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Written by Rachelle Haughn
Diversity is the heart of the competition with bonus photos
Read the full article in the November 2015 issue of
Model Aviation.


Close your eyes and try to picture a typical Nats competitor. Images such as an older man with salt-and-pepper hair whose hands are callused and bear scars from years of hard work may come to mind. Maybe he has tan lines on his face where his eyes were protected by sunglasses during his many days at the flying field, and he is wearing stained a T-shirt that clearly shows he was born in the good old USA.

Now open your eyes and clear that image from your mind. Take a look at the photos with this article and you will see that the Nats is a diverse and eclectic mix of people. Young, old, male, female, new pilots, experienced pilots, world champions, and those born on foreign soil travel to Muncie, Indiana, each year to compete in the “best contest in the world.” And that, my friends, is what makes the Nats special.

Those who trek each year to the Nats don’t always go it alone. Some meet up and travel with friends or mentors and have as much fun on the road trip as they do at the event. Others make the journey with or to see their parents, uncles or aunts, siblings, nieces or nephews and make the Nats one big family reunion with a little model flying thrown in. When all of these people get together, the stereotypes are tossed out the window and the fun begins

The people who travel to the Nats to compete don’t merely come from Indiana’s neighboring states. At the 2015 Nats there were competitors from California, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Florida, New York, and New Mexico, to name a few. There were also dedicated pilots who trekked from England, Jamaica, Mexico, Japan, and Canada.

Deryck Taylor took two flights (11/2 hours each) to make it to Atlanta from his home in Kingston, Jamaica. There, he met up with his mentor and friend, Wayne Matthews, who lives in Atlanta, and fellow pilot, Alvaro De Luna, of Toluca, Mexico. The RC Scale Aerobatics pilots then traveled by vehicle for 81/2 hours to get to the Nats. This was Alvaro’s first Nats. Deryck believed this was his ninth or 10th.

Alvaro stated at the beginning of the RC Scale Aerobatics Nats that he is accustomed to flying model aircraft in high altitudes near his home. “It’s really tough [at home] because the airplanes don’t have enough power. You need full throttle there. Here, you need half power. I feel like the airplanes fly better here.” He is the president of the International Miniature Aerobatic Club in Mexico.

Another Nats attendee who had a lengthy journey was Neil Tidey. He traveled all the way from Leighton Buzzard, England. This was also Neil’s first time at the AMA Nats. His trip served a dual purpose. He attended to observe how the national competition is run in the US in hopes of starting a similar Control Line (CL) Scale national event in England, and to serve as pitman for his friend and fellow England native, Dave Platt.

Dave moved to the US from England in 1967 to work for Top Flite models. He is known for wearing wild Hawaiian shirts when competing. “It brings a bit of Florida cheer to Indiana,” he said about the shirt he was wearing for the static competition.

Flying at another CL circle at this year’s Nats was Kaz Minato, who lives in Japan. Kaz participated in his first Nats in 1987. It was held in Lincoln, Nebraska, that year and at the time, he was living in the US and working for Honda. “Control Line is everything to me. When I moved here, I just brought my friend [his airplane].”

Kaz retired five years ago and moved back to Japan. He has been flying CL for 50 years. In that time, he has competed seven times in world championships for CL Precision Aerobatics. His two sons have also competed in the world championships and the Nats.

“This is the best competition in the world and the people are very friendly,” Kaz commented about the Nats.

Some Nats events also had competitors from a country slightly closer to the US: Canada. The 2015 Nats had Canadian competitors in events such as CL Combat and RC Precision Aerobatics.

Friends Harry Ells, of Cobourg, Ontario, and Xavier Mouraux, Laval, Quebec, are accustomed to competing together. “There aren’t any local competitions in Quebec, so [Xavier] comes down to fly in our competitions,” Harry said. “I fly more contests in the US” than in Canada.

Xavier was clearly excited to be competing at the RC Precision Aerobatics Nats again after a nine-year absence. “It’s too bad we don’t have that guy that sings at the beginning of the Indy 500. It would be really cool if he was here!” Xavier stated, referring to Jim Neighbors, who formerly sang each year at the Indianapolis 500 race.

