Ed Van Bernum with his Kadet Senior Sport remote control airplane in Ridgeland. PHOTOS BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

On a field outside of Ridgeland, flights take off twice a week – weather permitting. The windsock on the other side of the runway indicates wind conditions. The flightline has space for plenty of parking for pilots and visitors. 

The runway itself is not long enough to accommodate much in the way of full-sized aircraft but it will certainly serve for take-offs and landings by members of the Jasper County Remote Control Flyers. 

According to its website, club members fly balsa models and foamies, electric, nitro and gas multirotors, helicopters and FPVs – an RC vehicle that is controlled from the pilot’s point of view, such as drone.

The members come from Beaufort and Jasper counties, and most have been flying remote control airplanes for decades, even as long as 80 years, like Ed Van Bernum, aka Ed One, who is 92.

“I like the flying part of it. I used to enjoy the building. Now we have a thing called ‘ARFs – Almost Ready to Fly.’ They’re made in Vietnam and made in China,” said Van Bernum. “We buy a huge box, then you just take a finished airplane out, install your engine or your radio and go fly it – whereas I used to spend the whole winter in Connecticut building a new model.”

Van Bernum said he has owned about 25 planes and has crashed 24.

“That’s how they end,” he said. “Every model has an expiration date, and sooner or later when that date comes up it becomes a pile of balsa.” 

Van Bernum took flying lessons, while some of his cohorts actually owned and flew planes for work or pleasure. 

Ed Seigler, aka Ed Two, began flying radio control in 1968 when he was in college. Between 1981 and 2004, he dropped the remote control for the real thing, flying a Piper Arrow, a Cessna Skyhawk and a 72 Mooney, followed by building a Van’s RV 6 kit plane.

“In 2004 I sold my airplane and got back into radio. I’ve been there ever since,” he said. “I probably enjoy building as much or more than I do the flying part.”

Van Bernum said remote control aircraft can stay in the air about 15 minutes but most of them are flown for around eight minutes. 

“The battery powered airplanes are limited by the battery size. Because these engines are burning gasoline, they’re actually pretty efficient, surprisingly efficient,” said Seigler. “And the electric airplanes will only fly for about five minutes, six minutes. Typically, some of them, if you throttle them back, you don’t push them too hard, they’ll go for 10, maybe 12 minutes.”

Marty Dardani was also a pilot and has been a member of the club for about six years. He started in the mid-1950s flying control line planes.

“It’s a different aspect. It’s the building of the model. And the models were quite a bit different in style,” Dardani said. 

With control line flying, the plane is attached to two lines that are connected to a handle held by the operator. Once the engine is started, the operator controls the plane’s movements by turning the handle.

Since his control line days, Dardani has had more than 100 models. 

“I love the building,” he said. “There are a number of us that get involved with kits or scratch-building. You design the parts, take a bunch of flat pieces of balsa, and plywood and things of that nature, create airfoils, beautiful pieces of art. We try not to crash them after putting in hundreds of hours into building time.” 

Bill Siegel was flying drones before he joined the club. He’s trying to get his colleagues to fly them, too, but in the meantime they have taught him how to fly the RC planes. He’s added the drone’s capability of carrying a camera to his aircraft, providing the club with aerial views of the runway field while giving himself some valuable information about his aircraft’s flying qualities.

“I can take it home, put (the video) on my computer and see what it did right or wrong,” he said.

Siegel has built 30 or 40 drones and currently has eight. He said he started flying planes three years ago when he joined because of the huge variety of options to explore.

“These guys all like to fly weed eaters – you know, weed-eater engines with all this noise up there. I fly all electric, so I’m trying to convince them to do more electric,” Dardani said. “We have this nice battle going on.”

Along the flightline is the largest aircraft on the field: a Frozen Pizza Red Baron biplane with 114-inch wingspan, weighing 55 pounds and gas-fueled.

Victor Stoykovich has had the Red Baron for 10 years, but has been flying for all of his life. He usually flies it for about 10 minutes but at the moment it is being cranky, he said, because it has been sitting a while. Other members offer what they can to help, but the biplane remains stubborn.

Stoykovich alternates between working on the mechanism in the fuselage, trying to turn the propellor and getting down on the ground to work under the plane.

John Hensley, a private chef, is one of the newest and youngest members, and said on the ground is the normal position for a lot of pilots trying to get their planes in the air. He’s been a member for about a year, thanks to a gift from his wife.

“I just needed a hobby to get into, and my wife had bought me a plane. I enjoyed flying it and found these guys in the field. It was perfect,” said Hensley. “It keeps us all out of trouble. This is really, really good group and you don’t have to go to the bar or anything like that.”

He started with one plane and now has a total of 11, including the one that crashed that morning. It’ll go back up again, Hensley said, “when I get my nerves back. We hopefully got the adjustments right on it. It just didn’t have enough lift on it.”

Hensley said he lucked out with joining this group after checking out others in the area.

“They’re very helpful and they’re very supportive. And they’re very welcoming. With these guys it felt like home,” he said. “It’s a fun place, and this is actually a pretty small group today. When it gets really packed out here, there’s planes all over the place. And unfortunately, there’s always planes that go down as part of it.”

Dennis Rief is not one to shy away from crashes.

“I do a lot of crashes because I do a lot of crazy stunts. I gotta take this little guy that’s on the table and do a lot of stunts,” he said.

Rief had just fueled an Ultra Stick, the first kind of plane he learned to fly. He began in his late 30s and has “a bunch of planes,” but only brought three to the field. 

The second plane was a Mustang and the third was a Crusader, otherwise known as an Ugly Stick.

“It’s a challenge to do certain things in the air. Stunts and landings and takeoffs are really a lot of fun, especially the landings,” said Rief.

He loves the mechanics, setting up the planes and putting all the equipment in it. Holding up the Mustang, he removed a piece from the top of the fuselage to reveal the battery compartment, the receiver and the wires that control each of the moving parts. His radio can control up to 10 model airplanes, so he can select the one that goes with the Mustang.

No two planes were alike on the flightline. Jess Haynes, the youngest member present, had three, one of which was a good-sized model of a P-47, a plane that flew in the European Theatre during World War II. He’s been a member for six months and has taken to flying like a duck to water, earning the admiration of the more experienced flyers for his skills.

Armand Klinger was a navigator in the U.S. Air Force, retiring after 20 years. He’s been flying since he was about 10 years old and has had an “uncountable” number of planes. 

On the plane table was his Extra 300, an electric model of an actual aerobatic plane frequently seen at air shows. He called it a “foamie” because of its special rubberized foam body, which makes it pretty tough and very lightweight – about 4 pounds. It carries a gyro inside, which helps stabilize the plane even if it is windy.

As it flew, he expressed some concern over the battery’s strength, saying it wasn’t putting out as much power as he thought it should.

“When they get to be about 2 years old they start losing their strength,” Klinger said. 

Sure enough, when he put it back on the table and examined the battery, it was beginning to swell and was dated five years ago.

By late morning, Stoykovich was still not getting any response from the Red Baron. Seigler said a few days later that by the time he left, the plane was still on the ground.

“Engine problems are fairly normal,” he said. “Typically, at least one person has an engine problem when we are out there.”

For more information on the Jasper County Remote Control Flyers, visit JCRCflyers.com.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.