By Alix Norman
Aeromodelling. Is it a hobby or an obsession?” I ask in an effort to understand these boys and their toys. “Neither!” replies Chris vehemently. “It’s a lifestyle!” This is my introduction to the world of remote control aeroplanes – better known as aeromodelling – which rules the lives, loves and conversation of the three men I’m interviewing today.
There’s Chris Philotheou, whose passion for planes is only equalled by his passion for food – he’s a renowned chef who’s studied all over the world. There’s Notis whose day job as a Senior First Officer with Cyprus Airways sits well with his weekend hobby. And then there’s Luke Loucaides – a lawyer by trade, a pilot at heart.
All three are the best of friends and – it transpires – the fiercest of rivals. Constantly ribbing one another and disparaging each other’s skills, they’re pilots of long standing when it comes to Cyprus’ burgeoning aeromodelling scene. With several airfields around the island, new exponents of the art are taking to the skies each week, in a hobby that should clearly only be attempted by the single or those whose partners are exceedingly understanding. It’s not just that learning to fly a remote control plane takes innumerable weeks of one’s life – imagine trying to play the a violin, trumpet and piano all at the same time and you’ll get an idea of the manual dexterity and complete focus needed to control a model plane – it’s the frequency with which the planes tend to malfunction, collapse and shed bits of wing that takes up time.
“You can’t be an aeromodeller without a workshop,” says Chris, whose house-sized space is packed to the rafters with tools, electronic circuitry and chunks of what – at first glance – appear to be devices of torture, but in actuality are probably bits of engine. He’s even got a cappuccino machine in one corner, to sustain his friends during the long hours they spend poring over their planes. Notis’ workshop is slightly smaller, and much better organised, while Luke has laid claim to a spare bedroom whose wallspace is taken up completely by ranks of planes – each one longer than my height. I’m astounded by the number of planes he has, especially when I hear the average cost – at over 3,000 euros for a basic kit, and more for the engine and peripherals – it’s not a hobby that comes cheap. “But this is only my home workshop,” he grins, “I’ve got another two storehouses across town for the planes I’m not fixing up right now!”
All grown men, the three have all been aeromodelling for most of their lives. While Luke was following in his father’s footsteps, Chris was bitten by the bug at the age of five when “my dad bought me a static model. We lived in Egypt, and we needed something to keep us busy during the very hot days of summer and the cold days of winter, and building planes was the ideal diversion.” A holiday in Cyprus and a trip to Mavros brought him a U-Line plane, and then as a teenager in the States he procured his first remote control model. “I’ve been hooked ever since; that’s 37 years that I’ve been both flying and building radio controlled planes.”
Notis’ journey has been similar, at 11, “I bought myself an RC kit, built the plane and flew it every Saturday. The hockey field at the English School was the only place you could fly in those days.”
As a qualified pilot, I seek Notis’ opinion on how model planes differ from the real thing: “It’s exciting flying actual jets,” he muses, “but it’s still a job with exacting standards and safety procedures. With RC models you get to do all the things you can’t do on a real jet – fly really low, climb really fast. You’re free.
“However, it’s not a team sport,” he adds. “You build the plane yourself, you fly it, you crash it. You can only blame or laud yourself.” And then he gives me an interesting insight into their world: “The way you build your plane, the way you fly it: it’s you, it’s your character.” He mentions that Chris, despite his larger-than-life persona, is actually a very conservative flyer: “He doesn’t take risks, he’s more detail-oriented than I am. And Luke is a quality modeller – he can build and fly anything. But he crashes. A lot.”
Out on the airfield, I watch Luke’s jet soar and swoop as he puts the machine through a whirlwind of intricate movements. But there’s no sign of a crash, despite Chris’ and Notis’ assurance that the inevitable is just a moment away. Instead, there’s a three dimensional ballet in the sky, beautiful to see as he carefully syncs from one complicated manoeuvre to the next, completely focused on the world above his head. There’s a rare silence from the other two while they watch, and it’s only when he’s safely brought the plane to land that the predictable chaffing breaks out.
As I’m regaled with anecdotes of flaming engines, falling wheels and electronic malfunctions that have all resulted in fiery aeronautical demises in the nearby cornfields, I can’t help but wonder what drives anyone to risk such catastrophe – both in terms of vanity and financial loss – on a weekly basis. “It’s the freedom,” says Luke, echoed by rare agreement from his friends. “You’re challenging the elements. Something you’ve created yourself from nuts and bolts is defying gravity. And when you’re out there, it’s just you and your craft, nothing else matters. It’s a moment of pure serenity.” Now that, I can understand.