For 40 years, grown adults have been flying radio-controlled airplanes at the site of Forest Park's old Checkerboard Airfield. The Checkerboard RC Club ("RC" stands for Radio Controlled) has about 50 members who bring their handmade and kit-built aircraft out, weather permitting, to zoom, dip, flip and twirl. The airfield is now Miller Meadow South in the Forest Preserve across First Avenue from Loyola University Medical Center.
"What I love about the hobby is I enjoy building things," said club member and retired electrician John Ferentz. He's been tinkering with models since boyhood, when he created balsa wood models with rubber-band propellers. He's built many radio controlled birds.
"I build it and the bonus is, it flies too," he said. "My wife gives me so much support. She asks why am I spending all the time doing the detailing when I'm just going to crash it anyway?"
On April 24, the group held an afternoon "fun fly" in the Forest Preserve field. The windsock was raised and members lined up their replicas of the F4U Gull Wing Corsair (known as "Whistling Death" during World War II) an F22 Fighter plane, a Euro Jet, a Piper Cub and a single-wing plane decorated with the Red Baron Fokker iron crosses and others. The aircraft can be large or small. Ferentz said he once built a flyer with an 8-foot wingspan.
The Checkerboard Club gets its name from the airfield, built in 1919 - before Midway or O'Hare - by clothing merchants Decker and Cohen, who bought two World War I surplus Curtis JN4 "Jenny" airplanes.
"They painted checkerboards on the bottom of their planes so people would recognize them in the air," said Ferentz. The planes delivered Society Brand clothing to neighboring towns within 120 miles, according to www.franzosenbuschheritageproject.org.
In the 1920s, the field became an airmail field and was the site of the first nighttime airmail flight by pilot Jack White. Charles Lindbergh used to fly to the area from St. Louis. He had friends in Forest Park and would bunk there overnight. One eyewitness testified that he decided to make his solo transatlantic flight during one of these overnight stays.
By then the field was owned by Forest Parker David Behncke, who went on to become an airplane pilot union leader.
The late radio announcer Paul Harvey, who lived nearby in River Forest, was a member of the Checkerboard gang. "I discovered Checkerboard Field and this fascinating sport hobby simultaneously," he wrote. Harvey often joked that the Checkerboard Field was haunted by the ghosts of early aviators.
Radio technology for model airplanes has changed over four decades, most notably the radio frequencies used by aeronauts. In the 1970s, the 27 MHz frequency was invaded by CB radio enthusiasts, said Ferentz. Also, low-flying helicopters on their lifesaving emergency missions to the hospital would interfere with radio frequencies. Finally the FCC reserved 72 MHz for radio flyers. Today with digital frequencies, the radio controllers have a 2.4 GHz frequency that can lock onto the specific receiver in the aircraft, allowing joysticks more control.
Other improvements in radio aircraft are the electric engines powered by lithium polymer batteries, instead of two-cycle engines with nitromethane fuel, noted Ferentz, although radio batteries can sometimes go dead, as one disappointed flyer found out Tuesday.
Today's planes are made of either balsa wood covered in mylar or painted, or of expanded polystyrene foam. The kits are categorized as "Almost Ready to Fly" ARF, and "RTF" (Ready to Fly).
Gerardo Sulec, originally from Argentina, prefers foam "because if you can find all the pieces [after a crash] you can glue them back together." Sulec started out as a child, building "static models," but he longed to see them really fly. He actually took a ride in an aerobatic plane once but said his stomach couldn't handle it.
"I prefer to stay on the ground," he said.
Club members compete in skills such as stalling, timing glides, donut drops, ringing a target and balloon bursting. Ferentz says most club members are older, but young people are often surprisingly good at flying radio-craft. "They have joystick experience from video games," he says.
The club meets at the Forest Park Community Center monthly. This month, they shared their airplanes and some mini-hovercrafts with wide-eyed Forest Park Cub Scouts from Pack 109.
It's not an outrageously expensive hobby, said Ferentz.
"You can buy a basic kit for about $150 at a hobby store. I spend about $250 a year - that's as much as I'd spend on a weekend out."