Meet the Fairfield Aces at Bigelow Center for Senior Activities
Dr. Irwin Weisbrot, 86, of Norwalk, Art Fressola, 71, of Huntington, and Fred Schneider, 70, of Stratford, with their radio-controlled planes.
Photos by Mike Lauterborn
“Big boys with little toys” is how a visitor to Fairfield’s Bigelow Center for Senior Activities might describe the scene if they dropped by midweek and peeked in the gym. The description—of the men that make up the Fairfield Aces model airplane club—would be accurate, to an extent. Fairfield Magazine was lucky to do an instrument check with head Ace Rick DeAngelis.
A resident of Fairfield for 63 years and lifelong model plane enthusiast, 79-year-old DeAngelis founded the group in 2002, with six initial members. Today, the club has 24 participants, half of whom are former pilots and the rest hobbyists. They meet at the center every Wednesday afternoon from 1 to 3:15 to socialize and fly a mix of radio-controlled (RC) planes, small rubber band-powered planes called P-Nuts and larger, Open Scale planes.
DeAngelis is no fly-by-night ace either. He served in the U.S. Air Force 1956-58, entering as a corporal and retiring as a sergeant, and functioning as a Chinese language translator. He would accompany a crew as they flew along the China coast and intercept and translate radio communications, gathering ELINT—a shortened moniker for electronic intelligence. He was based in South Korea and, in off-hours, would build model planes and enter them in contests on the base.
Post-service, DeAngelis worked with the NSA (National Security Agency) then used his GI bill to earn a degree in history from Fairfield University and teach at Roger Ludlow High School (now Fairfield Ludlowe High School). Later, he earned a doctorate in Chinese History and taught the subject at Fairfield University, from 1971 until he retired in 2009.
When DeAngelis formed the Aces, there was a larger, national model airplane hobbyist group in play called the Flying Aces, co-founded by Dave Stott of Bridgeport. DeAngelis could have joined but wanted to be more under the radar, so he created his own independent group.
At that time, micro RCs were a developing trend, though DeAngelis’ group favors the larger RC planes and stick-and-tissue aircraft. To explain, a P-Nut can’t have more than a 13-inch wingspan and can be bought as a kit or built from plans, out of balsa wood, tissue paper, wire for landing struts, plastic for the propeller and rubber for the wheels. A Bostonian is a P-Nut with a 16-inch wingspan, a cockpit compartment that must fit a three cubic inch space and windshield, to look like a real prototype airplane. Open Scale is any plane above an 18-inch wingspan and mostly flown outdoors as indoor spaces are often too tight to make circles.
With regard to the RCs the group flies, they tend to be even larger, though still lightweight, with receivers that might be an inch square. Rick owns six RCs with wingspans that are 48 inches or more and powered by nine- to 12-volt batteries. He also owns four “schoolyard” scale RCs and five or six P-Nuts.
Model airplane enthusiasm runs in the DeAngelis family. “My mother’s father knew Gustave Whitehead”—now credited with the first manned flight, which took place in Bridgeport in early 1901—“and remembered him talking about his ‘machine.’”
While DeAngelis’ three sons didn’t get the model airplane bug, his two grandsons have embraced them. DeAngelis can’t wait until they are a bit older, to show them how to build and fly some of the more complex planes.
Meanwhile, DeAngelis is furthering his own education. He and his fellow Aces attend the Northeast Electric Aircraft Technology Fair (NEAT), held every September in Shinhopple, New York, which is the nation’s largest gathering of electric model aircraft fans. “There are a lot of engineers and gurus that attend, like Joe Malinchak, an airline pilot, who builds RC planes, like a little P-51 Mustang with a four-inch wingspan that weighs six grams, is battery powered and has full controls,” says DeAngelis. “These guys keep pushing the envelope to go smaller. Another trend is to build little five-millimeter motors that propel model planes to move like jets.”
Reflecting on his group, DeAngelis remarked, “We’re all airplane nuts. It’s amazing to build them and see how they fly. You’re doing all the basic things you would do to build a real airplane.”