"Five, four, three, two, one . . . Fly! shouts an official, and a dozen planes -- scale-models of the airplanes that stormed barns, carried mail and set records between the two great wars -- take to the air in a burst of rubber-band power. Seconds later, there is the sound of balsa wood against balsa wood and paper against paper. Several planes collide head-on and come crashing to the cement floor inside a hangar at Andrews Air Force Base.
As owners scramble to recover their cracked-up aircraft, and judges try to determine which crashed first, the remaining planes drone on. One gets hung up on the metal rafters of the hangar. Another smashes into a wall, swiftly careening towards the floor. Finally, a sole survivor travels around and around in circles, getting lower with each circumnavigation until it runs out of rubber-band power and gracefully lands.
In this race of "Golden Age" aircraft -- one of many in a twice-a-year, two-day contest of the D.C. Maxecutors -- the prize is not to the swift but to the survivor. After each mass launching, the first plane to crack up is eliminated and the surviving planes take off again, over and over until only one plane remains.
Allan Schanzle, a scientist for NASA during the work week and president of the Maxecuters the rest of the time, retrieves his plane, which survived several heats, and talks about rubber-band power.
"We don't call them rubber bands -- they're rubber motors," he explains. "The great thing about this is that they provide all the power you need. You can make one of these planes for a few dollars. Most of our adult members -- we have close to a hundred -- make their planes from scratch. The kids often start out by using kits."
Schnazle's 14-year-old son, Chris, is climbing a ladder the Air Force uses to service full-size planes, to retrieve his model, which is hung up on rafters. On the ground, a grandfather-grandson team, Rolfe Gregory and nine-year-old Kirk Nazarian -- is winding up a propeller for Kirk's entry in the next event, a duel of planes of all the navies of the world.
While Kirk anchors the plane on a stand, Gregory uses a hook to slip the rubber band into place. Then he steps back and winds it up tight with the propeller.
"The size of the rubber motor to put in your plane is very important, and it's based on an educated guess taking into consideration the weight and size of the model," explains Gregory, who started making model planes from plans in magazines when he was a kid.
"I hadn't even been up in a plane at the time," says Gregory, who later owned and flew real airplanes.
The naval planes take off, and Kirk's is eliminated in an early heat.
"I crashed," he tells his grandfather sheepishly.
"He throws it too hard," Gregory confides to an adult. "There's a technique to launching a plane properly."
Undaunted, Kirk runs off to enter his plane, which escaped visible injury, in another aspect of the contest, in which judges rate its faithfulness to the original.
"We have books that show what the originals looked like, and we check every detail," explains one of the judges. "We also take into consideration whether it's a difficult model to make or an unusual one, and give extra points for that. We take off a little if it's a simple plane and easy to make -- the ones with the wings on top are easier, for instance. And then we look at the workmanship. This plane was made from a kit and the person who made it didn't cut off the numbers and lines. We'll take off for that."
As judges judge and fighters fight, contestants for upcoming events are huddled over their planes and digging into their tool kits, making last-minute adjustments on their entries.
"You have to trim it out," an old hand advises Justin Reeve, one of the few kids at the contest whose father or grandfather is not also a model plane enthusiast. "In a contest like this, planes have to fly in circles -- or else we might lose them. Mainly we do this by setting the controls ahead of time -- by sticking modeling clay on the wing tip or the nose to change the balance of the plane."
Justin launches his plane and it heads straight for the wall of the hangar. But after another gob of clay is dabbed on the left wing, it flies around and returns to the kid.
"It's a cut-and-try process," says the old hand, going off to help another novice.
"This is the fourth plane I've built -- all from kits," says Justin. "I started with a glider when I was seven. How old am I now? I'm seven and a half."