The republic of aviators
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A buzz appears in the sky, growing meaner as a small aircraft swoops down and levels out. A few more manoeuvres and the “pilot” brings it down on the grass. No, it’s not a remake of North By Northwest, but a group of aeromodellers meeting up over the weekend—in and around Delhi, you might find them converging at designated spots in Bawana, Mundka, Noida or Gurugram, while Mumbai flyers head to the Mahalaxmi Racecourse or Aamby Valley.
Aeromodelling has been around since the Wright Brothers’ invention first captured the world’s imagination, and has grown into a popular hobby in India. The Aero Modelers Association (AMA), India’s largest aeromodelling club, reckons there are at least 12,000 active “flyers” in India; this Delhi-based organization has over a thousand members. “Anyone, from a child in school to a senior citizen, can become an aeromodeller. There’s no age limit,” says AMA spokesperson Amit Mohan Sharma. In Mumbai, Wings India, among others, reflects the trend.
Aeromodellers tend to be a passionate bunch: The AMA meets up every weekend, sometimes at their ground in Bawana, but they also have agreements with other clubs and facilities to use their grounds. “For safety reasons, we don’t use public spaces, only dedicated grounds,” explains AMA treasurer Laxman Suthar.
Aeromodelling is even a recognized aero sport, with guidelines laid down by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Closer home, the AMA has been organizing national competitions since 2009, and, earlier this year, held the first indoor aeromodelling championships for school students in Sonipat that saw 450 participants.
Meanwhile, Boeing, in collaboration with the Indian Institutes of Technology, holds its own championship for students. Niranjan Yadav, head of operations for education provider AerotriX, which manages the event, explains how popular this is: “We have over a thousand competitors, across age groups.” The competition sees four zonal championships throughout the year, followed by a final round held at IIT-Delhi, where students stand to win up to Rs1 lakh. “We have seen school students do very well and some have even reached the finals,” adds Yadav.
There’s also the National Cadet Corps (NCC) Air Wing, which includes aeromodelling in its curriculum and organizes its own competition.
Get your wings
It’s not hard to get started. Chuck gliders and rubber-powered aircraft are affordable, and as long as you’ve got an open field, clear of trees and power lines (at least 5km away from an airport and with 200m clear on all sides), you’re good to go with a control-line model or even a radio control (R/C) plane—though you’ll still need “flight training”, through AerotriX workshops, NCC training, or school clubs, or other experienced flyers willing to help you.
Like any hobby, the choice of gear is endless and the starting points are many. You can start off by making your own gliders from scratch and learn a lot about aerodynamics in the process, pick up kits, or go straight to the flying part with a ready-to-fly model. Even if you’re only considering the top tier of aeromodelling—R/C flying—which offers the most freedom and control, the options are mind-boggling, with models costing upwards of Rs50,000 (radio gear is very expensive) for a basic R/C model to a few lakh rupees for aerobatic models or those using jet turbines. Almost ready-to-fly kits can be bought or models built from scratch using balsa wood or other materials like corrugated plastic.
But you would be better off joining a hobby group where you will find people who can help with gear and training. Alternatively, if you have children and would like them to try it out, many schools have aeromodelling clubs, while AerotriX offers workshops for children and adults alike.
It’s not all sunny skies and tailwinds, though. Earlier this year, the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) announced a draft policy for drones. While there is an exemption for model aircraft with a 2kg weight ceiling, hobbyists say it’s too restrictive. “Even a basic powered model weighs at least 3.5kg,” adds Sharma.
The confusion over what separates drones and R/C aircraft has a lot to do with this: Drones are controlled by microprocessors and are often capable of autonomous flight, often beyond visual range, and for commercial purposes, which is why aeromodelling groups are working on new guidelines that should keep this hobby free of restrictions. “An aeromodel can only be flown as far as the pilot can see the attitude of the model, which is usually 100m. You need full manual control at all times. We do not use GPS, stabilization mechanisms, or autopilot. Aeromodels do not present a security threat—unlike drones,” says Sharma.
Another challenge is the cost and lack of availability of components. Nearly the entire kit needs to be imported; on top of that, radio equipment can be hard to import owing to lack of clarity about what’s allowed. This is a big hurdle, admits Sharma, explaining that many components end up costing many times their original price. He adds, “Once the legal status is settled, we will go approach the customs department and ask them to relax the rules governing import of parts.”
Still, as someone once said, nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy, and that really holds true for aeromodelling. It calls for patience and forces you to brush up on your high-school physics. In return, you get to make new friends, pick up DIY skills, spend time outdoors, and, above all, have the satisfaction of controlling an actual flying machine.
What do I fly
Chuck gliders: Hand-launched gliders, easy to construct
Control-line aircraft: The cheapest way to start with powered flights, these are attached to a cable and flown in a circle around you
R/C fixed-wing aircraft: Three degrees of freedom means a loop-the-loop’s not that far away. Your radio kit can be reused.
Helicopters: R/C helicopters might have overtaken fixed-wing aircraft in popularity but are best suited for experienced flyers
Quadcopters: Not strictly considered for aeromodelling as they rely on microprocessors (and, sometimes, GPS); can be flown with minimal human intervention.
Electrical: Low-maintenance and more rugged than internal combustion engines
Diesel: Great for control-line aircraft, these are the only ones manufactured in India
Nitro: Popular with R/C flyers and also commonly used in R/C cars and boats, “nitro” or glow plug engines use a fuel mix of methanol, castor oil and nitromethane
Petrol: The most versatile of the lot, available in sizes from 20cc to 200cc, petrol engines are preferred by advanced flyers
Jet turbines: Fancy a replica of a MiG-29 powered by a miniature jet turbine? This is what you need. Powerful but very expensive