Flying remote control helicopters is becoming more and more popular. Stuart Anderson met a group of enthusiasts to find out more.
As his helicopter ducks and swerves around the hall, Andy Duckworth is totally fixated on his controls.
The machine turns upside down and its controller allows it to hover there for almost a minute before flipping it back over and letting it descend to a perfect landing.
‘Helicopter flying is best described as a mind game,’ Andy says after his machine is safely on the ground.
‘It’s not really that difficult to do – you just have to stop worrying about crashing it.
‘The more confident you are the better you get.’
Andy, 37, from Fareham, is one of about 20 enthusiasts who have come along to a twice-weekly meeting at Fareham Models in Portchester.
To the side of the hall is a shop, crammed with remote-controlled helicopters, planes cars and boats.
The atmosphere is relaxed as visitors swap stories and advice about flying their machines.
But the presence of a couple of full-sized yachts at the back of the hall tell me there’s something more going here than a mere meeting of hobbyists.
‘It’s not quite what it seems,’ says Mike Wood, who set up the hall in 2010.
Mike, 68, from Bridgemary, says Fareham Models is a spin-off of the Disabled Sailors’ Association, which runs yachts and dinghies for people with disabilities.
‘We were all interested in radio-controlled models and we started playing around with them in here,’ Mike remembers.
‘It gradually got bigger and bigger and we were able to open a charity shop – except instead of selling clothes, we sell models.’
Mike, who is chairman of the association, says the shop raises hundreds of pounds a month, which goes towards an annual target of £150,000 he and his wife, Irina, have to raise each year to keep the boats for the disabled sailing.
Along with the helicopter meetings, there is one evening a week for racing remote-controlled cars around a track, and people can drop by any time during the day to use the hall for a small fee.
‘Everything we make here goes straight into the trust,’ says Mike.
‘This is nice because it’s money for the charity that comes from having fun.’
Mike says most of the people who come along to helicopter night are in their 30s or over and are re-capturing the kind of hobby they might have had growing up.
‘If you look around you see most of the boys here are a little bit older, or middle-aged,’ Mike says.
‘Instead of having motorbikes and sportscars they play with their model toys.’
But younger model fans, says Mike, are also very welcome.
‘One of our favourite things we do is the young engineers’ course.
‘The youngsters who take part all buy a car and on the first Saturday morning we have them take their cars to pieces.
‘Over the following months they then put their models back together so they can race them.’
Mike says that while remote-controlled cars have been popular since the 1980s, helicopters are the real growth market.
He says: ‘The engineering in the helicopters is amazing.
‘Some of them are more complicated than some of the real ones, and they can go almost twice the scale speed of the real ones.’
A decent remote-control helicopters can cost as little as £100 and from there, says Mike, ‘the sky’s the limit’.
Increasingly popular are ‘quad’ helicopters with four rotors.
‘They’re incredibly sophisticated,’ says Mike.
‘If you switch the transmitter off when they’re in flight they can remember where they took off from and fly back to that spot.’
An inspirational journey
It was a motorcycle accident in 1978 that changed Mike Wood’s life forever.
Left with a damaged spinal cord, Mike was paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.
But as those who know him would say, ‘confined’ is a misnomer as Mike has achieved more in a wheelchair than few fully able-bodied people ever do.
He took up athletics in the 1980s and become one of Britain’s top athletes, representing the country in shot putt, discus, javelin, triathlon and archery and winning many international gold medals.
‘We used to have a great time travelling around Europe and competing,’ Mike says.
It was in 1989 that he discovered a passion for sailing yachts.
‘At one international meeting it was so hot and someone asked me if I wanted to go sailing.
‘They put me in a little dingy and said: “pull this to go, let it go to stop, steer with this and then bring it back when you finished”.’
But on returning to Britain, Mike found few opportunities for people with disabilities to get on to the water.
‘I was told that if it wanted to go sailing I need to get off my backside and do it myself.’
Working with a small team, Mike built Verity K, the world’s first completely wheelchair-accessible cruising yacht, and she was launched by Princess Anne in 1996.
In 2000 a wheelchair-accessible cruising catamaran called
Scott Bader was also put into service.
The Disabled Sailors’ Association charity now takes more than 2,000 people with disabilities sailing each year.
Mike works with team of about 10 volunteers to keep the boats seaworthy and the charity running smoothly.
The yachts can be lifted into the Fareham Models hall by crane for maintenance and repairs.
Mike says the specially-designed vessels are unique.
‘It’s mainly schools and centres from around the county that use them, but we do get visitors from all over the world,’ he says
There are also wheelchair-accessible dinghies, which Mike says people with disabilities can loan and use for as long as they like.
At a glance
Where: Cranleigh Road, Portchester, PO16 9DR.
When: The hall and shop are open from 9am to 6pm Tuesdays to Fridays, 9am
to 5pm on Monday and Saturday and 10am to 4pm on Sunday. A session just for ‘Mardave’ model cars happens Tuesday night from 6pm to 9pm and helicopter nights are Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9am to 6pm.
Cost: It costs £4 to use your own car, helicopter or indoor plane at the hall, and £4 to rent one of the shop’s cars.
Contact: Phone 01329 280 308 or 07506 686 364, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
A dream job for Rik
Rik Bowley admits that sometimes he feels like ‘a kid in a sweet shop’.
The 44-year-old from Bridgemary manages the shop at Fareham Models, which he says is a bit of a dream job.
‘The main thing is that I’m into helicopters, so I’m like a kid in a sweet shop here,’ he says.
‘A lot of other people say they’ve got their dream job, but what could be better than playing with toys all day?
‘You get to see all the new stock as it comes in.
‘Every day is different and I really enjoy it.’
Rik says he got into flying model helicopters just over three years ago.
He remembers: ‘I got a toy one for Christmas and then somebody asked me: “have you been down here to look at this shop?”
‘So then I came down and it started from there.’
As well as flying the models, Rik says he enjoys building the machines up from scratch.
‘I’ve built some myself, he says.
‘I get them unassembled and make the whole thing. It can take a good three or four days if you ‘ve got all the parts.’
Learning to fly
An important thing about flying model helicopters, says Kevin Knight, is not to rush things.
The 46-year-old from Fareham says he started coming to Fareham Models in October last year, after he had bought an ‘overly large helicopter’
‘It was way out of my price league and abilities,’ he laughs.
‘The second time I did it I took my eye off the ball and hit something and broke it into lots of little pieces.’
But the mishap didn’t put him off, and Kevin was soon back at the hall having bought a smaller ‘120’ helicopter.
He uses a 12-foot-long apparatus called a training arm, which Fareham Models has so that people can get used to hovering their miniature whirly birds without fear of crashing.
Kevin says he enjoys the friendly atmosphere at the hall.
‘You walk through the door and everyone’s your mate. There’s good banter, and everyone helps you as much as they can.
‘We’re all here to enjoy ourselves and learn how to fly a helicopter nicely.’
‘You have to learn to trust your instincts’
Andy Duckworth says he has progressed quickly since he started flying model helicopters about a year ago.
‘I started with the little ones and once I stopped crashing them I bought bigger ones. That’s the danger of the hobby.’
Andy says the key to flying a model helicopter well is about learning to trust your reflexes.
He says: ‘As soon as you start thinking about it too much you need to land it.
‘Learning to hover is the hard bit and once you can do that it’s quite easy to do things that look impressive.
‘I occasionally overreach myself and stick one into the ground, but I haven’t done that with a big one, touch wood.
‘Doing it well is really all a confidence game.’