Look up. Way up.
Two Octobers ago, Ken Chizick and his 13-year-old son Camrin were at the Golf Dome enjoying a late-night round of miniature golf. At around 10 -- the time the indoor facility's driving range shuts down for the evening -- the Chizicks noticed something odd. As people were leaving the tee box area, they were being replaced by another group of individuals. Only instead of drivers and 8-irons, this second wave of customers was carrying transmitters and radio-controlled airplanes.
Ken dabbled with RC planes when he was Camrin's age so he asked one of the attendees what was going on. That person directed him to Kerry Fingler, the owner of Cellar Dweller, a family-run shop in the North End specializing in scale-model planes, trains and automobiles. Fingler told the Chizicks that come winter, the dome is hijacked by a slew of RC enthusiasts who, every second Friday from October to April, fill its airspace inside with planes and helicopters of various shapes and sizes.
Intrigued, Ken and Camrin visited Fingler's store the next week. Fifteen months and four model planes later, the Chizicks have become familiar faces on "flight night," which runs from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
"Kerry has been very supportive about putting (Camrin) into the correct planes for his skill level. Camrin also studied a bit of aviation and flight dynamics at school and that was a big help in getting him to understand flight mechanics," Ken says as Camrin brings his latest plaything -- a T-28 Trojan he adorned with Winnipeg Jets stickers -- in for a landing.
"When I first came here I was a bit intimidated by the guys who were really good but I don't feel that way anymore," Camrin says, adding he recently started working on a few tricks of his own, such as performing loops and flying inverted. "Anytime I'm wondering how to do something I ask one of the people here and they're always great about giving me tips."
Although Camrin lets his dad take the controls whenever he likes, Ken usually prefers to sit back, have a bite (the dome's snack bar stays open in case anybody works up an appetite) and take in the exploits. "This has been a great father-son experience and time well-spent," Ken says. "And for a 13-year-old kid, what could be more fun than staying up till midnight and crashing a couple hundred dollars' worth of planes?"
There are at least four outdoor, RC airplane clubs in Manitoba, including the Winnipeg Radio Control Club and the Wheat City Aero-Modellers. During the summer months, hundreds of people take to the skies across the province, flying aircraft that weigh as much as 20 kilograms and cost as much as $15,000. Problem is, as soon as November rolls around, everyone is forced to ground their fleet until spring, or retreat to a cramped school gymnasium.
About five years ago, one of Fingler's regular customers was at the Golf Dome working on his swing. At some point the fellow looked around the seven-story-tall structure and thought what a perfect venue it would make for hobbyists waiting for the snow to melt.
"I went down and talked to the folks who run the dome and we've been there ever since," Fingler says, pointing out it's not unusual for golfers to stick around for a beer or two after the range closes, to observe the goings-on. (A newspaper scribe can attest to how mesmerizing the action is; three times he has to ask Fingler to repeat an answer, because he's too distracted by the planes dipping and diving around him.)
The get-togethers aren't affiliated with any clubs; there is no need to pre-register, people can pop in as little or as often as they like. The only fee involved is a $20 stipend Fingler collects from "pilots" at the start of the night to cover rent.
The rules are fairly straightforward: flying is forbidden until Fingler issues an "All-clear," partakers are responsible for any damage caused by their craft and flying is restricted to the turf area, only.
"There aren't any regulations about what types of planes people can fly (here), per se, but if somebody comes into the store and tells me they want to fly at the dome, I gravitate them towards the smaller planes," Fingler says. "Indoor flying can be very inexpensive as opposed to outdoors; you can get one of the best starter planes -- perfect for what we do here and only weighing about seven ounces -- for $65."
Randy Hepner is a past-president of the Saints R/C Flying Club. The Stonewall resident has been coming to flight night at the dome since its inception, after re-joining the pastime about 10 years ago.
"I'm 48 -- my kids are 25 and 21 -- and when they hit their teenager years and were off doing their own thing, dad needed something to do," explains Hepner, a self-described "airplane nerd" and former commercial pilot who now works as an air traffic controller. "I did this when I was a kid and it was always in my mind to get back into it."
Mission accomplished: nowadays Hepner owns -- "Do you really want me to count?" -- in the neighbourhood of 30 different models, and generally has a half-dozen or so with him on Friday nights.
The reason he brings so many? "Carnage, man, carnage," he says with a chuckle.
"I've lost so many airplanes here; you will be treated to a few mid-airs if you stick around long enough," Hepner promises, noting although everybody is supposed to fly in the same, counter-clockwise direction, accidents do happen. "In here the big thing to watch out for is that wire that runs across the middle; hit it and your plane will be pretty much toast for the night." (Hepner has a word of advice for newbies interested in the hobby: unless you don't mind waiting, you might want to avoid Fingler's shop the morning after flight night, he says. "Everybody here heads there first thing, looking for replacement parts.")
Marc Foucher is one of the more accomplished participants who shows up at the dome on a regular basis. A trained military pilot, Foucher moved to Winnipeg five years ago from France, where he used to compete for his country in international, RC aerobatics events.
"I have friends back home who are champions. It's sort of like being a pianist; first you have to learn your basics, then work on your skills, then push and push to be the best," he says, demonstrating a manoeuvre called a "tall crawl," during which he keeps his plane suspended in mid-air, a metre or two away from his body. ("THAT is a lot tougher to do than it looks," an on-looker says, as he stops what he's doing to watch Foucher in action.)
Foucher agrees that two hours of flying model planes is a great way to relax at the end of the work week. But for him, the meet-ups are about more than honing skills and tackling new stunts.
"It's a mix of many things. Of course you're here because you love to fly but it's also an exchange. There are always new people to meet and share ideas with. There are always people starting out looking for advice. For me, it's just a perfect fit."
The next scheduled meet-up is -- Happy Valentine's Day, RC lovers -- Feb. 14. For a complete list of dates and times, go to www.cellardwellerhobby.com and click on "events."