Radio-controlled model planes fill skies over Benjamin Rush State Park
THEY WERE grounded for a year while Benjamin Rush State Park was transformed from fields of weeds to fields of dreams.
But since returning home in September, the 100 aviators of the Northeast Philadelphia Radio Control Club have filled the skies with their fast, acrobatic model planes.
Their clubhouse, destroyed by vandals who joyrode a stolen bulldozer into it during the park's massive makeover, has been replaced by a metal storage shed. There, an ancient heater - sole survivor of the clubhouse wreckage - continues to keep high-flying stalwarts warm on frigid mornings.
The club's weekend warriors revel in radio-controlled races and freewheeling trick-flying in their 5-acre heaven on earth. Meanwhile, folks in the 168-acre no-fly zone beyond the airfield are enjoying the new hiking/biking trails of the reborn state park on Southampton Road near Roosevelt Boulevard.
Angelo Tata, club president, focuses on teaching newbies how to use the radio-control box to fly the electric and gas-powered planes.
"In the early stages, we get the plane up high enough for you to fly safely," Tata said. "Then you get the 'dumb [control] box' and I get the 'smart box.' If you lose control, I take over.
"But after a while, I have confidence in you, and that's when it gets a little dicey," Tata said, laughing. "I relax, you suddenly do something stupid you haven't done in three weeks, and I have to jump in to save you."
Tata, a Frankford native who is a Dow Chemical Co. piping designer, hasn't lost a newbie yet.
But occasionally, even the veterans crash a plane.
Ken Karpinski, who has flown models for 30 years, said: "People ask, 'Well, what if it crashes?' I say, 'Well, if it crashes, you fix it.' I have a plane I named FrankenTrainer because I raided the trash and made it out of parts of six crashed planes. But it flies."
"Kamikaze" Ken Lenke, an electrician from Morrell Park and the club's longtime secretary, said members range from retired Philadelphia Municipal Judge Edward Mekel to 10-year member David Bandish, who lost his right leg to cancer in August and returned to flying in September.
"He said being out here took his mind off the pain and helped him get through it," Lenke said. "He loves this."
For years, Michael Leonard Sr., a SEPTA mechanic from Bensalem, dragged his son Michael Jr. out to the field but couldn't get him into flying.
"Now he drags me," Leonard said, laughing, while his son, now 14, made his huge plane hover vertically inches above the field before shooting skyward for a series of rolling, diving stunts.
Eyes widened and jaws dropped among the spectators.
The wind kicked up and the late-afternoon clouds rolled in. But the impromptu air show continued until the sun set.
On Twitter: @DanGeringer