NATS 2020

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A new year, a different competition
Written by Rachelle Haughn 
As seen in the November 2020 issue of Model Aviation.

01. RC Combat aircraft fight for cuts at the 2020 Nats.

02. A group of pilots launches aircraft while competing in the RC Soaring F5J Nats.

03. Callers launch aircraft for their pilots 12 feet apart at the RC Pylon Racing Nats. Closest to the camera is Jack Kane launching for Terry Frazer.

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Model Aviation Nats 2020

In 1923, roughly 5 years after the 1918 influenza pandemic (the Spanish flu) hit the US, the first National Aeromodeling Championships, later nicknamed the Nats, was held in the St. Louis area. For those who competed in that inaugural Nats, memories of what it was like to quarantine, self-isolate, and lose acquaintances were likely still fresh in their minds, but they found a way to get past those experiences and have fun at the Nats.

In the summer of 2020, AMA members competing in the Outdoor Nats knew those old-fashioned terms all too well. Some had personally been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and others knew a friend of a friend who had it. Some were fortunate to only have experienced working from home or having their flying fields temporarily closed because of the virus.

Despite the Nats being held in a somewhat-normal fashion, it was hard to miss the signs of the times. Competitors were asked to socially distance at all times, to wear masks covering their noses and mouths, and to practice good hygiene, such as using the hand-sanitizing stations provided by AMA at sites across the International Aeromodeling Center (IAC) in Muncie, Indiana. Annual awards banquets, cookouts, and get-togethers that are typically a part of the Nats were mostly canceled.

Physical signs near the flying sites reminded the participants to social distance. Nats registration, normally held in the lobby of the AMA Headquarters building, was moved to the old farmhouse that formerly served as the Nats headquarters.

The 2020 Outdoor Nats was definitely different, but that didn’t stop some from making the trek to Muncie to compete in their favorite contests and have fun.

When the pandemic first hit the US, final plans were being made for the 2020 Indoor Free Flight (FF) Nats. The contest was scheduled to take place May 27-31 in Springerville, Arizona, but ultimately, the National Free Flight Society (NFFS) voted to cancel the contest. NFFS officials later voted to also cancel the Outdoor FF Nats.

On June 17, 2020, AMA announced that the Outdoor Nats would be held as scheduled after the AMA Executive Council (EC) voted on the matter. AMA Special Interest Groups (SIGs) were given the option to cancel their respective Nats contests.

A handful of Nats events were canceled by AMA SIGs because of safety concerns. The SIGs voted to cancel RC Scale Aerobatics, Control Line (CL) Scale, RC Scale, and RC Aerobatics. Across the board, attendance was down for the remaining events, which included RC Pylon Racing, CL Combat, CL Precision Aerobatics, CL Racing, CL Speed, CL Navy Carrier, RC Combat, RC Soaring, and RC Helicopters.

The decision about whether to hold their Nats contests was not an easy one for most SIGs. "We had several teleconferences and polled the pilots to see if they would come," explained RC Soaring contest director (CD) Gil Gauger. "We are following the [Indiana] governor’s [guidelines] and because of the nature of the event we decided [to go ahead with the contest]." The RC Soaring pilots found it easy to social distance because they typically spread out while competing.

Some pilots made last-minute decisions about whether they would attend the Nats. Steven Wilk, a CL Combat pilot, was one of them. "I decided last Monday to come," he said of the previous week.

04. Randy West launches his sailplane in Altitude Limited Electric Soaring (ALES).

05. Several gliders take to the sky during the F3K Hand Launch Glider contest.

06. Josh Glaab (front) and Mike Gardner launch their aircraft in Thermal Soaring Unlimited.

07. Indiana resident Ryan Woebkenberg launches his aircraft in the F3K Hand Launch Glider contest at the 2020 Nats.

But for most pilots, the decision was an easy one. "I’m 74 years old and do 150 sit-ups a day. If they were going to have it, I was going to be here," said RC Combat pilot Bob Loescher. He has attended the Nats every year for the last 20 years.

Steve Millet, a CL Precision Aerobatics pilot, also had no doubts about attending the Nats. "I was definitely coming if it was going to be held," he said.

At CL Combat, Chris Gaye shared that his decision to attend the Nats was a no-brainer. He was relishing being retired as the event director (ED) and being able to compete for the first time in roughly the last 18 years. "I always come [to the Nats]," he stated. "It’s always a good time."

He added, "I’m tired of being cooped up. You can’t sit in fear for the rest of your life." In the early months of 2020, many states had stay-at-home orders in place. This meant that people were only allowed to leave their homes for essentials such as food, medicine, and doctor visits. As a result, some flying sites were temporarily closed.

"I know there’s a lot of stuff going on, but everybody needs a break," Frank Burnoski said in between rounds at F5J Soaring. "We feel like this is a safe community." Frank came to the Nats with his father, Richard, and his sons, including 5-year-old Hunter who timed for his grandpa and father. This was the first time that Hunter had timed at the Nats.

Another Soaring pilot, Ryan Woebkenberg, competed in Hand Launch Gliders, RES Sailplanes, and FAI F5J competition and was also happy to be at the Nats. "The attendance is down, but I’m really glad we’re having it," he said. Ryan noted that the ones who came enjoyed the contest.