In addition to autocross racing, Xavier used to compete ice racing and speed skating. “I like fast stuff but I like slow airplanes,” the RC Precision Aerobatics competitor added.

There were also a couple of Nats participants who were born in other countries but currently reside in the US.

England native Nick Marson, an RC Precision Aerobatics pilot, became a US citizen in 2011 after falling in love with and marrying Texas resident Diane. The two met on 9/11 after their airplane was grounded in Newfoundland because of the terrorist attacks.

This was the couple’s first trip to the Nats, and Nick finished third in the Intermediate class.

There was also some diversity at the RC Sailplane Nats. This included a man born in Poland who moved to the US roughly 25 years ago. Leszek Zyga, who currently lives in New Jersey, took many Sailplane pilots by surprise with his great flying skills. This was his first Nats and he placed third in the Senior category.

Leszek said he decided to compete in the Nats because “I wanted to see the biggest [flying] place in this country.”

The final week of the Nats drew Scale Helicopter pilot Emile Sheriff and his striking Bell 407 to Muncie, Indiana. Emile was born in Jamaica and moved to Enterprise, Alabama, in 1981. This was his fourth trip to the Nats since 2009.

“I didn’t have a new machine to compete with,” was why he didn’t make it to the Nats in previous years. “Life sometimes gets in the way.”

Several other competitors were in the same boat as Emile. They had competed as kids, teenagers, or young adults and had to take a break because of other obligations or finances.

Aimee Bagley was one such person. As a teenager, she competed in several CL Combat Nats with her father, Mike Olson, in the 1980s. This was her first time back to the Nats since her father’s death two years ago. She had an inscription in her father’s memory on the pink helmet that she wore when competing.

After reading an article in the June 2015 issue of Model Aviation about the Margaret June CL Sportsman Goodyear Racer, Mark Knight decided that a roughly 25-year absence from the CL Racing Nats was long enough. “Life got in the way and I got out of building [aircraft]. Then I read the Margaret June and it inspired me to get back into it.”

Mark had nothing ready for competition, so he decided to serve as a timer this year. “I will definitely be back next year!” he said enthusiastically.

There are some competitors who seem to be staples at the Nats. They rarely miss the annual contest. If they do, it’s for good reason.

CL Navy Carrier competitors Dick Perry and Pete Mazur, and Pylon pilots Dub Jett and Mike Helsel fall into this category.

Dick said that when he attended his first Nats in 1976 there were so many competitors that “we had two decks and people couldn’t get all of their flights in.”

Pete’s first Nats was in 1967. “I’ve been at every one since 1975, which was when I won my first.”

Dub celebrated his 53rd Nats this year and was inducted into the AMA Model Aviation Hall of Fame. He attended his first Nats in 1956. “I tell people it’s easier to figure out what Nats I didn’t go to,” he said with a smile. He has missed a handful of Nats—one of them was because he was in college, and another because he got married.

Where there’s Dubb, one can likely find Mike. They frequently call for each other. Mike started competing in the Nats in 1969. In addition to Pylon, Mike has flown in RC Precision Aerobatics and RC Scale at the Nats. His father taught him how to fly and they competed alongside each other in a couple of Nats.

“He flew off and on his whole life,” Mike said of his dad. “A date for him was he would pick my mom up and take her back to his house and build airplanes.”

Kevin Hines, a CL Speed competitor, had a similar “romantic” tale to tell. He and his wife, Bonnie, were married in 1991 and celebrated their honeymoon by attending the Nats in Vincennes, Indiana.

Kevin fondly recalled that experience. “I heard these engines screaming. They said this guy, Carl Dodge, had built that engine and I’d never heard anything like that.”

“Until today,” Carl added, laughing.

Kevin grew up building Cox CL airplanes in his basement with his brother, Steve. His sibling also competed for a while, but now he concentrates on helping his daughter, Samantha Hines. Samantha won her second consecutive Junior Championship in CL Precision Aerobatics this year.

The Hines family wasn’t the only one at the Nats. Among them were RC Scale Aerobatics pilots Kevin and Evan Turner; Pylon competitors Joanne and Bruce Coffee; CL Combat pilot Rylan Ritch and his father, Pylon pilot Randy Ritch; Charlie and Peter Bauer; RC Precision Aerobatics pilots Brandon Sobolewski, Steve Sobolewski, and Steve’s brother-in-law, David Golubski; and Free Flight (FF) pilots Kyle and David Gerspacher.

