Larry Utt spent a year painstakingly creating his replica of an S.E.5a plane, popular with both American and British forces during World War I.
His plane is a fraction of the size of the original Scout Experimental 5, which was nearly 21 feet long, more than 9 feet high, and weighed 1,410 pounds when empty. But when it’s in the air, it’s hard to believe it’s only radio-controlled.
“It’s just a model, until it flies,” Utt said. “After that, it’s an airplane.”
The S.E.5a is one of more than a couple dozen radio-controlled planes from the “Downton Abbey” era scheduled to dazzle aviation fans Sept. 14 at the Golden Era Fly-In. The event, presented by Bay City Flyers of Land O’ Lakes, is open to spectators and pilots alike at Connerton Preserve’s Area 52 field just off SR 52.
“You pay a small fee to fly, which is a fundraiser for the club,” Utt said. Spectators are also welcome beginning at 9 a.m. for a modest $3 donation at the gate.
The field itself was a grazing area for cattle just a decade ago, and now consists of two pavilions and grassy runways on land now owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Club members built the field and maintain it. It has become a popular daily stop for many of the local club’s more than 200 members.
During the week, some flyers could be out as early as sunrise, and many stay until after lunch. On the weekends, many of the clubs’ younger members stop by, many times father and son teams enjoying the open sky.
Area 52 is one of three fields Bay City uses, but each one is special, said one of the group’s leaders, Mike Diesu. Despite the use of mufflers, and flying when few other people are around, the hobby of radio-controlled planes is not something usually well-accepted in neighborhoods.
“Clubs usually lose locations because of development,” said Joe Barzyz, who moved to the area from New Jersey in 2005. “People who have an interest in all this think it’s nice, but the problem is that once you put a house on the other side of the road, and they start hearing the mufflers, you have a problem.”
Area 52 is good because it’s a preserve, and there isn’t a house for miles. The only thing interfering with flying there, besides bad weather, are sandhill cranes. If one of those protected birds shows up on a runway, everything stops until they make their way elsewhere on the land.
Flyers at Area 52 respect the birds, and the land they use. They are careful to not spill fuel on the grass, and keep the whole area maintained, including grass mowing.
Bay City Flyers also stay active in the community, helping with food drives, and teaching aviation students. Flying a radio-controlled plane is not as easy as it looks, and getting good at it could take as long as becoming an actual pilot.
Sometimes, new flyers will spend thousands of dollars on equipment, and go out feeling like they’re ready to go. But after their first crash — and there are many crashes in radio-controlled flying — they can become discouraged easily.
“It’s only as expensive as you want it to be,” Utt said. While some planes can cost upward of $3,000, many good ones can be found for less than $300.
In fact, Bay City encourages people to join before they even buy a plane, to learn how to fly, use some of the club’s equipment, and then use that experience in buying their own plane.
And fly-ins, like the one next week, are great tools to add more pilots to the ranks.
The Golden Era Fly-In will run from 9 a.m. through 2 p.m., and features planes from 1919 to 1939. Landing fees for pilots are $10, and free lunch will be offered to all Academy of Model Aeronautics members who are flying.
Lunch will be available for spectators for a small price.
For more information, visit BayCityFlyers.org.