When they hear that unique undulating whine from overhead, men and women who admit they are radio control airplane junkies get a special wide-eyed look. Their heads snap upward, their eyes searching the skies, even if just for a second. It starts to feel like a natural instinct, one of those men said. It’s the call of the wild blue yonder, in miniature, and it becomes irresistible.
“I admit, I’m hooked on this,” said Jerry Mollere, as he totes a bicycle-sized model of a P-51 Mustang warplane to the edge of the neatly cropped runway in the pit of the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
To the left, chemical plants belch out a constant stream of smoke. To the right, an oil tanker as long as a football field sits idly in the Mississippi River, just behind the massive floodgates holding the river back. It’s an industrial setting to be sure. But none of that matters to the 65 or so members of the Spillway Radio Control Club. To them, this is Bleakley Field, named in honor of a late president of the club, and this is where they fly.
“The wind is decent,” said Donny Clement, on a recent Saturday of blue skies punctuated by a sprinkling of pillowy, snow white clouds.
“Good weather,” he said softly, in an almost reverent whisper. “Great weather.”
On this beautiful day, Clement, a butcher from LaPlace, has brought out three of the nine planes he has built, one of which is making its maiden flight. On any given day, a visitor may see a flying circus of aircraft from the history of aviation out here. There are sleek Mustangs, Russian Yak-34s, WWI-vintage British Sopwith Camel biplanes, Mitchell B-25 bombers, A-10 Warthog tank destroyers of more modern vintage, mail delivery planes, Cessnas and just about any other airplane you can imagine, all built to scale. They line the edge of the grassy runway waiting their turn to take to the skies.
The Spillway RC Club is one of about 15 or so other such flying organizations around the state and, according to Skip Jacobs, one of between 3,000 and 4,000 around the country.
Jacobs, a Kenner resident, counts himself as a “flyer” but he doesn’t belong to the Spillway RC Club. That’s because he works as a park ranger, and the spillway is federal land. Membership in the club would be a “conflict of interest,” he said. But Jacobs says when he retires from his federal job in a year or so, he plans to pay the $100 annual membership fee to join. Among other things, those dues will pay for insurance for taking his models aloft.
Likewise, the Spillway RC Club pays dues to its parent organization, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which blankets the club with a hefty insurance policy.
“Everything is well organized and geared to members having a safe and enjoyable time,” Jacobs said. “There are things cropping up all the time that have to be looked after. Like the new fence that was just installed, keeping the grass cut, money to lease the land from the federal government. Also, on Memorial Day, we just had our eighth annual program to honor our military. We had planes from different eras: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. It was a beautiful event on a beautiful day.”
And on this particular day, Dennis Hymel, a retired office supply worker from Norco, is chatting up Mollere, the oil field tools worker (“celebrating my 50th year in the oil field,” he said). They discuss specifications for this plane’s engine and what needs to be done to put one of Mollere’s planes back in working over.
“I bust ‘em up pretty good,” Mollere said. “That’s when I take them to Dennis to put back together.”
Luis Escoto, 68, tells a visitor how he began piloting “real” planes at age 14 back in his native Honduras.
“I’ve been in and out of this club for about 20 years,” Escoto said. “But I’m addicted to this. I’m addicted to flying. It’s a hobby, but I guess it’s more than that. It gives me great flying satisfaction.”
Mollere stands behind the pristine white picket fence with the control transmitter for his Mustang in hand. He pushes a lever and the gleaming silver plane zips down the runway and is airborne in seconds. That undulating whine is reaching down from the clouds again and Mollere snaps his head up to follow it. From here on in, there is no looking down.
“That’s what you’ve got to do,” Hymel says. “Keep your eyes on your own plane. Nothing else. You’ve got to know where your plane is at all times. If there are two planes up there, you just pick it up out the corner of your eye. That’s how you avoid accidents.”
“Mannnnnn, I’m addicted to this,” Mollere said, working the controls, eyes glued to the sky. “Really addicted.”