FRONTLINE: Obsessions

Fly Guys
Want the buzz on the nation’s oldest radio-controlled airplane club? It’s over your head.

Fly Guys
Want the buzz on the nation’s oldest radio-controlled airplane club? It’s over your head.

Larry Scaggs, Russ Anderson and Harry Lawton are like boys with their fishing rods on a summer afternoon—only they’re older and their toys are bigger. The rods these men manhandle are stuck in a radio transmitter that’s controlling the model planes soaring above their heads. And to hear one of their engines rev, it’s obvious they would scare away any fish within earshot.

All are part of the Valley Forge Signal Seekers Radio Controlled Model Airplane Club (VFSS), one of the largest and oldest of its kind in the United States. Founded in 1959 and with 250 current members, the organization is fast approaching its 50th anniversary.

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“Most likely we’re going to have a big celebration,” says Walter Pierzchala, a former club president who lives in Broomall.

Today members have gathered at their normal spot in Valley Forge National Park, but Pierzchala can’t stay long today. He has to tend to his wife, who broke her leg at his 80th birthday party when she fell from a stage while announcing the cutting of the cake. “We have them older than [80],” Pierzchala says.

Like Joe Weizer, an 84-year-old former World War II bomber pilot. Lawton, 76, is a retired construction superintendent. “I’m one of the youngsters,” he says.

Other members are retired orthopedic surgeons, dentists and engineers. Pierzchala was a microbiologist who worked for a pharmaceutical company.

“We have boys, girls, old, young—lots of crazy guys. A couple joined recently, and so did a mother and son,” says Scaggs, the club’s treasurer, who lives in Villanova and is usually here on weeknights. “We all have the bug,” adds fellow member Mike Keppler.

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Pierzchala’s interest in remote-controlled planes took off at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. There in the airplane pavilion, he was hooked. He bought and built a kit airplane, then began flying it. Now he has a brand-new plane, a Tiger-60 (a 60-cubic-centimeter engine) he’s waiting to test fly in warmer weather.

Scaggs takes out a wind gauge. It reads 8.5 mph. It’s 57 degrees, but he says it’s too cold. A few minutes pass. He tries again. The wind’s decreasing, so he thinks he’ll give it a go with his Hobbico Hobbistar 60 MKIII, a 60-cubic-centimeter sport-scale, all-wood airplane.

“That wind’s still squirrelly up there,” Keppler says.

Scaggs’ engine cuts out on him just over a minute into flight. “I should have 32 minutes worth of fuel,” he says after landing it. “I don’t know what’s wrong with this guy.”

Typically, rain and wind are the club’s only enemies. Well, that and old age and illness. Some members are late on the scene today: Longtime member Bob Dolan isn’t doing well, and so several Signal Seekers have gone to visit him at a veterans’ hospice in Coatesville. “We’re talking about doing one last show on the lawn there for him,” Scaggs says.

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Dolan died a week later, a day before the planned fly.

Scaggs has eight planes, but he doesn’t want his wife to know. Keppler’s just starting, so he’s still working with certified club instructor Joe Pasquini. In his 80s, Pasquini has Parkinson’s, so his hands shake—except when he’s controlling a plane.

“You ought to see him control a plane,” Keppler says.

TYPICAL STARTUP COSTS for radio-controlled planes can run between $400 and $500 for a fixed-wing aircraft, $700 for a helicopter and $250 for a glider. These costs include insurance, club membership ($35, plus an initial $10 registration fee) and all the equipment and supplies. “It’s not bad,” Keppler says. “But then, I spent $2,000 more for the computer to run some related software, then $35,000 on a vehicle to transport the planes,” Club members are chartered and insured by the Academy of Model Aero-nautics. The club’s training program uses a buddy box, so a newcomer can share a dual control with a qualified instructor.

“If he gets into trouble, with a flick, the instructor takes over instantly,” Pierzchala says.

“You want to do it right the first time,” adds Keppler. “You don’t just want to get a plane and crash it.”

He knows first-hand that the hobby isn’t without hazards. Keppler clipped his right thumb on a propeller blade the week prior.

“They’re sharp,” he says. “I said, ‘Ouch,’ then wrapped it in a paper towel, put all my stuff away and went home. I know I learned one new thing last week: Carry a first-aid kit in the car.”

Keppler was back today, but without a plane to fly.

When it’s busy here—like during its two Fun Flys in June and September, which draw 100-plus planes, their pilots and as many onlookers for a cookout—protocol is posted on the flight field’s pin board. There, members hang their identification cards and the radio channel (frequency) they’re on. That’s so no one else flies on the same channel, which would cause an air disaster. Only five planes fly at a time.

“It’s always a gentleman’s agreement,” Pierzchala says. “You give me 15 minutes, then I give you yours.”

The park’s flying field, which has a 100,000-square-foot runway, is bordered by the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which runs parallel to it, the park superintendent’s residence beyond a great old white oak tree, and a winding Route 252.

“An airplane is up in one of those trees down the road,” member Gene Gifford says. “It’s been there a week. It caught too much wind, and the guy was on his lunch hour, so he didn’t have time to chase it.”

Valley Forge’s Gifford is a typical VFSS member. He flew full-size airplanes in the U.S. Navy, then for 33 years with TWA. “But I haven’t been able to fly these too well,” he says. “I just come to talk to the guys.”

Members fiercely defend their flying field. In fact, today they stop a rocket launch near the decibel-testing area. Rockets aren’t allowed, especially near high grass. Plus, the wind is carrying to the turnpike. After a mild scolding, the father and son have their curiosity peaked and watch the Signal Seekers fly awhile. “From a rocket to an airplane,” Gifford remarks.

“They’re going backwards.”

Soon after, two men on horseback nearly cross the flying field the club just spent $300 to roll flat. Pierzchala saves the day. “I asked them if they would go around,” he says. “But, sure, a plane comes down and it hits in one of those hoof marks.”

VFSS mows and maintains the field and the safety islands—or buffers—between runways where the hobbyists walk out their planes. The grass there is purposely maintained at 10 inches, serving as a soft crash-landing area in the event one’s needed.

Flying hours for fixed-wing powered airplanes and helicopters are from 9 a.m. to sunset Monday-Saturday and from 2 p.m. until sunset on Sundays. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays, the field belongs to radio-controlled sailplanes.

The field is available to non-members with a one-day pass from the visitors’ center. “You must fly by our rules and the park rules. We’re not restricting anyone, but you must comply,” Pierzchala says. “We don’t want to lose this field.”

The club’s logo is apropos: It features a man dressed in colonial garb, transmitter in hand. Up in the sky is his airplane. In the background, there’s a log cabin and an American flag.

Devon’s Russ Anderson arrives at the field while on a 15-minute break from work. “I haven’t eaten anything all day, but I have time to fly,” he says. “I guess I shouldn’t fly on an empty stomach.”

Keppler gives him a pack of peanut butter crackers and he’s off, promising to return when work ends at 4:30 p.m.

VFSS member Steve Kolet arrives with Harold Harrison, who he describes as an “incredible builder.” Harrison has a basement full of airplanes. “And I’m going to build another one,” he says.

Harrison even carves wooden pilots to go in the planes. “And they all look like him—bald,” says Kolet, a past chief flight instructor for the club who now lives in Virginia. “I requested one, but he made the pilot look like me. So we added a back seat in my plane for one that looked like him—with ‘Old Bald Pilot’ on his shirt.”

For more about Valley Forge Signal Seekers, visit

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