At the spry age of 85, Charlie Bauer decided to give the Nats one more shot. The former AMA District Vice President declared last year that the 2014 Nats would be his last. When asked why he came back this year, he said he decided to compete in one more because his son was competing and could do most of the flying for him. Charlie attended his first Nats in 1938. “And I only missed two of them—that was courtesy of Uncle Sam.” Charlie served in the US Army in California.

Unlike Charlie, this was the first Nats for Joanne Coffee and David Golubski.

“Well it’s cool,” Joanne said of her first Nats experience. She was the only woman competing in Pylon this year, and she flew a pink Phoenix airplane. “With all of the different venues, it’s exciting to see all of these people from different states.

“I wanted to see what [the Nats] was all about. I just wanted to see it, to participate in it. I talked Bruce into it.” Her husband last competed in the Nats 20 years ago, she added.

Brandon convinced his father and uncle to compete in the Intermediate class this year. David, Brandon’s uncle, said he didn’t practice before the Nats. “The first time that I flew was the first time I flew the pattern” at the Nats.

“I enjoy it and I love it,” he said about his first Nats experience. “I got my nephew’s old plane. It’s definitely a lot harder than it looks, but more fun than it looks.”

“Well, I just got tired of sitting around, taping Brandon” flying, is why Steve decided to participate in the Nats. “I love coming here. The people, the space … it feels good.”

At age 16 Brandon was far from the youngest competitor at the Nats this year. There were also Evan, age 12, Rylan, age 13, and Kyle, age 14.

Rylan showed no fear as he battled with men three times his age, going on to earn the Best Junior trophy.

He explained why he likes the CL Combat Nats. “It’s rough out in the circle. You get to bump around a little bit.” Rylan has been competing in the Nats for five years. He also flew in the world championship in Bulgeria in 2012.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said of the Nats. “You get to go out to eat with everybody. You just sit around and have fun.”

Having fun and the camaraderie were the most popular answers when Nats participants were asked why they enjoyed attending the annual competition. For many, the friendships and people are more important than the trophies and plaques.

RC Combat competitor Bill Geipel and RC Helicopter pilot Dwight Shilling and are known for generating fun by entertaining their fellow competitors each year. Bill accomplishes this with phantom hands, funny tales, and magic tricks, and Dwight uses, well, disgusting food.

“It’s just a lot of fun to fly. We all sit here and laugh and have a good time,” Bill said. “I come for the fun and the people. I guess I wouldn’t say to get points,” he stated with a laugh.

It wouldn’t be the Helicopter Nats without the Dwight Shilling Food Challenge. He has a special hat that he wears and the person who finds a food that he either will not eat at all or would not eat again gets the honor of signing a special plaque.

“It’s fun to watch how squeamish people are when you eat something that they wouldn’t,” Dwight stated.

Despite the fact that watching Dwight eat may upset some stomachs, RC Helicopter competitors, and those in other competitions, look forward to the Nats each year and said they wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“I’m having fun and that’s what’s important,” stated Brian Shaw, who competed in RC Scale and RC Precision Helicopters this year. Brian had a smile on his face for most of the Helicopter Nats, even when competing.

Equally happy to be at the Nats was Kyle Gerspacher. He said the Wakefield F1B FF competition was his favorite. “It’s probably the funnest day of the week because you get to compete and test your skills.” Kyle, who frequently smiled, while getting his model ready to fly, added that he has several friends at the Nats.

RC Scale competitor Jeff Foley said that being able to compete in the Nats was somewhat therapeutic for him after his wife’s death this year.

“We build these models to fly. There’s joy and heartache [in it]. I get so much joy out of taking the bits and pieces and making something that flies,” Jeff stated.

He continued, “The best thing about the Nats is the people you meet. You’re associated with kindred spirits.”

If you’re looking for some kindred spirits, adventure, fun, friendship, or a chance to test your skills, then maybe the Nats is for you.

Every Nats participant has a story to tell. Consider coming to the Nats next year to create your own.

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