In addition to the Nats being different because the country was in the middle of a pandemic, the lengths of some contests were shortened.

One such event was CL Navy Carrier. Instead of taking place for roughly three days, only one day was needed for this year’s contest.

08. Tim DiPeri’s Bell Jet Ranger in a Tennessee State Highway Patrol scheme competes in RC Helicopter Scale. This was Tim’s first year competing in Scale.

09. CL Racing pilots pose for a photo while wearing their masks.

CL Navy Carrier ED Bob Heywood stated, "When AMA greenlighted the event, we thought it was prudent to keep the tradition alive. We felt that if we didn’t [hold the contest this year], there would be some reason to never hold it again."

Only five pilots attended the contest, which typically has at least twice that many. Many of the older attendees did not come this year. Dick Perry often does the scoring for the contest. He didn’t attend this year, so Bob tracked the scores with pencil and paper. "The lack of participation [this year] is because people, to varying degrees, are downright scared," he stated.

The EDs at the Nats reported that the number of participants was down anywhere from 20% to 50%. In a way, that was a good thing because it made social distancing easier.

"They’re all separated in the tent other than teams," said RC Pylon Racing CD Mike Condon. In the large, circus-type tent that pilots typically sit under while not racing, areas were marked with chalk to allow social distancing. The pilots were limited to three people in one area. "They’ve been good about [social distancing]," Mike added.

"We’re a pretty close-knit group and we know how to respect each other," stated RC Pylon Racing pilot Tom Doe. "I’m just keeping my distance and washing my hands."

At the CL Racing area, pilots also did their best to social distance. "We tried to social distance. The tables were more spread apart [this year]," said CD Bill Bischoff.

For some of the pilots, the 2020 Outdoor Nats was their first contest of the year. In the past, pilots who compete internationally have had to miss the Nats because they were at the FAI World Championships while the Nats was taking place. This year, those international competitions were canceled because of the global pandemic.

"It’s an annual thing for me," Bill commented about the Nats. "[With] all of the contests we didn’t get to have this year, we needed it."

Bill Lee, a CL Racing pilot who was supposed to compete with Team USA at the World Championships this year, added, "I told Patrick [Hempel], ‘I can’t go to Poland, so we might as well come here.’"

10. Angel Rojas stops the blades on his Whiplash helicopter while competing in RC Helicopter Aerobatics.

11. Bob Heywood, who served as the ED for the CL Navy Carrier Nats, launches an aircraft for a competitor. Bob also kept score this year.

12. Andy Minor launches an aircraft during a CL Combat contest.

At the CL Speed venue, CD Warren Gregory noted the presence of Alex Valischev and his son, Ivan, who were also supposed to compete in the F2A FAI Control Line World Championships in Poland. They mostly kept to themselves during the week by practicing on the circle farthest from the tents. Alex was named the F2A champion and Ivan won in the Junior/Senior category.

"Most pilots are keeping their space," Warren said. "Everybody’s done very well here. The pilots who typically travel from California to participate in the CL Speed Nats did not make the trip this year." He added, "I was really surprised when [the AMA EC voted] to hold [the contest]."

During the final week of the Nats, the RC Helicopter contest was short roughly 20 pilots. "We are social distancing and we have plenty of tent space," said CD Mike Unger.

In addition to spreading out, many pilots, CDs, and EDs implemented their own safety measures. At RC Pylon Racing, the golf carts were frequently sanitized, Mike Condon shared.

13. Frank Burnoski walks with his 5-yearold son, Hunter, after competing in the RC Soaring F5J Nats. Hunter timed for his dad and grandpa for several RC Soaring Nats contests.

14. Ivan Valischev launches for his father, Alex, in CL Speed.

15. Todd Lee’s P-51 Mustang cuts through the morning fog at the CL Precision Aerobatics Nats.

Gil noted that the golf carts used for RC Soaring were cleaned often. He added that most RC Soaring pilots who live in areas that are considered coronavirus hotspots elected not to attend this year.

That was also the case at CL Combat. CD Dave Edwards said that one pilot from Mexico, one from California, and a group from Canada chose not to come this year.

In addition to those CL Combat pilots from states that were hotspots, one pilot found out when he was halfway to the Nats that he had tested positive, so he turned around and went home, Steven Wilk said.

Steven and a good number of pilots at each of the events chose to camp at the IAC. Many brought groceries and prepared their own meals instead of visiting local restaurants.

Despite all of the health and safety changes that were necessary at the 2020 Nats because of the pan-demic, trophies were still awarded, aircraft were crashed, friendships were formed, and many still had fun.

16. Pilot Steve Millet prepares to fly his Ryan’s Eagle, while Michael McHenry launches it for him at the CL Precision Aerobatics Nats. Steve’s airplane won the Pilots’ Choice in the Concours Award appearance contest.

Steve Millet shared why he returned to the Nats this year. "The people … my mentors. I wanted to spend time with them when I still could."

Bill Bischoff said, "I’m sure [the Nats] was eagerly anticipated for everybody, and it was just what the doctor ordered."

Mike Unger said that he believed that the 2021 Nats would be business as usual. "I’m certain of that. Three or four months ago, we didn’t know what this [virus] was all about. Now we’re used to it and it’s not so scary. It’s funny what you get used to."


AMA Nats


By Rachelle Haughn Photos by the author

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