Jay and Zhou tried to make up the time but it was no use. They had lost their rhythm. “One two three turn!” Zhou shouted with a crackle in his voice on pylon two. Jay made the turn but he had to cut his airspeed to make sure he did not muff it again.
Gold plane whipped ahead as if he had afterburners ignited, handily cutting pylons two, three and four. He finished the course and flew by the bleachers, dipped his wing to the crowd. They broke into cheers and applause. Whoever this guy is he’s a showoff, Jay thought. Gold streamed across the finish line.
Kent picked up his microphone and addressed the gathered onlookers in the stands. “We have a winner! Gold plane comes in first place during its first heat here at the airfield with a score of twenty four points! In second place green plane, piloted by Jay Smalley and Peter Zhou! Congratulations!”
“Tough break,” said Zhou. “Guy knows how to fly. We’ll nail him next time.”
Jay remained silent. He was in a funk. He circled the green Quickie and began his descent towards the tarmac. He brought her in on a normal glide path and tucked into a perfect landing attitude. The landing gear met the concrete and Jay taxied past the bleachers toward the main pit area. The main runway was backed up with a line of planes awaiting approval for take-off.
These were the participants for the next event, the monthly free fly. There was a Boeing Model 40 postal plane, a DC9, a B52 bomber, a P51 Mustang. Certainly a diversity of aircraft that would clog the throughput of any normal airport. But this was not any old airport. It was a miniature airport designed and approved by the Aeronautical Modeling Association (AMA) for remotely-controlled powered aircraft of five different categories: radio controlled fixed wing, heavier than two pounds (runway #1), radio controlled fixed wing, two pounds or less (runway #2) radio controlled helicopters and drones (helicopter pad) control-line aircraft (U-control circles).
Jay steered the green Quickie off the main runway and on to the taxiway. The main runway was about six hundred feet long, with three taxiways leading off its main artery. He and Zhou stepped out of their designated pilot stand and walked over to retrieve their aircraft. Jay closed the antenna on his remote transmitter as he walked. “I’m sorry,” he told Zhou. “I was a jerk back there. None of this was your fault. He just outflew me, that’s all.”
“Everyone’s entitled to an off day,” Zhou replied as he picked up the Quickie and inspected her for any damage. She had a wing span of fifty two inches and weighed about three and a half pounds. They walked over to the Pilot’s Pit, a covered area with benches and tables where pilots could tweak their aircraft, commiserate and talk shop. This was the “hangar” of the airfield. Next to the pilot’s pit was the snack shack where hungry remote-controlled aviators could purchase hot dogs, soda pops and other sustenance for a long day at the field.
“Jay! There’s someone I want you to meet!” yelled Kent as he climbed down from the tower. The tower was a former lifeguard station made of two by fours and plywood. It was painted a bright red, white and blue. Jay stopped in his tracks and turned back. Zhou followed, carrying the green Quickie.
They met Kent back at the pilot’s pit and he waved over a slim, fit, sun-tanned guy of about thirty-eight. He wore combat fatigue pants and a camo sweatshirt with a blue boonie cap. “Jay, I’d like you to meet Captain Oren Frazer. His dad and I flew Hueys in Vietnam. He’s a veteran Air Force officer in his own right. Recently retired and moved to our neighborhood.” Captain Frazer carried his gold Quickie: the one that had blown Jay and Zhou out of the water in the race.
“Nice heat,” Jay replied. “Pleasure to meet you.” He put out his hand and Frazer met it with a fist bump. “What kind of birds did you fly?”
“F15 Eagle, E11A, T-38 Talon and some experimental stuff that’s classified,” Oren replied.
“Where were you stationed?” asked Zhou.
“All over, really. I have flown all over the world,” Oren answered. “Again, some of my missions were classified.”
“Why did you retire so soon sir?” asked Jay. “Wouldn’t you rather be flying real birds?”
“Jay, I’m not sure that question is appropriate…” Kent averred.
“No, it’s okay!” Oren went on. “Of course I would rather fly real birds!” he said. “I had a bit of an injury. It’s fine now but it made me realize that I’ve got some other goals in my life that I want to pursue.”
“Sorry for prying, sir,” Jay apologized.
“No apology necessary.” Oren smiled.
“You can ask the Captain any other personal questions later,” Kent jibed.
“The flying field has always been my temple, my church and my gym. So expect to see a lot of me!” Oren took a step back behind Kent. “And please, call me Oren. None of this sir or Captain Frazer stuff.”
“And don’t feel bad that you lost, Jay! If you had to lose you might as well lose to the best in the business, right?” Kent quipped.
