission.
"Looking through information about real B-17s, I decided to model the nose art after one named High Life because Miller High Life is my favorite beer," Gawlik said. "But when the original bomber High Life was sent to bomb Berlin on its first mission, it was heavily damaged by enemy fire. The crew couldn't make it home. They flew across the border of Switzerland, which was a neutral country, bailed out and spent the rest of the war interned there. So, the model has had a more successful record than the full-size one."
Gawlik estimated he has spent $2,500 on materials for the model and put hundreds of hours into building it.
"I've got about 16 models now that are in flyable condition," he said. "I took flying lessons while I was a teenager but it was just too expensive to keep flying the real thing."
But the pilot of another B-17 -- a silver-painted, 57-pound, 138-inch wing-spanned bird complete with fake machine guns, doll-like crewmen and the ability to drop little bombs on command from the ground -- makes his living by flying full-sized planes and riding inside them. Paul Martin, 52, of South Elgin, flies Airbus 320s for United Airlines.
Another professional pilot turned RC-er, 67-year-old Dave Murray of Elgin, is one of the club members who dabbles in actual jet-powered planes. Since retiring from flying Boeing 777s for United, he has became a corporate pilot. As he started up the twin genuine jet engines on his A-10 Warthog anti-tank plane -- each engine costing about $5,000 and running at 160,000 revolutions per minute -- he said it will go 150 to 160 mph.
"But I just got done with a one-fifth-scale F-16 that will go well over 200," Murray said.
Armin Weber, a 59-year-old software developer from Naperville, said he has been building and flying RC planes since he was a teenager.
"I was in grade school when I saw an RC airplane flying in a park. I walked over and talked to the pilot and have been hooked ever since," he said. "I did fly full-size planes in my early 20s. I took lessons, soloed and passed my written test. But, I actually find this more interesting. I can fly a Thunderbolt or a Mustang -- I'd never get the chance to do that in real life."
The club traces its roots to 1929. A band of enthusiasts from the Fox Valley formed a club called The Flying Fools that flew little hand-launched free-flight gliders and small models powered by wound-up rubber bands. Later, they began flying planes with small engines, connected to the ground by ropelike tethers.
In 1979, The Flying Fools changed their name to Fox Valley Aero Club. By this time, the transistor had made radio equipment so small that they could control an engine-powered plane from the ground without any physical connection to it.
If you goWhat: Windy City Warbirds & Classics radio-controlled model air show, sponsored by Fox Valley Aero Club
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 20-22.
Where: Fox Valley Aero Club Field, 3821 Karl Madsen Drive (South side of Route 38 just west of Kane County Justice Center), St. Charles
Admission: $5 adults; free for children under 12
Details: Special one-hour air shows at noon Friday and Saturday. Visitors may mix with pilots at the flight line after the air shows. Food vendors on site. Some grandstand seating, but visitors should bring lawn chairs.