A group of model aircraft enthusiasts are planning an event Saturday that will include airshow demonstrations, flight instruction and a raffle for charity.
The club, the Sonoran Desert Flyers, have a focus on youth and aim to teach more than just how to fly a remote-controlled plane
They’re one of several groups around the country that will celebrate National Model Aviation Day Saturday.
The Sonoran Desert Flyers started more than 30 years ago after a group of guys with a hobby realized they needed a more permanent location to fly their models.
They first flew at a field near Interstate 10 and Tangerine Road. They moved to Naranja Park in Oro Valley in 2008 after the field was put up for sale.
“It’s the way most clubs start,” said Bob Schumann, who’s been a member of the flyers for 12 years.
The Sonoran Desert Flyers is an Academy of Model Aeronautics chartered club. The academy is the largest association of its kind and serves as the national body for model aviation. It charters more than 2,500 model airplane clubs and provides those clubs with insurance, contest sanctions and help securing flying sites.
The Sonoran Desert Flyers requires that adults become members of the Academy of Model Aeronautics in addition to paying dues to the flyers.
The club started gaining youth members four years ago, after its move. Today, it has 31 members under the age of 19 among its approximately 130 members. The cost to join is free for those under 19.
More experienced members of the club teach the younger ones how to fly, but also encourage them to look at model aviation as a pathway to a career.
“We’re trying to show people that by flying model airplanes, you can increase the interest in youth in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Schumann, 78.
Some club members have children who have “followed them into the hobby and then have gone on into aviation or engineering careers,” he said.
Caleb Mecham, 17, joined the flyers and began flying four years ago. He first learned about the club after seeing model airplanes in the sky from his home near the park.
“We used to see it doing yard work or something. You just look up and see little model airplanes flying around,” said Mecham.
He followed the planes and watched club members fly. Phil June, the club’s secretary, became Mecham’s mentor and offered him the chance to learn to fly.
“I just love airplanes and aviation in general,” Mecham said. “Model RC is not expensive and it’s easy to get into and they’re a really good community.”
Mecham now teaches others to fly the same way he was taught four years ago, with a remote controlled plane and a “buddy box.” This system has two control boxes and allows the plane to be flown by both the instructor and the student, in case the new flyer loses control of the craft.
Mecham also had the chance to run a club event last December.
“I learned a lot about leadership and running events from this,” he said. “And a lot of airplane vocabulary; a lot of physics.”
Mecham will attend college next year and is still deciding between Arizona State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.
He plans to continue with aviation and wants to become a pilot for private jetliners.
“The Sonoran Desert Flyers are the ones who got me into going into a career; aeronautical; being a pilot,” Mecham said.
Jon Sharp, a retired air racing pilot and a Sonoran Desert Flyers member for one year, turned his interest for aviation into a career. He and his wife, Patricia, also started a company called Nemesis Air Racing and design full-size kit aircraft.
Sharp’s love for flying started when he and a friend would go to the park when they were kids and fly remote controlled airplanes all day long.
“It kind of just grew out of that. I’d always liked airplanes and so I started doing that,” said Sharp, 63.
Sharp and his wife joined the flyers about a year ago, after learning the club was close to their home.
“My wife and I are pretty much retired from airplane racing and I still like airplanes,” Sharp said. “I wanted to go back and pick up the RC planes.”
He encourages anyone interested in aviation as a career to go for it.
“The model airplanes opened all the doors for me and for my wife also,” he said.
The flyers have about 17 instructor pilots for members to learn from. It also has a “Buy, Build and Fly” program where people can bring their unassembled planes and get help putting it together.
The club’s experienced members include retired pilots, a former air traffic controller, retired teachers — including a physics and astronomy professor — retired engineers, software designers, sales managers and rocket scientists.
“We’re just a treasure trove of knowledge,” said Schumann, a retired mechanical engineer. “To have young folks around and in that environment is pretty neat.”
Members of the club range from age 8 to 84. They gather most mornings before it gets too hot and fly their models. They also enjoy each other’s company — their motto is “We ride the wind and shoot the breeze.”
“It’s kind of a gathering for like-interest people,” Schumann said.
“Friendship and camaraderie is a big part of it also,” said Sharp.
For National Model Aviation Day, the Sonoran Desert Flyers will hold a free event at the SDF Field, in Naranja Park, 660 W. Naranja Drive, from 8 a.m. to noon. It will host an air show in which members will fly various model planes, including Warbirds, like the B-17, helicopters, quadracopters and ducted-fan jets.
Members will perform aerobatics with their planes and there will be gliders and parachute drops.
“There is lots of stuff going on visually; it’s exciting.” Schumann said. “Engineering-wise, it’s interesting to see the stuff people can put together to fly and the technology we have.”
The Sonoran Desert Flyers will also be supporting the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that helps wounded servicemen and women. The Academy of Model Aeronautics chose to support the nonprofit during its inaugural National Model Aviation Day last year.
The flyers will be selling raffle tickets to win a remote-controlled quadracopter to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. The cost is $2 per ticket or three tickets for $5.
“A lot of our members have served in the armed forces and feel strongly about it,” Schumann said.
Those attending the event will have the chance to learn to fly a model airplane.
“We’ll have an instructor and we’ll have planes,” Schumann said.
Both Mecham and Sharp plan to attend.
“It’s great for all ages, for anyone to get into the hobby,” Mecham said.