The three jets line up side by side on the runway, then take to the air with a collective, thunderous roar.
Commanding the sky, mocking gravity, they spiral, dip, and weave in every direction. Soar straight up until appearing as mere blips in the clouds before rocketing back down. Fly parallel to the ground at full speed, trailed by the piercing whoosh of their engines.
Necks are craned and eyes shielded from the sun to watch the spectacle, and, when several minutes later they come in for a landing, they are met with applause and acclamation.
But this isn’t your typical air show — and you’ll not recall Tom Cruise piloting these high-powered machines in “Top Gun.”
They’re radio-controlled model planes, but generations evolved from the kind you might remember tooling around with — and crashing — as a kid.
“It’s expensive to fly a full-sized aircraft,” said Bob Gettler, president of 107th Radio Controlled Flyers, one of several local model clubs. With model planes, you don’t spend nearly as much money and yet, as he put it, “You get the thrill of flight.”
While they might be small and portable, toys these are not. Enthusiasts spend anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars to equip, repair, boost, and accessorize their models, whether Cessnas, biplanes, warbirds, helicopters, or even jets. With wingspans ranging from several inches to several feet, some planes run on a special blend or kerosene for fuel, while significant developments in battery technology have enabled others to become increasingly like their full-size counterparts.
“A lot of aerospace technology has made it into models,” Gettler said as he stood by the edge of his club’s runway at Rumney Marsh Reservation in Saugus, a windy, wide-open location just a blip in the guardrail along Route 107.
Nearby, model planes of various sizes took off, landed, and coursed through the air. “The hobby’s definitely grown a lot in the last 10 years,” Gettler said.
In addition to the 107th RC Flyers, formed 30 years ago and now with about 100 members, other local groups chartered by the national Academy of Model Aeronautics include the Cape Ann RC Model Club, which flies at a field in Amesbury; the 495th RC Squadron, which holds events in Tewksbury, Billerica, and on Plum Island; and the Middlesex County RC Flyers, which also uses a field in Billerica. Hobbyists meet and trade tips at local, regional, national, and international rallies held throughout the year.
Peabody resident John Almeida regularly loads his Boomerang jet into an RV for vacations planned around various shows.
“It’s a big-boy sandbox,” said Almeida, 49, crouched by his jet as it cooled down after several minutes of air time at 107th RC Flyers field.
Modelers love to build, maintain, and tinker, he said. “It puts a smile on a grown man’s face.”
Measuring roughly 8 feet long and 8 feet wide at the wings, weighing nearly 40 pounds and painted a patriotic red, white, and blue, his jet is powered by a turbine that requires a kerosene start and has two on-board systems for safety. Considered the elite fliers of the radio control world, model jet pilots must prove their proficiency to the Academy of Model Aeronautics to legally fly.
Almeida has always been into modeling, he said. As a kid he liked boats, then moved on to propeller planes, and now the jet, which can scream through the sky at up to 160 miles an hour.
“Mentally, you’re exhausted after one minute of high-speed flying,” he said. “The challenge never stops. The maneuvers can get smoother, better, tighter.”
Nearby, Gettler was preparing his red and yellow Trex model helicopter for liftoff. Holding a remote with a digital readout, he ticked through the controls of the battery-powered aircraft.
He explained that all models get a preflight check, just like the big ones.
“Everything’s good to go; all controls are working correctly,” he announced, and the helicopter’s carbon-fiber propellers whirred to life.
With just slight directions on the controls, the miniature chopper zipped through the air, flew upside down and backward, flipped, rolled, looped, pirouetted, and hovered.
A program manager for General Electric, Gettler, 32, who lives in Salem, has been flying models since college and now has three helicopters, a jet, and an aerobatic plane. He also has his pilot’s license, as well as “some time” in a full-sized helicopter, he said. He volunteers teaching an aerodynamics course at Kipp Academy in Lynn.
“I just have a love of aviation,” he said, calling remote-control flying therapeutic and “like meditation.”
All around him, various models were set up on platforms, while others were being tinkered with, or lining up on the carpet runway, engines buzzing. Onlookers sat beneath tents, and the occasional flock of swallows or a roving turkey vulture careened out of the path of the swooping and diving planes. Gettler said the rules limit the height for flying to 400 feet, and only four aircraft can be up in the air at once.
On the sidelines with their remotes, pilots yelled out status reports.
“I got no power — I’m dead!”
Earlier, Geoff Caldarone suffered what he called a “class A mishap,” when one of his planes crashed and a wing fell off.
“Crashing is part of the hobby,” the 51-year-old engineer from Danvers said with a shrug.
Sitting on a pedestal next to him was a 2-pound foam warbird with a 44-inch wingspan, “Dallas Darling” painted on one side. Warbirds are his personal favorite, Caldarone said; he can perform rolls, loops, and Immelmann turns, “flying evasive maneuvers to get behind an enemy to shoot it down,” he said.
“It’s a great hobby. I’m in it deep now.”
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.