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Written by Chris Mulcahy
RC Helicopters
As seen in the April 2015 issue of
Model Aviation.

Nothing garners more attention than a great-looking scale helicopter. Did you know that you could also enter your scale helicopter in a national competition? It sounds scarier than it actually is, and with the provisional Sport Scale category, it is even easier to get started in the AMA Scale Nats, held at the International Aeromodeling Center in Muncie, Indiana.

I recently talked with team Futaba member Michael “GrimRacer” Zabrowski about his experience last year in competing in the Sport Scale category for the first time. Michael showed me how, with a little determination, you could also compete in the Nats.

Chris Mulcahy: Can you tell us a little about the provisional Sport Scale category?

Michael Zabrowski: The largest challenge with any type of contest is getting people to participate, and the AMA 518 Scale Helicopter class is no different. [AMA event] 518, as written, is a challenging class and hard to get started in this aspect of the hobby.

In steps the idea of Sport Scale, which gives pilots the opportunity to participate in a Scale contest, but on a simpler level. If you built or bought your model, you’re welcome to participate in the class by following a simple set of requirements:

1. Fill out a declaration statement about your model with a three-view [drawing] and declare what, if anything, you did special to your model. Did you paint it? Add a cockpit, guns, rivets, etc.?

2. Assemble a flight routine. A list of simple to more-advanced maneuvers is available online.

3. Practice your flight routine.

Then it’s off to get your model static judged (part one) and to fly (part two). Scoring is fairly split between the static and flying disciplines.

The MD 530’s Sport Scale declaration statement page lists the work Michael did to the helicopter.

CM: Which model did you use for the contest?

MZ: I started my quest for the Sport Scale Nats with my new Thunder Tiger MD 530. The helicopter I chose was modified slightly to include a civilian paint scheme. I became friends with the gang from Winco Powerline Services and wanted to paint my helicopter like theirs. In stepped Winco’s MD 369 helicopter. I added rivets, a pilot, and a lineman to the project. All good plans come with risk.

CM: How did you prepare for the contest?

MZ: After the announcement that a Sport Scale class was going to be added to the Nats as a provisional class, I decided I wanted to do this. I am a competition junkie and love the way contesting makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

My good friend, Darrell Sprayberry, posted a list of suggested maneuvers online. This was a great help to all. I wanted to help promote the event as simply as possible, so I used the maneuvers list to build my routine.

I stuck out my neck and started to post my progress online for all those willing to read. My routine, my intent, my trials, and tribulations … I also took video of each practice flight. I reviewed and tweaked my routine and posted the video.

My goal with this was to not only document my progress, but to show the progress and prove anybody could do this. My mistakes, embarrassment, and accomplishments were on the table for all to see.

Michael Zabrowski’s original Nats entry, the Winco MD 530, is shown before its mishap.

In addition to takeoff, my flight routine included three mandatory maneuvers:

• Hover set with clearing turns
• 45° climbout
• Descent to landing

The Freestyle portion of the flight included both mandatory and optional maneuvers:

• Take off and fly to right; set up for Figure Eight
• (Optional) Figure Eight
• Fly downwind to extent
• (Optional) slow flyby
• Fly to center and set up
• (Optional) circle
• Fly to extent right turn 180°
• (Optional) missed approach
• Fly to altitude center
• (Optional) high hover
• Fly to extent and do a high flyby and set up for landing
• Land

In all, I made more than 40 practice flights. After work each night I would run out to the field and put in about three to five flights. Wind, cold … I did not care.

But, the last flight of the Winco MD 369 was just two short weeks before the start of the contest. Yes, I had a crash. Unexpectedly, I lost a cyclic servo. It was my fault. I had overvolted the servo. Rats. In the blink of an eye, the MD 369 was gone—all the setup, tuning was gone. I was dejected, but not going to give up. I laid it all on the line and made the commitment to make the event and I was going.

I pulled out an older machine I had, and had flown just one practice flight with it before the crash. What was I thinking? I had flown it some in the past, but not as much as the Winco machine.

I had only flown my Augusta 109 one time this spring. I did not have a declaration page made for this machine, but I was going to press on. I posted my update online and wrote, “I crashed my machine, but I am coming anyway; I don’t care, win or lose. I worked this hard and I am going to fly this event!”

I packed up my backup Augusta 109, camping supplies, [and] transmitter. I hooked up the trailer, filled up the Express “extended stay” with gas, and away I went.

Michael displays his backup aircraft, the Augusta 109.

CM: What was the best part of the experience for you?

MZ: I can sum this up simply—the people! The helicopters are nothing more than the common media that brings us together. When I reflect on the contest, I always have a face, comment, or a smile from somebody that sticks in my mind.

The contest itself has great memories too, but it’s the people who make this hobby great. Dedication to your build, dedication to practice, anticipation of the coming event, helping others … to me, these are the best parts of the experience.

Michael (R) receiving his first-place trophy from Darrell Sprayberry, the Scale Helicopter Nats contest director.

CM: What words of wisdom can you impart to someone thinking about giving it a try?

MZ: It’s so cliché to say “just do it,” or “you have to experience it to really appreciate it,” but the reason those words keep coming up is [because] they are true. The very worst part of a contest like this is you might bang up your machine and or (gasp) lose! “Forgetaboutit.” In the grand scheme of things you will gain so much more in learning, friendship, and memories. Win or lose, you’re going to have a great time.

Scale helicopters are for everybody. Anybody can commit, compete, and have a good time. Sport Scale helicopters are fun to work on and the flying maneuvers are challenging. The beauty of the Sport Scale class is it makes organized Scale flying easier for those who feel they don’t have the time or skills to compete, but want to.

I am working on my building skills to someday compete in a Scale Helicopter 518 event. If you are on the fence about competing with a scale helicopter, you no longer need to be. Contesting is fun and the friends and memories last forever.

-Chris Mulcahy


Michael’s YouTube channel

International Radio Controlled Helicopter
Association (IRCHA)


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