Model Plane Hobbyists Request Clearance for Land(ing)

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Hobbyists who fly radio-controlled model airplanes hope that a planned flight show this month will persuade Fairfax County park officials to set aside an area on county parkland as a flight area, park officials said last week.

The Fairfax County Park Authority has worked for more than a year with members of the Northern Virginia Radio Control model airplane club on the possibility of creating a designated area in the Sully Woodlands area for the fliers, according to park officials and club members. The most likely spot is the Horne property off Bull Run Post Office Road near Manassas National Battlefield Park.

"Pretty much, it's the one area that we've identified that could be appropriate for model airplane use," Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pederson said.

But first, park officials also want to make sure the activity would not disturb residents, battlefield visitors, birders or horseback riders who use trails in the area.

The National Park Service already has expressed concerns that the noise could be a problem for battlefield visitors, and equestrian clubs have voiced worries that the planes might spook their mounts. Park officials also want to ensure that turning the property into a flight area would not interfere with areas on the Horne Property that have significant archaeological value.

"If we do move forward -- and that's a big 'if' -- we need to find out what kind of issues we need to address," said Angie Allen, senior planner in the Park Authority. The authority plans a flight demonstration April 20 to investigate whether it is feasible to accommodate the various uses, Allen said.

"Flying fields are always a problem for flying clubs," said Northern Virginia Radio Control club secretary Donald M. Manson.

Without a designated area, enthusiasts may be tempted to fly the planes over ballfields and school properties. That can create hazards, because some high-performance model planes can fly faster than 100 mph, he said.

Manson, 59, of Fairfax, said expanding suburban development often pushes them from one place to another. His club used to fly its models in Arcola off Route 15 -- about seven miles from Dulles International Airport. But that property went under the bulldozer. Now the group shares a spot with a Prince William County flying club, but that, too, is up for development. "The clubs are always on the run," Manson said.

And finding open space in Fairfax County gets harder all the time, park officials said.

Robert K. Sutton, superintendent of the National Park Service's Manassas National Battlefield Park, spelled out concerns last year about the proposed flyover site. In a June 2 letter, Sutton wrote to the Park Authority that model airplanes can make noise in excess of 90 decibels. He said the sound can also carry for up to a mile.

Model airplanes vary widely in performance. Some fly with no ground-based control. Others are attached to guide lines that permit the aircraft to fly only in a short circle. But most members of the club operate radio-controlled models that can maneuver like the real thing. These planes have rudders, ailerons and sometimes even flaps as real aircraft do, and the radio signals control the craft's flight by manipulating its navigational devices.

The range of their radio signals can reach a half-mile, but most operators need to see the planes to guide them, and so keep the planes within 1,000 feet.

Manson said he flew a model plane with a control line when he was growing up on New York's Long Island. Even then, he said, development would encroach on flying fields. He returned to the hobby about three years ago, thanks to his 10-year-old son. Now, he said, he feels addicted.

"He said, 'Hey, Dad, can we get a model airplane?,' and I've had this disease ever since," Manson said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company