“Sure,” Jay said. Although it gave him little consolation. He needed to keep his stats high to remain on track to fly in the AMA youth scholarship competition. Kent and Oren walked off towards a brand new high end Winnebago in the parking lot. Many of the older, more affluent hobbyists would come to the airfield in mobile “man caves” where they could hang out and tinker with their aircraft in air conditioned comfort.
Jay and Zhou packed up their winning aircraft and placed it in its kit case. “He’s got a nice RV,” Zhou observed, as Kent and Oren entered the Winnebago.
“That thing’s got to be a 100K plus,” Jay noted. “How do you afford something like that on an Air Force pension?”
“It’s called credit,” Zhou replied.
“Yeah but the payments have got to be enormous!” Jay said.
“I don’t know,” Zhou remarked. “How do people afford houses? Cars? Boats? Maybe his family has money.”
“Maybe,” Jay said. He noticed the Winnebago had a trailer behind it. The canopy was off and on the trailer bed was a giant, one-fifth scale F16 jet. She was beautiful, with perfect combat green paint on the fuselage and wings and red, white and blue trim on the missiles and tail. It was obvious no expense had been spared on this rig.
Jay waited in the observation stands. Cassie picked up her aircraft and walked over. “Ready for your next lesson?”
“Okay Professor,” she joked as she approached Jay on the bleachers. She cradled the Hawker in her hands.
“You won’t need that,” Jay informed her as he pointed at the Hawker. “We’re going to be using this.” He showed off the Warbird and its steel cable system. Cassie looked over the plane with wires connected to its wing flaps.
“I didn’t sign up for kite flying,” she replied.
Jay shook his head and headed over to the control line pad, the part of the airfield specifically dedicated to control line flying. Cassie reluctantly followed. He treaded across the circular concrete pad to the center, where a painted ring enclosed the pilot area. He unraveled the spool of cable and walked the aircraft to the perimeter of the pad. Then he returned to the center, where Cassie waited. “Haven’t you ever flown control line before?” he asked.
“No,” she responded.
Jay handed her the horseshoe shaped handle for the cable line and went back to where the plane was. “Here’s what you do! You rotate in a counter-clockwise circle until the plane takes off and flies.” He flipped the switch on the Warbird and its propeller buzzed to life. “Go!” he yelled.
Cassie began to rotate her body counter-clockwise. The plane followed. Jay ran back to her side. “Keep your wrist rigid. Your control of the plane comes from pivoting at the elbow. Tilt your elbow up and the elevators go up.” He touched her and guided her elbow to remain close to her side, rigid. Her skin went electric at his touch. The plane went up into the air.
“Great!” he congratulated. “Keep rotating . Once you have reached a good cruising altitude you can level out the angle of your elbow and flatten out your attitude.”
She did so and the plane leveled off. “What now?” she inquired.
“Continue to rotate. Just keep an eye on the plane,” he said.
Cassie rotated around and around. It felt like one of her pirouettes in ballet class. “Where’s my throttle?” she asked Jay.
“There is none!” Jay answered. “Runs at only one speed!”
She kept her wrist locked and her elbow rigid. Around and around she went. The airfield began to spin around her.
“But how do I slow down the engine to land?” she asked, growing impatient with this exercise.
“ You don’t,” he retorted. “You fly until the plane runs out of fuel.” He was rotating with her, by her side. Almost as if they were dancing. He didn’t seem to be getting dizzy at all. The Warbird buzzed around them above.
“What is the point of this?” she asked.
“You’ll see,” he said.
She was seriously getting dizzy. This was above and beyond a pirouette now. She had circled at least twenty or thirty times. But she didn’t want to let on that it was bothering her. If it wasn’t bothering him how could it bother her? She wouldn’t give him the upper hand.
“Take the controls,” she said.
“I can’t,” he blurted.
“What do you mean you can’t? I’m about to spew!”
“The centrifugal force of the plane is strong right now. If I take the controls it might cause a crash.”
“If I spew it will definitely cause a crash!”
“This is not like handing over a remote transmitter!” he argued. “Transferring control of this aircraft is very dangerous!”
“I don’t care!” she replied. The Warbird started to jitter and jump, as if it had encountered some air turbulence.
“It’s almost out of fuel,” he said. “Just hang on.”
She hung on. Spinning. Trying to focus on the plane rather than the background. That helped. But she was losing it. The nausea welled up inside her. This must be what it feels like to be really, really drunk, she thought. Her stomach quaked, warning her it would eject its contents.
But then the Warbird’s engine quit. It no longer pulled the cable taut. She was able to navigate it down to the ground safely. She collapsed on the grass next to the concrete pad. Stared up at the sky. Her body was like a top, spinning. “You jerk!” she breathlessly shouted at Jay. “You did that on purpose!”
