If you’re looking to join a guy’s club in Chiang Mai, this is it. Top Gun is a radio control airplane training centre situated on the outer ring road and is equipped with a landing strip and a small plane hangar. It doesn’t look like much at first when you drive down a narrow dirt road to this isolated site, the facilities are modest – just a workshop and a few metal tables – but when the buzz of motors and the whirring of helicopter blades begin, the place comes alive.
The owner and foreman of the flying club, Charlie, opened the Top Gun 5 years ago and will teach any newbies who have yet to try this alternative to golf and karaoke. Patrick Bleus, a Belgian expat started flying his remote control helicopter at Top Gun in October 2009, said “I was bored with staying at home. This is a nice way for men to relax and unwind.” Every new member can take flying lessons with Charlie, who has a plane just for that purpose. As soon as they’re ready, members buy their own planes or helicopters, and while Top Gun does not sell or rent planes, they do offer their small hangar for storage at 400 baht per plane per month. Membership at Top Gun and regular use of their landing strip costs 350 baht a month.
Top Gun has about 100 members and every afternoon, at around 4 p.m. a number of them drive up to the building and unload their aircrafts, carefully and piece by piece. The flying centre attracts men from all countries; women are welcome, but there are only three female regulars, all Thai. The rest of the members are from New Zealand, England, Thailand, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, the US and more. Each comes for the thrill of flying.
“You can get addicted to it,” says Bleus, and he’s not the only one who thinks so. David Nissim, a retired expat living in Chiang Mai, used to compete in radio control airplane championships. “It’s a bug. Once you’ve got it, watch out! There goes the family life, pampering the wife. It all goes out the window,” he says. “It was total involvement. I eventually designed and built my own planes for competition. I’d not eat, not sleep until it was finished. I was totally engrossed.”
And while the planes are reminiscent of the plastic toys we once played with as children, they are most certainly superior. For the one thing, radio control planes can measure up to the Guinness World record of 8.9 metres. While the wingspans of most planes and helicopters at Top Gun don’t exceed two metres, in this game size matters, at least to some.
“They say, ‘You know how to differentiate the men from the boys? By the size of their toys,'” says Nissim. “It’s a thrill. It gives you great satisfaction when everyone is looking at you and you succeed.”
Flying a radio control plane is no easy feat. The plane is remotely controlled by a hand-held transmitter that relays information to the receiver in the body of the plane. The remote looks simple enough, with a lever for gas and a lever for directions, but keeping the airplane aloft is much harder than it seems.
“It’s very, very demanding. I remember my ears used to burn – if you lose concentration, the planes drop,” says Nissim. “When you compete, it’s like drawing graphics in the sky. But there’s wind – it’s a constant vigil and a constant battle. Today, how they fly – they put mosquitoes to shame.”
But don’t worry. It takes people years to master the art of flying. “If you’re just starting,” says Nissim, “be prepared to crash. Everyone is too possessive, they’re afraid to crash. Just crash it for goodness sakes!”
For Bleus, it is this fear of crashing that makes flying such a thrill. “Being nervous about flying such an expensive aircraft is the best thing about it. It gives you a kick. The more expensive your plane, the more nervous you are.”
A beginner’s plane can total around 30,000 baht for the body, motor and controls, while a fully decked out, competition grade plane may cost upwards of 200,000 baht. Add the cost of fuel and you’re looking at a pricey hobby. If you catch the bug, though, you’ll soon be itching to replace your ordinary beginner’s model for something with a heftier price tag and a bit more muscle.
Model planes may cost you a pretty penny but there’s no substitute for the thrill of flying.
If you are interested in flying radio control airplanes in Chiang Mai call Top Gun for directions at: 086 420 0574.