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Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret Morning News
Scott Stringham from Layton releases his model airplane at the Wasatch Aero Modelers club in Syracuse.

It was war.

The pilots strained their concentration as their airplanes rolled and dived through a seemingly random swarm of wings and propellers, each pitted against the other.

The location: Syracuse, Utah. The objective: to get as many points as possible by cutting ribbons trailing other model airplanes and to just stay in the air.

This combat contest of the Wasatch Aero Modelers club on the morning of July 7 is just one of the activities the club holds throughout the year. The whine of these radio-controlled miniatures has been a siren call to people in many different walks of life along the Wasatch Front, including former career pilot Keith Harris of Davis County.

When Harris, 83, heard the motor of his first gas-powered model airplane come to life as a teenager, he was hooked.

His love for flight has led him to complete a career as a pilot and to develop a lifetime love for building and flying model airplanes. For Harris, this hobby has not only provided a chance to do something fun, it has helped him spend time with his sons and make friends with other aero modelers.

Harris is one of about 118 members of the Wasatch Aero Modelers club based in Syracuse. The club began in 1987 and has air-loving members from Ogden to North Salt Lake. It is a non-profit organization and part of the larger Academy of Model Aeronautics. Its members fly radio-controlled electric, gas-powered and sailplane models.

Harris' love for the air led him to fly and instruct during World War II and enjoy a career with Continental Airlines and as a chief pilot for an oil company.

Now Harris sticks with the models. They stand in corners and sit on tables throughout his Davis County home. Outside, Harris has a van dedicated to the hobby with makeshift shelves holding wings and parts.

"He builds absolutely gorgeous airplanes, drop-dead gorgeous airplanes," said Terry Pitkin, the club's treasurer, about Harris' models. Flying Harris' planes is a real "treat" for other members of the club, he said.

Harris has been building them from scratch since he was a kid, his first a rubber band-propelled glider he gave to his doctor. "He took it and put it on his desk, and I thought that was pretty neat that somebody would want something that I made," Harris said.

Harris, as a teenager, took his first model-airplane motor to mechanics in his hometown of Lovell, Wyo. They offered to help him get it working after their shift.

"They got that little thing running and got the mixture controlled just right, and it just screamed, and I thought that I was the happiest kid that ever lived hearing that thing run."

He said he would send a gas-powered model airplane into the air while in high school and watch it fly uncontrolled over the fields near his home until it landed on its own (or more likely crashed).

Harris' tastes have grown more sophisticated over the years as his skills in the hobby and technology have improved. The more he has built, the more he has learned, Harris said.

"It's almost an education in itself."

The process of building an aircraft throws model builders into a crash course concerning the many areas involved in making something fly, from mechanics to physics to electronics to woodworking.

The other crash course is literally that — learning the hard way how to keep the plane in the air.

Harris said the skills he gained as a career pilot didn't just translate into flying model airplanes.

The biggest difficulty comes when the model airplane is flying toward the pilot and the controls reverse, he said. "It's like putting the steering backwards in your car ... . You had to learn a new reflex action and unlearn the old one," he said.

Harris' son got the hang of it faster than he did.

Despite the time and resources put into their airplanes, he said model airplane flyers inevitably expect their airplanes to crash at some point, something Harris has done many times himself.

The inevitable happened several times during the club's combat contests on July 7 at its flying site in Syracuse as models crashed midair, sending wings fluttering to the ground.

However, this group has got some of the nation's top talent, crashes and all, said Scott Stringham, president of the club. Stringham himself holds the No. 1 position in the nation in the sport's Open B category, and several of the combat contest fliers who participated July 7 also rank nationally.

Pitkin, who helps instruct new fliers, said it takes an average of about four months for someone to learn to fly a model airplane. "It's absolutely different," Pitkin said about flying a real airplane, recalling a time when he had to help a top-gun pilot keep a model in the air.

For members of the club, including Harris, flying is only part of the fun.

As Harris raised a family, he said building and flying model airplanes allowed him to spend time with his sons.

"For a father-son program, I don't know anything that's better," he said. "It's just pure joy ... . This was something that just continually has drawn us together."

Harris also said the hobby has allowed him to interact and build friendships with the other members of the club, what he called a "brotherhood."

Harris said building model airplanes is also therapeutic for him.

"Your mind goes clean, and you walk into a different realm."

He enjoys solving problems, tweaking things and figuring out how to make his models work and work better.

"When it all comes together and it works, that's the icing on the cake."


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