Jay sat down on the grass beside her. Offered her a can of chilled 7-Up. She held the cool aluminum can on her forehead. “Notice how the plane responded when you gave it a slight variation in your arm? That’s how a plane responds to a remote transmitter. Be light on the controls! You’re too heavy handed with your remote transmitter stick! It slows your plane down.”
“That’s it? That’s the lesson?” she reacted. “You could have told me that!”
Warner Center was a collection of office buildings built on the grounds of Jack Warner’s former movie ranch, not far from the airfield. Captain Oren Frazer drove his Jeep Wrangler into the parking lot next to a fifteen story office tower. The Wrangler had tow bar latches on its front bumper which made it easy to hitch to the rear of the RV. But today he was driving the Wrangler on a solo run.
Oren hopped out of the driver’s seat and pulled an Anvil case out of the rear hatch. Across the street was a park with a basketball court. It was empty for the moment. No pick-up games or lunchtime employee face offs. Oren put the Anvil case down on the park bench that bordered the court and opened it. Inside the case was the Penguin 808 military issue quadrocopter.
Above the basketball court, behind a grove of trees, a Bebop’s camera focused on the Penguin. Jay adjusted his camera through the viewfinder of his FPV goggles. He sat in the back seat of Dari’s postal vehicle.
“You’re really going to spy on your own mom?” Dari asked as he played Dragon Quest on his phone.
“Um, yeah! When her life is at stake? Sure,” Jay replied.
“You really got a severe paranoia problem,” Dari teased, although with a bit of sincerity.
“He’s got the Penguin 808!”
“So?” said Dari.
“That’s the one he uses to kill,” Jay remarked.
Oren hooked something up to the bottom of the Penguin. He strapped a box to the belly of the frame. “He’s got some kind of payload,” Jay observed. Dari yawned.
“Don’t you think that’s a little weird? He’s supposed to be having lunch with my mom and he brought a lethal weapon?”
“You’re trippin’ way too hard, bro. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.”
Oren sat down on the park bench and placed his FPV goggles on. They were Flysight Spexmans. Sort of like ski goggles, but with antennas on either side. The Penguin lifted into the air.
Jay pulled his Bebop to a hover position out of the trajectory of the Penguin. The Penguin veered south, towards the quad between four of the office buildings. Its cargo ominously hung from the bottom of its platform.
“What the hell is he up to?” Jay wondered out loud. He flew in pursuit, due south.
The Penguin buzzed along at an altitude of two hundred feet. It was definitely on a mission. On the far corner of the office quad was a Verizon cell phone store.
“Oh, no,” Jay moaned. The Penguin hovered above the Verizon store, as if waiting for someone. Its ominous payload hung from a suspension wire below it.
“What is it now?” Dari queried.
Becca exited the store wearing her company uniform: a polo shirt and khakis. She walked across the courtyard. The Penguin followed her.
“He’s hovering over mom!” Jay threw off the FPV goggles and ran down the sidewalk at a fast clip.
“Where are you going?” Dari murmured.
“Take the controls of the Bebop!” Jay yelled. “Bring it back down!”
Dari did as he was told. He slipped the goggles on his head. Sure enough, from this angle he could see Jay’s mom below, setting her purse down on a picnic table. She whipped out her cell phone and flipped through her Instagram feed.
The Penguin silently held its position above her. Jay yelled at her from the distance as he ran. “Mom!!!”
Becca looked up. Was that her son she heard?
“Mom! You need to move! Now!”
She squinted into the sun and caught a glimpse of Jay barreling towards her. “Jay? What are you doing here?!”
“Mom. Get up from the table and walk away! You are in danger!” Jay blurted. He was within a hundred feet of her now.
“What are you talking about?” she asked. Jay had a penchant for the dramatic. This was something she was used to.
“Take a look! Up there!” He pointed at the Penguin just as it dropped its payload. Jay grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away from the drop zone. The box sailed down to the ground. “Run!” he told her.
But Becca balked. The package hit the ground ten feet away from them. She broke free of Jay’s grip and walked towards the box.
“Mom! Don’t touch it! Stay away!” Jay warned. But she did not heed his warning. It was as if she had something to prove. She knelt down by the box and inspected it. Several office workers steered clear of the drama. They were used to crazy people shouting incoherently on the street. Move along. Nothing to see here. That was the policy of the day.
Becca opened the box. Looked inside. Jay moved back towards her. He was going to fall on this grenade. If soldiers could do it to save their comrades in wartime, Jay could do it to save his mom. But he arrived too late. Becca pulled the contents out of the box and revealed a cluster of white roses. The side of the box read Vineyard Florists.
“Oh my God that’s so sweet! He got me flowers,” Becca held the bouquet in her arms and sniffed the petals.