During the summer of 1972 in Italy, 9-year-old Stefano Costantini watched his father, Mario, diligently build a model airplane. For months, Mario worked in his basement, crafting the glider from balsa wood. Stefano dreamed of the day they would launch the masterpiece.
Finally, father and son climbed a hill near their home and found the perfect place for takeoff. Mario launched the plane by hand, and off it went.
That was the last time they ever saw it. Sadly, they never recovered the glider after its inaugural flight. Even so, for Stefano, a love of flying was born.
Model-plane enthusiasts like Stefano, who has lived in Houston since 1979, say there’s nothing like flight. One class of plane that many favor, called gliders or sailplanes, don’t rely on engines. They are made of carbon and other lightweight material and controlled by radio. It takes an understanding of air conditions to keep the plane in the air.
The goal is not to simply launch the plane and watch it glide to the ground; real success is keeping the plane up by capitalizing on air thermals and lift.
These planes aren’t the ones that Santa typically stuffs in kids’ stockings. With these types of gliders, said Stefano, the typical cost is $250 to $1,000.
Stefano, now age 47, still builds and flies model planes and has friends with the same hobby. A member of the Houston Hawks, a remote-controlled soaring club, he flies everything from small hand-launched gliders to larger planes with wingspans greater than 10 feet that require a slingshot-type apparatus for takeoff. Stefano concedes that what began as a hobby has become a bit of an obsession.
“I have too many planes,” Stefano said, laughing. He admits to owning 10 of them.
He is introducing sailplane flying to his own children. His 15-year-old son, Matteo, accompanies him on weekends and has taken part in a local flying competition.
Another enthusiast, Houston Hawk member John Hill, tries to fly each weekend. For him, the greatest part of flying is to be relaxed and surrounded by nature. “There’s just something about having eagles get into the same thermals as my plane and watching them together,” said John, an insurance broker.
He flies his sailplanes about 1,000 feet in elevation. Guided by radio control, the planes get almost out of sight and appear to be no larger than a pinhead.
Native Australian and yacht-broker Thomas Cooke has been flying competitively for nearly 16 years. “My wife usually allows me to do five national competitions each year,” he said.
At competitions, he says, the goal is to maximize flight time and land in the right spot. Competitors hold the radio transmitter in one hand and the glider in the other and launch it by hand, after rotating around in a move that makes them look like Olympic discus throwers.
Once airborne, the transmitter controls the rudder and elevation, but skill keeps the plane in the air. There isn’t much time to find the thermals before the plane ends up on the ground.
“I fly because I love the educational aspect,” said Thomas. “You have to learn to interpret everything around you. It’s about noticing what the insects and birds are doing to figure out where the winds are shifting and find the thermals.”
Orthotist Barry Raborn flies model specialty jets and scale planes. His jets have engines and are built of heavier materials to withstand speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour.
Barry spends about 15 hours each week in the shop over his garage at his Bellaire home, which he calls a “model airplane haven.” He builds some from kits and others from scratch, beginning with model drawings.
Within the tight-knit community of model-airplane fliers, Barry has become known as a local expert. It’s not unusual for people to stop by, looking for help with their latest project. “My shop is definitely the place to be,” Barry says.
An avid competitor, Barry has attended the invitational Top Gun contest in Florida for the last four years. In 2009, he placed sixth in his class flying an F-84 Thunderstreak replica. The original was an American-built fighter-bomber originally flown in the 1950s.
Competitors are judged on the accuracy of the model and how well it flies. Barry spends a great deal of time choosing planes to copy from flight museums. The replicas are so real they even have tiny scale pilots in the cockpit.
As for our Italian father-son duo of Stefano and Mario, perhaps those early building experiences together paid off. Except now they build houses in Houston instead of gliders. At least during the work week.