From paper planes to radio-controlled ones, aeromodelling takes off in the city

  • Soma Das, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Mar 17, 2016 20:12 IST
Aeromodellers at Mahalaxmi Race Course on a Sunday (Kunal Patil/HT)

It’s 10.30am on a Sunday. We are at the Mahalaxmi Race Course, a venue synonymous with horse racing. But right now, the horses are nowhere to be seen. Instead, there is the buzzing noise of airplanes flying overhead, and that of helicopter wings chopping through the air. It sounds more like Juhu Airport than Mahalaxmi Race Course, really.

Near Gate 1, at the polo grounds, several cars are lined in a row, all the boots popped open. A dozen or so people are busy staring skyward, radio controls in hand, manoeuvring miniature versions of jets and choppers. They are aeromodellers, people who build and fly model aircrafts as a hobby.

Aeromodeller Jim Desai at the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT)

From time to time, you can hear them shouting out instructions: “on field” and “landing”. The first signals that a person will enter the flying zone to retrieve a craft; and the second denotes a plane about to land. The aim is to prevent collisions among planes, or with the aeromodellers.

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Brief introduction

Made using a mix of balsa wood, polystyrene and plastic, the RC (radio-controlled) aircraft models are assembled from kits, and are powered by battery or petrol. The cars with the open hoods are the hangars, if you will, for the toy planes, and are also where spare parts — screw drivers, batteries — are stored.

The aeromodellers range from a 70-year-old audio equipment specialist to a 32-year-old entrepreneur. On weekends, they gather not just to fly model planes, but also share tips on flying. Later, they enjoy snacks and soft drinks together. Understandably, age isn’t a limitation here. The enthusiasts say anyone between ages of five to 75 can fly these planes once they learn the basics. Apart from the monsoons, every weekend sees aeromodellers flock to the grounds.

Students of DJ Sanghvi College of Engineering building an aircraft at the Indian Aeromodellers Club in Virar (Pratham Gokhale/HT)

Apart from the Race Course, the other popular flying venues include the Vartak Nagar ground in Virar, the IIT campus in Powai, and open spaces in Dahisar, Aksa beach and even Aamby Valley City near Lonavala. While helicopter fliers prefer the Race Course, model jet fliers carry them all the way to Aamby Valley’s airport runway, as they require level ground for take-off.

While there are no official figures, aeromodelling group Wings India pegs the number of serious flyers in Mumbai at around a hundred, and home flyers (non-affiliated amateur fliers) to around a thousand.

Jim Desai, 34, is a serious flier. Unlike the others, though, the Borivali resident heads to Mahalaxmi and Aamby Valley on Saturdays to avoid the crowds. “I live, eat and breathe aeromodelling. It is the closest you can come to flying. But it’s also a challenging hobby. A pilot gets to analyse what’s in front of him. As an aeromodeller, you can only estimate the conditions from the ground,” he says.

He eagerly shows us images on his cell phone of his collection of three helicopters, two jets, two engine-propelled crafts, and a drone. Most of his crafts are imported from the US and the UK, and cost anywhere between Rs40,000 to Rs2.5 lakh.

Desai says he got hooked at age 18 when his father, a former pilot, showed him a magazine with images of airplanes. His father bought him a model soon after, from the UK. “I took it apart and reassembled it. I kept moving from model to model and that’s how I learned.” Desai now runs a flight simulation studio in Thane, and trains people in aeromodelling during his free time.

Darius Engineer (right) at the Indian Academy of Model Aeronautics’s workshop in Fort (Aalok Soni/HT)

Fan club

For enthusiasts like Desai, city-based groups such as Wings India Radio Controlled Model Flyers Club (formed in 2004), Academy of Model Aeronautics (formed in 1987) and the Indian Aeromodellers Club (formed in 2002) are great resources. These groups offer guidance on assembling planes, conduct events and workshops and even provide third-party insurance for members.

Unlike the other clubs, though, the Aeromodelling Club at IIT-Bombay, has mostly students members. In 2000, students from IIT’s aerospace department made and flew RC planes and gliders as a hobby or for projects. “The group then got official recognition,” says manager Yograj Mandloi, who is also a third year B Tech student. Today, they host talks and competitions related to designing planes, screenings and practice sessions.

There are around 100 aeromodellers in the city and around a thousand non-affiliated ones, as per Wings India (Kunal Patil/HT)

The history of flying

As a hobby, aeromodelling has been in existence in India for almost 50 years. Umesh More, chairman, Wings India, says, “It was more active in Kolkata in the early days, before moving to other cities.” The models back then were simple chuck gliders (light aircraft that flies without using an engine) and small planes, a far cry from today’s jets and drones.

“Aeromodelling gained popularity in Mumbai by the 1960s and ’70s,” recalls Darius Engineer, 61, secretary, Indian Academy of Model Aeronautics. The Colaba resident was introduced to aeromodelling in the ’60s as an NCC student. Now, he runs a workshop in Fort to train students in the basics of aeromodelling during the summer holidays.

A drone and radio control at the IIT Powai campus. The aeromodelling club hosts sessions on designing planes. (IIT Bombay )

Get a head start

Models can be bought from websites like RC Dhamaka, RC Bazaar and Hobby Ideas, or from international websites (see box). Most are run by aeromodelling fans who saw a good business proposition in their hobby. Chintal Manek (23), founder, RC Bombay, started his venture in 2014 when he found it tough to get spare parts for planes. “When one of my models crashed, it took me a year to rebuild the model again. For spares, I had to depend on people travelling abroad,” he says.

While some models cost in lakhs, it’s also possible to build crafts economically. “To build from scratch, all you need is balsa wood and foam. You need to invest in an engine and a remote, but it’s a one-time investment,” says Engineer.

Rakesh Verma, founder, Indian Aeromodellers Club, says, “Cheaper models can be made from styrofoam sheets. You can make basic aircrafts for as little as `300.”

Internationally, aeromodelling is a lucrative hobby, with air shows and competitions round the year. In India, though, there is a lot of ground to be covered. While there are events like the Aamby Valley International Aeromodeller’s Meet and the Boeing-IIT National Aeromodelling Competition, enthusiasts hope for a lot more. “Here, it’s not a paying hobby; it’s something you do in your spare time. We need sponsorship. And the Directorate General Of Civil Aviation (DGCA) needs to set rules to allow us to fly at more places,” says Engineer.

Join the club: Aeromodelling groups in the city

- IIT-B Aeromodelling Club
Membership fee: Free

- Indian Aeromodellers Club
Membership fee: R1,000 per year
Call 98223 95039

- Indian Academy of Model Aeronautics
Membership fee: R1,500 per year
Call 99305 12729

- Wings India RC Model Flyers Club
Membership fee: R1,500 per year

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