You can join the fun with these Tampa Bay area groups:
1. SPARKS RC, St. Petersburg flies near Interstate 275 and Roosevelt Boulevard. sparksrc.org
2. Largo Flying Club flies at Eighth Avenue SE and Donnigan Road.largoflyingclub.com
3. Tampa Radio Control Aircraft flies at 7208 Taylor Road, Seffner. (813) 965-1281. trac_tampa.homestead.com
4. Hernando Aero Modelers Inc. flies near State Road 98, 1/4 mile west of Citrus Way, near Brooksville. hamrc.com
5. Bay City Flyers flies off State Road 52, roughly 4 miles east of U.S. 41, near Land O'Lakes. (813) 882-4007. baycityflyers.com
6. West Pasco Model Pilots Association flies at 13749 Gladstone Drive in Odessa. wpmpa.org
Just off Interstate 275, helicopters fly upside down and F-16 fighter jets streak across the sky. Daredevil pilots perform stunts with classic World War II aircraft so powerful they can hang in midair.
These pilots love their field, with its 375-foot runway designed especially for radio-controlled model airplanes and helicopters. And they love using wits, wings, gas, batteries, radio waves and even jet engines to fly their increasingly sophisticated miniature aircraft.
"It's my life, basically," said Sam Ackley, 52, president of the SPARKS RC flying club with about 300 active members in the Tampa Bay area. "I build them, I repair them, I fly. It's everything. Next to my wife, it's the most important thing there is."
But their hobby could go into a tailspin.
Pinellas County has warned the club of the "strong possibility" that it will have to leave the field, on the site of St. Petersburg's old Toytown Landfill at I-275 and Roosevelt Boulevard, by year's end. The county is negotiating with developers who want to turn the old dump into a $1-billion megaproject with housing, retail and office space.
"The rumors have been flying around here for years that we may be losing the field," Ackley said. "Now it looks like the rumors may become reality."
The closest comparably sized field is in Sarasota, though there are smaller ones in Tampa, Brooksville and Land O'Lakes. Club members say they hope to persuade the county to let them keep using it as long as possible, or even ask the developer to incorporate it into the redevelopment.
The most popular flying sites tend to be big fields away from housing developments, because the noise from some of the gas-powered aircraft can be disturbing to neighbors. But these spots are becoming harder to find as more of the Tampa Bay area becomes developed.
At the same time, it is actually getting easier to fly certain types of model aircraft in city limits, said Wes De Cou, western regional flying site coordinator for the Academy of Model Aeronautics.
Advances in battery and motor technology mean electric-powered aircraft have grown much more powerful, and they don't make as much noise as gas-powered ones.
What's all the fuss about?
To discover why so many grownups care about toy airplanes with price tags that can go up to $10,000, you need only spend an afternoon watching some of these pilots fine-tune their machines.
"It's infinitely challenging,'' said Derek Khaw, 44, of Tampa, while tinkering on a helicopter outfitted with sophisticated devices to keep it level.
"Every time you go up, you get excited," said Ackley, of Seminole. "You know it's going to go up and sometimes you don't know how it will come down. Sometimes it's a pile of sticks when you get done with it."
In the old days, tech-minded kids spent weeks building motorized model airplanes, and then promptly crashed them. Now, people learn how to fly model airplanes the same way commercial and military pilots learn — with computer simulators.
Some of the newest airplanes are so powerful a propeller can act like a helicopter rotor, hovering above ground with the airplane body hanging beneath it. There are even RC jets, which use real but small-scale jet engines.
Thomas Elder, 28, of Seminole has been fascinated with RC airplanes since his father let him fly one at age 5 or 6. He says it's "like a freedom that you can experience every time you go up," he said.
But sometimes landings are not so carefree.
"I flirted with the ground and the ground won," he said after a rough landing recently. "It cost me a prop and a few nylon bolts, but I think everyone got a kick out of it."
There's only one thing Elder doesn't like about airplanes — actually climbing inside one and taking off. For him, flying is best enjoyed with two feet planted firmly on the ground.