Like a pro golfer lining up his drive from the tee, Mark Byrne takes time to correct his posture, balance his weight and position his arms comfortably before beginning. Now he’s ready to go.
With the flick of a joystick, the large but lightweight airplane in front of him zooms across a flat Central Saanich field and lifts gracefully into the sky.
“It’s like ballet in the air,” Byrne says of his hobby, precision aerobatics with radio-controlled airplanes.
With a calm demeanour, the 50-year-old sends his brightly coloured plane away from Michell Airpark while performing loops and rolls and turns midair.
“We do a lot of the manoeuvres you see in a full-scale air show,” he says, listing off such moves as Cuban eights, stall turns and eight-point rolls integrated within the loop.
Piloting an RC aircraft, he says, is more difficult than taking the helm of an airplane.
“Flying full scale, you’re in control at the centre of the airplane. But with this, you’re on the ground just watching from a distance. Your mind’s trying to tell your fingers what to tell the airplane to do,” Byrne says.
Difficulty aside, the Saanich resident has been a competitive flier for half a dozen years and is representing Canada next week at the FAI World Championship in Muncie, Ind. The competition is the Olympics for model aircraft owners, he says.
Four Canadians, including fellow Saanichite Dave Reaville, will travel to Indiana for the Worlds, competing against some 90 other pilots from 32 different countries.
Canada fares relatively well on the international circuit, says Byrne, usually cracking the top-10 at the biennial World Championships. This will be his first time piloting at the competition and he’s looking forward to literally flying the flag for his country.
To help judges and spectators identify his plane in the air, Byrne’s painted a large Canadian flag on the underbelly of his craft.
“I’m really excited about representing Canada. It’s an honour,” he says.
“And you worked hard for it,” adds his wife, Robyn.
Though she doesn’t pilot planes like her husband, she’s just as immersed in the model aircraft culture. The couple used to work for a company that sold RC pieces. Robyn still works there while Mark is now employed building composite parts for full-sized airplanes.
“You need that support from home. She’s my No. 1 supporter,” Byrne says, acknowledging his wife. “For me, at the level I’m flying, it’s like a second job. After work, I’m out here practising for three, four hours a night. On weekends, it’s four to five hours a day.”
Practice and repetition are everything when you’re about to perform on the world stage. Every single pilot must fly the same 17-sequence routine in under eight minutes, and are judged solely on the accuracy of the manoeuvres. But presentation counts.
“Everyone flies it differently, but you try to use as much time as you can so it looks graceful, not rushed,” he says. “There’s no scoring for presentation, but you are trying to make it as presentable as possible, to differentiate from one manoeuvre to the next.”
Though Byrne considers it a sport, he also concedes it’s a hobby in which there’s very little money. Competitions are held almost exclusively for pride, honour and bragging rights, which is why he’s going in to the worlds with no anxiety.
“It’s a competition when you’re at the flight line, but I’m really only flying against myself,” he says. “There’s an amazing amount of pressure to get that flight perfect … But at the end of the day, the airplane is just a tool. The pilot, at some point, has to fly it.”