On nice days at Schiller Woods, a chunk of forest preserve a few miles east of O’Hare Airport’s runways, primary-colored model planes, some with wingspans over eight feet, soar through the cobalt sky. The pilots—beefy men in ball caps and aviator glasses—command these ersatz aircraft with joysticks on radio transmitter boxes.
“The planes look like magnificent birds in the sky, cruising around in freedom,” says Les Schier, president of the Radio Signal Modelers Flying Club. The group maintains the Schiller Woods Model Airplane Field, a 300-by-75-foot grass landing strip at Cumberland Avenue and Irving Park Road. “It’s fun to fly planes,” adds Schier, a 69-year-old otolaryngologist with a no-nonsense John Wayne timbre, “and it’s fun to hang out and bullshit with your friends.”
The 40-year-old club has 60 dues-paying members. Roughly 100 other aviation enthusiasts use the mini airfield, one of about a dozen in Chicagoland, Schier says. Many of the pilots have experience flying commercial or private aircraft. Club VP Mike Reinhart, 59, used to rent four-seater Cessnas and Piper Cherokees, although he hasn’t flown a real plane for more than a decade. “I’m getting older and flying is a young man’s sport,” he says. But the challenge of radio-controlled flight gives him his fix. “It requires a lot of skill, like playing the violin,” Reinhart says. “Takes a good year to get the knack.”
The planes, powered by gas motors or high-efficiency lithium polymer batteries, weigh up to 25 pounds and fly as fast as 100mph. “These are not toys and they can be dangerous,” Schier says. “You flip the propeller by hand to start your plane, and we’ve had occasional broken fingers.”
But the most painful aspect of model flight can be watching a prized plane crash and burn. “It’s always a tense moment when a fella maidens his new pride and joy,” Schier says. “Sometimes the damage is repairable, and sometimes you bring the plane home in a shopping bag.”
If you want to earn your wings with minimum nosedive risk, the veteran radio pilots are happy to show you the ropes, although the club’s website warns, “No impatient, know-it-all or reckless flyers will be tolerated.” Schier recommends dropping by the airfield midmorning or late afternoon on weekdays or anytime on a Saturday or Sunday and introducing yourself to the old-timers. While no loaner planes are available, the vets give tips on the best models for beginners and teach via a “buddy box” system that functions like a student-driver car.
Every summer, the club hosts “fun fly” parties at the forest preserve, firing up barbecue grills and vying for prizes in “power-off gliding,” stunt flying, balloon pop and airplane limbo competitions. There are also fancy-flying demos. “Some of the skilled pilots can really put on a show, flying in formation and doing tandem loops,” Reinhart says. “It’s almost like a miniature Chicago Air and Water Show.”
Does the Federal Aviation Administration know the club is operating a mini O’Hare in the flight path of the real airport? “Oh, yeah,” says Elizabeth Isham Cory, spokeswoman for the FAA’s regional office. “The airspace around O’Hare is controlled, so those guys know they need to keep their model planes below a certain altitude. They know to stay out of the way.”