Puneet Manaktala calls himself a scale nut. Put simply, he assembles radio-controlled models of planes, scaled down to a size anywhere between one tenth to a quarter, and flies them. That means having the skills of a carpenter, engineer and aviator, and the patience of Job.
On most Sundays, as early as 7.30am, this 33-year-old builder can be found on a miniature tarmac on Madh Island, a beach getaway off Western Mumbai. Here he flies his plane models up to a height of 700 metres and a range of about 2.5km with a bunch of other passionate fellow modellers. Manaktala, however, is the only one in the city who has attempted four twin engine planes—a DC3, P38 Lightning, B25 Mitchell, and a Cessna 310.
In a small workshop in his home in suburban Khar, Manaktala has put together 12 models of planes. They are all of World War vintage, the golden age of aviation. “I’m in awe of the World War fighter planes. Nothing that came before or after can equal them.”
Plane modelling is a painstaking hobby. It could take an aviation freak more than three years to put together a working model. It took Manaktala three years to assemble a DC3 sky trainer. And this after reading up literature on it for over a year. Once a modeller zeroes in on a plane type, it can be ordered over the net from manufacturers, mostly based in the US. The structure kit with which a modeller starts is very basic—plain sheets of balsa wood to be shaped into the body and wings of the plane. The engine and the electronic equipment to work the model then have to be fitted to the shell. For advanced enthusiasts like Manaktala, putting together a model could be an expensive passion. It could cost anywhere between Rs25,000 and Rs10 lakh, depending on the model he attempts.
It takes a passionate modeller to know it, but every plane comes with its own little quirk. The Tiger Moth crabs to the right as soon as it starts. The Cessna 182 drops like a rock if it is short of power. Read a model wrong and it could crash, laying waste years of work and thousands of rupees. It took Manaktala two decades of flying and many models to figure the trick to land a plane efficiently.
“I built and rebuilt my first model seven times. Everything went wrong. I had stuck the fin the wrong way, the undercarriage was off. Six years ago, I managed nine crashes on nine Sundays. Slowly, I learnt to read the planes. But even now, I am a nervous wreck when a new model lifts off,” he says.
He rarely junks a model, however damaged—he either fixes the problem or retires it. An obsessive engineer, Manaktala rarely gives up on a glitch and has stayed awake nights trying to fix it. His workshop is a DIY freak’s dream and a cleaner’s nightmare.
Manaktala’s family, his parents, wife, Pooja, and two children, Tanay, 8, Taran, 4, are indulgent about his passion and excuse him his hours in the workshop. “I make sure that I spend my evenings and Saturdays with them. Then I get to have Sunday to myself on the tarmac,” says Manaktala.