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Tiny airplanes dot the Thorold South skies

Every day, model airplane pilots gather at the border between Thorold and Niagara Falls for some aerial acrobatics; 'Flying is as close to magic as humans have ever come'

When driving down Thorold Townline Rd on a clear day, it's not uncommon to see tiny airplanes dotting the sky.

For over a decade, members of the Niagara Region Model Flying Club have been using a field, at the intersection with Upper's Ln, to perform all sorts of aerial stunts with their model airplanes.

Bill Michell has been a member of the club since 2006, and he has been building and flying model airplanes for over 50 years.

“It’s kind of a lifetime hobby for me,” Michell tells ThoroldToday. “The hobby today has become a lot of ready-to-fly stuff. Things were a little bit different back then. You had to build stuff from scratch and it was a real building hobby.”

While technology has advanced throughout the past few decades, the theory of flight has always stayed the same.

“What has changed are some instruction methods,” says Michell. “The engines are more efficient but the principles of flight haven’t changed at all.”

Starting out as a model airplane pilot can set you back around $800, which will get you a decent Almost Ready-to-Fly (ARF) model that needs little assembly.

If you want to take to the skies, you also have to invest in a good radio system and batteries, which can bring your total up to $1500. 

Club members say that when it comes to cost, it really depends on how much you’re willing to spend.

Another important factor to consider is the type of fuel you want to use.

We have three different fuels,” Michell says. “We have electric, we have nitro-methane and gasoline. We also have a couple of jets that use kerosene.”

Learning how to fly a model airplane can take quite a bit of practice, and new club members are expected to put in some training hours before they’re given full autonomy.

“They either have to train or demonstrate that they can fly a model,” says Michell. “That goes back to safety.”

Because of drones, air space rules have become stricter and this in turn has affected the club.

"It’s been a bit of an off-year for us," says Michell. "We couldn’t do any flying earlier in the year until we had some stuff sorted out and it was all about drones."

According to the new rules set out by Transport Canada, you have to register your airplane model online and obtain a pilot’s license to fly it.

Previously, the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada (MAAC) received an exemption from Transport Canada, but earlier this year that exemption was revoked.

MAAC is currently re-negotiating to bring back exemptions for MAAC-approved sites, such as the club grounds at Upper’s Lane.

Members of the Niagara Region Model Flying Club get together on their field on “any day the weather is good.”

In winter, when the weather is bad, they use local school gymnasiums to fly their planes.

“A big part of [the club] is the camaraderie,” says Michell. “Finding people with a common interest and just the social aspect is a big part of it, especially for the retired people.”

Attracting younger members to the club isn't as easy as it used to be, according to Michell.

“I think part of that is that for our generation flight was still a fantasy,” he says. “it was a big deal going into an airplane but now every kid has been on an airplane. It’s not a mystery.”

Club member Jaime Sarabia hopes to see the hobby gain more traction with younger people.

“Every airplane that you see at some point had a smaller version of it,” he tells ThoroldToday. “In the future we need to keep this hobby because newer generations are going to learn a lot from it.”

Sarabia is related to Francisco Sarabia, also known as the ‘Mexican Lindbergh,’ who broke Amelia Earhart’s flying record back in 1939.

“My whole family’s business revolves around aviation,” Sarabia says. “My grandfather owned real airplanes and all my uncles were pilots. [Francisco] broke Amelia Earhart’s record, from Mexico to New York non-stop. It was a huge deal in Mexico. Now the plane sits in a museum.”

Just like Sarabia, every club member has their own story of how they became fascinated with aviation. 

It’s that passion that bonds them, and it's the reason they come out to the field to fly their planes almost daily.

“Flying is as close to magic as humans have ever come,” says club member Brian Stavert. “It never gets old once you’re bitten by the bug.”

To join the club or look at more pictures of their planes in flight, head over the club's website.

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Bernard Lansbergen

About the Author: Bernard Lansbergen

Bernard was born and raised in Belgium but moved to Canada in 2012 and has lived in Niagara since 2020. Bernard loves telling people’s stories and wants to get to know those that make Thorold into the great place it is
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