While the Thunderbirds streaked across the sky above Lake Michigan this weekend, some local pilots down in the Southland put on their own air show.
It was complete with acrobatics, helicopters that fly in reverse and some ‘hangar-flying’ tales of a recent mid-air collision.
You can find this air show tucked away in the Cook County Forest Preserve just south of the intersection of Flossmoor and Cicero in Country Club Hills, at the designated flying field for the Suburban Aero Club of Chicago (SAC).
Here on any sunny day, or snowy or windy day for that matter, beginning around 6 a.m., the group’s intrepid fliers migrate from Tinley Park, Mokena, Homewood, Joliet and elsewhere to the field’s three runways, according to club President Ronald Wegrzyn.
“We come in the morning, the wind is down, there’s a little breeze,” said Wegrzyn, who sports a “Top Gun” hat embellished with a pin commemorating his Vietnam service.
Wegrzyn describes the life arc of a model aircraft hobbyist:
“We pick guys up around 12-years-old, then around 15, 16, they find girls and cars. Then they come back in their 40s, 50s, 60s.”
Or even later: SAC member Robert Haas of Tinley Park, is 88 years old.
Females are welcome, but the group’s active members are all males. Some cheerfully volunteer that the women in their life think they’re crazy.
Wegrzyn, also the owner of “The Gentle Jungle” hobbystore, prides himself on giving each member a nickhame. He is known as “The Undertaker.”
If your plane goes down, he’ll fix up, Wegryzyn explained. But if it can’t be fixed, he’s the undertaker.
The group is open to all, but there are a few requirements, explained Homer Glen resident Greg Stevens, 52.
“You should join the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA),” Stevens said.
Joining the non-profit will give you insights, as well as insurance in case of a mishap, according to Stevens.
Start With A Trainer
As you learn the sport, you’ll begin with a “trainer” aircraft, said Al Newton, 66, of Tinley Park.
Newton enjoys flying his Kaos nitro-fueled sport plane, but this model is too challenging for a beginner. A plane such as the Avistar trainer is a high wing model aircraft, and its stability makes it easy to remain in control of the aircraft.
For an Almost Ready to Fly (ARF) aircraft kit, expect to pay around $350, Newton said. Then add $150 to $200 for the fuel starter, controller and other equipment to pilot the craft, he said.
The ARF kits have made it easier to enter the hobby, said Ron McCormick, 66, of Joliet. He has been building planes from balsa wood since 1965, but these days, he also uses ARFs.
In those old school days, “it automatically kept many people from getting into the field if they didn’t have building skills,” he said.
“I like just about everything about it,” McCormick said. “There are no people doing this hobby who aren’t passionate about it.”
Crashes Will Come
Those new to model flying must face the painful reality that sooner or later, you’re going to crash, added Wegrzyn.
“We had a collision between an electric sport plane and a nitro four weeks ago,” recounted Wegrzyn.
The nitro plane was taking off on the east-west runway, the electric plane was landing.
“Those planes had to be thrown out,” Wegrzyn said.
Wegrzyn also edits the SAC Dope Can, a newsletter where members can keep up-to-date with upcoming events, such as the Sept. 3 Labor Day “float fly” where the “Gooney Bird” prize is awarded for flying mistakes.
Rotors vs. Wings
SAC also includes those passionate about the sport of flying model helicopters, such as Mike “Bleach” Linko, of Mokena, known as an aggressive flier, and Sam Nammari of Homewood.
Over in their designated helicopter area, the small rotors group opined that helicopters are the superior model aircraft.
“You can do a lot more,” Nammari said. “You can hover upside down and you can fly backwards in a helicopter. You can’t do that in an airplane.”
Out Every Day
As the Sunday morning went on, some packed their planes and headed home, but others, like Peter Martinaitis of Alsip, were just getting started.
At one point, a car pulled up and the curious driver took in the sights: the soaring aircraft, the dancing helicopters and brightly-colored sport planes.
His eyes widened.
“Oh man, I feel stupid,” the driver wistfully said. “I used to fly, I should have kept all that stuff. How many weekends are you out here?”
“We’re out here every day.”