Sunday, April 11, 2010

Center of Gravity

    The place looks pretty much the same; at least, one can see the skeleton of its former self, underneath all the finery. I've been coming here periodically since the early 1970s, back when I was in high school and my brother was learning to fly RC planes. Dad would load up the family car, a 1969 Ford Galaxie 500, and drive us out to Albuquerque's west mesa. We'd take I-40 west, across the Rio Grande, and exit onto Coors Road, a lonely 2-lane blacktop that threaded its way north, along the dusty sandhills of the city's volcanic escarpment. Now, the entire area is built up into the usual urban sprawl, but back then it was the sticks, on the edge of nowhere.
    We'd turn left at the Circle K store, the last outpost of civilization, then right onto Atrisco Road, now renamed Unser Blvd, and up the volcanic escarpment, then a sharp left onto a rough, bone-jarring dirt road, past a water storage tank and riding stables, into the George Maloof Memorial Air Park, Albuquerque's model airplane flying field.
    Back then, before the real estate boom of the 1980s that built up Albuquerque's westside, the flying field was way out of town. Now, this Sunday morning, the road is smoothly paved all the way into the asphalt parking lot, past custom homes being constructed along the edge of the escarpment, overlooking the city and mountains. The flying field now sports bleachers and a permanent bathroom facility, courtesy of the city's taxpayers.
    There were two small squares of paving adjacent to each other, two flying fields, back in the early 1970s; the one to the east was dedicated to control-line flying, while the one to the west was for radio control. Control-line was an inexpensive and popular hobby with both adults and teens in the 1970s, while RC was more exotic, for those with both good incomes and daring nerves. But prices were coming down on RC equipment, and my brother convinced Dad that this was a pastime worthy of pursuing. Myself, I was a hangers-on, a spectator, watching my brother learn to fly, and soaking up the subculture of the model airplane community, but never actively participating.
    Over the years, as the model airplane hobby transitioned into being dominated by radio control, due to the availability of small, lightweight electronics, I would revisit the old field periodically, still a hangers-on, a mere spectator. The old control-line flying field to the east grew fallow with disuse, its asphalt paving cracked and crazed, weeds growing through. Meanwhile, the RC flying field expanded, a larger paved area and covered cabanas added, and then a long north-south runway.
    The pilots, they were - and are - the heart of the flying field, the reason why it exists. There were old guys that my brother and I knew back then, a few of them instrumental in teaching my brother to fly; they were like older brothers, mentors, to us; we watched them age, and now many of them have passed on. A second, and third, and fourth, generation of pilots have come, now populating the field with the aroma of nitro-methane and castor oil, the buzz of glow engines and four-strokes and the vacuum cleaner-like whine of ducted fan electrics.
    The rhythm of the flying field is only noticed when you spend some time - at least a few hours - standing in the sun, watching the activity. The action waxes and wanes; one moment there'll be three, sometimes four, planes in the air at once, their pilots constantly jockeying to avoid a midair-collision, while a few moments later there will be left the sole pilot on the flightline, the lonesome whine of his aircraft against the blue sky like a distant bird seeking something mysterious in the freedom of the air on a calm Sunday morning. The others, they will congregate around the picnic tables or fiddle with their planes and toolboxes, idly chatting with the comeraderie that comes from a common skill and experience. And then, minutes later, the quiet will be shattered once again as they fuel up their birds, spin their props, fiddle with their engines, and pierce the clear air.
    This morning I rode my motorcycle out to the field, with camera in hand, seeking to find what it is that I always seek to find when I visit the field. Today I met an older man, tall and wiry, with floppy sun hat and white beard, watching the spectacle, like an old pilot now grounded, all but his dreams left to bear him up. He told me a joke he read in the April edition of the model airplane magazine he still reads, about how some people are now flying models that lack a center of gravity entirely, and how this is somehow wrong, that all models should have a center of gravity.
    Recently, at work, I met a guy who's temporarily here in town, installing equipment in the factory, who still flies control-line planes. I didn't think people flew control-line any more; it would be like buying vinyl records or 8-track tapes. I asked him why he still flies; he said it's the older folks he meets, down to earth, a connection to a hobby that goes back, well, way back, prior to WWII. It's not about money and high technology, this old control-line hobby, but simplicity and skill. So this Sunday, after I had taken a few pictures, and shot some video footage, and was ready to go, the heat of the afternoon beginning to rise, I heard the whine of a distant glow engine behind the RC field, on the other side of the parking lot, during a lull in the action, past the fancy vans and trucks used to haul their expensive flying cargo. A lone car with two occupants, one standing beside a toolbox on the cracked asphalt, the other in the center of a virtual circle, spinning round and round, guiding a control-line plane in its captive orbit, tethered to a pair of 60-foot lines. He did wing-overs, loops, figure eights, all within 60 feet of the ground, within the limit of its tether. When its fuel tank finally emptied, five or seven minutes later, it glided to a bumpy landing, the quiet of the desert afternoon now returning, the sound of the distant breeze, jets flying to and from the airport, the hum of distant traffic, and the buzz of the RC planes across the way.
    I walked over to the two gentlemen. The pilot turned out to be the guy I met at work. He was testing out a plane that had repeatedly been wrecked and repaired, re-wrecked and re-repaired, patched up so many times in the front that he's had to add lead weights to the rear to get it to balance. It's a beater, this control-line plane, humbly tethered to its control lines, slathered in its engine's exhaust grease. Nothing fancy, just the clear air and an opportunity to fly, like a bird; free. The thing about flying control-line, he says, is that there is no perfect flight, ever. Something is always imperfect: the wind picks up, bobbles your otherwise perfect circle, or your two-stroke engine has its intermittent but entirely predictable hick-up right in the middle of a loop, or your trajectory mysteriously intercepts the tarmac, scattering bits of wreckage to and fro.
    We talk, I watch him fly, then finally get back on my bike, underway once more in the afternoon breeze, freedom in my wings, and depart the flying field. I don't know when I'll be back; but somehow, I'm tethered here, like those old control-line planes, flying within the limited freedom of their circle, free but captive, arriving, departing, then arriving again, endlessly. Tethered to their center of gravity.


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