Summer pastimes: Hobby takes Briport teen soaring into the sky
BRIDPORT — Before he enters his freshman year of college in the fall, Matthew Becker has a busy summer ahead of him. The recent graduate of Middlebury Union High School will spend the workdays helping out in the pro shop at the Ralph Myhre Golf Course in Middlebury, collecting balls on the driving range, maintaining and cleaning a fleet of carts and teaching golf at a camp for six- to 11-year-olds.
But on Thursday evenings and the weekends, the 18-year-old will head to an open field or across Lake Champlain to Crown Point, N.Y., where he’ll spend an afternoon experiencing the thrill of flight with his feet planted on the ground.
As the builder and flier of model aircraft, it’s a thrill he looks forward to every summer when the school year’s commitments (he was a captain of the Tiger cross country team, a track and field athlete, National Honor Society Member and valve trombonist in the MUHS jazz band) come to a close. While he may be working, Becker’s free time is dedicated to collecting, assembling, maintaining and — most importantly — flying these model aircraft.
“It’s something that I’ve always done,” he said. “I used to play hockey and I used to play soccer, but I’ve always come back to airplanes.”
Becker first experienced this miniaturized form of flight when he was eight years old at an event organized by the Champlain Valley Fliers Club. It is a local chapter of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a 79-year-old organization based in Muncie, Ind., that serves as the collective voice for approximately 175,000 modelers in 2,400 clubs in the United States and Puerto Rico. The AMA acts as a liaison between clubs and the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission and other government offices. AMA also provides some insurance in the event of a crash.
Becker learned to fly with the help of a “buddy box,” a pair of remote controls linked together that allow two flyers to take turns piloting an aircraft through maneuvers (the device also allows a more a experienced flyer to quickly take over in the event of an imminent crash). He continued to go to their gatherings and bought his first plane shortly after that first meet.
For someone with an interest in flight and science, the motorized miniatures were an attractive hobby.
“They’re such complex machines and they’re basically miniature versions of the full-scale thing,” he said. “The idea of being able to do everything that a full-size plane does is really impressive to me.”
His collection now includes four to five models of varying sizes that are ready to fly, plus several more in need of repairs. The largest has a wingspan of six feet and uses a 40cc engine (roughly the size and power of a chainsaw motor, he says). Some of these planes have come from club members looking to downsize their own collections.
Becker flies his planes weekly during the summer with the Champlain Valley Flyers Club, where members bring model planes designed for speed and acrobatic maneuvers (Becker’s personal preference), while others make models of historic planes like B-17 Flying Fortresses or 747 jumbo jets with miniature jet turbines. The wingspans on some of the larger planes can be 12 or 14 feet. During the summer, he’s able to fly twice a week with the club and participates in larger events, including one on Memorial Day and at an event for larger replicas in Westport, N.Y.
While Becker is many years younger than many of his fellow club members, he said the age difference has never been an obstacle.
“They really enjoy having me around, they have a lot of knowledge and they’re happy to share what they know to help me fly or repair a plane,” he said.
By practicing with the buddy box and computer flight simulators, he’s developed an understanding of the throttle, elevator, rudder and the ailerons that can cause the plastic and plywood planes to swoop to heights of up to 400 feet, spin barrel rolls in rapid succession at 60 miles per hour and bring some of the larger models in for controlled landings using landing gear.
“A lot of the learning curve comes in the first three or four years,” he said.
MATT BECKER STANDS with one of the larger radio-controlled airplanes he has in his “fleet.” Becker, who just graduated from Middlebury Union High School, will be studying mechanical engineering at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in the fall.
In addition to learning the maintenance of the planes and all their working parts, Becker says his experience with the planes has been a hands-on physics experiment, demonstrating the principals of drag, thrust and lift as much as his final physics class at MUHS.
This spring, Becker’s passion paid off in the form of a $6,000 college scholarship from the AMA. Becker was selected from a pool of 50 applicants from around the country and was the first student from Vermont to be selected in the scholarship’s history. The news of his selection, he said, came as a surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting it because the reward was being able to fly these machines and getting to know the guys at the field that were already generous,” he said. “Getting that generosity back from the Academy of Model Aeronautics was really impressive.”
Becker plans to use the award to pay for tuition in his first year of college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he plans to major in mechanical engineering. While he anticipates it may be difficult to fit some of his larger models in the trunk of a car along with everything else he’ll need for his first year of school, he plans to stay active in a local R/C club (as the Radio Control model clubs are known) or flying his planes when he returns home. Becker says he hopes to pursue a career in the aeronautics industry, designing aircraft for military or commercial manufacturers like Northrop Grumman, Boeing or Lockheed Martin.
Through his experience with constructing the models, Becker said he’s more interested in designing aircraft, but says getting a private pilot’s license is also a possibility.
“I really enjoy aircraft and this is the way I can do that without getting into private, full-scale aircraft, which is extremely expensive.” he said. “But this, comparably, is not as much.”
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